National Geographic : 1965 Jan
ELEVENTH IPRESII)ENT 1845-1849 IF JUDGED BY HIS SUCCESS in fulfill ing campaign promises, James K. Polk was one of the most notable of Presidents. iHe ran in 1844 on a spread-eagle expansionist platform; by the time he left the White House in 1849, the Stars and Stripes flew from San Diego Bay to Puget Sound. Polk, often referred to as the first "dark horse" President, was scarcely as unknown as his Whig opponents wished voters to think, since he had served four years as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Last of the Jacksonians to sit in the White House, and the last strong President until Lincoln, he became the first to conduct a war in all its phases-fulfilling to the constitutional limits his role as Commander in Chief. Polk was born in iecklenburg County, North Carolina, in 1795, the son of a Scotch Irish farmer. A stone pyramid marks the site of his birthplace, near Pineville. The familyI moved to Tennessee in 1806. Studious andm industrious, but too frail for farm work, Polk graduated in 1818 with top honors from the University of North Carolina. As a young lawyer he entered politics, and through serving in the Tennessee Legislature became a friend of Jackson. In the Ilouse of Representatives, Polk aided Old Hickory in his Bank war, and, as Speaker between 1835 and 1839, endured the heckling of Davy Crockett and other anti-Jacksonians. He left Congress to become Governor of Tennessee. Until circumstances raised Polk's ambitions, he was a leading contender for the Democrat it nomination for Vice President in 1844. Both Van Buren, who had been expected to win the Democratic nomination, and Clay, who was to be the Whig nominee, tried to mute the expan sionist issue by declaring themselves opposed to the annexation of Texas. Polk, in contrast, publicly asserted that Texas should be "re annexed" and all of Oregon "reoccupied." The aged Jackson, summoning political friends to a conference at The Hermitage, cor rectly sensed that the electorate favored terri torial expansion. lie urged the nomination of a candlitdate committed to the Nation's "Man ifest I)estiny." At the Democratic Convention, when more prominent candidates deadlocked, Polk was nominated on the ninth ballot. "Who is James K. Polk?" jeered the \Vhigs. Jackson answered in a widely published let ter: "His capacity for business [is] great... and to extraordinary powers of labor, both mental and physical, he unites that tact and judgment which are requisite to the success ful direction of such an office." Voters Attracted by Expansionist Aims What finally elected Polk was the fact that lie stood for expansion, linking the Texas is sue, popular in the South, with the Oregon question, attractive in the North. "There are four great measures which are to be the measures of my administration," President Polk told (eorge Bancroft, the historian, shortly after his Inauguration: "one, a reduction of the tariff; another, the inde pendent treasury; a third, the settlement of the Oregon boundary question; and, lastly, the acquisition of C(alifornia." Taking firm command of both his Cabi net and the Democrats in Congress, by the end of his administration he attained all four goals. The first two, the Walker Tariff Act and the Independent Treasury Act, passed Congress and became law in 1846. The other two, however, absorbed Polk's years as President. Before he took office, Con gress passed a joint resolution offering annex ation to Texas, thus bequeathing Polk the probability of war with Mexico. In his strong stand on Oregon, the Presi dent seemed to be risking war with Great Britain also. The migration of thousands of First "dark-horse" President, Jamnes Knox Polk defeated fameid Htenr ('la;\ Iby forth rightly declaring himself for Texas annexation. Not only Texas, but lands westward to the Pacific andl northward to Puget Sounid came under the I'. S. lag during his adminis tration, increasing thelt' Nation's size by two-thirdls. Congressmen like Abraham Lincoln charged that Polk "unnecessarily and unconstitutionally" started the Mlexican War, but other Americans hungered as lihe for new landIs in the \est. Polk extended the frontiers of the mind as well: (On August 10, 1846, he signed the bill creating the Smithsonian Institution, "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."