James K. Polk: Accomplished yet Unknown
James K. Polk was elected at a pivotal time in United States history. Only 68 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the nation was still forming, and many significant changes were taking place. Slavery, the annexation of Texas, and land disputes with Britain were all popular issues in the election of 1844.
The Democratic convention of 1844 offered a few choices for the ticket. They Might Be Giants illustrated this in their song "James K. Polk": "In 1844, the Democrats were split / The three nominees for the presidential candidate / Were Martin Van Buren, a president and abolitionist / James Buchanan, a moderate / [Lewis] Cass, a general and expansionist / From Nashville came a dark horse riding up / He was James K. Polk" (Linnell, 1). Polk attended the Democratic convention with the intention to support Van Buren. Van Buren's main opposition was general Lewis Cass. Van Buren and Cass were split over the issue of the annexation of Texas. Cass believed that Texas would be a great asset to our nation. Van Buren was of the opinion that if Texas joined the Union, the southern states would make Texas into many small states, thus giving a southern majority in Congress. The former president failed to gain the two-thirds majority needed for a nomination, and in subsequent votes, Polk won the nomination with all 233 votes in his favor (State Library of North Carolina, 1).
James K. Polk's opposition in the election of 1844 was the Whig party candidate, Henry Clay (Summers, 1). Clay's position on Texas was that it should not join the Union. This unfortunately cost him many votes in the south (Bellenet, 2). In an attempt to exploit the growing anti-Catholic sentiment, members of the Whig party advertised that their candidate supported harsher immigration and naturalization laws. For this reason, Irish- and German-Catholic immigrants voted against him in the election (Funk, 1). The Whigs also attempted to capitalize on Polk's relative obscurity by adopting the campaign slogan "Who is James K. Polk?" (Gale Research, 1)
Despite the blunders of the Whig party, the popular vote was close with 1,338,464 votes for Polk, and 1,300,097 votes for Clay. This was a margin of only 38,367 votes, or 1.4% of the total vote. However, Polk clearly won the electoral vote, receiving 170 votes to Clay's 105 (Summers, 1).
After Polk's inauguration, he immediately got to work. Polk believed that tariffs should only apply to profits. His Secretary of State, Robert J. Walker, drafted a new tariff bill and it went to Congress in 1846 (Commager, 1). The bill passed in the house, however it was a tie vote in the Senate. Vice President, George Dallas, cast the tie-breaking vote in Polk's favor. This; however, only served to effectively end Dallas' future in politics. The bill contained language that lowered tariffs on goods, an idea that was heavily opposed in Dallas' home state of Pennsylvania (Felzenberg, 1).
Not long after the new tariff bill became a law, Polk signed into effect another bill that established the nation's first independent treasury. This new government body was designed specifically to keep track of and distribute federal money (Commager, 1).
Polk campaigned supporting "Manifest Destiny", the belief that the United States should stretch from ocean to ocean. The Oregon Trail brought thousands of Americans to the west and into the Oregon Territory. Not long after, Britain raised concerns over who actually owned the land that both Brits and Americans were settling. This gave rise to the slogan "54-40 or Fight!" Many Americans considered 54 degrees 40 minutes north latitude to be the northern United States border. Britain did not want to wage war over the area, but did not want to lose it either. Polk offered the compromise of setting the border at 49 degrees north latitude. Both countries signed the Oregon Treaty of 1846, recognizing the 49th parallel as the border between the United States and Canada (Commager, 2).
While Oregon did not officially become a state until 1859, three states joined the Union during Polk's 1845-49 term. Texas entered statehood on December 29, 1845. Iowa followed suit in 1846, and Wisconsin joined the Union in 1848 (Netstate.com, 2). Iowa and Wisconsin joined the Union with no problems. Texas, on the other hand, required a war with Mexico.
Texas, who recently gained their independence from Mexico, was eager to join the Union. There was a dispute; however, over the western boundary of Texas. The Mexicans believed that the border was the Nueces River, whereas the Texans believed that the border was the Rio Grande. Polk, in an effort to acquire the lands of California and New Mexico as well as Texas, sent representatives to Mexico. He offered $40 million for the territories. When Mexico refused, Polk sent General (and future president) Zachary Taylor to secure the Rio Grande border. In retaliation, Mexican troops shot and killed sixteen of Taylor's men. Polk interpreted this as an act of war, and persuaded Congress to declare war on Mexico (Pbs.org, 1). In a matter of two years, the United States wiped out the Mexican forces. The Mexican War officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848 (State Library of North Carolina, 2). Despite "[acquiring] more territory for the United States than any other president" (Shattan, 1), Polk was criticized by politicians and citizens alike for attaining land that could become slave states (Shattan, 6).
Critics of the new land were temporarily silenced with the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in California on January 23, 1848 (McNulty, 2). President Polk helped spread news of the discovery in a December 5, 1848 address to Congress stating: "The accounts of abundance of gold are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service." (Hansen, 9) Many Americans with the hopes of striking it rich in California packed up their belongings and moved out west.
President James K. Polk fulfilled his objectives in his 1845-49 term in office. They Might Be Giants sum up his accomplishments poetically: "In four short years he met his every goal / He seized the whole southwest from Mexico / Made sure the tariffs fell / And made the English sell the Oregon territory / He built an independent treasury / Having done all this he sought no second term / But precious few have mourned the passing of / Mister James K. Polk, our eleventh president" (Linnell, 1). Polk's face is not on Mount Rushmore; however, he expanded and reformed our country with the skill equal to that of George Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln or Roosevelt.
"Admission of 60 States to the Union". Netstate.com. 2001. http://www.netstate.com/states/tables/st_admit.htm.
Commager, Henry Steele. "Polk, James Knox," Discovery Channel School. 2001. http://www.discoveryschool.com/homeworkhelp/worldbook/atozhistory/p/437440.html.
Felzenberg, Alvin S. "The Vice Presidency Grows Up". Policy Review. February/March 2001. SIRS. CD-ROM. SIRS Researcher Fall 2001.
Funk, Tim. "Running on Faith". Charlotte Observer. 30 January 2000. SIRS. CD-ROM. SIRS Researcher Fall 2001.
Hansen, Gladys. "San Francisco Gold Rush Chronology 1846-1849". Museum of the City of San Francisco. 2001. http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist/chron1.html.
"Henry Clay". Bellenet. http://www.bellenet.com/clay.html.
"James K. Polk". DISCovering U.S. History. CD-ROM. Gale Research, 1997.
"James Knox Polk". Pbs.org. 2001. http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/i_r/polk.htm.
"James K. Polk". State Library of North Carolina. April 2001. http://statelibrary.dcr.state.nc.us/nc/bio/public/polk.htm.
Linnell, John. "James K. Polk". They Might Be Giants. 1997. http://www.tmbg.org/band-info/songs/lyrics/JamesKPolk.html.
McNulty, Timothy. "A Brief History of California's Gold". 1993. http://www.goldfever.com/goldfever/ghistory.htm.
Shattan, Joseph. "One-Term Wonder". American Spectator. October 1996. SIRS. CD-ROM. SIRS Researcher Fall 2001.
Summers, Robert S. "James Knox Polk". The Internet Public Library. 17 February 2001. http://www.potus.com/jkpolk.html.
This writeup falls under the category of Node your Homework. The work here is mine, and the resources I used are cited.
Thanks to Skinwalker for correcting me regarding Louis Cass vs. Lewis Cass (he would know, Cass is his grandfather 5 generations back :)