The Life of James K Polk

The First Dark Horse President

James K Polk was the first dark horse President and the last strong President until the American Civil War.

Born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina in 1795, James K Polk became the 11th President of the United States.

James K Polk’s Early Life

A hard-working and studious young man, Polk graduated with honours from the University of North Carolina in 1818. Following his graduation, he quickly entered politics, serving in the Tennessee Legislature, where he became a friend of Andrew Jackson.

During Jackson’s Presidency, Polk was one of his principal supporters in the House of Representatives, particularly during the Bank War. Polk also served as Speaker of the House from 1835 to 1839, before he was elected as the Governor of Tennessee.

James K Polk and Manifest Destiny

In 1844, Polk was the leading Democratic contender for the Vice Presidency, when circumstances conspired to change his ambitions. Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay both tried to take the question of American expansion out of the election, by voicing their opposition to the admission of Texas into the Union. Polk took the opposite view, saying that Texas should be “re-annexed”, and Oregon should be “re-occupied.” Polk was also strongly in favour of acquiring California. With the support of Andrew Jackson, Polk found himself running for President on a campaign of national expansion.

Despite strong Whig opposition, Polk was able to win the election by linking the annexation of Texas with the acquisition of Oregon.


Before he could take office, however, Congress passed a joint resolution, proposing the annexation of Texas. Polk faced the possibility of war with Mexico, which broke off diplomatic relations with the United States as a result.


Even Polk’s stance on Oregon threatened war, this time with Britain. In 1844 at the Democratic Convention, Polk claimed all of the west coast of North America, from the Oregon-California border, all the way north to the southern border of Russian Alaska, which was at latitude 54’40”. Some members of Polk’s administration began proclaiming “fifty-four-forty or fight.” Fortunately, Polk was more aware of the diplomatic reality of the situation and realized that nothing short of all out-war with Britain would bring that kind of territorial gain.

Polk proposed a compromise solution; the extension of the Canadian border along the 49th parallel, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. At first the British chose to decline Polk’s solution, but when he reissued his claim to the entire west coast of North America, they reconsidered. The treaty was signed in 1846.


The acquisition of California was much more difficult. Polk sent an envoy to Mexico, with an offer of $20 million and a pledge that the United States would pay all American damage claims in exchange for what is now California and New Mexico. However, because it would have been political suicide for any Mexican leader to cede that much territory and remain in power, the Mexican government would not meet with Polk’s envoy. In order to put pressure on the Mexicans, Polk dispatched General Zachary Taylor to the Rio Grande with an army.

The Mexicans viewed this move as an act of war and attacked Taylor’s troops in retaliation. Congress responded by declaring war on Mexico, despite heavy northern opposition. A string of victories, culminating in the occupation of Mexico City, resulted in the sale of California and New Mexico to the United States for $15 million in 1848.

James K Polk’s Legacy

Polk added huge amounts of territory to the United States and solidified the American-Canadian border, but he also drove a wedge in the increasingly wide gap between the North and the South, precipitating a bitter argument over the future of slavery in the United States.

His health undermined by hard work, James K Polk died shortly after he left office in 1849.

Works CitedJames K Polk. The White House. US Government. Apr.1/09



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