James K. Polk

Born: November 2, 1795
Died: June 15, 1849


Fun Facts
  • James K. Polk was the youngest president to die outside those that have been assassinated.
  • James K. Polk is the only Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives to become President of the United States
  • James K. Polk graduated first in the class of 1818 at the University of North Carolina despite not going to school until he was 17 years old.
  • James K. Polk was the first president to be elected under the age of 50.
  • James K. Polk had surgery as a 17 year old boy to remove urinary bladder stones. Anesthesia was not invented until he was President…he was awake for the procedure!

Test your knowledge of the 11th U.S. President and learn Polk trivia with our Online Quiz.

A Frontier Upbringing

The career of the eleventh U.S. President reflected and fulfilled the young nation’s commitment to westward expansion. The son of a North Carolina farmer and surveyor, James Knox Polk was ten years old when his family crossed the Appalachian Mountains. Growing up on the Tennessee frontier, he inherited his neighbors’ work ethic, resourcefulness, and democratic ideals.

Although young Polk was accustomed to the rigors of frontier life, he lacked physical stamina. Shortly before his seventeenth birthday, he needed surgery for stones in his urinary bladder. The successful operation, performed by noted Kentucky surgeon Ephraim McDowell, enabled Polk to pursue an education with renewed enthusiasm.

A Promising Career

After just two and a half years of formal schooling in Tennessee, Polk was admitted to the University of North Carolina as a sophomore. His college studies and his membership in a debating society helped nurture his growing interest in law and government. He graduated with top honors in mathematics and the classics, and returned to Tennessee determined to become a lawyer. To receive legal training, he worked in the office of renowned Nashville trial attorney Felix Grundy and served as clerk of the Tennessee Senate. Diligent and ambitious, Polk soon established a law practice in Columbia, Tennessee.

Encouraged by his early professional success, he turned to politics. At 27, he defeated an incumbent for a seat in the Tennessee Legislature. While serving as a state representative, he courted and eventually married Sarah Childress, the daughter of a prominent Murfreesboro merchant and planter. An educated woman whose intellect and social grace impressed contemporaries, Sarah became Polk’s personal and political confidante. Her active involvement in her husband’s campaigns helped ensure his victories.

Fervently supporting the policies of fellow Tennessee Democrat Andrew Jackson, Polk was elected to the U.S. Congress at 29. His Congressional career lasted 14 years and included two terms as Speaker of the House.

A Setback

While serving his constituents in Washington, Polk remained keenly interested in state politics. Concerned that the Whig Party was becoming increasingly popular in Tennessee, he returned home and successfully ran for the governorship. After one two-year term, he twice failed to be re-elected. Although rivals reasonably assumed that his political influence had peaked, Polk stayed active in Democratic politics and shrewdly sought opportunities to revive his career.

A Comeback

Despite Polk’s political frustrations in Tennessee in the 1840’s, nationally prominent Democrats had not forgotten his partisan dedication. Delegates to the 1844 Democratic Convention viewed him as a possible vice president. When the party’s leading Presidential contenders Martin Van Buren and Lewis Cass failed to attract sufficient support to win the nomination, the deadlocked convention needed a compromise candidate. The Democrats’ “dark horse” nominee was James K. Polk.

Challenging the well-known Whig candidate Henry Clay in the 1844 Presidential election, Polk promised to actively encourage America’s westward expansion. He favored Texas statehood and the acquisition of the Oregon Territory. Although critics expressed concern that aggressive expansionism might lead to a war with Great Britain or Mexico and might destroy the tenuous balance between free states and slave states, a majority of Americans accepted Polk’s vision of a continental nation.

Promises Fulfilled

With political forcefulness and savvy, President Polk tirelessly pursued his ambitious goals. Texas joined the country as the 28th state during his first year in office. Tense negotiations with Great Britain concluded with American annexation of the Oregon Territory south of the 49th Parallel. Following a controversial two-year war, Mexico ceded New Mexico and California to the United States. The Polk Administration also achieved its major economic objectives by lowering tariffs and establishing an independent Federal Treasury.

A New Frontier

Oregon Territory
Click to enlarge

During Polk’s term of office, the United States acquired more than 800,000 square miles of western territory and extended its boundary to the Pacific Ocean. True to his campaign pledge to serve only one term as President, Polk left office and returned to Tennessee in March 1849. The nation’s expansionist aims had been realized. When he died of cholera three months later, thousands of Americans were rushing west in search of California gold. A man whose life had been shaped by his early years on the Tennessee frontier left a vast new frontier as his legacy.

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Educational Resources

Lesson plans, educational activites and links for further reading are available here.


Additional Reading

Read about First Lady Sarah Childress Polk here.


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Chronology

November 2, 1795

Born in Pineville, NC

1818

Graduated from the University of North Carolina

1820

Admitted to the bar and began a law practice in Columbia, TN

1823–1825

Served in the Tennessee State Legislature

January 1, 1824

Married Sarah Childress

1825–1839

Served in the U.S. House of Representatives including two terms as Speaker (1835–1839)

1839–1841

Served as Governor of Tennessee

1845–1849

Served as President of the United States

June 15, 1849

Died in Nashville, TN