James K. Polk (1845 – 1849): The 11th Retrospective
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
Polk wanted to fulfill the ideological promise of Andrew Jackson‘s presidency. He was the most accessible president in U.S. history. The Marine Corps band played on the White House lawn every Wednesday and was made open to the public. Polk made himself available to all American Citizens, and said he would only serve one term.
James Polk was a staunch defender of slavery all his adult life. He referred to abolitionists as “fanatical and wicked agitators,” and in 1830, when Congress debated whether to establish a prison in the District of Columbia, Polk argued that for punishing slaves, whipping was better than imprisonment because a “slave dreads the punishment of stripes more than he does imprisonment; and [whipping] has, besides, a beneficial effect upon his fellow-slaves.”
Polk’s view of slavery is equally evident from personal diary excerpts during his time as president:
Jan. 16, 1847:
Instead of acting upon the great measures of the country, [the Democrats in Congress] are spending day after day and week after week in a worse than useless discussion about slavery.
Dec. 22, 1848:
The agitation of the slavery question is mischievous & wicked, and proceeds from no patriotic motive.
Jan. 16, 1849:
I deemed it of the greatest importance that the agitation of the delicate and dangerous question of slavery should be arrested.” (On this day, Polk also wrote of advocating a solution to the slavery question that would leave the abolitionists of the North “prostrate and powerless.
Jan. 17, 1849:
I was a Southern man, and as much attached to Southern rights as any man in Congress.
States Admitted Into The Union
- Texas became the 28th state December 29th, 1845 from the Republic of Texas
- Iowa became the 29th state December 28th, 1846 partially from the Iowa Territory
- Wisconsin became the 30th state May 29, 1848 partially from the Wisconsin Territory
Polk the Micromanager
Polk viewed himself as the first servant of the people, and is thought of as the hardest working President in U.S. history, installing gas lights in the White House to work through the night. Polk was the first president to delve deep into the budget. He asked the heads of various departments to send their budget requests to him before sending them to Congress.
4 Goals In 4 Years
In his one term, Polk wanted to:
- Settle the controversy between the United States and Great Britain over the Oregon territory
- Bring California into the United States
- Set up an independent treasury to fix the prevailing credit mess since the Jackson administration
- Lower tariffs on imports into the American economy.
Polk succeeded in pressuring Congress to set up an independent treasury and lower tariffs on imports. To achieve his territorial goals, he used force.
Manifest destiny was a widely held cultural belief in the 19th-century United States that American settlers were destined to expand across North America. There are three basic themes to manifest destiny:
- The special virtues of the American people and their institutions
- The mission of the United States to redeem and remake the west in the image of the agrarian East
- An irresistible destiny to accomplish this essential duty.
Historian Frederick Merk says this concept was born out of “a sense of mission to redeem the Old World by high example … generated by the potentialities of a new earth for building a new heaven”. In contemporary culture many have condemned manifest destiny as an ideology that was used to justify genocide against Native Americans.
Historians have emphasized that “manifest destiny” was a contested concept—Democrats endorsed the idea but many prominent Americans (such as Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and most Whigs) rejected it. Historian Daniel Walker Howe writes, “American imperialism did not represent an American consensus; it provoked bitter dissent within the national polity … Whigs saw America’s moral mission as one of democratic example rather than one of conquest.”
Historian Frederick Merk likewise concluded:
From the outset Manifest Destiny—vast in program, in its sense of continentalism—was slight in support. It lacked national, sectional, or party following commensurate with its magnitude. The reason was it did not reflect the national spirit. The thesis that it embodied nationalism, found in much historical writing, is backed by little real supporting evidence.
Newspaper editor John O’Sullivan is generally credited with coining the term manifest destiny in 1845 to describe the essence of this mindset. Some historians believe, however, that the unsigned editorial titled “Annexation” in which it first appeared was written by journalist and annexation advocate Jane Cazneau.
The term was used by Democrats in the 1840s to justify the Mexican–American War and it was also used to negotiate the Oregon boundary dispute. However, manifest destiny always limped along because of its internal limitations and the issue of slavery in the United States, says Merk, and never became a national priority. By 1843, former U.S. President John Quincy Adams, originally a major supporter of the concept underlying manifest destiny, had changed his mind and repudiated expansionism because it meant the expansion of slavery in Texas.
Oregon Boundary Dispute
The Oregon boundary dispute or the Oregon Question was a 19th-century territorial dispute over the political division of the Pacific Northwest of North America between several nations that had competing territorial and commercial aspirations over the region. Expansionist competition into the region began in the 18th century, with participants including the Russian Empire, Great Britain, Spain, and the United States.
By the 1820s, both the Russians, through the Russo-American Treaty of 1824 and the Russo-British Treaty of 1825, and the Spanish, by the Adams–Onís Treaty of 1819, formally withdrew their territorial claims in the region. Through these treaties the British and Americans gained residual territorial claims in the disputed area. The remaining portion of the North American Pacific coast contested by the United Kingdom and the United States was defined as the following: west of the Continental Divide of the Americas, north of Mexico’s Alta California border of 42nd parallel north, and south of Russian America at parallel 54°40′ north; typically this region was referred to as the Columbia District by the British and the Oregon Country by the Americans. The Oregon dispute began to become important in geopolitical diplomacy between the British Empire and the new American republic, especially after the War of 1812.
In the 1844 United States presidential election, ending the Oregon Question by annexing the entire area was a position adopted by the Democratic Party. Democratic candidate James K. Polk appealed to the popular theme of manifest destiny and expansionist sentiment allowing him to defeat Whig Henry Clay.
Polk sent the British government the previously offered partition along the 49th parallel. Subsequent negotiations faltered as the British plenipotentiaries still argued for a border along the Columbia River. Tensions grew as American expansionists like Senator Edward A. Hannegan of Indiana and Representative Leonard Henly Sims of Missouri urged Polk to annex the entire Pacific Northwest to the 54°40′ parallel north, as the Democrats had called for in the election. The turmoil gave rise to slogans such as “Fifty-four Forty or Fight!” As relations with Mexico were rapidly deteriorating following the annexation of Texas, the expansionist agenda of Polk and the Democratic Party created the possibility of two different, simultaneous wars for the United States. Just before the outbreak of the Mexican–American War, Polk returned to his earlier position of a border along the 49th parallel.
The 1846 Oregon Treaty established the border between British North America and the United States along the 49th parallel until the Strait of Georgia, where the marine boundary curved south to exclude Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands from the United States. As a result, a small portion of the Tsawwassen Peninsula, Point Roberts, became an exclave of the United States. Vague wording in the treaty left the ownership of the San Juan Islands in doubt, as the division was to follow “through the middle of the said channel” to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
During the so-called Pig War, both nations agreed to a joint military occupation of the islands. Kaiser Wilhelm I of the German Empire was selected as an arbitrator to end the dispute, with a three-man commission ruling in favor of the United States in 1872. There the Haro Strait became the border line, rather than the British favored Rosario Strait. The border established by the Oregon Treaty and finalized by the arbitration in 1872 remains the boundary between the United States and Canada in the Pacific Northwest.
The Mexican–American War, also known in the United States as the Mexican War and in Mexico as the Intervención Estadounidense en México (U.S. intervention in Mexico), was an armed conflict between the United States and Mexico from 1846 to 1848. It followed the 1845 U.S. annexation of Texas, which Mexico considered Mexican territory since the Mexican government did not recognize the Velasco treaty signed by Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna when he was a prisoner of the Texian Army during the 1836 Texas Revolution.
The Republic of Texas was de facto an independent country, but most of its citizens wished to be annexed by the United States. Domestic sectional politics in the U.S. were preventing annexation since Texas would have been a slave state, upsetting the balance of power between Northern free states and Southern slave states.
In the 1844 United States presidential election, Democrat James K. Polk was elected on a platform of expanding U.S. territory in Oregon and Texas. Polk advocated expansion by either peaceful means or by armed force, with the 1845 annexation of Texas furthering that goal by peaceful means. However, the boundary between Texas and Mexico was disputed, with the Republic of Texas and the USA asserting it to be the Rio Grande River and Mexico claiming it to be the more-northern Nueces River. Both Mexico and the USA claimed the disputed area and sent troops.
Polk sent U.S. Army troops to the area; he also sent a diplomatic mission to Mexico to try to negotiate the sale of territory. U.S. troops’ presence was designed to lure Mexico into starting the conflict, putting the onus on Mexico and allowing Polk to argue to Congress that a declaration of war should be issued. Mexican forces attacked U.S. forces, and the United States Congress declared war.
The Thornton Affair was a battle in 1846 between the military forces of the United States and Mexico 20 miles (32 km) west upriver from Zachary Taylor’s camp along the Rio Grande. The much larger Mexican force defeated the Americans in the opening of hostilities, and was the primary justification for U.S. President James K. Polk’s call to Congress to declare war.
Battle of Palo Alto
The Battle of Palo Alto was the first major battle of the Mexican–American War and was fought on May 8, 1846, on disputed ground five miles (8 km) from the modern-day city of Brownsville, Texas. A force of some 3,700 Mexican troops – most of the Army of The North – led by General Mariano Arista engaged a force of approximately 2,300 United States troops – the Army of Occupation led by General Zachary Taylor.
On April 30, following the Thornton Affair, Mexican General Mariano Arista’s troops began to cross the Rio Grande. On May 3, the troops began to besiege the American outpost at Fort Texas. Taylor marched his Army of Occupation south to relieve the siege. Arista, upon learning of his approach, diverted many of his units away from the siege to meet Taylor’s force. The battle took place on May 8, three days before the formal declaration of war on Mexico by the United States. Arista ordered two cavalry charges, first against the American right flank and later against the left. Both were unsuccessful. The American victory is widely attributed to superior artillery, as the U.S. “light” artillery was much more mobile and accurate than that of the Mexican forces.
That evening, Arista was forced to withdraw further south. The armies clashed again the next day at the Battle of Resaca de la Palma.
Battle of Resaca de la Palma
The Battle of Resaca de la Palma was one of the early engagements of the Mexican–American War, where the United States Army under General Zachary Taylor engaged the retreating forces of the Mexican Ejército del Norte (“Army of the North”) under General Mariano Arista on May 9, 1846. The United States emerged victorious and forced the Mexicans out of Texas.
The Wilmot Proviso was an unsuccessful 1846 proposal in the United States Congress to ban slavery in territory acquired from Mexico in the Mexican–American War. The conflict over the Wilmot Proviso was one of the major events leading to the American Civil War.
Congressman David Wilmot of Pennsylvania first introduced the proviso in the House of Representatives on August 8, 1846, as a rider on a $2,000,000 appropriations bill intended for the final negotiations to resolve the Mexican–American War (this was only three months into the two-year war). If successful, the Wilmot Proviso would have effectively cancelled out the 1820 Missouri Compromise, since it would have prohibited slavery in an area below the parallel 36°30′ north. It passed the House but failed in the Senate, where the South had greater representation. It was reintroduced in February 1847 and again passed the House and failed in the Senate. In 1848, an attempt to make it part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo also failed. Sectional political disputes over slavery in the Southwest continued until the Compromise of 1850.
Although the Wilmot Proviso that explicitly forbade the extension of slavery into conquered Mexican territory was not adopted by Congress, debates about it heightened sectional tensions. Most scholars see the Mexican War as leading to the American Civil War, with many officers trained at West Point playing prominent leadership roles on each side.
Battle of Monterrey
In the Battle of Monterrey (September 21–24, 1846) during the Mexican–American War, General Pedro de Ampudia and the Mexican Army of the North was defeated by the Army of Occupation, a force of United States Regulars, Volunteers and Texas Rangers under the command of General Zachary Taylor.
The hard-fought urban combat led to heavy casualties on both sides. The battle ended with both sides negotiating a two-month armistice and the Mexican forces being allowed to make an orderly evacuation in return for the surrender of the city.
Battle of Buena Vista
The Battle of Buena Vista (February 22–23, 1847), known as the Battle of La Angostura in Mexico, was fought between the US invading forces, largely volunteers, under General Zachary Taylor, and the much larger Mexican Army under General Antonio López de Santa Anna. It took place near Buena Vista, a village in the state of Coahuila, about 12 km (7.5 mi) south of Saltillo, Mexico. La Angostura (“the narrow place”) was the local name for the site.
The outcome of the battle was ambiguous, with both sides claiming victory. Santa Anna’s forces withdrew with war trophies of cannons and flags and left the field to the surprised American forces, who had expected there to be another day of hard fighting.
The Siege of Veracruz
The Battle of Veracruz was a 20-day siege of the key Mexican beachhead seaport of Veracruz during the Mexican–American War. Lasting from March 9–29, 1847, it began with the first large-scale amphibious assault conducted by United States military forces, and ended with the surrender and occupation of the city. U.S. forces then marched inland to Mexico City.
Battle of Cerro Gordo
The Battle of Cerro Gordo, or Battle of Sierra Gordo, was an engagement in the Mexican–American War on April 18, 1847. The battle saw Winfield Scott’s United States troops outflank Antonio López de Santa Anna’s larger Mexican army, driving it from a strong defensive position.
Battle of Contreras
The Battle of Contreras, also known as the Battle of Padierna, took place on 19–20 August 1847, in one of the final encounters of the Mexican–American War, as invading U.S. forces under Winfield Scott approached the Mexican capital. American forces surprised and then routed the Mexican forces General Gabriel Valencia, who had disobeyed General Antonio López de Santa Anna’s orders for his forces’ placement. Although the battle was an overwhelming victory for U.S. forces, there are few depictions of it in contemporary popular prints. The armies re-engaged the next day in the Battle of Churubusco.
Battle of Churubusco
The Battle of Churubusco took place on August 20, 1847, while Santa Anna’s army was in retreat from the Battle of Contreras or Battle of Padierna during the Mexican–American War. It was the battle where the San Patricio Battalion, made up largely of US deserters, made their last stand against U.S. forces.
The U.S. Army was victorious, outnumbering more than two-to-one the defending Mexican troops. After the battle, the U.S. Army was only 5 miles away from Mexico City. About 50 of the captured San Patricios were later hanged.
Battle of Molino Del Rey
The Battle of Molino del Rey (8 September 1847) was one of the bloodiest engagements of the Mexican–American War as part of the Battle for Mexico City. It was fought in September 1847 between Mexican forces under General Antonio León against an American force under Major General Winfield Scott at El Molino del Rey on the fringes of Mexico City. The Americans made little progress in this battle, but the Mexican forces were unable to hold them back long enough to prevent the capture of Mexico City one week later.
Battle of Chapultepec
The Battle of Chapultepec (September 13, 1847) was an assault by invading American forces on a small contingent of Mexican forces holding the strategically located Chapultepec Castle just outside Mexico City. The building, sitting atop a 200-foot (61 m) hill, was an important position for the defense of the city.
The battle was part of the campaign to take Mexico City, for which General Winfield Scott’s U.S. Army totaled 7,200 men. General Antonio López de Santa Anna deployed Mexican forces to several sites to defend the capital, so just 880 troops, including military cadets of the Military Academy, defended the position at Chapultepec against 2,000 U.S. forces. The Mexicans’ loss opened the way for the Americans to take the center of Mexico City.
In Mexican history, the battle is cast as the story of the brave deaths of six cadets, the Niños Héroes, who leapt to their deaths rather than be taken captive, with one wrapping himself in the Mexican flag. American sources also feature many depictions of the battle from the American point of view. Although it lasted only about 60–90 minutes, the battle has great importance in the histories of both countries.
Polk, to his credit did not draw a line at 54-40 and actually got the 49th parallel. That’s right, the President drew a line in the sand, and when it was crossed, he drew another line to achieve his ultimate goal. The wailing that ensued from the reduced dimensions of the newly acquired Oregon territory has largely been forgotten similar to when other Presidents had “lines in sands crossed” to achieve their ultimate goals.
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Zachary Taylor 1849 – 1850) would follow James Polk
John Tyler (1845 – 1849) preceded James K. Polk
Woodrow Wilson (1913 – 1921) would guide the United States through World War I.
Jimmy Carter (1977 – 1981) would be the only Democratic President for 25 years post Civil Rights.
George W. Bush (2000 – 2008) is the final President in our series.