• James Knox Polk was born in North Carolina and at age 10 moved with his family to Tennessee. The journey to the frontier was hard for him, and he suffered from illness for most of his youth.
• Polk graduated from the University of North Carolina and went on to study law, then entered politics by winning a seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives. He would then serve in the United States House of Representatives, where he went on to be elected speaker of the house.
• Polk left Washington to become governor of Tennessee. He lost two subsequent elections for governor before winning the presidency in 1844.
How he defineD the office
• Running for president with his supporters coining the campaign slogan “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!,” Polk made clear the westward expansion of the United States was a priority. “Fifty-Four Forty” referred to the disputed land between the lines of latitude of 42 degrees south and 54 degrees, 40 minutes north that both Great Britain and the United States claimed. Polk was committed to expanding the United States from coast to coast during his time in office.
• In order to manage all of the land acquired during his presidency, Polk established the Department of the Interior.
Successes and failures
• President Polk secured the Oregon Territory, though instead of 54 degrees, 40 minutes agreed to the boundary being the 49th parallel. This gave the United States what would become Oregon, Washington and Idaho, and control of the Columbia River.
• The Mexican-American War, sometimes called “Mister Polk’s War,” broke out in 1846, and when the treaty to end the war was signed in 1848 the United States had negotiated the acquisition of Mexican territory that would become Arizona, California, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, and parts of Wyoming and Colorado, and the boundary of Texas was set at the Rio Grande.
• With all of the new territory came questions about whether new states should be admitted as slave states or free states. None of this was decided during Polk’s presidency, but it laid the groundwork for the Civil War that was fast approaching.
• Polk held true to his promise to serve just a single term, and after cutting short a tour of the Southern states after his time in office due to illness, Polk died. His death three months after leaving office was the quickest of any president.
• “No president who performs his duties faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure.”