James K. Polk was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, on November 2, 1795. 1 The Polk family (the original family name was Pollock) came to Maryland in 1680 and gradually moved southward to North Carolina. In 1806, when James was eleven years old, the Polk family moved to Tennessee where James' father was a farmer and surveyor. Young James attended nearby academies and in 1815 entered the sophomore class at the University of North Carolina. He was graduated in 1818 with high honors.
Polk returned to Tennessee and practiced law until his election as president. His success as a lawyer brought him into politics and his speeches won him the nickname "Napoleon of the Stump." He was a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives when he married Sarah Childress in 1822.
In 1825 Polk was elected to the first of his seven terms in Congress and in 1835 he was chosen Speaker of the House. He refused renomination for Congress in 1839 to become a successful Democratic candidate for governor of Tennessee. In 1840 public sentiment began to favor the Whigs, and consequently in 1841 and 1843 Polk was defeated in his attempts to be re-elected governor of Tennessee.
Polk was the first "dark horse" in American politics when he was the party's choice over Martin Van Buren as the Democratic nominee for president against Henry Clay, the Whig nominee. The chief issues of the 1844 campaign were the re-annexation of Texas and the re-occupatlon of Oregon, both of which Polk favored. With a strong stand on these issues and the battle cry, "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight," Polk rode into the White House.
Determined and stubborn, Polk came into the office of president with a clear-cut program. "There are four great measures which are to be the measures of my whole administration: one, a reduction of the tariff; another the independent treasury: a third, the settlement of the Oregon boundary question; and lastly, the acquisition of California." All of these ambitions were fulfilled within Polk's four-year term.
Polk regarded the Texas question settled. Texas had been annexed to the United States, but Mexico had not recognized the annexation. Mexico instated that the Nuaces River was the legal boundary between Mexico and Texas. The Texans, supported by Polk, insisted that Texas extended to the Rio Grande.
In May, 1846, after a clash between Mexican and American troops, Congress recognized the existence of a state of war "by act of the Republic of Mexico." The war with Mexico (1846-1848) ended after more than a year of fighting and Mexico ceded Texas to the United States.
During the Polk administration over 500,000 square miles of territory were acquired by the United States. Three new states were admitted to the Union: Texas in 1845, Iowa in 1846, and Wisconsin in 1848. In 1849 California, although not yet admitted to the Union, organized its own government. During these years the Mormon state of Utah was established and settled.
In accepting the nomination for president in 1844, Polk had declared that he would not be a candidate for re-election in 1848. He held firmly to his word and when Zachary Taylor became president Polk retired to his home in Nashville, Tennessee, where he died on June 15, 1849.
A log house and outbuildings thought to be similar to the original Polk properties in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina (now in Pineville, N.C.) were reconstructed in 1967 at the James K. Polk Birthplace. Both the house and an accompanying kitchen contain furnishings dating prior to 1806 when the Polk family moved to Tennessee. A modern visitor center serves as an orientation point and offers exhibits relating to the life and times of James K. Polk.
1 The material in this essay is quoted directly from a pamphlet, "President James R. Polk Birthplace, prepared and distributed by the Historic Sites Section of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History.