James K. Polk (November 2, 1795 – June 15, 1849) was America’s 11th president, from 1845 to 1849.
Born in Mecklenburg County, NC, Polk later lived in and represented the state of Tennessee. A Democrat, he was the 17th Speaker of the House of Representatives (1835–1839) and the Governor of Tennessee (1839–1841). Polk was considered a “dark horse” candidate for president in 1844, defeating Henry Clay of the rival Whig Party by promising to annex Texas.
Polk is considered the last “strong” pre–Civil War president, and he is the earliest of whom there are surviving photographs taken during a term in office. He is noted for his foreign policy successes.
He threatened war with Britain over the issue of which nation owned the Oregon Country, then backed away and split the ownership of the region with Britain. When Mexico rejected American annexation of Texas, Polk led the nation to a sweeping victory in the Mexican–American War, which gave the United States most of its present Southwest. He secured passage of the Walker tariff of 1846, which had low rates that pleased his native South, and he established a treasury system that lasted until 1913.
Polk oversaw the opening of the U.S. Naval Academy and the Smithsonian Institution, the groundbreaking for the Washington Monument, and the issuance of the first postage stamps in the United States. He promised to serve only one term and did not run for reelection. He died of cholera three months after his term ended.
Scholars have ranked him favorably on the list of greatest presidents for his ability to set an agenda and achieve all of it. Polk has been called the “least known consequential president” of the United States.
More Fascinating Facts for James K. Polk
Who was the first 40something president to be elected?
November 5, 1844 — James K. Polk was 49 when he was elected the 11th president of the US today. During his tenure, three states were added, the first Women’s Rights Convention was held, the sewing machine,gas lighting, and the rotary printing press were invented, and the Gold Rush began.
A graduate of the first in the class of 1818 at the University of North Carolina, he actually didn’t start attending school until he was 17. The same year he had surgery to remove urinary bladder stones; anesthesia was not invented until he was president, so Polk was awake for the entire procedure.
Other claims to fame: Polk is the only Speaker of the US House of Representatives to become president. And, he had the shortest retirement of all the presidents — three months. On June 15, 1849, he died of cholera at his new home, in Nashville, TN, at 3:15pm, and was buried on the grounds of Polk Place.
His last words were to his wife: “I love you, Sarah.” She outlived him by 42 years, making her the longest widowed first lady in American presidential history.
What was the Thornton Affair?
April 25, 1846 — The Thornton Affair began today when Mexican troops attacked a squadron of US dragoons commanded by Captain Seth Thornton near Fort Texas (modern-day Brownsville). The engagement left 16 US troops killed.
Capt. Thornton, who was knocked unconscious when he fell off his horse, was at first listed among those killed in the incident. The remaining 52 soldiers were held at Matamoros and later exchanged for Mexican prisoners. News of the incident reached Washington, DC two weeks later.
On May 11, then-President James Polk asked Congress for a declaration of war, maintaining that a state of war between the two nations already existed. Two days later, by overwhelming margins and with little debate, both houses voted to declare war.
Considered the last “strong” president until the Civil War, Polk is the last of the Jacksonians to sit in the White House.