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James K. Polk: Dark Horse


VOA Learning English presents America’s Presidents.

James Knox Polk moved into the White House as the 11th president of the United States in 1845.

1846 portrait of James K. Polk by George Peter Alexander Healy
1846 portrait of James K. Polk by George Peter Alexander Healy

Few had predicted that Polk would become president. Even he was surprised.

Polk had come to his party’s presidential nominating convention nearly a year earlier with low expectations. But the top politicians, including former president Martin Van Buren, failed to win a majority of votes.

Convention delegates tried again and again to agree on a candidate. Eventually, Polk was nominated. A small number of delegates supported him. Then the delegates voted again.

This time, Polk received all 266 votes. He became the first dark horse candidate in U.S. history to be nominated by a major party. In other words, he was someone no one thought would win. But he did.

Early life

Polk was born in the southeastern state of North Carolina. When he was a child, his family moved west, to Tennessee. At the time, Tennessee had few white settlers. Some considered it the wilderness.

Polk’s family did well there. His father became wealthy, buying land and enslaved people.

His mother Jane, who followed strict, Christian religious teachings, gave her 10 children a good education. James was the oldest. He went to college, then studied law.

James Knox Polk and Sarah Childress Polk
James Knox Polk and Sarah Childress Polk

When he was 25, he married an intelligent and wealthy young woman named Sarah Childress. The two never had children. But they worked together to launch Polk’s political career.

In time, Polk was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives, then the national House of Representatives.

There, he developed a close relationship with President Andrew Jackson. Since Jackson was called “Old Hickory,” Polk became known as “Young Hickory.”

When Polk left Congress and returned to Tennessee to become governor, he supported Jackson’s banking reforms. But soon the U.S. economy collapsed. Tennessee voters failed to re-elect Polk as governor – not once, but twice.

So Polk returned to his plantations and waited for a chance to re-enter national politics.

In 1844, Polk traveled to the city of Baltimore to attend the Democratic Party’s national convention. He thought he could perhaps win the nomination for vice president. Instead, he became the Democrats’ candidate for president.

Several months later, he narrowly defeated the opposing party’s candidate in the national election.

Why Polk won

Historian Robert Merry wrote a book about Polk’s presidency. Merry says one reason Polk won the election was the issue of Texas. Polk wanted to make Texas a state. He thought the United States could take possession of the area peacefully. The other leading candidates did not.

Merry says the other candidates were right – the United States eventually went to war with Mexico. But Polk spoke for the American people.

Manifest Destiny described the idea that the Unites States' expansion to the Pacific was a destiny that could be clearly seen and that could not be changed.
Manifest Destiny described the idea that the Unites States' expansion to the Pacific was a destiny that could be clearly seen and that could not be changed.

In the 1840s, many Americans liked the idea of expanding the country. They believed in “manifest destiny” -- the idea that God wanted America to expand west, all the way to the Pacific Ocean, and take control of the continent.

As a result, many voters supported Polk and his promise to add Texas to the United States.

Polk took another unusual position in the 1844 election. He said if he won the presidency, he would serve only one term -- that is, four years. (Several previous presidents had served two terms.)

Polk told voters presidents might abuse their power if they held office too long. One term, he said, would be enough for him.

But Robert Merry says there was more to Polk’s one-term promise. It was a political bet.

Polk thought if he said he would serve as president for only one term, other party leaders might help him win. Then, those politicians could try again to win the presidency in four years, instead of waiting eight.

He was probably right. If Polk had not made the campaign promise, Merry says, Young Hickory would not have won.

Presidency

During the first days of his administration, James K. Polk famously listed the four things he planned to do as president.

He wanted to reduce taxes on imports. He wished to establish an independent treasury. He hoped to settle the dispute with Britain over the Oregon border. And he wanted to get California for the United States.

Less than four years later, Polk had realized each item on his list.

He is remembered for greatly expanding the size of the United States. He successfully negotiated with Britain for U.S. control over territory in the west up to the 49th parallel. The agreement gave the U.S. the current states of Oregon, Idaho, and Washington.

Below those states lay California.

An American government minister once described California as the richest, the most beautiful, and the healthiest country in the world. The official said the port of San Francisco was big enough to hold all the navies of the world. He said someday San Francisco would control the trade of all the Pacific Ocean.

There was only one problem, from the point of view of the U.S. government. California was part of Mexico.

At first, U.S. officials attempted to buy California from Mexico. But Mexican officials refused even to talk about selling California to the United States.

Shortly after the U.S. Congress approved statehood for Texas in early 1845, Mexico broke relations with the U.S. all together.

The following year, Mexican troops crossed the Rio Grande and clashed with American soldiers.

One of the heroes of the war was General Zachary Taylor, who would follow Polk as president.
One of the heroes of the war was General Zachary Taylor, who would follow Polk as president.

In answer, President Polk asked Congress to declare war.

He did not think the conflict would last long. He believed the U.S. declaration would quickly force Mexico to sell him the territory he wanted.

Polk was wrong. Historian Robert Merry says the war with Mexico lasted longer, was more expensive, and cost more lives than he expected.

But in the 1848 treaty that ended the war, Polk got the land he had wanted.

Mexico recognized the independence of Texas, and it sold the areas that are now all or part of the states of Arizona, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado and, yes, California.

Legacy

President Polk kept his promise to serve only one term. After four years, he retired from the presidency, traveled for a few weeks, and then returned to Tennessee to settle in a new home.

James Polk, about 1849
James Polk, about 1849

Only three months after he left the White House, Polk died.

He left behind a much larger country, but a divided one.

The issue was again slavery. Southerners argued that they had the right to take enslaved people into California and other former Mexican lands. Northerners opposed any further spread of slavery.

The question was this: did Congress have the power to control – or even ban – slavery in the new territories?

I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.

Kelly Jean Kelly wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

See how well you understand this story by talking this listening quiz. Play each short video, then choose the best answer.

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Words in This Story

convention - n. a large meeting of people who come to a place for usually several days to talk about their shared work

strict - adj. carefully obeying the rules or principles of a religion or a particular way of life

plantation - n. a large area of land especially in a hot part of the world where crops (such as cotton) are grown

manifest destiny - n. a future event that is sure to happen; a destiny that can be clearly seen and that cannot be changed

bet - n. a choice made by thinking about what will probably happen

parallel - n. any one of the imaginary circles on the surface of the Earth that are parallel to the equator and that are shown as lines on maps

expensive - adj. costing a lot of money

ill - adj. not well or healthy

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