American Culture: James K. Polk Mini Biography
James Knox Polk (November 2, 1795 – June 15, 1849) was the 11th President of the United States (1845–49). Polk was born in Pineville, North Carolina, and moved to Tennessee to study law. After building a successful law practice, he was elected to the Tennessee legislature and then to the United States House of Representatives in 1825. A leading Democrat and close ally of Andrew Jackson during the Second Party System, Polk served as the 13th Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1835 to 1839, making him the only president to have also served as Speaker. He left Congress to serve as Governor of Tennessee from 1839 to 1841. After losing re-election as governor in 1840, and losing in another gubernatorial election in 1842, Polk was a dark horse candidate for president in 1844. Though he entered the convention hoping to be nominated for vice president, he won the presidential nomination as a compromise candidate among the various party factions. In the general election, he defeated Henry Clay of the rival Whig Party in large part due to his promise to annex the Republic of Texas. True to his campaign pledge to serve only one term as President, Polk left office in March 1849 and returned to Tennessee. He died of cholera three months later.
Polk is often considered the last strong pre–Civil War president, having met during his four years in office every major domestic and foreign policy goal set during his campaign and the transition to his administration. When Mexico rejected the annexation of Texas by the United States, Polk achieved a sweeping victory in the Mexican–American War, which resulted in the cession by Mexico of nearly the whole of what is now the American Southwest. He ensured a substantial reduction of tariff rates by replacing the “Black Tariff” with the Walker tariff of 1846, which pleased the less-industrialized states of his native South by rendering less expensive both imported and, through competition, domestic goods. He threatened war with the United Kingdom over the issue of which nation owned the Oregon Country, eventually reaching a settlement in which the British were made to sell the portion that became the Oregon Territory. In addition, he re-established the Independent Treasury System (supplanted by the Federal Reserve System in 1913), oversaw the opening of the United States Naval Academy and the Smithsonian Institution, the groundbreaking for the Washington Monument, and the issuance of the first United States postage stamp.
Scholars have ranked him favorably on lists of greatest presidents for his ability to promote, obtain support for, and achieve all of the major items on his presidential agenda. However, he has also been criticized for leading the country into war against Mexico and for exacerbating sectional divides. Polk has been called the “least known consequential president”.