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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The President Who Won the West

By Tom Morrow

When you consider that James K. Polk was President during the Mexican War, which resulted in the acquisition of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, plus bringing Oregon, Idaho, a portion of Montana, and Washington as well as annexing Texas into the Union, one could say Polk was the President who won the West.

James Knox Polk was born Nov. 2, 1795. He was the 11th President of the United States (1845-49). Polk was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. He later lived in and represented Tennessee in the House of Representatives. Polk made his first major speech in Congress on March 13, 1826, in which he said the Electoral College should be abolished and the President be elected by the popular vote.

A Democrat, Polk served as the 13th Speaker of the House of Representatives (1835-39), he was the only President to have served as House Speaker and Governor of Tennessee (1839-41).
Polk was the dark horse candidate for President in 1844, defeating Henry Clay of the rival Whig Party by promising to annex Texas. Polk’s nickname was “Young Hickory” because of his close association with “Old Hickory,” Andrew Jackson.

When advised of his 1844, nomination for President, Polk replied: “It has been well observed that the office of President of the United States should neither be sought nor declined. I have never sought it, nor should I feel at liberty to decline it, if conferred upon me by the voluntary suffrages of my fellow citizens.”

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 American annexation of Texas, Polk led the nation to a sweeping victory in the Mexican–American War, seizing nearly the whole of what is now the American Southwest.

He threatened war with England over who owned the Oregon Country, eventually reaching a settlement in which the British were made to sell the portion that became the Oregon Territory. Additionally, he built an independent treasury system that lasted until 1913; oversaw the opening of the U.S. Naval Academy, the Smithsonian Institution, the groundbreaking for the Washington Monument, and the issuance of the first United States postage stamp.

Because the Democratic Party was splintered into bitter factions, Polk promised to serve only one term if elected, hoping that his disappointed rival Democrats would unite behind him with the knowledge that another candidate would be chosen in four years.

When he took office on March 4, 1845, Polk, at 49, became the youngest man at the time to assume the presidency. This was the first inaugural ceremony to be reported by telegraph and to be shown in a newspaper illustration (in The Illustrated London News).

True to his campaign pledge to serve only one term as President, Polk left office and returned to Tennessee in March 1849. He died of cholera three months later.

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. Polk has been called the “least known consequential president” of the United States.

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