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James K. Polk James K. Polk

President James K. Polk

James Knox Polk served as president of the United States during the Mexican War. Polk grew up in Tennessee and practiced law until he won, at age 30, election to Congress as a Democrat in 1825. Polk eventually became speaker of the house, but left Congress in 1839 to serve as governor of Tennessee. His otherwise stellar political career came apart two years later when he lost reelection, and he failed in a comeback attempt two years later. At the 1844 Democratic Convention, Polk’s political career appeared to be finished until inter-party squabbles vaulted him forward as a compromise candidate for president of the United States; Polk surprisingly won the subsequent election by the slimmest of margins.

The new president faced daunting issues in the arena of foreign affairs. A boundary dispute with Great Britain over Oregon territory and Mexican protests over Texas threatened to destabilize the nation on two fronts. Polk decided to settle the issue with Great Britain while pursuing a bolder strategy in the Southwest. When Mexican officials rebuffed his aggressive tactics, Polk ordered the U.S. Army to head for the Mexican border in a show of force. Hostilities erupted in May of 1846, and Polk directed his soldiers to shock the Mexicans into compliance. By 1848, Polk’s gamble had succeeded. Mexico relinquished control of nearly half of its territory to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Polk made good on a campaign promise to serve one term and left office in March 1849. The rigors of the last four years had worn him out, and a long trip home took its toll. Polk died on June 15, 1849, having added 1.2 million square miles to the nation in four short years.