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James K. Polk

James K. Polk (1845-1849)


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With the Texas issue moving toward a resolution, Polk turned his attention to the Oregon boundary question. Polk had no more intention than the British of fighting a war over the Oregon country, but he was not above using the more radical demands to strengthen his efforts to settle the boundary dispute. [He] was playing a dangerous game. Amid fears that his unyielding attitude would involve the Untied States in a war with Great Britain, Polk refused to back down. As the same time, the issue assumed an added urgency. Relations with Mexico were approaching a crisis, and Polk's attention was divided between the two situations. As with his Texas policy, there were hints that California was in his mind. The settlement of the Oregon question might deter Great Britain from acquiring California (perceived as a real threat in 1845), leaving the way open for an American acquisition through negotiations with Mexico. Polk's course was bold and daring; at the same time, he was convinced that it was a peaceful one.

Within 15 months of his inauguration, Polk had presided over the addition of two immense regions to the Untied States, Texas and Oregon, not only fulfilling the pledge in the Democratic platform on which he was elected but also bringing his dream of continental expansion closer to reality. There still remained the acquisition of California. That too had been set in motion.

In both Texas and Oregon, Polk carried to fruition problems that he had inherited from a previous administration to the ultimate advantage of the United States. The same was true with the deteriorated state of American-Mexican relations. Two issues brought relations between the two countries to a crisis; the claims issue and the issue of Texas annexation. The frequency of revolution, exacerbated by an inability by foreigners to appreciate cultural differences, often resulted in the loss of property (and sometimes lives) by foreign nationals. Although Jackson had once threatened war against Mexico over the claims issue, the course of the Untied States had been a peaceful one. The issue was submitted to arbitration, the size of the claim was scaled down and Mexico agreed to make payments to the United States. After only a few installments, Mexico defaulted. To many Americans, California seemed suitable payment for Mexico's unpaid debt to the United States, especially since large number of emigrants were now crossing the plains and mountains to settle in California's interior valleys.

Polk chose John Slidell, congressman form Louisiana, to go to Mexico with instructions to secure Mexican recognition of the Río Grande boundary in exchange for the cancellation of the claims and to offer to purchase California and New Mexico for an undetermined sum of money. Texas was admitted to the Union as a state in December, 1845, and shortly afterward, General Zachary Taylor's army was ordered to new positions along the Río Grande. With the arrival of news in Washington that Slidell's mission had failed, Polk was prepared to adopt "strong measures towards Mexico" but delayed until the Oregon question, then reaching its climax, should be settled. He received a dispatch from General Taylor. Mexican forces had crossed the Río Grande and had engaged American troops, resulting in the loss of life. On May 11, 1846, Polk sent his war message to Congress.

In his administration of the war, Polk contributed significantly to a definition of the president's role as commander-in-chief, and his exercise of military power became a model for future presidents. He assumed full responsibility for the conduct of the war, taking the initiative in securing war legislation and finance, deciding on military strategy, appointing generals and drafting their instructions, directing the supply efforts and coordinating the work of the various bureaus and cabinet departments. He insisted on being informed of every decision that was made by his cabinet officers. Polk was, as one author has written, "the center on which all else depended."

When Polk delivered his war message to Congress, he anticipated a short conflict. Indeed, he expected Mexico to sue for peace in the very first weeks and months of the war, but the Mexican governments, in spite of an unbroken series of military defeats, refused to give up. Almost as soon as the war began, Polk was seeking ways to end it.

With the failure of his peace efforts, Polk decided to open an offensive against Mexico City from Veracruz and reluctantly placed General Winfield Scott in charge. Confident that this operation would bring the war to an end, he appointed Nicholas Trist, chief clerk of the State Department, to accompany Scott and granted him authority to suspend hostilities and enter into peace negotiations whenever Mexico might appear receptive. His instructions called for the cession of Upper and Lower California and New Mexico, the cancellation of the claims and the payment of $15 million to Mexico.

It was not until the end of the summer, with Scott's army in the environs of Mexico City, that Antonio López de Santa Anna finally appointed commissioners to meet with Trist. Still there was no meeting of the minds. Polk's impatience mounted. Finally, in October, 1847, frustrated and at the end of his patience, Polk recalled Trist.

Trist, however, was determined to conclude a peace treaty with Mexico. He disregarded Polk's order and remained in touch with his Mexican counterparts. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo…followed Trist's original instructions (except for the cession of Lower California). Although Trist negotiated and signed the settlement without diplomatic authority, Polk accepted it and in late February transmitted the treaty to the Senate for ratification. By the end of May, the treaty was ratified by Mexico.

When Polk submitted his fourth and last annual message to Congress in December, 1848, he pointed proudly to the fulfillment of America's expansionist destiny. Within less than four years, almost 1,200,000 square miles of territory had been added to the United States, an area half as large as the nation before the acquisition.

Polk stood by his pledge to serve only one term as president and, in spite of the appeals of many of his friends, refused to allow his name to be presented to the Democratic convention in 1848. The conflict over the extension of slavery to the Mexican cession continued to worry him and as it became clear that the party was seriously divided on the question, concern gave way to depression. All that he had worked to achieve seemed threatened by an issue that he had not foreseen.

On March 5, 1849, Zachary Taylor assumed the reins of government, and that evening Polk and his wife began their journey home. Polk returned to Tennessee physically exhausted and in ill health. On June 15, 1849, barely three months after he left office, he died unexpectedly. He was 54 years old.

Although lacking in charisma and judged by many of his contemporaries to be dull and colorless, Polk brought to the presidency a dynamic quality that few occupants of the office have had. He devoted his full energy to his duties, working tirelessly to achieve his goals. He put in long hours; 12-hour days were not uncommon. Polk seldom left the national capital and during his four years as president took only one brief vacation. Polk left behind a monument to his energy and his dogged determination. Seldom has a president carried out such an ambitious and far-reaching program as did Polk in the brief space of four years.

"Reproduced from The American President: The Office and the Men, pages 218-245. By permission of the publisher, Salem Press, Inc. Copyright, © 1986, Salem Press, Inc."

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