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Photo of James Knox PolkJames Knox Polk

(1795-1849)

As the expansionist eleventh President of the United States, James K. Polk was perhaps more responsible than any other single person for setting the boundaries of what came to be the American West.

Born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, in 1795, Polk was one of ten children of a prosperous farm family. Although his family had moved to Tennessee when he was eleven, the bookish young man chose to return to the University of North Carolina for his college education. He came back to Tennessee to study for a legal career, quickly establishing a successful practice and solid reputation.

In 1825, Polk won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, and quickly became a protegé of Andrew Jackson, staunchly supporting both state's rights and Jackson's efforts to destroy the national bank. Polk rose to become Speaker of the House from 1835 to 1839, when he was elected governor of Tennessee. But Polk was defeated in 1841 and 1843 runs for the governorship, and it seemed that his political career had stalled.

Fortunately, Polk's ardent enthusiasm for westward expansion saved his career, gaining him the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1844. In his campaign, he advocated the annexation of Oregon and Texas, although either measure might well mean a war, and once elected, albeit with a minority of the total vote, he went on to implement his plans for expansion.

Through a combination of military threats and diplomacy, Polk managed to arrive at a compromise with England that set the 49th parallel as the Oregon Territory's northern boundary. Acquiring the rest of the West was a more bloody affair, and the newly admitted state of Texas was at the heart of the matter.

Although thousands of Spanish and Mexican documents showed that Texas' western boundary had traditionally been the Nueces River, Polk backed the Texans' claim that their western border was the Rio Grande. Since Texas claimed the river all the way to its source, their position implied that half of present-day New Mexico and Colorado was rightfully theirs. The Mexican government found this unacceptable and refused the United States' offer of about forty million dollars for New Mexico and California. When U.S. General Zachary Taylor led an army across the disputed area to the banks of the Rio Grande in 1846, Mexican troops attacked his units and killed sixteen of his men. Polk seized upon this incident as proof of Mexican treachery, and quickly secured a declaration of war from Congress.

Although the United States ultimately defeated Mexico's poorly-armed troops in some of the most destructive warfare ever witnessed to that time, the acquisition of the West was, ironically, little help to Polk. The inescapable issue of slavery soon darkened the nation's expansionist prospects, as Congress took up legislation that would prohibit slavery in all newly-acquired territories. The United States, though larger and richer with the discover of gold in California, was on the road to civil war. Polk himself did not live to see it; long suffering from exhaustion and overwork, he died several months after the end of his term, on June 15, 1849.


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