It was in 1845, during the single term of James K. Polk, our nation’s 11th president, that someone coined the term Manifest Destiny — the concept that our country would one day go all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
The original 13 states were all on the Eastern Seaboard, but it did not take long for Americans to begin moving west, with new states and territories stretching all the way to the Mississippi River Valley. At the dawn of the 19th Century, Jefferson doubled the size of our country with the Louisiana Purchase. But it was Polk, four decades later, who would pave the way for us to have what would become a coast-to-coast country. If you’ve ever been to Disneyland, or had a beverage from Starbucks, or if you’ve ever seen a Hollywood movie, you can thank James K. Polk. He used every tool at his disposal. He encouraged pioneers to pack up everything and trek across the Rocky Mountains in covered wagons. He sent the military to the frontier with vague or misleading instructions. If the generals went too far and grabbed too much territory, he wasn’t going to stop them. He got the British to the bargaining table over the jointly occupied Oregon Territory, securing what would eventually become the states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
But the grand prize was Alta California (upper California) and to get this, as well as the vast New Mexico Territory, he would play hardball with Mexico, eventually taking us to war. The Mexicans crossed the Rio Grande and attacked General Zachary Taylor’s troops, which gave Polk the opening he needed. Blood had been “spilled on American soil,” giving us an excuse to declare war, invade and occupy Mexico City. In the last days of the Tyler presidency, Texas had been added to the union as a state, but nobody at the time could agree on what the actual boundaries were. Polk took care of all that.
On the Fourth of July in 1848, on the very day that he attended a ceremony in which the cornerstone for the Washington Monument was laid, Polk held in his hands the final signed copy of the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the war. Mexico got $15.8 million, and we got approximately one million square miles, what would become the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Cue the Village People song “Go West.”
At this point I should also mention slavery. All this acquisition of new territory was controversial at the time. Many in the north did not want us to acquire more territory because they feared this would lead to more slave states and would upset the balance of power in Congress. Many in the south were all for it though, because, yay slavery. Polk himself did not take a strong stand one way or the other on slavery, but, like many other presidents of the era both good and bad, he himself was a slave owner. Just a decade later, slavery would split our country in a tragic war, but that would be a fight for future presidents.
Trained as a lawyer, James Knox Polk got his start in politics as a clerk for the Tennessee state senate, before getting elected to the Tennessee state house of representatives. He then served seven terms in the in the U.S. House of Representatives. He became chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and later became Speaker of the House. Leaving Washington with hopes of returning someday as president, Polk was elected governor of Tennessee but then lost his re-election bid and lost again when he ran a third time. Having just suffered two humiliating losses at the ballot box, he was a bit of a surprise candidate in the election of 1844 when he got the Democratic Party nomination, facing the Whig candidate, Henry Clay. He promised he would serve just one term, and he kept that promise. Sadly, he died in June 1849, just three months after leaving office.
Like all Democrats in that era, he did not believe the federal government had any business spending money on “internal improvements” and he vetoed various infrastructure bills, including one that would have funded harbors on the Great Lakes.
He had a hard working, loyal cabinet, with the exception of his Secretary of State, James Buchanan, who was a vacillating, scheming troublemaker.
Some fun facts about Polk:
- Born in a log cabin!
- He was a workaholic and a micromanager who rarely took vacations and did not allow his cabinet secretaries to stray far from the capital.
- He was a disciple of Andrew Jackson.
- Married to Sarah. They had no children, possibly because he might have become sterile after undergoing a gruesome surgery for urinary stones when he was young.
- At the time he was elected in 1844, he was in his late 40s and was the youngest to have ever been elected president.
- To this day, he is the only Speaker of the House to later become president.
There are many biographies of Polk to choose from. I read “Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America” by Walker R. Borneman. It was a page-turner. Complete with helpful maps and high-quality portraits of key players, I found it engrossing and I could not put it down. The author makes a strong case that Polk set himself above many other presidents by listing four very specific policy goals at the outset of his presidency, accomplishing them, and then stepping aside. The author also points out that Polk, in deciding to go to war with Mexico and getting Congress to rubber stamp it, wrested the war-making decision, rightly or wrongly, away from the legislative and to the executive branch.