James Knox Polk, the eleventh president of the United States, born in Mecklenburg co., N. C, Nov. 2, 1795, died in Nashville, Tenn., June 15, 1849. His ancestors, whose name was originally Pollock, emigrated from Ireland early in the 18th century. His father was a farmer, who in 1806 removed to the valley of Duck river in Tennessee. The son received at first a scanty education, but finally entered the university of North Carolina, graduated in 1818, and was admitted to the bar in 1820. In 1823 he was chosen to the state legislature. In 1825 he was elected to congress, and soon became a conspicuous opponent of the administration of John Quincy Adams, and was afterward one of the most efficient supporters of Jackson. He was nominated for speaker by the democratic party near the close of the session of 1834, but was defeated by a coalition between the whigs and a portion of the democrats in favor of John Bell. In 1835 Mr. Polk was elected speaker, and he was reelected in 1837. In 1839, having served for 14 years in congress, he declined a reelection, and was chosen governor of Tennessee. In 1840 he received the nomination of the legislature of Tennessee and several other states for vice president with Mr. Van Buren, but at the election received only one electoral vote, Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky being the regular democratic candidate.
In 1841, being renominated for governor, he was defeated by a majority of 3,224 votes. The democratic national convention which met at Baltimore May 27, 1844, nominated him for president on the ninth ballot, George M. Dallas of Pennsylvania being nominated for vice president. Henry Clay and Theodore Frelinghuysen were the candidates of the whig party. Mr. Polk was elected by a popular vote of 1,335,834 to 1,297,033 for Clay and 62,270 for James G. Birney, the anti-slavery candidate. The annexation of Texas, the most exciting question in the canvass, was effected before Mr. Polk's inauguration. His cabinet consisted of James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, secretary of state; Robert J. Walker of Mississippi, secretary of the treasury; William L. Marcy of New York, secretary of war; George Bancroft of Massachusetts, secretary of the navy till Sept. 9, 1846, afterward John Y. Mason of Virginia; Cave Johnson of Tennessee, postmaster general; John Y. Mason, Nathan Clifford of Maine, and Isaac Toucey of Connecticut, successively attorneys general.
At the beginning of his administration the president sent Gen. Taylor with a small force to occupy the country between the Nueces and the Rio Grande, the United States claiming the latter river as their boundary, while the Mexicans maintained that Texas had never extended beyond the Nueces. The question of the boundary of Oregon also engaged the attention of the president. Mr. Polk in his inaugural address had declared that " our title to the country of the Oregon was clear and unquestionable." After negotiation, however, the president directed the secretary of state to offer as the boundary the parallel of 49°, instead of 54° 40', which had previously been insisted upon; this was accepted by Great Britain, the proposition being so far modified as to give to that power the whole of Vancouver island. In April, 1846, hostilities broke out on the Rio Grande between Gen. Taylor's army and that of the Mexican commander, Gen. Arista. The president sent a message to congress declaring that "war existed by the act of Mexico," and asking for men and money to carry it on. Congress responded, May 11, by an appropriation of $10,000,000 and giving authority to call out 50,000 volunteers.
The war was prosecuted with energy, and resulted in the conquest of Mexico, the city of Mexico itself being occupied by the American forces on Sept. 14, 1847. Mexico ceded to the United States New Mexico and Upper California, and accepted the Rio Grande from its mouth to El Paso as the southern boundary of Texas. In the election of 1848 Mr. Polk was not a candidate, having in 1844 pledged himself not to seek a renomination, and his administration terminated March 4, 1849. The chief measures which distinguished it, besides those already mentioned, were the adoption of the low tariff of 1846, replacing the protective one of 1842; the establishment of the independent treasury system, by which the revenues of the government are collected in specie without the aid of banks; the creation of the department of the interior; and the admission of Wisconsin as a state of the Union. Three months after his retirement Mr. Polk was seized with illness, and in a few days died. He was of middle stature, with a full, angular brow, and quick, penetrating eyes.
He was grave but unostentatious and amiable, and his private character was pure and upright.