Hello! My name is Scott Warren, I’m the Historic Site Manager for the President James K. Polk State Historic Site in Pineville. James’ birthday was this past Tuesday, November 2, so the folks at the Museum asked me to write a short article to highlight the life and career of Mecklenburg County’s only U.S. President, James K. Polk. This’ll be a two-part post because ‘short’ isn’t a word in the historian’s vocabulary!
Shortly after starting their farm in southern Mecklenburg County, Samuel and Jane Polk welcomed the first of their five children, James Knox Polk on November 2, 1795. Fifty years later on November 2, 1846, then President Polk noted in his diary, “This is my birthday. According to the entry in my father’s family bible, I was born on the 2d. day of November 1795 and my mother has told me that the event occurred as near as she could tell about 12 o’clock, meridian, of that day.”
Crops like tobacco, corn, and cotton were grown by the Polks for sustenance and as an income source. Photo courtesy of the staff of the President James K. Polk State Historic Site
In his time in Mecklenburg County, Samuel Polk expanded his farm from 150 acres in 1794 to 426 acres by 1805. That same year, Samuel paid tax on 426 acres, four enslaved people and a 40-saw cotton gin. Cotton and corn provided a healthy living for his family. With the hope of improving his fortunes, Samuel moved his family, which included the future President and his 4 siblings, plus five enslaved people to the Duck River Valley of central Tennessee.
Shortly before his seventeenth birthday, James needed surgery for stones in his urinary bladder. The successful operation, performed by noted Kentucky surgeon Ephraim McDowell, enabled James to pursue an education with renewed enthusiasm. After just two and a half years of formal schooling in Tennessee, James K. Polk was admitted to the University of North Carolina in 1815 as a sophomore. Polk graduated with top honors in mathematics and classics and returned to Tennessee determined to become a lawyer. A young James K. Polk then began an apprenticeship under renowned Nashville Trail lawyer, Felix Grundy.
While serving as a State Representative, he courted and eventually married Sarah Childress, the daughter of a prominent Murfreesboro merchant and planter. An educated woman whose intellect and social grace impressed contemporaries, Sarah became James K. Polk's personal and political confidante.
A fervent supporter of the policies of fellow Tennessee Democrat Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1825 at age twenty-nine. He was in Congress for fourteen years and served two terms as Speaker of the House. Concerned that the Whig Party was becoming increasingly popular in Tennessee, he returned home and successfully ran for the governor in 1839.
His return home proved unsuccessful when he ran for re-election in 1841 and lost, then ran again in 1843 and lost again. Nearing his fifties, James K. Polk was determined to retire and live out his days with Sarah. Little did he know, he would answer the call again.
Next week, we’ll explore how James K. Polk became President and the events that unfolded afterwards. In the meantime, you can visit the President James K. Polk State Historic Site, go on a tour of the historic structures, and explore the Museum Tuesday through Saturday. For more information about visiting, go to jameskpolk.net.
Have a great weekend!
Historic Site Manager II
President James K. Polk State Historic Site
To read more about the legacy of James K. Polk, including his ownership of slaves, check out Fact Friday 4 - Seven (and) Eleven.
About The Charlotte Museum of History
The Charlotte Museum of History exists to save and share the Charlotte region’s history, helping create a better understanding of the past and inspiring dialogue about the future. The museum is the steward of the 1774 Hezekiah Alexander Rock House and homesite, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the oldest home in Mecklenburg County. Visit charlottemuseum.org and follow the museum on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The museum is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
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“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass