Hello again! My name is Scott Warren, I’m the Historic Site Manager for the President James K. Polk State Historic Site in Pineville. This is Part 2 of my series on the life of Mecklenburg County’s only U.S. President, James K. Polk. Last week, we learned about Polk’s early life and his 14-year career in Congress. When we left him, he had just lost two elections and was thinking of retiring, but others had another plan.
Delegates to the 1844 Democratic Convention originally viewed James K. Polk as a possible Vice-Presidential candidate. When the party's leading Presidential contenders Martin Van Buren and Lewis Cass fail to attract sufficient support to win the nomination, the deadlocked convention needed a compromise candidate, so they turned to a dark horse, James K. Polk. Challenging the well-known Whig candidate Henry Clay in the 1844 Presidential election, Polk promised to actively encourage America's westward expansion. He favored Texas statehood and the acquisition of the Oregon Territory.
Though many believe that Polk laid out four goals as President during his candidacy, scholars have recently debunked this long-held theory. However, he did accomplish these four important tasks as a single-term President:
- The re-establishment of the Independent Treasury System
- The reduction of tariffs
- Acquisition of some or all the Oregon boundary dispute
- The purchase of California from Mexico
President Polk also saw several other major events take place during his administration, including the admission of Texas to the Union as the 28th state. President Polk also approved a law restoring the Independent Treasury System, under which government funds are held in the Treasury rather than in banks or other financial institutions.
His term in office also saw the beginning of hostilities between the United States and Mexico. The Battle at Palo Alto (May 8, 1846) in which 2300 Americans put to rout twice as many Mexican forces marked the beginning of the Mexican War. At President Polk's request, on May 11, 1846, Congress declared war against Mexico.
While war with Mexico was just getting started, Polk also managed a treaty with Great Britain that extended the Oregon Territory boundary at latitude 40 degrees, all the way out to the Puget Sound. This allowed President Polk to focus his attention on the war with Mexico.
President James K. Polk towards the end of his presidency. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Following the controversial two-year war, Mexico ceded New Mexico and California to the United States. During Polk's term of office, the United States acquired over 800,000 square miles of western territory and extended its boundary to the Pacific Ocean.
One of Polk's last acts as President was to sign the bill creating the Department of the Interior (March 3, 1849). This was the first new cabinet position created since the early days of the Republic.
Although President Polk sought to enjoy a peaceful retirement with his wife Sarah, it was not meant to be. While on a goodwill tour of the South after his presidency, Polk is believed to have contracted cholera in New Orleans, Louisiana. He died at his new home, Polk Place, in Nashville, Tennessee, at 3:15 p.m. on June 15, 1849.
The President James K. Polk State Historic Site in Pineville. The site is the birthplace of the 11th President and is meant to be a faithful representation of what the Polk farm could have looked like in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Photo courtesy of the staff of the President James K. Polk State Historic Site.
I hope you’ll come visit the President James K. Polk State Historic Site. Guided tours are offered on Saturdays and they’re a great way to dive into the history of Mecklenburg’s only U.S. President. For more information about visiting, head 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