On November 5, 1844, Democratic candidate James K. Polk defeated Whig Party candidate Henry Clay to become the eleventh president of the United States. Democrats nominated Polk as the nation’s first “dark horse” candidate on the ninth ballot of the Democratic National Convention, after former president Martin Van Buren lost his bid because of his opposition to annexing Texas, a position deemed unacceptable by Southerners and by former president Andrew Jackson.
Told of his nomination in a letter, Polk penned his reply: “It has been well observed that the office of President of the United States should neither be sought nor declined. I have never sought it, nor should I feel at liberty to decline it, if conferred upon me by the voluntary suffrages of my Fellow Citizens.” Read Polk’s acceptance letter in full in the American Memory collection Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years. News of his nomination was spread by the Morse telegraph system, which had just been invented.
Though a veteran of the House of Representatives (1825-39), where he had served as Speaker from 1835 to 1839; and a former governor of Tennessee (1839-41); Polk entered the 1844 presidential campaign with little name recognition. “Who is James K. Polk?,” the opposition Whigs sniped, playing on his relative obscurity. An experienced and eloquent orator dubbed the “Napoleon of the Stump,” Polk campaigned vigorously, surprising many with his stalwart support of westward expansion—a hotly debated issue on which Clay disagreed. In the end, Polk’s policies won him 170 electoral votes to Clay’s 105. His margin of victory was only some 38,000 popular votes.
Resolved to serve only one term, Polk acted swiftly to fulfill his campaign promises. In just four years, he oversaw annexation of Texas, a settlement of the Oregon boundary dispute with Great Britain that secured the Oregon Territory for the United States, and reestablishment of an independent treasury system. The U.S. went to war with Mexico in April 1846; when the war ended in February 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the U.S. acquired territory from Mexico that eventually became California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Polk had presided over an expansion of U.S. territory second in scope only to that of the Louisiana Purchase.
Polk’s relentless hard work and considerable political accomplishments took their toll on his health. Full of enthusiasm and vigor when he entered office, Polk left the White House at the age of fifty-three exhausted by his years of public service. He died less than four months later at his new home, “Polk Place,” in Nashville, Tennessee.
Polk’s wife, Sarah Childress Polk, lived at the residence another forty-two years, often receiving visitors. During the Civil War, Mrs. Polk welcomed both Confederate and Union leaders to her home. Polk Place became a pilgrimage destination and was respected as neutral ground. When Mrs. Polk passed away in 1891, she was mourned by a nation that regarded her as a precious link to the past.
- Take a virtual tour of one of James K. Polk’s homes. Architecture and Interior Design for 20th Century America: Photographs by Samuel Gottscho and William Schleisner, 1935-1955 contains more than twenty photographs of the president’s Columbia, Tennessee, residence External. Search on Polk to find pictures of the sitting room, kitchen, and other areas. Excluding the White House, the building is the eleventh president’s only surviving residence.
- Follow Polk’s congressional career in A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875. Search the collection on James K. Polk to see how he voted on a variety of issues including resolving the banking crises of the 1830s.
- Learn more about the resolution of the Mexican War and view the online exhibition The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, or search the Today in History on Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
- Browse the collection By Popular Demand: Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies to find additional portraits of President Polk.
- Search the descriptive information in the collection The Nineteenth Century in Print External to find articles on Polk and his administration.
- Search the collection The African-American Experience in Ohio, 1850-1920 External on Polk to see how the newspaper Palladium Of Liberty answered the question “Who is James K. Polk?”
- Search the collection Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1820-1860 on the words James K. Polk to find “President James K. Polk’s Grand March and Quick Step.”
- Read the United States and California feature in Early California History: An Overview, a special presentation of “California as I Saw It”: First-Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849-1900, for information on the events leading up to the U.S. acquisition of California.