The Napoleon of the Stump

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.

James K. Polk—Eleventh President of the United States… N.Y.: Lith. & Pub by N. Currier, [between 1845 and 1850]. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division

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 as found in the Manuscript Division’s collection of James K. Polk Papers. News of his nomination was spread by the Morse telegraph system, which had just been invented.

Texas Coming In. H. Bucholzer, artist; Lith. by James Baillie, c1844. Cartoon Prints, American. Prints & Photographs Division

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.

Mrs. J. K. Polk… After a daguerreotype by John Plumbe; New York: N. Currier, lithographer, 1846. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division

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.

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