James Knox was known for being a man who never swerved from his principles. Under his tutelage the boundaries of USA extended by more than a million square miles to include regions across Texas, Mexico, California and Oregon. He believed that USA was entitled to reign over as much land as it could acquire on the continent.
Polk was born in his family’s farm in North Carolina. At the tender age of ten he moved along with his parents in a wagon to build a plantation in the wild regions of Tennessee. The hardships permanently damaged his health. But the family greatly prospered by acquiring acres and acres of rich land and over 50 slaves. Polk joined a Presbyterian school when he was 18 and continued to join University of North Carolina. He studied law. In 1825 he was elected to the US House of representatives and continued to serve six terms.
In 1824 he married Sarah Childress of Tennessee and she came to be his right hand and asset. She was rich and educated – the perfect wife, entertaining and mixing easily with many. She was a contrast to her reserved husband and accepted stoically his ups and downs – whether in the plantation or in the glittering White House.
Polk’s father had supported Andrew Jackson and his son remained a close ally of Jackson in Congress. Polk soon became the Speaker in 1835 for four years. In 1839 he became Governor of Tennessee. Polk’s attempt to be re-elected was at a crucial juncture when the country was in the grips of a depression. Banks had failed and farms had closed. Jackson was squarely blamed by the Whigs for these ills. Facing failure Polk turned to his plantation.
In 1844 surprisingly Polk won the nomination of the Democrat party to compete for the post of President. Polk declared his support for annexing Texas and retaking Oregon from the British. By autumn of 1848 Texas had been acquired and Mexico captured. By a treaty the border with Texas was redefined and $15 million was paid for acquisition of California and New Mexico.
Polk was apprehensive that England would take this dispute with Mexico as an excuse to grab parts of Central America and the Caribbean. To thwart it Polk drew up a treaty with New Granada (Columbia) by which US gained the right to cross the isthmus. In return US recognized the neutrality of the isthmus and the sovereignty of New Granada.
In internal affairs Polk found himself facing the Wilmot Proviso bill. It banned slavery in all the lands that had been taken over from Mexico. The bill was passed despite opposition from Polk but the Senate never gave its sanction.
Polk revived an act that had been repealed by the Whigs – Independent Treasury Act. It established independent treasury deposit centres distinct from private and state banks. It was to receive all government funds.
Polk was a principled man and true to his ideals he retired after the end of his first term without seeking the re-election that he could have easily won. On the other hand he felt free and light after relinquishing public duties. He went on an extensive tour of the south where he was warmly welcomed by crowds. At the end he shifted to his newly acquired estate in Nashville where he died soon after, unable to withstand the rigours of the tour. He left his property to his wife with a request that she free the slaves.