Presidents of the United States

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James K. Polk

From: Portrait and Biographical record of Rockland and Orange Counties, New York
By: Chapman Publishing Company
Published: 1895


JAMES K. POLK, the eleventh President of the 'United States, was born in Mecklenburgh County, N. C., November 2, 1795. His parents were Samuel and Jane (Knox) Polk, the former a son of Col. Thomas Polk, who located at the above place, as one of the first pioneers, in 1735. In 1806, with his wife and children, and soon after followed by most of the members of the Polk family, Samuel Polk emigrated some two or three hundred miles farther west, to the rich valley of the Duck River. Here, in the midst of the wilderness, in a region which was subsequently called Maury County, they erected their log huts and established their honies. In the hard toil of a new farm in the wilderness, James K. Polk spent the early years of his childhood and youth. His father, adding the pursuit of a surveyor to that of a farmer, gradually increased in wealth, until he became one of the leading men of the region. His mother was a superior woman, of strong common sense and earnest piety.

Very early in life James developed a taste for reading, and expressed the strongest desire to obtain a liberal education. His mother's training had made him methodical in his habits, had taught him punctuality and industry, and had inspired him with lofty principles of morality. His health was frail, and his father, fearing that he might not be able to endure a sedentary life, got a situation for him behind the counter, hoping to fit him for commercial pursuits.

This was to James a bitter disappointment. He had no taste for these duties, and his daily tasks were irksome in the extreme. He remained in this uncongenial occupation but a few weeks, when, at his earnest solicitation, his father removed him and niade arrangements for him to prosecute his studies. Soon after he sent him to Murfreesboro Academy. With ardor which could scarcely be surpassed, he pressed forward in his studies, and in less than two and a-half years, in the autumn of 1815, entered the sophomore class in the University of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill. Here he was one of the most exemplary of scholars, punctual in every exercise, never allowing himself to be absent from a recitation or a religious service.

Mr. Polk graduated in 1818, with the highest honors, being deemed the best scholar of his class, both in mathematics and the classics. He was tEen twenty-three years of age. His health was at this time much impaired by the assiduity with which he had prosecuted his studies. After a short season of relaxation, be went to Nashville, and entered the office of Felix Grundy, to study law. Here Mr. Polk renewed his acquaintance with Andrew Jackson, who resided on his plantation, the "Hermitage," but a few miles from Nashville. They had probably been slightly acquainted before.

Mr. Polk's father was a Jeffersonian Republican and James K. adhered to the same political faith. He was a popular public speaker, and was constantly called upon to address the meetings of his party friends. His skill as a speaker was such that he was popularly called the Napoleon of the stump. He was a man of unblemished morals, genial and courteous in his bearing, and with that sympathetic nature in the joys and griefs of others which gave him hosts of friends. In 1823, he was elected to the Legislature of Tennessee, and gave his strong influence toward the election of his friend, Mr. Jackson, to the Presidency of the United States.

In January, 1824, Mr. Polk married MissSarah Childress, of Rutherford County, Tenn. His bride was altogether worthy of him-a lady of beauty and culture. In the fall of 1825 Mr. Polk was chosen a member of Congress, and the satisfaction he gave his constituents may be inferred from the fact, that for fourteen successive years, or until 1839, he was continued in that office. He then voluntarily withdrew, only that he might accept the Gubernatorial chair of Tennessee. In Congress he was a laborious member, a frequent and a popular speaker. He was always in his seat, always courteous, and whenever he spoke it was always to the point, without any ambitious rhetorical display.

During five sessions of Congress Mr. Polk was Speaker of the House. Strong passions were roused and stormy scenes were witnessed, but he performed his arduous duties to a very general satisfaction, and a unanimous vote of thanks to him was passed by the House as he withdrew on the 4th of March, 1839.

In accordance with Southern usage, Mr. Polk, as a candidate for Governor, canvassed the State. He was elected by a large majority, and on October 14, 1839, took the oath of office at Nashville. In 1841 his term of office expired, and he was again the candidate of the Democratic party, but was defeated.

On the 4th of March, 1845, Mr. Polk was inaugurated President of the United States. The verdict of the country in favor of the annexation of Texas exerted its influence upon Congress, and the last act of the administration of President Tyler was to affix his signature to a joint resolution of Congress, passed on the 3d of March, approving of the annexation of Texas to the Union. As Mexico still claimed Texas as one of her provinces, the Mexican Minister, Almonte, immediately demanded his passports and left the country, declaring the act of the annexation to be an act hostile to Mexico.

In his first message, President Polk urged that Texas should immediately, by act of Congress, be received into the Union on the same footing with the other States. In the mean time, Gen. Taylor was sent with an army into Texas to hold the country. He was first sent to Nueces, which the Mexicans said was the western boundary of Texas. Then he was sent nearly two hundred miles further west, to the Rio Grande, where he erected batteries which commanded the Mexican city of Matamoras, which was situated on the western banks. The anticipated collision soon took place, and war was declared against Mexico by President Polk, The war was pushed forward by his administration with great vigor. Gen. Taylor, whose army was first called one of "observation," then of "occupation," then of ''invasion,'' was sent forward to Monterey. The feeble Mexicans in every encounter were hopelessly slaughtered. The day of judgment alone can reveal the misery which this war caused. It was by the ingenuity of Mr. Polk's administration that the war was brought on.

"To the victors belong the spoils." Mexico was prostrate before us. Her capital was in our hands. We now consented to peace upon the condition that Mexico should surrender to us, in addition to Texas, all of New Mexico, and all of Upper and Lower California. This new demand embraced, exclusive of Texas, eight hundred thousand square miles. This was an extent of territory equal to nine States of the size of New York. Thus slavery was securing eighteen majestic States to be added to the Union. There were some Americans who thought it all right; there were others who thought it all wrong. In the prosecution of this war we expended twenty thousand lives and more than $100,000,000. Of this money $15,000,000 were paid to Mexico.

On the 3d of March, 1849, Mr. Polk retired from office, having served one term. The next day was Sunday. On the 5th, Gen. Taylor was inaugurated as his successor. Mr. Polk rode to the Capitol in the same carriage with Gen. Taylor, and the same evening, with Mrs. Polk, he commenced his return to Tennessee. He was then but fifty-four years of age. He had always been strictly temperate in all his habits, and his health was good. With an ample fortune, a choice library, a cultivated mind, and domestic ties of the dearest nature, it seemed as though long years of tranquillity and happiness were before him. But the cholera-that fearful scourge was then sweeping up the Valley of the Mississippi, and he contracted the disease, dying on the 15th of June, 1849, in the fifty-fourth year of his age, greatly mourned by his countrymen.

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