President James Knox Polk
One of the Maxwells’ allied families gave the United States our 11th President. James Knox Polk, whose Scottish roots were in the Pollok family was born in 1795, and he began practicing law in Nashville, Tennessee, after graduating from the University of North Carolina. He allied himself with Andrew Jackson and quickly gained political prominence, achieving such success with political oratory that he was known as the “Napoleon of the stump.”
After election to the state house of representatives in 1823, Polk married Sara Childress, daughter of a socially prominent family. Sara’s personal charm and social skills were a great asset to Polk, and she was his close confidant in state and national politics for the next 25 years. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1825 and remained there until 1839, serving as Speaker of the House for his last two terms. Then he returned to Tennessee as Governor.
By 1844, Polk was a strong contender for the Vice Presidency; however, he was catapulted to the top spot on the Democratic Party’s ticket because of his support for western expansion. He linked annexing Texas, which was popular in the South, with expanding into Oregon, which was attractive to the North, and he also favored acquiring California. The voters liked his ideas enough to elect him President.
Congress passed a joint resolution offering annexation to Texas even before Polk took office, setting the stage for war with Mexico. Polk’s stand on Oregon also risked war with Great Britain, but that war was avoided when Polk offered to settle by accepting a US-Canadian boundary along the 49th parallel rather than push ng a claim to the southern boundary of Russian Alaska as the “fifty-four forty or fight” extremists urged.
Acquiring California proved more difficult. When Polk offered Mexico up to $20,000,000 plus settlement of damage claims owed to Americans in return for California and the New Mexico country, his envoy was not even received by the Mexican government. The President sent General Zachary Taylor to the disputed area on the Rio Grande, putting pressure on Mexico. Mexican troops responded by attacking Taylor’s forces. Congress declared war, and American forces prevailed. Mexico ultimately ceded New Mexico and California to the United States in return for $15,000,000 and American assumption of Mexico’s damage claims.
James Knox Polk’s term as President is remembered mostly as a time of aggressive western expansion, but it took a great toll on his health. He left office in March 1849 and died just three months later.