Golden Nuggets from U. S. History
The Blue Quill Series
James K. Polk: Only President who also Served as Speaker of the House
James Knox Polk, the 11th President, March 4, 1845 to March 3, 1849. His nickname was "Young Hickory," because of his close association to "Old Hickory," Andrew Jackson.
Polk was born November 2, 1795, in Mecklenburg County (Pineville), North Carolina. His father was Samuel Polk and his mother was Jane Knox Polk. He had five brothers and four sisters.
In 1818 he graduated with honors from the University of North Carolina and began work as a lawyer. However, like Jackson before him, he realized that opportunities awaited in Tennessee and moved to Nashville.
On January 1, 1824, when he was 28 and serving in the Tennessee Legislature, he married 20 year old Sarah Childress. She was a rarity in her time, an educated woman. Later he served 14 years in Congress and was Speaker of the House, 1835-1839. He was Governor of Tennessee, 1839-1841.
The Polk's had no children. Also in this category are James Buchanan (never married) and James Madison. Warren Harding had no childdren on the public record but was rumored to have had a daughter by Nan Britton, one of his White House mistresses. Andrew Jackson and George Washington had no biological offspring but both adopted children.
As a result of Sarah's education, upbringing, and experience as a Congressman's wife, she was well prepared for duties as First Lady when they returned to Washington in 1845. By the end of Polk's term she had gained respect throughout Washington.
An advocate of Texas being annexed and Oregon re-occupied by Americans, Polk, with Jackson's support, became Democratic candidate for President in 1844. In the general election he won 49.5 of the popular vote and 15 of 26 states.
As President and with James Buchanan his Secretary of State, Polk avoided war with Great Britain over the Oregon dispute by reaching a treaty in 1846 which established the western Canadian-US boundry, generally along the 49th parallel. This was a huge victory for his administration but the results drew criticism because of the concession of the wavy line on the western end which gave Vancouver Island to the British.
In an attempt to acquire California he sent an envoy to offer Mexico up to $20 million plus settlement of American damage claims in return for California and the New Mexico territories. The envoy was not received. Polk sent General Zachary Taylor to the disputed area along the Rio Grande which provoked an attack from Mexico. Congress declared war. In 1848, after repeated American victories, Mexico ceded New Mexico and California in return for $15 million and assumption by the United States of damage claims owed to American citizens. Again he was criticized.
Polk's addition of substantial new lands to the United States triggered a bitter quarrel between North and South over the expansion of slavery. His critics in the North accused him of following an expansionist policy which would ruin the country and Southerners were angered because lands were converted to Territories which prohibited slavery. Nevertheless he moved ahead. During his term Texas, Iowa, and Wisconsin became states and soon after he left office California was admitted. Florida had been admitted under John Tyler, the day before Polk's inauguration.
Polk was President when gaslights were first installed in the White House and he was the first President to be photographed while in office.
He had the support of his own Democrat Party for only two of his four years. During 1847-1849 Whigs were in control of the House. He is considered the hardest working President in history and he did not seek re-election. Upon leaving Washington he was visibly tired and in poor health and lived only three months after retiring to Polk Place in Nashville. He was 53 years old.
Sarah Polk carried on at Polk Place, right through the Civil War, and greeted leaders of both Union and Confederate armies. Because of her good manners and charm, both sides treated the premises as neutral territory throughout the War. She died there in 1891 when she was 88 years old and is buried beside her husband in Nashville.
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