Our 11th President: 1845-1849
Just the Facts:
- No one expected James Polk to win the presidency – he surprised everyone.
- President Polk and First Lady Sarah hosted the first official Thanksgiving dinner at the White House.
- His nickname was “Young Hickory.”
- He kept all his money in his house (he didn’t believe in banks).
- He was very intense and not well liked.
- He established our national museum, the Smithsonian Institute.
James Polk was born in North Carolina, but his family moved to Tennessee while he was a child. Back then, Tennessee was considered the “frontier.” James was a sickly child and even had to have surgery once. Like many presidents before him, James studied law before going into politics. He served many positions in the government before becoming president – including the governor of Tennessee. His nickname was “Young Hickory” because Andrew Jackson was a family friend and political mentor.
James Polk was best known for expanding the United States. He acquired more land for America than anyone since the Louisiana Purchase. He won a very close election, in part because of his support for the prevailing political opinion of “Manifest Destiny” – the idea that America was destined to expand west all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
He led America through the Mexican American War. America won gained California and parts of Texas, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – over 500,000 miles of land. Two states were admitted to the Union during his presidency – Iowa and Wisconsin. He also negotiated the the northern border of America with Britain – at the 49th parallel. He didn’t run for a second term because he saw no need – he did all he set out to do.
His wife, Sarah, was very intelligent and interested in helping President Polk run the country. In fact, she was his personal secretary for some time. She also helped him with speeches and gave advice on policy matters. She wasn’t very interested in the traditional duties of a First Lady. In addition, she was very religious and didn’t allow card games or dancing in the White House. Back then, people weren’t used to independent women and as a result she was not very popular.
James married Sarah when he was 28 years old. They had no children of their own, but raised a niece as their own. His health was frail for his whole life, but it really suffered while he worked so hard as president. He retired to his home in Tennessee and died shortly after his term ended.
“No President who performs his duties faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure.”
“One great object of the Constitution was to restrain majorities from oppressing minorities and encroaching on their just rights.”
Want to learn more?
Take a virtual tour of his estate in Tennessee at: http://www.jameskpolk.com
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