James K. Polk

portrait by George Peter Alexander Healy, 1858
(1795 - 1849)

The 'dark horse' candidate in the 1844 presidential election, James K. Polk, a sly, misanthropic man with hard and jewel-like gray eyes that "gave up nothing," was elected the 11th president of the United States.


          Polk, a back woodsman from Tennessee who was dubbed Young Hickory in reference to his ideological predecessor, Andrew Jackson, was, in John Quincy Adam's words, a man with "no wit, no literature, no gracefulness of delivery, no elegance of language, no philosophy, no pathos, nofelicitous inpromptus."  Americans, from time to time, seem determined to elect men crafted from the banal.

          Given his many faults and character flaws, Polk was a fierce and determined expansionist.  There was about his presidency an acute sense of deadline, and it must be said that he made the most of that urgency.  In four short years he more than doubled the size of the nation by goading Mexico into war thru illegal acts of aggression (thanks to Zachary Taylor), accepting Texas and California as new states, and settling the long-standing dispute over the Oregon Territory with England, thereby pushing the nation's territorial boundary to the Pacific Ocean -- an achievement that would have seemed preposterous just ten years before. (Click here for more on Polk)

          Polk was a childless and cheerless man who seemed fueled by a secret agenda.  With Manifest Destiny under his arm, the population picked him to do bold things in short order, and he did them.  "He seemed to spring from nowhere, and to nowhere he returned after wrenching great change into the world," said one historian.

          Four years was all he needed.  He limped home to Tennessee, exhausted and ill, and died two months later, leaving the world a very different place than the one he found when he stepped into the White House in 1845.