James K. Polk

— 11th President of the United States —

View full portraits at:
National Portrait Gallery or the White House Presidential Portrait Gallery


March 4, 1845 to March 3, 1849

BORN: November 2, 1795
Mecklenburg County, North Carolina
June 15, 1849, Nashville, Tennessee
Sarah Childress, 1824

As a youngster, James Polk was a frail child, small for his age. Jim (as he was known as a child) Polk had eight brothers and sisters. When he was just 11, his family moved from North Carolina to Tennessee. They walked the entire 500 miles over mountains and through river valleys. It took a month and half to make it to their new home in the Duck River Valley of Tennessee.

Young Jim did not like farming, but he loved horses. He had learned to ride almost as soon as he learned to walk. As a teenager, Jim became very sick and had an operation to remove gallstones. After the operation, he could not work on the farm any longer. Therefore, his parents sent him off to school at the Presbyterian Academy. He loved school. He learned Greek, Latin, mathematics, geography, philosophy, astronomy, and literature. He then went on to college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

After college, Polk went to work as a law apprentice. In 1819, he was elected the clerk of the Tennessee state senate, the beginning of his political career.He was elected to the state legislature, to the office of governor, House of Representatives in Washington, and finally the President of the United States.

As president, Polk was known as one of the best, most honest, most successful presidents the country ever had. Polk's campaign slogan was "All of Texas and all of Oregon."In fact, while he was president, both territories became possessions of the United States of America. He settled the border dispute with Great Britain with a treaty. The slogan had been "54-40 or Fight." However, Polk compromised on the 49th parallel as the border between the Oregon Territory and Canada, which gave Vancouver to the British. The dispute over Texas was not settled so easily. President Polk had to declare war on Mexico. The United States won the war, and California and much of the Southwest came into the United States as part of its so-called "manifest destiny." This was an expression that meant the United States would stretch "from sea to shining sea."

While James Polk was president, gold was discovered in California, and the great California Gold Rush began. President Polk was in favor of one term for president and stepped aside in 1848. He then retired to Tennessee, where he died on June 15, 1849.

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