James Knox Polk


Public life

Occupation 1

President of the United States


Mexican War


The World


Heroic Age of Sail (1816-1865)








...A river and harbors bill, crafted by congressmen to develop water transportation in the East, South, and Northwest, passed both houses with strong support from Whigs and northwestern Democrats. Polk resoundingly vetoed the bill on 3 August 1846. Throughout the remainder of his administration he stood rocklike against internal improvements bills...
Reenforcing the Democratic party platform claim for the "reoccupation" of Oregon, Polk in his inaugural address flatly asserted that America's title to Oregon was "clear and unquestionable." By 1844 Great Britain had offered to compromise on the Columbia River line; the United States insisted on the more northerly forty-ninth parallel. Northwest Democrats formulated an extremist cry, "Fifty-four or fight." Only months after his inaugural assertion, Polk, mindful of previous administrations' moves and a developing crisis in Mexican relations, offered to settle the boundary at the forty-ninth parallel and accord Great Britain freedom of ports on Vancouver Island, omitting mention of freedom of navigation on the Columbia River.
The British minister to the United States, without referral to his government, rejected the offer. Polk, in his first annual message in December 1845, belligerently asked the Congress to terminate the joint occupation of Oregon and, at the same time, citing the Monroe Doctrine, asserted, "No future European colony or dominion shall with our consent be planted or established on any part of the North American continent." Polk's stand again divided his party, a northwestern faction demanding the extreme fifty-fourth parallel, a southern faction favoring a conciliatory outlook.
The secretive president, stirred by information that British warships were sailing for North America, had sent word to Great Britain he would submit to the Senate a British offer, if made, for settlement on the forty-ninth parallel and temporary British navigation rights on the Columbia River. Britain, for a variety of reasons, including a waning interest in the fur trade and a rising interest in trade between the two countries, proposed settlement at the forty-ninth parallel. Rather than negotiating a treaty and submitting it to the Senate, the now cautious president asked the Senate for advice. Receiving a resounding affirmative vote of 38 to 12, he submitted a treaty that ended the controversy and avoided a possible two-front war, since the United States by this time had declared war on Mexico. Polk's conduct of his Oregon policy, alternately bold and timid, abandoning his avowal that the American claim was clear and unquestionable, harmed his reputation and further antagonized Democrats in the Northwest.
The Mexican War (1846-1848) not merely settled disputes with Mexico but also added to the United States the four future states of California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona and portions of New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. California, coveted for its harbors, was the key to Polk's policy. When Polk became president, Mexico had refused to recognize Texan independence, proclaimed in 1836, and had broken off relations with the United States. The boundary between the two nations remained in dispute, Mexico claiming the line at the Nueces River and the United States at the Rio Grande. In addition, American citizens held claims against the Mexican government for property lost or stolen, and Mexico ordered the expulsion of Americans who had settled in California and forbade future immigration.
Polk almost immediately initiated moves that led to war. Before Texas accepted the invitation to become a state, Polk instructed General Zachary Taylor, commanding troops in Louisiana, to advance into Texas and continue to the Rio Grande once the invitation was accepted. While these bellicose moves were being executed, Polk sought to settle matters by diplomacy. He dispatched John Slidell on a secret mission to try to adjust the boundary at the Rio Grande, pay Mexico up to $40 million for California, and assume payment of the American claims. The U.S. consul at Monterey, California, was instructed to prevent any attempt by a foreign government to take California, a response to Polk's fear of British designs.
Slidell's mission failed, and a revolution in Mexico brought into power a defiant president, who claimed that Mexico extended to the Sabine River and pledged to defend all the territory he claimed. With Taylor's forces now on the north bank of the Rio Grande, a clash of arms was inevitable. Facing Mexican inflexibility, Polk had only one way to achieve his aims--war. Apprised of tension on the Rio Grande boundary, Polk met with his cabinet on 9 May and elicited agreement to declare war, although two members stated a preference to see Mexico begin hostilities. Later the same day, a Saturday, Polk received a dispatch from Taylor, reporting a shooting and remarking, "Hostilities may now be considered as commenced" (U.S. Congress, House, p. 133). Polk summoned his cabinet to meet again that night; all agreed he should send a war message to Congress on Monday, 11 May. His message, reciting a litany of "wrongs and injuries," accused the Mexican government of bad faith and disingenuously asserted that "war exists, and, notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it, exists by the act of Mexico herself." The House promptly voted 174 to 14 for war; the Senate approved the following day.
...In general he prevailed over the Congress in military matters, gaining not only financial support for the armed forces but also a measure to create ten regular army regiments. His request for $2 million to purchase land from Mexico was rejected, however.
Polk had given thought to war operations long before the fighting started. Only two days after Congress declared war, he involved himself in strategy, formulating what he called "my plan." He set out to seize the northern Mexican provinces by a march on Santa Fe. He would then occupy the lower Rio Grande valley and invade the interior. Later he made the American consul in California a secret agent, ordered to nourish a revolt against Mexican authority. By mid-August General Stephen Watts Kearny, after an arduous march to Santa Fe from Fort Leavenworth, had claimed New Mexico for the United States and stood ready to advance into California.
Taylor, penetrating Mexico south of the Rio Grande, on 25 September 1846 scored a famous victory at Monterey, winning popular acclaim. Relations between the Whig hero and the Democratic commander in chief swiftly deteriorated. When Taylor subsequently defeated Mexican forces at Buena Vista (22-23 Feb. 1847), he became a likely Whig candidate for the presidency.
Believing Taylor could not capture Mexico City by an overland route, Polk proceeded to open a second route by way of Veracruz, to be taken by amphibious forces. Winfield Scott, the senior general, was the obvious choice to lead the forces, although he too was a Whig. After some vacillation and a failed effort to give Senator Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858) supreme command, Polk reluctantly ordered Scott to take Veracruz and march on the Mexican capital. Mistrustful of Scott, Polk turned to his former law partner, General Gideon Pillow, under Scott's command, asking him to "write me fully" about the expedition "as from a personal friend" (McCoy, p. 131). Scott captured the powerful fortress at Veracruz and advanced across the country to the gates of the capital. He stormed the heavily fortified hill of Chapultepec, broke through city walls, and hoisted the U.S. flag over the National Palace.
While Scott was scoring these successes, Polk was secretly seeking a peace settlement. On learning of the fall of Veracruz, he determined to dispatch a secret emissary to discuss peace. He chose the chief clerk of the State Department, Nicholas P. Trist, who was fluent in Spanish and sufficiently obscure to avoid party jealousies when his mission became known. When Trist arrived in Veracruz to arrange an armistice, Scott declared that an armistice was a military matter under his jurisdiction. Bad feelings between the two men, a bitter exchange of letters, and a refusal to speak to one another caused the president to consider recalling both Scott and Trist. Apprised that Mexican officials had rejected Trist's peace terms, which Polk said "departed from his instruction," he ordered Trist recalled. Scott's turn to incur Polk's wrath came when the general preferred court-martial charges against Pillow and four other staff officers on the grounds they had leaked confidential military information. Supported by his cabinet, Polk relieved Scott of his command and replaced him with General William O. Butler, a Kentucky Democrat.
For his part Trist declined to be recalled and, encouraged by Mexican commissioners, negotiated the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on 2 February 1848. When the document arrived in Washington, Polk saw that it met his instructions. Mexico recognized the Rio Grande as the boundary between the two nations and ceded California and a vast southwestern territory. Would the Senate ratify a treaty that abandoned, on the one hand, a movement to take all of Mexico and, on the other, a demand to take no territory? Two cabinet members, James Buchanan and Walker, advised rejection and were reported to be striving for Senate disapproval.
...Beyond accomplishing his four major aims, Polk witnessed the establishment of the U.S. Naval Academy, the "warehouse system," which freed importers from tying up large amounts of money in goods not meant for immediate sale, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Department of the Interior; the admission of Texas, Iowa, and Wisconsin as states; and ratification of a treaty with New Granada, which among other matters accorded U.S. citizens the right to cross the Isthmus of Panama...

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