James K. Polk was involved in politics for much of his life, but he probably wouldn’t have predicted that he would become the 11th president of the United States. Polk was the leading contender of the Democratic nomination for vice president when he was nominated to run for president. Much of his popularity can be attributed to his desire to expand the territory controlled by the U. S.. Polk was not well known at the time, and when he became the president he was referred to as the first “dark horse” president. President James K. Polk was in office from 1845-1849 and he was the last strong president in office prior to the Civil War (“James K.
Polk”). Polk’s strong cabinet, along with help from a Democratic controlled Congress, aided him in running a successful administration. President James K. Polk had an effective presidency because he made several goals and he achieved all of them. Before becoming the president of the United States, James Polk had a lot of experience in politics. Polk graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1818 with the intent of becoming a lawyer (“James K. Polk”). He first entered politics in 1823 when he became a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives.
Two years later, he was elected into the U. S. House of Representatives. While in this position, Polk met and befriended President Andrew Jackson. Polk and Jackson got along well and they supported each other’s ideas and decisions. Jackson was like to a mentor to Polk, and Polk acquired the nickname “Young Hickory” because Jackson was often called “Old Hickory” (History. com Staff). Polk served as Speaker of the House between 1835-1839, and left to become the Governor of Tennessee. As governor, Polk tried to reform the banking system because the country was still suffering from the economic collapse of 1830.
In 1841 and 1843, James Polk ran for reelection for the governor position, but he was defeated both times. The country was in a depression, there were bank failures, and there were farm foreclosures at the time, and people blamed President Jackson because some of his policies were partly responsible for the economic collapse. As a result, the democratic party received backlash and that is why Polk had difficulty getting reelected. Polk was discouraged after facing these defeats and he left politics to focus on his plantations (Pinheiro). In 1844, James Polk decided to run for vice president for the Democratic Party.
However, President Jackson thought that the democratic presidential candidate, Martin Van Buren was a weak candidate. Jackson decided to nominate James Polk to run for president because they were good friends and he knew that Polk would be popular among the people because of his opinion on expansion (Biography. com Editors). James K. Polk ran an effective campaign that helped him beat Henry Clay in a very close election. Martin Van Buren was the Democratic nominee at the beginning of the election, but he was unpopular and many thought that his views were outdated.
Van Buren led on the first ballot, but was passed by Lewis Cass on the fifth ballot. Van Buren announced that he was opposed to the annexation of Texas, and this eliminated any chance he had of becoming president. He saw that his chances of winning the election were very slim and decided to support Polk, who entered on the ninth ballot (Pinheiro). Polk was the candidate for the Democratic Party and his running mate was a U. S. Senator from Pennsylvania named George Dallas. Henry Clay was the candidate for the Whig Party (History. com Staff).
The slogan of the Democrats was “Fifty-four Forty or fight”, which referred to the latitude that Polk wanted to claim from Britain. The Whigs had the slogan “Who is James K. Polk? “, which pointed out that Polk was not well known. Both Polk and Clay attacked each other throughout their campaigns. The Whigs said that Polk was a nobody and spread rumors saying that he stole slaves. The Democrats said that Clay was immoral and claimed that he was an abolitionist (Pinheiro). Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay had both avoided the topic of western expansion during their campaigns because they thought that it would cause controversy.
They also opposed the idea of annexing Texas, which made a lot of voters dislike them (Biography. com Editors). James K. Polk, on the other hand, based his campaign on expansionism. Polk was in favor of annexing Texas, re-occupying Oregon, and also acquiring California (“James K. Polk”). Another issue that the candidates didn’t agree on was the country’s tariff rates. Clay and the Whig Party supported high tariffs, while one of James Polk’s main goals was to reduce the tariff rates. Also, the Democrats’ platform disagreed with the Whigs’ idea of having a national bank and internal improvements funded by the federal government.
Both parties were pro-slavery, but Clay tried to convince the public that he was against it. Henry Clay was a slave owner, so most people did not believe him (Pinheiro). Polk won the popular vote with 1,338,464 votes to Clay’s 1,300,097 votes. He also won the electoral college with 170 votes to 105 votes for Henry Clay (Summers). This election was extremely close, but Polk won because of his desire to add territory to the U. S. , which was appealing to many Americans at the time. President James K. Polk had four main goals during his time in office, and over the course of his presidency, he completed all of them.
His goals were: reduce tariffs, re-establish an independent U. S. Treasury, claim Oregon Territory, and acquire California and New Mexico. James Polk successfully reduced taxes with the intent of encouraging trade. He also successfully established an independent U. S. Treasury, which allowed the government to store their money in a central bank instead of in several state banks. Polk acquired the Oregon Territory peacefully from Britain when the Oregon Treaty of 1846 was passed. The land stretched from California up to a latitude of 54’40’ and in return, the Canadian border was extended along the 49th parallel.
President Polk annexed Texas as a slave state in 1845, but this damaged U. S. relations with Mexico (History. com Staff). Also, more trouble came between the U. S. and Mexico when the U. S. pressured Mexico to accept a compromise. The United States wanted to claim California and New Mexico from Mexico and offered $20,000,000 in addition to a settlement of damage claims owed to the United States. Polk sent troops to the Rio Grande to pressure Mexico into accepting the deal. Mexican troops attacked and soon Congress declared war.
The Americans won several battles and in 1848 Mexico agreed to give the U. S. California and New Mexico in exchange for $15,000,000 and settlement of the damage claims (“James K. Polk”). Over the course of Polk’s presidency, the territory owned by the United States grew by over one-third, and for the first time, America stretched across the entire continent from coast to coast (History. com Staff). More than 1 million square miles of land became part of the U. S. and that land makes up the current states of Arizona, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and Colorado. Although all of the new land was beneficial to the country, it did cause some controversy.
The new territory sparked debate on whether slavery should be legal on it or not. In 1846, Congressman David Wilmot proposed the Wilmot Proviso, which stated that slavery should not be allowed in any of the territory obtained from Mexico. This amendment passed in the House, but President Polk was opposed to it and it never passed. James K. Polk supported the Walker Tariff of 1846, which was a bill that made taxes have a set rate instead of depending on the cost of the item being taxed. The bill passed by one vote and helped to lower the country’s tariff rates and improve foreign trade.
Polk’s next item on the agenda was reestablishing the Independent Treasury Act that President Van Buren had passed in 1840. James Polk passed the Independent Treasury Act of 1846 which established offices that held government funds, instead of keeping them in state banks. The act also required that the money had to be backed by the equivalent value in gold or silver. This was useful because it allowed the government to access and manage funds more effectively (Pinheiro). President Polk chose cabinet members that supported him and gave him advice that helped him lead his country.
James Buchanan was the Secretary of the State, and he had many of the same qualities that Polk possessed. Buchanan later went on to become the 15th president of the United States. William L. Marcy was the Secretary of War, and had an important job during Polk’s presidency. The U. S. declared war on Mexico, and Marcy was responsible for organizing the army, which he did efficiently. Secretary of the Treasury Robert J. Walker was supportive of Polk’s ideas of expansionism and reducing tariffs. Walker played a big part in reestablishing the Independent Treasury (“James K. Polk – Administration. ).
Also, Polk gave Walker the responsibility of studying the country’s tariff levels. Walker administered a nationwide survey to collect data, and found that the tariff rates had to be reduced by a lot more than they thought. The Walker Tariff of 1846 was passed and it helped to stimulate foreign trade (Pinheiro). While President Polk was in office, he had three different attorney generals: John Mason, Nathan Clifford, and Isaac Toucey (Summers). James K. Polk made good use of his cabinet by holding meetings twice a week in which the cabinet members would give him advice and report problems.
His cabinet supported his ideas and they worked together when it came time to vote on bills. The cabinet members also helped Polk reach his four main goals (“James K. Polk – Administration. “). President James K. Polk had a split relationship with Congress during his presidency. The Democratic Party had control of Congress at the time, and this was a good thing for Polk. Many of the Democrats agreed with Polk on issues and had many of the same views. The Whigs, however, often disagreed with his views and usually voted against him.
Since the majority of Congress was Democratic, the result of most votes was usually in favor of the side Polk was on. For example, when Polk requested a declaration of war from Congress, most Whigs were opposed to the idea. The Whigs were not against expansionism, they just thought that it should be done peacefully. Even though the Whigs opposed the declaration of war, it was still granted because the Democrats were in control of Congress (Pinheiro). In conclusion, James K. Polk was an effective president because he achieved all of the goals that he set.
Polk had a lot of political experience prior to becoming president, and he became known as the first dark horse president. He beat Henry Clay by a small margin in the election of 1844. During his presidency, President Polk reduced tariffs, established and Independent U. S. Treasury, and added a lot of territory to the United States. He chose his cabinet wisely and had support from Congress to complete everything on his focused agenda. As he promised, Polk did not run for reelection, and he died at the age of 53 shortly after leaving office (History. com Staff)