Profile - James K. Polk
Rated the “most successful” one term president, James K.
Polk (1795-1849) presided over a contentious war that greatly expanded the United States.
The Polk family was of Scottish descent. The president’s seven times
great-grandfather, Sir John Pollok, was killed during the Battle of Lockerbie,
in 1593. Sir John’s grandson and
great-grandson, both named Robert, served as officers with the Scots
Covenanters during the English Civil War in the 1640s. The younger Robert’s several times
great-grandsons, the American-born Thomas, Ezekiel, Charles, and John Polk, all
served in the Revolutionary War. The
eldest, Thomas, was for a time a County
Lieutenant of militia in South Carolina,
responsible for drilling the militiamen and maintaining militia records for an
entire county. Later in the war he
served as Chief Commissary for the Southern Army, overseeing supplies for the
troops, ending the war as a colonel.
Charles and John served in the militia, both becoming officers.
Ezekiel Polk, the president’s grandfather, had a very
curious military career. In June of
1775, he was elected captain of a militia cavalry company at Mecklenburg, North Carolina. The following year, having been promoted to
lieutenant colonel, he played a prominent role in fighting Indians in the
Appalachian region of the state. Ezekiel
continued to serve as a militia officer until the devastating American defeat
at Camden (August 16, 1780), when Maj.
Gen. Horatio Gates’ army was routed by a smaller British force. At that point, like a lot of other frontier
folk, Ezekiel Polk placed himself “under the protection” of the British Crown;
that is, he took an oath to King George.
That didn’t mean that he had abandoned the Revolution, but rather that
it was the safest thing to do in the circumstances. Shortly afterwards Patriot fortunes in the
region recovered, and Ezekiel returned to the American cause, and was promptly
restored to the status of lieutenant colonel and regimental commander in the
militia. He served in this capacity
until the end of the Revolutionary War, so his brief lapse of allegiance to the
cause was certainly a temporary expedient.
The president’s maternal grandfather, James Knox, a nephew
of the famous British religious reformer John Knox, also served in the
Continental Army. He was promoted to
captain after distinguishing himself in the Battle of Hanging Rock (August 6, 1780), in which
the young Andy Jackson also fought.
Born in North
Carolina in 1795, when the future president was ten, his family moved to Tennessee. As a boy, Polk was rather unhealthy. His father decided that the young man lacked
the physical stamina to make a good farmer, and therefore insured that he had a
very good education. Young Polk attended
several private schools, and then entered the University of North
Carolina in 1815.
He graduated with honors in mathematics and Classics in 1818, and went
on to read law. Polk was admitted to the
bar in 1820. He began to practice law,
and dabble in politics. In 1823, Polk
was elected to the Tennessee
legislature. Meanwhile, in 1821, he had
joined the militia in Maury County, Tennessee, and was promptly elected captain
of a cavalry troop. He served several
years in the militia, rising to colonel.
Meanwhile Polk began accumulating considerable political experience. He served in the Tennessee legislature, and was then elected
to several terms in the House of Representatives, where he became friendly with
Andrew Jackson. From 1835 to 1839, Polk
served as Speaker of the House; he is the only Speaker ever to have become
president. He then served a term as
Governor of Tennessee (1839-1841). In
1844 the Democratic national convention deadlocked over the question of whom to
nominate for president. Jacksonians in
the party decided to back Polk, and he became the first “Dark Horse” candidate
for president and went on to win the election that November, to take office on March 4, 1845.
principal military event of Polk's administration was the war with Mexico. The immediate cause of war was the
American annexation of Texas
in 1845. Mexico had never accepted the
independence of Texas,
which had seceded from the republic in 1836.
Certainly in the era of "Manifest Destiny" many Americans
welcomed the war. But so too did many
Mexicans. Nationalistic Mexicans were
unwilling to accept the loss of Texas, and some extremists went on to claim
that the Louisiana Purchase was invalid, under the terms of a treaty between
France and Spain, which Napoleon had violated when he sold the territory to the
United states, and that it thus belonged to Mexico. With little inclination for a peaceful
settlement on either side, war was practically inevitable.
When Texas was annexed
(December 29, 1845), Polk sent Brig. Gen. Zachary Taylor and 3,500 troops into
the vast disputed region between the Nueces
River (claimed as the
border by Mexico)
and the Rio Grande
(claimed by Texas). Meanwhile, 6,000 Mexican troops had been
posted just south of the Rio Grande,
and Mexican patrols were active north of the river. On April 25, 1846, two companies of American dragoons were
overwhelmed by Mexican cavalry at Rancho Carricitos, about 20 miles northwest
of what is now Brownsville. This initiated hostilities.
Despite the looming danger of war, Polk had initiated no
preparations. He had issued contingency
instructions to military and naval commanders, but made no effort to increase
the 8,000 man Regular Army or to stockpile arms and equipment, and did not even
informally alert the states to be ready to raise troops. Thus, the outbreak of the war led to hasty
appropriations and calls for militiamen and volunteers.
was far better prepared for war, with a regular army of some 35,000 men backed
by strong local and regional forces. The
troops were hardy and brave, and many of them were seasoned in numerous civil
wars. Given this disparity, prevailing
opinion among European political and military leaders was that the United States
had over-reached itself.
war nevertheless turned out very favorably for the U.S., in part because of excellent
leadership by senior officers such as Zachary Taylor and particularly
General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, supported by junior officers drawn largely
from West Point. The Regular Army performed superbly, as did
the volunteers, though the militia proved hopelessly inept. By the war’s end the U.S. had some
85,000 men in the armed forces and spent over $70 million.
the mobilization proceeded, fighting spread along the Rio Grande frontier. General Taylor inflicted several severe
defeats on the Mexican battles. The most important military developments in the
winter of 1846-1847 took place off the battlefield. In Mexico, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna
became president, a very capable, if corrupt politician and commander.
the president and General Scott hammered out a winning strategy, a matter
complicated by the fact that Polk was a Democrat and Scott a Whig. A capable war leader, Polk had political
reservations about Scott, but realized that his was the best plan for victory. Scott proposed to land on the east coast of Mexico and
march overland to seize Mexico City
and dictate peace. Although most of
Polk's appointees to generalcies went to fellow-Democrats, the President
realized that Scott was the man to undertake the expedition.
Scott began to concentrate an army at Tampico,
on the Gulf coast, taken by an amphibious attack in late November, Taylor found himself
beset when Santa Anna undertook a surprise offensive with 20,000 men against his
small army of only about 5,000 men, mostly volunteers. After an arduous approach march across 300
miles of desert, Santa Anna attacked Taylor
at Buena Vista on February 23, 1847, and was crushed in
had planned his campaign against Mexico
City carefully and in meticulous detail. His expedition landed near Vera Cruz on March 9, 1847, in what was
the most well-executed amphibious operation of the nineteenth century, laid
siege to the city, and forced its surrender by the 27th, with
remarkably low casualties on both sides, some 80 Americans and about 180
Mexicans had been killed or wounded.
Leaving behind a small garrison, Scott immediately pressed westwards
along the highway to Mexico City.
followed a series of battles in which Scott's outnumbered army repeatedly
defeated Santa Anna's more numerous forces: Cerro Gordo (April 16-18), Puebla (May
15), Contreras (August 19-20), where a
volunteer general named Franklin Pierce distinguished himself, Churubusco (August
20), and Chapultepec (September 11-12), to enter Mexico City on September 14th. Although some skirmishing and irregular
operations continued, that effectively ended the war, though a peace was not
concluded until February 2,
1848, bringing about a considerable expansion of the nation's
many people expected Polk to be re-elected president later that year, in
fulfillment of a campaign promise made in 1844, Polk chose not to run for
re-election. Surprisingly, he died only
three months after leaving office.
president and his wife had no children.
Many of the president’s numerous nephews and cousins and their
descendants have served. In the Civil
War there were Polks on both sides, the most famous of whom was Leonidas
Polk. After graduating from West Point (1827), Leonidas served for a time in the
Regular Army. But he shortly resigned
and was ordained in the Episcopal Church.
By the outbreak of the Civil War, Leonidas Polk was Episcopal Bishop of
Louisiana. Despite being a man of the
cloth, he joined the Confederate Army.
Although a poor commander, Leonidas rose to lieutenant general, and was
later killed in action. Bishop Polk’s
son, William Mecklenburg Polk, served as a surgeon in the Confederate
Army. William’s son, Frank Lyon
Polk served in Squadron A, New York
Cavalry, during the 1890s, and as an officer in the Army Quartermaster Corps
during the Spanish-American War. Other
family members served in the War with Spain and in World War I, during which
Ralph Polk Buell, an officer in the 107th Infantry (New York’s
famous 7th Regiment), earned a Distinguished Service Cross in the
attack on the Hindenburg Line in 1918.
World War II, the family was represented by a number of the late president's
several time grand-nephews. James H.
Polk, a West Point graduate and holder of
several national horsemanship titles, commanded the 3rd Cavalry
Group (now the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment), which served as the
“eyes” of George S. Patton’s Third Army.
He eventually rose to full general and commander of the U.S. Army in Europe during the Cold War. His brothers also served, John F. Polk rising to colonel in the Army
and Thomas H. Polk to captain in the Navy.
more on the Polks, one of American’s most distinguished families, readers are
advised to have a look at William Roe Polk’s book, Polk's Folly: An American Family History
(Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 2000)