11 James K. Polk

After Tyler finished Harrison’s term, no one would run him in the Election of 1844.  The Whigs had expelled him from the party and the Democrats weren’t sure they could trust him.  The Whigs ran Henry Clay, probably the most prominent politician to be so close to being the president, but never getting the job.  The Democrats ran James K. Polk.  Polk was a Jacksonian Democrat.  In fact, he was more Jackson than Jackson.

Polk and the Democratic party ran on a four-point platform.  They promised to lower tariffs and also fix the financial problems that plagued the country since Jackson killed the national bank in 1836.   And, as a firm believer in Manifest Destiny, Polk and the Democrats sought to extend America’s control over the rest of the continent. They wanted to annex Texas (though it happened after Polk won the election, but before he took office), who asked to become a state but was rejected.  The Democrats also wanted to settle the issues with Great Britain over Oregon and also promised to gain California for the United States.

Polk won the close election, Clay just falling short for a third time.  The Democrats passed a lower tariff in 1846.  Then they passed a law restoring the Independent Treasury System, which was how the government managed their revenue instead of depositing it in private banks.   A form of this system existed after Jackson killed the national bank, but the Whigs got rid of it when they attempted to charter a new national bank.  Polk signed the bill into law in 1846.  Since Tyler vetoed the Whig’s attempts to reestablish the national bank (twice), the Independent Treasury System was essential in creating financial stability.

Polk and the Democrats also set to work on realizing Manifest Destiny.  The Oregon Country was jointly occupied by the United States and Great Britain since a treaty signed in 1818.  Polk wanted to get control of the territory for the United States.  Polk offered to split it, dividing it at the 49th Parallel.  The British refused.  Polk and the Democrats threatened war, demanding the whole territory.

While this was going on, a border conflict with Mexico threatened to bring a different war.  Texas was annexed just before Polk took office.  But the Texans, who had been a independent country carved out of Mexico, had a pre-existing border dispute with the Mexicans.  The Texans always cited the Rio Grande River as the border;  the Mexicans claimed the Nueces River, further east.  Mexicans were also fearful of America’s interest in their land in present-day California.  Polk sent a representative to Mexico City to offer to buy the disputed land in Texas to the Rio Grande and California for $30 million.  But Mexico refused.  Polk then order American forces into the disputed territory between the rivers, claiming the land for the United States.  The Mexicans attacked and the war began in 1846.

Mexico had suffered from instability since winning its independence from Spain.  They were not in a good position to take on the United States.  Outmatched, the Americans won and the Mexicans were forced to give up it’s northern land holding.  This territory was added to the United States in what is called the Mexican Cession.  It included what would later become New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California.

During the war with Mexico, the United States was forced to back off the threats of war with Britain over Oregon.  Polk negotiated a settlement with the British, dividing the Oregon Country at the 49th Parallel.

The addition of the lands of the Oregon Treaty and the Mexican Cession further fueled Manifest Destiny–America’s desire to push west.  But it also added fuel to the slavery fire.  As new territories were organized and applied for statehood, fierce debate to keep the delicate balance between free and slave states in Congress only intensified.

Having met his policy goals, Polk made good on his promise and did not seek re-election.  His legacy included the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny, but that also brought with it problems.  But Polk wasn’t around to see it.  He died of cholera three months after leaving office.


BEFORE: 10 – Tyler           AFTER: 12 – Taylor

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