James Knox Polk, the first of ten children, was born November 2, 1795, just outside Charlotte. His father, Samuel Polk, was a slaveholder, successful farmer and surveyor of Scots-Irish descent. His mother, Jane Polk (née Knox), was a descendant of a brother of the Scottish religious reformer John Knox. She named her firstborn after her father James Knox. In 1806 Polk's family moved to the Duck River area in what is now Maury County, Middle Tennessee, where they grew prosperous, with Samuel Polk turning to land speculation and becoming a county judge.
James Polk was home schooled, and suffered from various health problems. In 1812 his pain became so unbearable that he was taken to Dr. Ephraim McDowell of Danville, Kentucky, who operated to remove urinary stones. Polk was awake during the operation with nothing but brandy available for anesthetic, but it was successful. The surgery may have left Polk sterile, as he did not sire any children.
When Polk recovered, his father offered to bring him into the mercantile business, but Polk refused, instead enrolling at the Zion Church near his home. A year later he attended an academy in Murfreesboro, where he may have met his future wife, Sarah Childress. In January 1816, James Polk transferred and to the University of North Carolina as a second-semester sophomore. While there, Polk joined the Dialectic Society where he regularly took part in debates and learned the art of oratory. His roommate William Dunn Moseley later became the first governor of Florida. Polk graduated with honors in May 1818. After graduation, Polk traveled to Nashville to study law under renowned Nashville trial attorney Felix Grundy, who became Polk's first mentor.
On September 20, 1819, Polk, with Grundy's endorsement, was elected clerk for the Tennessee State Senate. Polk was reelected as clerk in 1821 without opposition, and would continue to serve until 1822. Polk was admitted to the bar in June 1820 and his first case was to defend his father against a public fighting charge, and secure his release for a one dollar fine.
As a young lawyer James Polk entered politics, served in the Tennessee legislature, and became a friend of Andrew Jackson. In the House of Representatives, Polk was a chief lieutenant of Jackson in his Bank war. He served as Speaker between 1835 and 1839, leaving to become Governor of Tennessee.
Polk initially hoped to be nominated for vice-president at the Democratic convention, which began on May 27, 1844. The leading contender for the presidential nomination was former President Martin Van Buren, who wanted to stop the expansion of slavery. Other candidates included James Buchanan, General Lewis Cass, Cave Johnson, John C. Calhoun, and Levi Woodbury. The primary point of political contention involved the Republic of Texas, which, after declaring independence from Mexico in 1836, had asked to join the United States. Van Buren opposed the annexation but in doing so lost the support of many Democrats, including former President Andrew Jackson, who still had much influence. Van Buren won a simple majority on the convention's first ballot but did not attain the two-thirds supermajority required for nomination. When it became clear after another six ballots that Van Buren would not win the required majority, Polk emerged as a "dark horse" candidate. After an indecisive eighth ballot, the convention unanimously nominated Polk.
When advised of his nomination, Polk replied: "It has been well observed that the office of President of the United States should neither be sought nor declined. I have never sought it, nor should I feel at liberty to decline it, if conferred upon me by the voluntary suffrages of my fellow citizens." Because the Democratic Party was splintered into bitter factions, Polk promised to serve only one term if elected, hoping that his disappointed rival Democrats would unite behind him with the knowledge that another candidate would be chosen in four years
James Polk stood for expansion. He linked the Texas issue, popular in the South, with the Oregon question, attractive to the North. Polk also favored acquiring California. Even before he could take office, Congress passed a joint resolution offering annexation to Texas. In so doing they bequeathed Polk the possibility of war with Mexico, which soon severed diplomatic relations.
In his stand on Oregon, the President seemed to be risking war with Great Britain also. The 1844 Democratic platform claimed the entire Oregon area, from the California boundary northward to a latitude of 54'40', the southern boundary of Russian Alaska. Extremists proclaimed "Fifty-four forty or fight," but Polk, aware of diplomatic realities, knew that no course short of war was likely to get all of Oregon. Happily, neither he nor the British wanted a war.
He offered to settle by extending the Canadian boundary, along the 49th parallel, from the Rockies to the Pacific. When the British minister declined, Polk reasserted the American claim to the entire area. Finally, the British settled for the 49th parallel, except for the southern tip of Vancouver Island. The treaty was signed in 1846.
Acquisition of California proved far more difficult. Polk sent an envoy to offer Mexico up to $20,000,000, plus settlement of damage claims owed to Americans, in return for California and the New Mexico country. Since no Mexican leader could cede half his country and still stay in power, Polk's envoy was not received. To bring pressure, Polk sent Gen. Zachary Taylor to the disputed area on the Rio Grande. To Mexican troops this was aggression, and they attacked Taylor's forces. Congress declared war and, despite much Northern opposition, supported the military operations. American forces won repeated victories and occupied Mexico City. Finally, in 1848, Mexico ceded New Mexico and California in return for $15,000,000 and American assumption of the damage claims.
President Polk added a vast area to the United States, but its acquisition precipitated a bitter quarrel between the North and the South over expansion of slavery.