An Expansionist mood dominated the country in the mid-1840’s and the man who caught the spirit of the times and then came from nowhere to lead the country through the period of its greatest expansion was the Tennessean, James K. Polk (1795-1849). In spite of this distinction, Polk has been one of the most neglected of our Presidents. Emerging from comparative oblivion to become President, he has somehow managed to return there--in spite of an extraordinarily successful administration, one called by several leading historians “the one bright spot in the dull void between Jackson and Lincoln.”
When the delegates to the Democratic convention met in Baltimore in 1844, Polk was not even considered for the Presidency; before the convention was over he had become the first dark-horse candidate. And, in the election, when the Whigs made “Who Is Polk?” their battle cry, he answered them by soundly defeating their very well-known, well-connected, and well-funded candidate Henry Clay, who was running in his third Presidential race.
As President the little-known Polk was a strong, though not radical, expansionist. During his administration the nation acquired the vast lands in the Southwest and Far West that extended the borders of the country almost to the present continental limits. He proved to be a forceful President in his direction of the Mexican War and in settling the Oregon boundary dispute with Great Britain; yet he did not yield to the extremists who wanted all of Mexico, nor to those who cried “Fifty-four forty or fight!” and claimed the Oregon Territory clear to the Alaskan border.
But the man who successfully led the country through its period of expansion strangely faded away when his work was done. Still popular at the end of his term but exhausted from overwork, Polk declined to be a candidate and returned to his home in Nashville, where he died on this day, only three months after leaving the White House--at the age of fifty-three.