#11. Polk, James Knox

Linda Lou Burton posting from Little Rock, Arkansas –James Knox Polk (November 2, 1795 – June 15, 1849) was the 11th president of the United States (1845 to 1849). Two things pop to the top of James’ resume when I read about his life. For one, he actually WAS born in a Log Cabin. Not on a James River plantation, or the make-believe log cabin used for W H Harrison’s campaign. James Polk really was born in a log cabin in North Carolina, the first of ten kids. I’ll get back to that in a minute, but you can visit a reconstruction of it today, should you doubt. The second notable thing that stands out about James is his Bucket List. Yes, James had one when he got to the White House, and he just sat there and ticked off items one by one till they were done. Imagine that! So – remember these four words for the quiz at the end – Log-Cabin-Bucket-List. I’ve been to James’ grave on the capitol grounds in Nashville; folks are pretty proud of him there, although the state’s electoral votes didn’t go to him in the 1844 election; neither did North Carolina’s, his birth state. But enough state electorals did – it was close, but Democrat Polk received 170 to Whig Clay’s 105. That was the 1844 ticket, after the poker game in the back room where Martin Van Buren and John Tyler and Andrew Jackson and all the others who were arguing over Texas and slavery and Manifest Destiny ended, and the campaign moved forward. James went to the White House with the promise to them all: I’m just staying four years, and I’m outta here. James did exactly what he said he would, tick, tick, tick. And it wore the man to a frazzle. But I’m getting ahead of the story. Question: Would you invite this man to your party? I definitely would, I mean, maybe I could learn a few organizational skills from this guy, my Bucket List seems to be slow going.

Two Words – Log Cabin

When James was born in that log cabin in Pineville, North Carolina in 1795, his parents had a disagreement right away. Father Samuel refused to declare his belief in Christianity at James’ baptism. Samuel’s own father was a deist who rejected dogmatic Presbyterianism; so Samuel stood firm that day, and the minister would not baptize James. Jane Knox Polk, James’ mother, nevertheless stamped her beliefs on her son – instilling in him the traits of hard work, self-discipline, and individualism. And nine more children were born to Samuel and Jane. They moved to Maury County Tennessee in 1806 when James was eleven; James’ health was frail; he wound up having an operation for urinary stones when he was sixteen. His health improved, though it is believed the operation made him sterile; he fathered no children in his 53 years.

James learned “politics” around the dinner table; the Polk clan dominated politics there and folks like Andrew Jackson were frequent guests. Father Samuel was a county judge, among other things; he offered to bring James into one of his businesses but James wanted an education first. Bradley Academy in Murfreesboro; then on to University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. James joined the Dialectic Society and took part in debates; he graduated with honors in 1818, age 23. Back to Nashville to study law; he served as clerk of the Tennessee State Senate, and was admitted to the Tennessee Bar in 1820. First case: he defended his father against a public fighting charge! He secured Samuel’s release for a $1 fine. James built a successful law practice, and (maybe a Bucket List item) he got married.

Sarah Childress (1803-1891) was well educated; in fact, she and James first crossed paths at school in Murfreesboro. She went on to attend the exclusive Salem Academy in North Carolina, one of the few institutions of higher learning available to women at the time. James and Sarah were formally introduced when he was involved with the State Legislature; they married on January 1, 1824 – he was 28, she was 20. It is said that Andrew Jackson encouraged the marriage, calling Sarah “pretty, ambitious, and intelligent.” During James’ political career Sarah assisted him with his speeches, gave him advice on policy matters, and played an active role in his campaigns.

Government Positions

  • Member of Tennessee House of Representatives, 1823-25
  • Member of US House of Representatives, 1825-39
  • Speaker of the House, 1835-39
  • Governor of Tennessee, 1839-41
  • Eleventh President of the United States, 1845-49

Two Words – Bucket List

On March 4, 1845, James Knox Polk was inaugurated as the 11th US President, and Sarah became a First Lady. James’ Bucket List had four items:

  • Reestablish the Independent Treasury System – the Whigs had abolished the one created under Van Buren.
  • Reduce tariffs.
  • Acquire some or all of the Oregon Country.
  • Acquire California and its harbors from Mexico.

James and Sarah with White House Guests

Sarah had an agenda as well. One was to keep James healthy and to caution him against overwork. Another was to oversee a quieter White House than Julia Tyler left behind. She banned dancing, card games, and hard liquor at official receptions; her dinners were sedate and sober affairs. So James got to work.

Historians today praise James Polk for meeting every goal he set. He was presiding over a country whose population had doubled every twenty years since the American Revolution, so now had demographic parity with Great Britain. He reached a settlement with Great Britain over the disputed Oregon Country. He achieved a sweeping victory in the Mexican-American War, resulting in the cession by Mexico of nearly all the American Southwest. He secured a substantial reduction of tariff rates in 1846; and in that same year, re-established the Independent Treasury system. James accomplished all of this “hands-on” – for example, he directed the Mexican-American War from “grand strategy to the procurement of mules.” And as I said in the beginning, it wore him to a frazzle.

After All Is Said and Done

True to his campaign promise and Bucket List completed, James departed after one term, leaving behind a country that stretched to the Pacific Coast and was poised to be a world power. After attending the inauguration of Zachary Taylor on March 5, 1849, James and Sarah headed for Nashville. They traveled down the Atlantic coast; then westward through the deep south, enthusiastically received and banqueted along the way. By the time they reached Alabama, James was suffering from a cold and they were hearing reports of cholera. It was rumored to be common in New Orleans, but it was too late for them to change plans. Several passengers on the Mississippi riverboat died of the disease; James was so ill he went ashore for a few days but was assured he did not have cholera, so they made the final leg, arriving in Nashville April 2 to a huge reception. James and Sarah spent a few weeks visiting family in Murfreesboro and Columbia before settling down in Polk Place, their new home. In early June, James fell ill again. Attended by doctors, he asked to be baptized into the Methodist church, which he had long admired (his infant baptism didn’t happen, as you may recall). He lingered for several days, but on the afternoon of June 15, he died, after uttering these words to Sarah: “I love you Sarah, for all eternity, I love you.”

James Knox Polk was the youngest president, taking office at 49; he died at 53 after the shortest retirement of any president – three months. Sarah lived at Polk Place for 42 years until her death in 1891 at the age of 87; the longest widowhood of any First Lady. She always wore black, as a true Victorian widow.

An interesting note about James’ three burials – he was first buried in what is now Nashville City Cemetery due to a legal requirement related to his infectious disease death identified as cholera. In 1850 he was moved to a tomb on the grounds of Polk Place as specified in his will. In 1893, the bodies of James and Sarah Polk were relocated to the current resting place on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol.

What are the four words you’ll remember about James Polk?

A Very Personal Note

My third-great-grandfather, William Irwin, and nine others in a party of sixteen, died of cholera in that 1849 epidemic that killed James Polk. They were emigrating from Alabama to the new state of Texas, which was admitted to the Union on December 25, 1845, during James Polk’s term. They died along the trail in Clark County, Arkansas, near where I live today. I am in possession of William Irwin’s Journal, describing life during Polk’s term, and their fateful journey on the way to Texas. Publishing that journal, and establishing historical markers for the cemetery in which the ten are buried, are two major items on my Bucket List.