“What does the name James K. Polk mean to you?”
The 11th president of the United States is criminally underrated, according to Wilfred McClay, professor of history at Hillsdale College. Despite only serving a single term, Polk radically reshaped the future of the United States, turning the young nation into a cross-continental power.
Polk was elected president in 1844 as a dark horse candidate, coming to power after a string of previous electoral losses because of his outspoken support of American expansion into Texas and the Oregon territory. McClay notes that Polk’s main opponents, former Democratic president Martin Van Buren and Whig Henry Clay, both vocally opposed the voluntary annexation of Texas, which had recently declared independence from Mexico, on the grounds that it might trigger a war.
Polk, on the other hand, was unapologetically bellicose — Texas was annexed in 1845, soon after he became president, and the next year a war would break out between Mexico and the United States — a war the United States would decisively win. By 1848, American troops had occupied the Mexican capital, and half the country’s territory was handed over to the United States.
Polk was similarly aggressive in his negotiations over the Oregon Territory, which included modern-day Oregon, Washington, Idaho as well as portions of Wyoming and Montana and most of British Columbia. In the first half of the 19th century, the territory had been claimed by Britain, Russia, Spain, and the United States, although by Polk’s tenure, only the U.S. and Britain maintained their claims. The countries had agreed to jointly occupy the territory, although that situation was untenable in the long run — American colonists in the area outnumbered the British several times over, but unlike Mexico, Britain was a great power and could not be steamrolled.
Nevertheless, Polk campaigned on securing almost all of the Oregon Territory for the United States, setting the northern border between American and British territories in the area at the 54 degrees and 40 minutes latitude (“54° 40′ or Fight!”). However, by 1846, American forces were bogged down in Mexico, so when Britain offered a compromise border at the 49th parallel he was willing to take it.
When he stepped down in 1849, American territory had expanded by roughly a third. The Pacific West and Southwest of the United States belong to the United States largely because of President Polk. “His term of office with the mid-nineteenth century idea of ‘Manifest Destiny,’” McClay explains, “the belief that American democracy should extend from coast to coast, enveloping the entire continent.”
McClay speculates that part of the reason Polk is largely forgotten compared to other major American presidents is that such ideas have fallen out of vogue and are regarded as militant and imperialistic. But McClay paints a more favorable picture.
“[Polk] was confident that what he was doing was noble and good – bringing freedom and prosperity across the continent to ever more people. Looking back almost two centuries, isn’t that exactly what he did?”