- NAME: James Polk
- OCCUPATION: U.S. President, U.S. Representative, U.S. Governor
- BIRTH DATE: November 02, 1795
- DEATH DATE: June 15, 1849
- EDUCATION: University of North Carolina
- PLACE OF BIRTH: Pineville (Mecklenburg County), North Carolina
- PLACE OF DEATH: Nashville, Tennessee
- Full Name: James Knox Polk
- AKA: James Polk
- AKA: James K. Polk
Best Known For
James Polk was the 11th president of the United States, known for his territorial expansion of the nation chiefly through the Mexican-American War.
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James Polk was born in 1795 in North Carolina, and went on to become the 11th and youngest (at the time) president of the United States (1845–1849). Polk’s annexation of Texas led to the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), and the U.S. victory thereby led to the acquisition of large territories in the Southwest and along the Pacific coast, which in turn led to the establishment of the Department of the Interior. The northern border of the United States was also established under Polk,
"54-40 or fight!"
as were the Naval Academy and the Smithsonian. He died on June 15, 1849, in Nashville, Tennessee.
James Knox Polk was born in Pineville, a small town in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, on November 2, 1795, and graduated with honors in 1818 from the University of North Carolina. Leaving his law practice behind, he served in the Tennessee legislature, where he became friends with Andrew Jackson. Polk moved from the Tennessee legislature to the United States House of Representatives, serving from 1825 to 1839 (and serving as speaker of the House from 1835 to 1839). He left his congressional post to become governor of Tennessee.
Leading into the presidential election of 1844, Polk was the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for the vice presidency. Both would-be presidential candidates, Martin Van Buren for the Democrats and Henry Clay for the Whigs, sought to skirt the expansionist ("manifest destiny") issue during the campaign, seeing it as potentially controversial. The first step in distancing their campaigns was declaring opposition to the annexation of Texas. Polk, on the other hand, took a hard stance on the issue, insisting on the annexation of Texas and, in a roundabout way, Oregon.
Enter Andrew Jackson, who knew that the American public favored westward expansion. He sought to run a candidate in the election committed to the precepts of manifest destiny, and at the Democratic Convention, Polk was nominated to run for the presidency. Polk went on to win the popular vote by a razor-thin margin, but took the electoral college handily.
James Polk took office on March 4, 1845—and, at 49 years of age, he became the youngest president in American history. Before Polk took the oath of office, Congress offered annexation to Texas, and when they accepted and became a new state, Mexico severed diplomatic relations with the United States and tensions between the two countries escalated.
Regarding the Oregon territory, which was much larger than the current state of Oregon, President Polk would have to contend with England, who had jointly occupied the area for nearly 30 years. Polk's political allies claimed the entire Oregon area for the United States, from California northward to the 54° 40' latitude (the southern boundary of what is now Alaska), and so the mantra "54-40 or fight!" was born. Neither England nor the Polk administration wanted a war, and Polk knew that only war would likely allow the United States to claim the land.
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The first U.S. president, former military leader George Washington, took his oath of office on April 30, 1789, on the balcony of Federal Hall. From that moment onward, the United States' highest office has been filled regularly by elected officials who aim to serve the people under the guidance of the U.S. Constitution. Learn more about the 43 men who have served as America's chief executive.
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