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James K. Polk Biography

Eleventh President of the United States

Years Served as President: 1845-1849

Vice President: George Dallas

Party: Democrat

Age at Inauguration: 49

Home State: North Carolina

James Polk portrait

Date of Birth: November 2, 1795

Died: June 15, 1849

Married: Sarah Childress

Children: None

Nickname: Young Hickory, Napoleon of the Stump

What is James K. Polk known for?

James K. Polk is best known for expanding the United States. He increased the nation’s territory by one-third, and the U.S. stretched across the continent for the first time.

During his campaign, he pledged that he would be a one-term president. He kept this promise and did not seek re-election.


Early Life

James K. Polk was born in a log cabin in Mecklenburg, North Carolina. He was the oldest of ten children. The family eventually moved to Tennessee, where his father became wealthy as a planter, surveyor, and businessman.

After surviving a childhood during which he was often sickly, James enrolled at the University of North Carolina. He graduated as a top student and began studying law under an attorney in Nashville.

James opened his own law practice in the town of Columbia after being admitted to the bar in 1820. In 1823, he began his political career when he was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives.

practicing lawyer

Family Life

In 1824, James married Sarah Childress. Sarah was from a wealthy family and was a well-educated Presbyterian.

They never had children, and Sarah was a trusted advisor throughout her husband’s political career.

As a First Lady, Sarah was a wonderful hostess known for her charm. However, she did ban liquor from the White House and avoided horse racing, dancing, and the theater.

stockpiled alcohol

Political Career

The year after his marriage to Sarah, James was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served seven terms. He was also Speaker of the House from 1835-1839.

In Congress, James was closely mentored by Andrew Jackson. Since Andrew Jackson’s nickname was Old Hickory, James was given the nickname Young Hickory.

James K. Polk became the governor of Tennessee in 1839. He ran again in 1841 and 1843 but lost both times.

Andrew Jackson portrait
Andrew Jackson

In 1844, he unexpectedly became the Democratic candidate for president. He was considered a “dark horse” presidential candidate who was not especially popular or well-known.

James ran against Henry Clay, the founder of the Whig Party. The Whigs used the campaign slogan, “Who is James K. Polk?”

Still, people liked the unknown candidate’s campaign platform. He favored the annexation of Texas and the expansion of the United States, which appealed to voters.

In the end, James won the election with 49.5% of the popular vote and 170-105 in the electoral college.


James K. Polk entered the White House with four major goals:

  1. Cut tariffs
  2. Establish an independent U.S. Treasury
  3. Secure the Oregon Territory
  4. Gain California and New Mexico from Mexico

By the end of his presidency, James achieved every one of these goals. For the first time, the United States stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

ocean coastline

In 1845, the U.S. completed its annexation of Texas, and Texas officially became a U.S. state. This eventually led to the Mexican-American War.

The United States won the war, and Mexico gave up its claims to Texas. In exchange for $15 million, Mexico gave the United States the land that now makes up California, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico.

In 1846, James K. Polk settled a border dispute with the British with the Oregon Treaty. The U.S. gained the present-day states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho (along with parts of Wyoming and Montana).

James established the U.S. Naval Academy, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Department of the Interior. He commissioned the Washington Monument. During his presidency, Iowa and Wisconsin also joined the Union.


After the Presidency

While running for president, James K. Polk had promised to serve only one term. He kept this promise and did not run for re-election.

He returned to his home in Nashville – Polk Place. He died that summer of cholera at the age of 53.

Fun Facts About James K. Polk

At age 49, James K. Polk was younger than any previous president when he went into the White House.

The “K” in James K. Polk stands for Knox.


While he was at the University of North Carolina, Polk’s roommate was William Dunn Moseley. Moseley went on to become the first governor of Florida.

Although he has never been a very popular or well-known president, historians consider James K. Polk one of the most important presidents in U.S. history.

In total, James K. Polk added 1.2 million square miles of land to the United States.

Polk was known as a “workaholic,” and historians believe that working too hard contributed to his early death.

Sarah Polk outlived James by more than 40 years. Today, husband and wife are buried at the Tennessee Capitol in Nashville.

US Presidents

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