James Polk: The “Dark Horse” President

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
Most Americans recognize the name James K. Polk, but few can associate moments in history that correspond with his legacy. As the 11th President of the United States, Polk saw the nation through the Mexican-American War and acquired large sums of land on the U.S. Pacific Coast and Southwest. He was at the helm of the manifest destiny mindset and made enormous impacts on the nation despite only serving one term. For all the changes Polk made in the country, he is relatively little-known when it comes to American presidents. This article is shedding light on this presidential “dark horse.”
 
Polk’s Rise to the Presidential Nomination
 
Polk spent the majority of his childhood in Tennessee. Throughout his adolescence, he suffered from ill-health which made attending regular school difficult. Despite these challenges, the future president passed the entrance requirements for the University of North Carolina. Here, he was exceptionally studious, receiving high marks in subjects like classics and mathematics. When he graduated from university, Polk returned to Nashville where his interest in politics and law drove him to begin practicing law. He was an unwavering supporter of Andrew Jackson and practiced a favorable form of political speech that made him popular in the political sphere. 
 
His rise to political stardom was quick. It was supplemented by his wife, Sarah Childress Polk, who proved herself to be the most politically active wife since Abigail Adams. Her charm helped establish the Polk name’s prominence in both the political and law spaces. This was needed as Polk himself was not an easy man to like. He was brash and audacious who had high living standards that he refused to stray from. 
 
Polk served in the House of Representatives from 1825 to 1839, working as speaker of the House during the last four of those years. During this time, he adopted and became known for his support of Jacksonian political ideas. At the 1844 Democratic convention, Polk was hoping for a nomination for vice president. However, after much debate, those in attendance at the convention decided they needed a candidate that would run on serious campaign issues, not on being likable. Polk was well-known in politics, but virtually unknown to the public, making him the first “dark horse” president. 
 
The Impact of the Dark Horse
 
Polk entered the office with four campaign goals. He intended to slash tariffs, create an independent U.S. treasury, obtain the Oregon territory, and acquire what is modern-day California and New Mexico. In his four years in office, he was successful in achieving all these goals. It was while he was president that the nation’s territory reached from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. 
 
When Polk was elected president, he surprised the country with his firm stance on the annexation of Texas and acquiring the Oregon territory that was then occupied by the United States and England. Polk was steady and decisive in his decision making. At the heart of his push for westward expansion was the idea of manifest destiny. No other president before Polk had made a move to annex Texas. His decision to do this led the country into the Mexican-American War but also resulted in a large territorial gain in the Southwest that includes parts of California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. 
 
Along with the expansion of the country, Polk was also responsible for achieving a treaty with New Granada, modern-day Colombia, to give U.S. citizens the right-of-way when crossing the Panama Canal. The deal also created a warehouse system along the canal to help with American imports and exports. He passed the Walker Tariff Act that lowered taxes on imported British goods and helped re-stabilize the relationship between the United States and British public after America acquired the Oregon territory. 
 
Polk’s Legacy
 
Ambitious and politically savvy, Polk left a lasting impact on American politics despite being a lesser-known president. His push for westward expansion and creation of trade deals with foreign countries helped move the country forward and forge lasting relationships with overseas allies. However, the tough years of the presidency took a toll on Polk’s health. Upon returning home to Nashville in March 1849, he fell ill. He died that summer when he was only 53 years old.