Born in 1795 in Mecklenburg County, N.C., at the age of 10 James Knox Polk traveled westward with his family. Crossing the Appalachian Mountains, the Polks settled on the Tennessee frontier. There young James learned of hard work, rural resourcefulness and local democracy.
Following two and a half years of formal schooling, Polk returned to his home state to attend the University of North Carolina. A growing interest in law and government underpinned his studies in mathematics and the classics. Graduating with honors and moving back to Tennessee, Polk studied law while clerking with the state Senate.
Establishing a law practice in Columbia, a 27-year-old Polk won a seat in the Tennessee legislature. Marriage to Sarah Childress followed.
The well-connected daughter of a prominent Murfreesboro merchant and planter, Sarah helped further Polk’s growing political ambitions. In 1825 at 29 years of age, Polk won election to the U.S. Congress as a Jacksonian Democrat.
For 14 years Polk served in the House, including two terms as Speaker. Acquiring a plantation in Tennessee, Polk in 1839 left Congress, moved back home and successfully ran for the governorship. Serving as chief executive of Tennessee from 1839-1841, he lost re-election in two subsequent attempts.
Harboring greater ambitions despite political setbacks, Polk remained active in and devoted to Democratic politics. Delegates to the 1844 Democratic Convention rewarded his faithfulness by making him their vice-presidential choice. When the convention deadlocked on a presidential nominee, delegates turned to Polk as a compromise “dark horse” candidate.
Campaigning on promises of westward expansion, Polk appealed to Americans seeking new opportunities beyond increasingly crowded eastern cities. Overcoming critics who feared that an aggressive western push would upend relations with Great Britain in the North or Mexico in the Southwest, the slaveholding cotton planter in 1844 became the 11th man elected to the presidency.
Polk’s ascendency to the presidency kept the nation’s highest office safely in the hands of southerners, pleasing planters of the South while further inflaming a rapidly-growing northern abolitionist movement.
President Polk pushed through a tariff act and a federal treasury act designed to tamp down on wild financial speculation, both favored by southern planters. His westward expansion policy led to Texas statehood, the annexation of California and New Mexico, and victory in the Mexican-American War.
Subsequently, southern planters clamored for the expansion of slavery into the new southwestern territories. Meanwhile, Iowa and Wisconsin gained admittance into the union.
Polk’s pro-slavery position, however, proved less robust than that desired by Deep South slave owners. Arguing for the continuation of the 1820 Missouri Compromise slave line to the Pacific Ocean, thereby confining slavery to the South, Polk evoked the wrath of planters.
National tensions during Polk’s presidency led elite Baptist planters of the South, condemning abolitionists as evil, to split from northern Baptists and establish the slave-based Southern Baptist Convention. The creation of the SBC presaged the coming of the American Civil War.
The son of a deistic father and Presbyterian mother, James Polk remained religiously ambivalent in a period of religious revivals that birthed and matured the abolitionist movement in the North, even as white southern Christianity consolidated around the biblical support of African slavery.
Experiencing a Methodist camp meeting during his congressional years gave Polk “predilections” for Methodism, yet he rarely if ever attended church.
Evidencing deistic influences, Polk as president voiced strong convictions for freedom of conscience. In his inaugural address of March 4, 1845 he declared:
It [the U.S. Government] is a common protector of each and all the States; of every man who lives upon our soil, whether of native or foreign birth; of every religious sect, in their worship of the Almighty according to the dictates of their own conscience; of every shade of opinion, and the most free inquiry; of every art, trade, and occupation consistent with the laws of the States.
In the address Polk also noted: “One great object of the Constitution was to restrain majorities from oppressing minorities or encroaching upon their just rights. Minorities have a right to appeal to the Constitution as a shield against such oppression.”
Later in his presidency Polk expressed appreciation that “under our Constitution there was no connection between church and state,” noting that “in my action as President of the United States I recognized no distinction of creeds in my appointments office.”
Amid outrage over Mormon discrimination and crimes against citizens of western Illinois and under pressure from a senator to constrain the sect, Polk called the Mormon faith “absurd” but refused to take federal action. “If I could interfere with the Mormons,” he noted, “I could with the Baptists, or any other religious sect; and by the constitution any citizen had a right to adopt his own religious faith.”
Rarely mentioning the divine in public utterances or private writings during his presidency, on few occasions Polk referenced the “Supreme Ruler of the Universe,” “benignant providence” or “God.” Upon his wife’s urgings, however, Polk periodically attended a Presbyterian church in the District of Columbia. Otherwise, it appears that religion seldom entered his thoughts.
A biographer summarized Polk’s singular focus by noting that other than politics, the president “had no aspirations, intellectual interests, recreation, or even friendships.” As Polk himself noted in his presidential diary on April 1, 1846, “My time has been wholly occupied in my office, in the discharge of my public duties. My confinement to my office has been constant and unceasing and my labours very great.”
Polk’s workaholic proclivity impacted his health. Weary and worn, in 1848 he chose not to seek re-election. Three months after leaving office and upon his deathbed, Polk summoned the Methodist revivalist John B. McFerrin, who had enthralled him years earlier.
Polk requested and McFerrin administered baptism into the Methodist church. James K. Polk died of cholera on June 15, 1849 at the relatively young age of 53. Among his last words were, “I love you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you.”
After Polk’s death McFerrin claimed to have overheard a conversation where the former president after his baptism expressed faith in “Jesus Christ” as “Lord and Savior.” The uncorroborated story is in the vein of earlier apocryphal efforts by Christian ministers seeking to reshape presidential narratives from deist or secular to religious.
Although having pleased neither northern abolitionists nor southern planters during his presidency, Polk’s legacy in time came to be viewed in light of his successes in enlarging U.S. borders to the West coast. In the latter 20th century James K. Polk came to be viewed as the most influential president between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, often ranked among the top 10 to 12 presidents of all time. NFJ
By Bruce Gourley