Van Buren. Pierce. Hoover. Most one-term presidents are forgotten. James Polk does not deserve this fate. His influence on America’s past is profound.

Painting of James Polk by Peter Alexander Healy, 1846.
Painting of James Polk by Peter Healy, 1846
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Many one-term presidents have had minimal effects on American history. However, this is not a universal truth. The best example of this is President James K. Polk. Despite only serving from 1845-1849, he laid the groundwork for the decade after his administration and beyond. He was one of the most influential presidents ever, regardless of time in office.

Polk’s legacy is deeply tied to America’s expansion and the mindset of Manifest Destiny. Manifest Destiny is the philosophy around that time that believed it was the United States’ right to control North America. It was this idea that was at the heart of America’s expansion.

The Oregon Territory

U.S. and British claims in the Pacific Northwest.
Map of U.S. and British claims in the Pacific Northwest
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

1846 was a crucial year in Polk’s presidency. One example of this is through the acquisition of the Oregon Territory. The area in dispute contained Oregon, Washington, and what today is British Columbia in Canada. This had been a thorny diplomatic issue for a few decades prior to its settlement.

Around that time, a common saying was “Fifty-four Forty or Fight!” a reference to the coordinates for the far northern claim of the U.S. Polk was, despite still being a strident expansionist, more flexible in his demands. Much of this was due to tensions with Mexico. He showed strength but was willing to compromise with the British.

In June of 1846, the British and U.S. signed a treaty which solved most of the border dispute. The terms of this set the border at the 49th parallel. Britain still retained Vancouver Island below the line, though. This treaty would quickly be ratified by the Senate 48-14 a few days later. Settling Oregon allowed Polk to focus his attention elsewhere.

Texas and the Mexican-American War

Lands acquired from the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.
Lands acquired from the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The biggest debate over expansion during the times before Polk’s presidency was whether to annex Texas. It had become a pressing question after Texas gained its independence in 1836. This was an issue comprised of many different problems, such as slavery and a question about war with Mexico. As you’ll see later, the concerns about slavery were justified.

Texas would be annexed in 1845, and a border dispute soon followed. Polk, who supported starting a war with Mexico, soon sent General Zackary Taylor to disputed land known as the Nueces Strip. Unsurprisingly, this led to conflict. It was a provoked attack despite Polk’s claims otherwise. After two years of fighting, the United States had dominated Mexico.

After the war ended, another treaty would be signed. This one, however, was not mutually beneficial, like with Oregon. The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo set the border at the Rio Grande, making the disputed land American. The U.S. also gained much of what is today the American Southwest. These included Nevada, Utah, California, Arizona, and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico.

Consequences: The Issue of Slavery Boils Over

Map of slave and free states, 1858.
Map of slave and free states, 1858
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Slavery was an issue that went back to the Founding. However, the new lands acquired were the spark that forced this divisive argument back into the political spotlight. Whether slavery should be allowed in the territories would ultimately be the subject that led to the Civil War.

The South started to feel oppressed as the free states began to outnumber slave states. A principle before the expansion was that slave states and free states needed to come in pairs. This was to keep a balance in the Senate on the issue. In 1846, after Texas’s annexation, slave states outnumbered free by one. However, this quickly changed as more territories became states.

One of the earliest examples of this new reality was the Wilmot Proviso. This was a proposal, first introduced in 1846 before the war even ended, to ban slavery in all of the acquired lands. It went nowhere in Congress but it did foster fear in the South. They saw it as a sign that the North had become abolitionist.

The Compromise of 1850

Henry Clay, the creator of the Compromise of 1850.
Henry Clay, the creator of the Compromise of 1850
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

There were many attempts to try to defuse this ticking time bomb. One of the most important of these was the Compromise of 1850. This was a collection of five bills passed by Congress. These laws attempted to maintain the balance between slave and free states and settle the expansion question. What sparked this compromise was California joining the Union as a free state.

California was allowed to enter the Union as a free state under this deal. Texas also gave up its claim of what today is Eastern New Mexico for money to pay off war debt. The slave trade would be banned in Washington, D.C, and the new territories were also given popular sovereignty. This is the idea that the people in states themselves could pick whether to be slave or free.

The most controversial element was a stronger Fugitive Slave Act. This would require Northerners to give up escaped slaves to their masters. While this had already been in the Constitution, it made slavery a much more immediate issue. It was no longer a faraway issue for Northerners and was now in their backyards.

This, however, was merely a lid on a volcano. The growth of slavery, derived from Polk’s expansion, would continue to be a flashpoint. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act’s grant of popular sovereignty led to sectarian violence known as “Bleeding Kansas.” This only created more and more division, and the country eventually fell into a full-scale civil war in 1861.


James Polk’s presidency and success had a massive impact on American history. Despite this, his importance has largely been overlooked by the general public. However, his policies changed the geography of the United States. Polk’s expansion is also responsible for creating the political environment, which led to America’s greatest crisis. While his legacy may be mixed, there is no denying his importance.

Sources:

  • British-American Diplomacy Treaty with Great Britain, in Regard to Limits Westward of the Rocky Mountains, United States and Great Britain, 15 June 1846. Accessed through Yale University’s Avalon Project. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/br-1846.asp
  • Greenberg, Amy S. A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico. Google Books. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. https://books.google.com/books/about/A_Wicked_War.html?id=4a1sAAAAQBAJ.
  • Merry, Robert W. A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent. Google Books. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011. https://books.google.com/books/about/A_Country_of_Vast_Designs.html?id=Gea-DgAAQBAJ.
  • Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, United States and Mexico, 2 February 1848. Accessed through Yale’s Avalon Project. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/guadhida.asp