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George P.A. Healys Portrait of President James K.


A Case of Cause and Effect: James K. Polks

Expansionist Policies
Matthew Reay
Mr. Kuhl
AP U.S. History
Period 8

James Knox Polk, the eleventh President of the United States, defined his own success.
Although regarded as one of the finest politicians from Tennessee, James K. Polk was born in
North Carolina in 1795 and moved to Tennessee in 1806. He returned to North Carolina in 1816
to study law at the University of North Carolina only to travel back to Tennessee to study under
Nashville trial attorney Felix Grundy. Grundy helped secure Polks first position in public office,
as a clerk for the Tennessee State Senate. This was the beginning of a political career that spanned
from Tennessee State Legislature to Congress, where he served as Speaker of the House, and
finally to the Presidency.

Polk didnt plan on the Presidency. At Democratic National Convention in 1844, Polk
anticipated he would be called upon to serve as the Vice President for Martin Van Buren, a former
President seeking another term in office. Polk was a favorite of Van Burens from his time as
Speaker during the Van Buren administration. However, during the National Convention, Polks
vocal pro-expansion agenda made him the more attractive candidate and ultimately secured his
nomination over anti-expansion Van Buren. This same pro- expansion policy was well received
by Americans and proceeded to win him the presidency in 1844.

As recalled in the Secretary of the Navy, George Bancrofts memoirs, Polk defined the
goals for his presidency to select cabinet members prior his Inaugural Address: There are to be
four great measures in my administration: The settlement of the Oregon Question with Great
Britain. The acquisition of California and a large section on the coast. The reduction of the tariff
to a revenue basis. The complete and permanent establishment of a Constitutional Treasury(qtd
in Greenstein 725). This statement, by Polk, is often used by analysts and historians to measure
his presidencys success. But while Polk had his eye on expansion at any cost, and could deem
himself successful by that yardstick, what he did not anticipate was that his aggressive expansion

policies in Oregon and Texas would directly lead to the breakdown of the nation he was trying to

Before examining Polks expansionist policies, one needs to understand the prevailing
ideology spreading across America during the 1840s. Manifest Destiny wasnt named as such
until 1845 when John OSullivan declared that it was the manifest destiny of the United States to
overspread the continent allotted by providence for the free development of our yearly
multiplying millions(Scholnick, Manifest). Nevertheless the idea behind Manifest Destiny was
already alive and well and affecting American politics and international relation. As the fervor for
the idea of a full-continent nation swelled, tensions escalated between the United States and
Mexico and Britain. Both countries were deemed to be treading on what was rightfully American
soil, in Texas and Oregon and it was time to do something about it.

Although Mexican government harbored resentment towards the United States since
President Jackson recognized Texas as an independent republic in 1836, the jump from
resentment to war was bridged by Polks aggressive expansion policy. In his Inaugural Address,
Polk aggressively and directly addressed his plans regarding the annexation of Texas.
The Republic of Texas has made known her desire to come into our Union, to form a
part of our Confederacy and enjoy with us the blessings of liberty secured and guaranteed
by our Constitution. Texas was once a part of our country--was unwisely ceded away to a
foreign power--is now independent, and possesses an undoubted right to dispose of a part
or the whole of her territory and to merge her sovereignty as a separate and independent
state in ours. I congratulate my country that by an act of the late Congress of the United
States the assent of this Government has been given to the reunion, and it only remains
for the two countries to agree upon the terms to consummate an object so important to
both. (Polk Inaugural)
Within the month following this speech, the Mexican Ambassador to the United States, General
Juan Almonte sailed for Vera Cruz and dissolved diplomatic relations between the two countries.
This move was justified by Mexico because, as their ministers had warned multiple times,
annexation would render war inevitable(Graebner 408). They considered Polks plans to be an

unbearable affront(Graebner 409). Aware of this hostility, Polk dispatched troops from New
Orleans, not to claim the disputed borderland for the United States own, but to protect Texas from
possible invasion prior to their vote on annexation. Polk declared a responsibility to protect Texas
during this fragile period to the the limit of his constitutional power, insisting that this show of
force was to prevent rather than provoke war(Graebner 411).
Historians differ with regards to that Polks honesty in that statement. On one hand, due
to Polks civilian background with little military experience, this could have honestly been a bluff
and he had no intentions of using the force, bur rather planned to display the force as a deterrent
to Mexican aggression. Such a philosophy is confirmed as widely regarded in the July, 29 1845
issue of the Missouri Reporter: By displaying a competent military and naval force we shall
command respect and secure the objects we have in view without delay (qtd. in Graebner 413).
Opponents to this argue that Polk was not bluffing, but fully intended for war to break out in the
region to secure the intended territories, Texas and California. Anson Jones, the last President of
Texas, recalled a meeting in which Commodore Robert F. Stockton, commander of the U.S. Navy
in the Gulf of Mexico, urged Anson to present an attitude of active hostility toward, Mexico, so
that when Texas is finally brought into the Union she might bring war with her (qtd. in Graebner
412). While Polk was not present for this conversation, historians acknowledge it is in keeping
with his attitudes towards expansion. Regardless of Polks intentions, his bold statements and
aggressive policies were primary drivers towards the deterioration of diplomatic relations and the
eventual outbreak of war.
Regardless of Polks motivations, when war did come, he sounded the battle cry. As war
exists, and, notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it, exists by the act of Mexico herself, we are
called upon by every consideration of duty and patriotism to vindicate with decision the honor,
the rights, and the interests of our country (Polk, War). Polk was poignant and direct. He
easily garnered support, clearly stating the threat to American lives and the absolute necessity for

a war with Mexico. One Georgian wrote: our government has permitted itself to be insulted long
enough, the blood of her citizens has been spilt on her own soil, it appeals to us for vengeance
(Graebner 413). But not all Americans were swept away by Polks patriotic fervor, select
members of the Whig party, critical of Polk from the beginning, were adamantly against the war
and blamed Polks aggressive policy, failed diplomacy with prior land purchase attempts, and
aggressive troop deployments as the primary cause rather than Mexico. According to prominent
Whig John C. Calhoun to support the war effort was to plunge a dagger into his own heart and
more so (Caldwell 99). Nevertheless Congress passed a Declaration of War with Mexico.
While the United States and Mexico moved toward war, Polk was operating in the same
manner with the British in order to meet his inaugural promise of sole ownership of the Oregon
Territory. Prior to Polks presidency, the territory had been jointly occupied by Britain and the
United States, but due increasing immigration, Americans outnumbered British settlers 6:1 in
1844. The Oregon Territory was thus regarded as another opportunity for U.S. expansion. The
famous slogan 5440 or fight was the battle cry for this region and its genesis, post-election,
suggests that, while the annexation of Texas played a prominent role in the 1844 election, Oregon
and its latitudinal position in the north was brought forth to the balance of slave and free states
(Miles 291). Polk perhaps believed that Oregon was necessary, not only to satisfy the desire for
Manifest Destiny, but the necessity of maintaining the delicate balance forged by the Missouri
Similar to Mexicos outrage, the British were angered by Polks bold claims over the
territory (Schuyler 446). Polk declared: Our title to the country of the Oregon is clear and
unquestionable To us belongs the duty of protecting them [U.S. Citizens] adequately wherever
they may be upon our soil (Polk Inaugural). Britain reacted and dispatched frigates to the
region. In this heightened state of tension, Secretary of State James Buchanan delivered terms of
compromise to British minsters in Washington in June of 1845. Polk was offering to split the

Oregon Territory at the 49 parallel, stating this compromise would justly and equitably terminate
the Oregon controversy(qtd. in Anderson 154). However the British minister to Washington,
Richard Pakenham, rejected this offer without even relaying it to Britain. Angered by this
rejection, Polk publicly revived his claim for the entirety of Oregon at the 5440 line. Stuart
Anderson poses the argument that this aggressive public declaration for the entirety Oregon
territory was truly nothing more than a well-played bluff in the game of political poker
(Anderson, 160). This notion is further supported Robert W. Merry in his book, A Country of Vast
Designs. He argues that Polk got what he wanted only through a willingness to go to the brink of
war with the British(qtd. in Taylor Texas). However, R.L. Schuyler implies Polk was prepared
to go past the brink saying, the credit for averting hostilities between the United States and
Great Britain belongs to the Government of Sir Robert Peel, which wisely decided to make the
best terms it could without risking a war to increase British possesions in the pacific(Schuyler
461). Although the outcome differed and the U.S. and Britain did not go to war; Polks actions
and statement demonstrated his commitment to expand the United States at significant cost.
While Polk achieved success in gaining new territories for the United States, the full
ramifications of Polks actions became clear as Congress split upon a single issue, slavery. This
issue was however was thought to have been decided two decades prior with the Missouri
Compromise. Although it wasnt a perfect solution, it provided a tenuous balance between free
and slave states. This informal agreement allowed southern states below of the 3660 latitudinal
line to retain slavery, while setting the standard for all future states accepted into the Union
(Brown Missouri). All this changed with the large territories Polk added to the country. With
the admission of new states, straddling across the 3630 latitudinal division between free and
slave states, new citizenry and vast economic potential, the Missouri Compromise proved
inadequate. Each side, north and south, wanted these new territories and the wealth and voting
power that came with them.

Such land expansion also allowed for new bills and new compromises to be brought
forth. In 1846, Pennsylvania Representative David Wilmot introduced the Wilmot Proviso to the
House as a rider on an appropriations bill intended to resolve the Mexican American War. This
add-on to the bill stated as an express and fundamental condition to the acquisition of any
territory from the Republic of Mexiconeither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist
in any part of said territory. In other words, it negated the Missouri Compromise in the new
territories. Eric Foner, a historian at Columbia University, stated in Wilmot Proviso Revisited, if
any event in American history can be singled out as the beginning of a path which led almost
inevitably to sectional controversy and civil war, it was the introduction of the Wilmot Proviso
[it] threw the issue of slavery into the political arena, a place it would retain for 20 years(Foner
The slavery issue was, once again, front and center in American politics and neither side
intended to give any ground with regards to the new territories. This deadlock eventually gave
way with the Compromise of 1850, widely regarded as a document that held off the Civil War for
another decade, but the nation still headed toward war as tensions never abated. When the
Compromise gave way to the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which introduced the idea of popular
sovereignty, violence over slavery broke out in Kansas Territory and took the nation ever closer to
war. While Polk may have only had his sites on territory and the United States fulfillment of
Manifest Destiny, his expansionist polies changed the political course of the nation for the next
two decades, as slavery became the countrys defining issue.

In todays climate one might deem Polks presidency an unqualified success he kept his
word on all counts. He gained the lands he called out in his Inaugural address and he ushered a
new era of productivity and economic prosperity. He even said he would not run for a second
term and his successes did not lead him to recant that decision. However, for all his success,

issues arose that held dire consequences for the United States. With the debut of the Wilmot
Proviso came two decades of national dispute, ending in a Congress divided by geographic rather
than party lines and a nation divided over slavery. While one cannot blame Polk for the Civil War,
there is no denying that his expansionist policies and the new territories, straddling Missouri
Compromise 3630 Line, started the nation along the road that ended at Fort Sumter.

Word Count: 2275

Works Cited

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I used this source as a summary of a novel regarding Polks expansion.