|James K. Polk, the 11th President of the United States|
1. James Knox Polk was born in 1795 in North Carolina, very likely in a log cabin. His mother, Jane, was descended directly from a brother of John Knox, leader of the Scottish Reformation and founder of the Presbyterian Church. As a child, Polk suffered from a number of illnesses. At the age of 17, he underwent a surgical procedure to have kidney stones removed. The surgeon who performed the procedure was Ephraim McDowell of Danville, Kentucky, who had performed the first successful removal of an ovarian tumor just three years earlier. A hospital in Danville today is named after him.
2. Polk earned a degree from the University of North Carolina, before settling in Tennessee to study, and later practice, law. In the early 1820's, Polk served as the clerk for the Tennessee State Senate, and was later elected to the Tennessee legislature. In 1824, Polk married Sarah Childress, who would go on to become the longest living former First Lady in U.S. history - surviving until 1891. The Polks never had any children; it has been suggested that Polk's surgery as a teenager may have rendered him sterile.
3. In 1825, Polk was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he became a staunch supporter of Andrew Jackson, who was seeking the presidency. In 1835, near the end of Jackson's second term, Polk became Speaker of the House, a position he kept until 1839, when he became governor of Tennessee. Polk remains the only Speaker of the House in U.S. history to later become president.
4. Polk served only one term (a 2-year term) as governor of Tennessee, before being defeated for re-election in 1841, and again in 1843. In 1844, he gave up on Tennessee and ran for vice-president. The incumbent president was John Tyler, who had gained the White House upon the death of William Henry Harrison. Tyler was a Whig, but the Whigs had expelled him from their party shortly after he became president because they were unhappy with his policies. As a result, the Whigs nominated Henry Clay for the presidency, leaving Tyler to form a third party; he later dropped out of the race. The Democrats, on the other hand, found themselves embroiled in a nomination battle between Martin Van Buren - who had served as president from 1837 to 1841 - and senator Lewis Cass of Michigan. Van Buren initially garnered a majority of the primary votes, but the Democrats required a 2/3rds majority to win the nomination. When it became apparent that Van Buren could not get that many votes, the tide turned towards Lewis Cass. Cass, however, was also unable to secure 2/3rds of the vote. As a result, James K. Polk was put forth as a compromise candidate, and on the 9th ballot, he won the necessary majority to win the nomination. As a result, he became the first "dark horse" candidate in U.S. history (a candidate that seemingly comes out of nowhere at the last minute to secure a nomination).
5. The 1844 election was primarily about slavery and the annexation of Texas. Texas had applied for annexation in the late 1830's, but the U.S. had not moved on it and they had withdrawn their request. It was resubmitted several years later, and a treaty for annexation had been approved. The question during the 1844 election turned on whether Texas should be immediately accepted into the Union, or whether annexation should wait. Pro-slavery advocates favored immediate annexation because it was believed that Britain was attempting to encourage Texas - which, at that time, was an independent nation - to end slavery. Getting them into the Union, then, was seen as vital in order to preserve slavery there. Abolitionists, and those who did not want slavery to be expanded into new states, favored waiting for annexation, in the hopes that Texas might decide to end slavery first. They also feared a war with Mexico, who did not support the annexation of Texas. Polk's position in the campaign was for immediate annexation. Clay, on the other hand, was initially vague on the issue, and only later grudgingly promised to accept annexation under the right conditions.
6. The election was a nail-biter. In the end, Polk lost his home state of Tennessee, but managed to win in New York. A third-party candidate, abolitionist James Birney, took 15,000 votes in New York, the majority of which would likely have gone to Clay had Birney not been in the race. Those votes would have been more than enough to give New York to Clay, and thus the presidency. Instead, Polk won the state and won the White House. Polk won the overall popular vote by a mere 40,000 votes.
7. Polk's presidency is widely considered one of the most successful in history among "forgotten" presidents. Because of the competing factions within the Democratic party, Polk promised not to run for a second term, and this helped to solidify his support among legislators and prominent politicians. As a result of this promise, Polk became the first president in U.S. history to voluntarily retire after one term.
8. As promised, Polk backed the immediate annexation of Texas. As feared, this precipitated the Mexican-American War. The war, however, was a resounding success for the U.S., and with the treaty came not only Texas, but all of the modern U.S. southwest, including New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California. Polk was also able to pass a substantial new tariff on manufactured goods, and he overhauled the U.S. Treasury, creating a system that remained in place until the early 20th century.
9. As an expansionist, Polk brokered a deal with Great Britain for the Oregon territory, which, at that time, included all the Pacific Northwest, from California to the southern part of modern Alaska. The deal effectively divided the territory between the two countries, helping to create the modern day states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, and giving territory now in Canada to Great Britain. Polk also created the Department of the Interior.
10. After taking office as the youngest president in U.S. history, Polk had the shortest retirement of any president in history. He survived only three months after leaving office, dying in 1849 from cholera contracted while on a farewell tour of the South. His wife would live another forty years after he died, and both are now buried in a tomb at the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville.