UNITED STATES HISTORY
James K. Polk
*The great issue of the election of 1844 was Manifest Destiny—the
idea that God had obviously ordained that the American people
spread from sea to shining sea, starting by annexing Texas or
Oregon or both.
*The Whigs opposed annexation of anything, for several
reasons. The possibility of war was very real if either
Texas or Oregon was annexed. The money spent subduing and
settling the new territory would be money that could be better
spent on internal improvements or possibly returned to the
states. New western territories would serve to further
spread and dilute the American population, which Clay’s followers
hoped to unite into one nation through the improvements of the
American System. Besides, the west would probably fill up
with people inclined to vote for the party of Jackson.
Finally, any expansion would further the sectional disputes that
had barely been solved by the Missouri Compromise:
Northerners would be offended at the annexation of Texas below the
36°30’ line, and Southerners would be concerned by the acquisition
*The Whigs, once again, nominated Henry Clay.
*The Democrats had also expected to take annexation out of the
election as a political issue, as most national politicians saw it
for the divisive topic that it was. The Democratic
leadership intended to nominate Martin van Buren again. Van
Buren by this point was a Free-Soil man, opposed to the expansion
of slavery, and he would not support the annexation of Texas on
moral grounds or the annexation of Oregon for political reasons.
*Although van Buren had a great deal of support in the nominating
convention, it was not enough to secure the nomination, and on
succeeding ballots it declined each time as more and more
competitors arose. Eventually van Buren’s anti-Texas
attitudes became well known, which sealed his fate. He was
opposed by, among others, Lewis Cass, a brigadier general in the
War of 1812 and former governor of Michigan, James Buchanan, a
career politician and pro-Southern Pennsylvanian, John C Calhoun
of South Carolina, a former Vice-President, and James K Polk,
former Governor of Tennessee, Speaker of the House of
Representatives, and friend of Andrew Jackson
*Ultimately Polk was chosen, in part because, although very well
known in Tennessee, he, like Harrison four years before, had few
enemies on the national level. Because he was a relative
unknown and something of a surprise nomination, Polk was called a
‘dark horse’ candidate, a term that still exists.
*Polk was also a friend and neighbour of Andrew Jackson, still
alive and offering direction to the Democratic Party, and so Polk
was presented as ‘Young Hickory,’ the natural successor to
*The Whigs, on the other hand, jeered at this dark horse, and
asked ‘Who is James K. Polk?’
*Polk ran on an expansionist campaign, calling for the
‘reannexation’ of Texas and the ‘reoccupation’ of Oregon, while
the Whigs said that the choices were ‘Polk, Slavery, and Texas’ or
‘Clay, Liberty, and Union.’
*Polk won with 170 electoral votes to 105, becoming the youngest
man elected president to that point, but it was a close election
in the popular vote. Polk lost his home state of Tennessee
by 123 votes, while New York was lost to Clay when about 16,000
voters chose to vote for the strongly anti-slavery Liberty Party,
thereby splitting the vote of the anti-Texas faction and
contributing significantly to the defeat of their own cause.
Had Clay had even 5,000 of the Liberty Party’s votes, he would
have won New York, the most populous state, and thus the
*Tyler, who had wanted an excuse to annex Texas, announced that
the victory of Polk was a mandate from the people to do so, and he
convinced Congress to do so through a joint resolution during the
last days of his presidency in 1845. He retired to Virginia,
and would later vote for secession from the Union in 1861, and his
plantation would be burned by the US Army.
*Polk was a short, thin man, a great orator and known as the
‘Napoleon of the stump,’ a successful politician and loyal party
man in Tennessee, but in private not very interesting. He
was a serious man who took his job seriously and worked himself to
death. During his campaign and presidency, he created and
pursued a four-point plan, and promised to retire and not seek a
second term if he accomplished it all. He said 'there are
four great measures which are to be the measures of my
administration one, a reduction of the tariff; another the
independent treasury; a third, the settlement of the Oregon
boundary question; and lastly, the acquisition of California.’
*Polk got it all (or close enough).
1. A revenue tariff: Robert J. Walker, Polk’s Secretary of
the Treasury, lowered the tariff from 32% to 25%. New
Englanders and the Middle States opposed it but could not stop it,
and were surprised to see that it was successful, thanks in large
part to a concomitant economic boom period.
2. An independent treasury: This revived van Buren’s old
plan for treasuries and sub-treasuries to store the government’s
gold, that had no business affiliations or direct influence on the
3. Settle the Oregon dispute: With all of Texas to digest,
the clamour of ‘54°40’ or Fight!’ died away, although some
Northerners asked why the South got all of Texas while the North
only got as much of Oregon as lay south of an extension of the old
US-Canadian border, the 49th parallel, over 5 degrees short of
what some wanted. However, most were satisfied to have
gotten so much, including land occupied by British forts, without
a war. The British in turn were satisfied to avoid a war,
especially since the Hudson’s Bay Company had already trapped a
lot of the region’s furs anyway.
4. Acquire California: Like Texas, California had seen an
influx of American immigrants (although only about 1,000 so far,
compared to about 13,000 Mexicans in the area, and numerous
Indians), and some of them wanted to be part of the United States,
and many Americans, including Polk, wanted to help them.
*Although the Oregon dispute was settled without a war, the
annexation of Texas and the desire for California could not be.
*In the last days of his presidency, John Tyler had convinced
Congress to accept the Republic of Texas as a state in a joint
resolution on 26 February, 1845, just before Tyler left
office. Texas officially became the 28th state in December,
*In the months between his inauguration and Texas’s official
admission to the Union, James K. Polk sent John Slidell to Mexico
in 1845 to try to get Mexico to accept this annexation and to
negotiate the purchase of California and the land to the
east. Slidell was authorised to offer up to $25 million for
this, but the Mexican government said it was insulting to try to
buy their land at any price, and did not even allow Slidell to
formally present his offer.
*With it clear that negotiation was impossible, Polk decided to
press the issue, specifically in Texas. Mexico, of course,
did not recognise Texan independence (let along American
statehood) at all, but to the extent that it recognised a Texan
border, it was based on the Mexican state of Texas’s old boundary
at the Rio Nueces. The Republic of Texas, and now the United
States, asserted that the border was at the Rio Grande.
*In January, 1846, Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor, ‘Old Rough
and Ready’ to cross the Rio Nueces. He also ordered the US
Navy’s Pacific squadron to be ready to attack the west coast of
*Mexico demanded that Taylor withdraw, and he refused. At
last, on 25 April, 1846, 2,000 Mexican soldiers attacked an
American patrol of 70 men, killing 16 of them. Two much
larger battles took place in early May, both of which were
American victories, thanks in large part to much better artillery,
as well as generally superior American leadership and bravery.
*President Polk declared that American blood had been shed on
American soil. On 13 May, 1846, Congress declared war
(although a few Whigs, including John Quincy Adams) voted against
*Later, in 1847, an anti-war Whig Congressman from Illinois,
Abraham Lincoln, demanded to see the spot of American soil where
American blood had been shed in his famous ‘spot
resolution.’ At the time, the resolution was not very
popular in his home district, and Lincoln was not re-elected
(although he had already pledged to serve only one term).
*The Mexican Congress declared war in return on 7 July, 1846, and
Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna offered to return to Mexico from his
exile in Cuba to lead the army against the Americans, and swore he
did not want to be president again. He also contacted the
United States and offered to go to Mexico, take over, and sell all
the disputed land to the US. Mexico invited him to return,
the US Navy allowed him to go, and once in command of the Mexican
army he declared himself president and moved north to fight
Taylor, who had recently crossed the Rio Grande and begun marching
*At Monterrey, the new commander of the Mexican army, Pedro de
Ampudia, had decided to stand and fight with over 10,000 men to
defend the city against Taylor’s 6,000. The subsequent
battle lasted from 21-24 September, 1846.
*Among the defenders of Monterrey were the San Patricio Battalion,
made up of Americans (mostly Irish Catholics) who had deserted an
army where they were often persecuted for their religion in order
to join the Mexican army where they would not have to shoot fellow
Catholics. They fought bravely at Monterrey and several
other major battles, partly because they knew they would be
executed if captured.
*It looked to be a hard fight. A large citadel (called the
Black Fort by Americans) protected the main road into the city; a
river and several hills (most of them defended) protected its
southern side. However, these defences were too far from the
city and from each other—it was possible to move around or between
them in some places without being in any field of fire.
*Taylor’s plan was to send General William Worth around Monterrey
and capture the hills behind the city. Worth did so and then
began attacking the city itself.
*Taylor sent the rest of his army to attack the city from the east
end, again bypassing the Black Fort. Soon the battle turned
into house-by-house street fighting, much of it brutal
hand-to-hand combat. Eventually, Mexican General Pedro de
Ampudia agreed to negotiate, and because he still had a larger
army (even if most of it was trapped in the city plaza), Taylor
agreed to let him and his men march South with honour. There
would then be a two month armistice. This infuriated Polk.
*Polk began planning attacks on the Mexican coast, and withdrew
some of Taylor’s army for this new campaign. When Santa Anna
learned of this, he marched north to meet Taylor, but Taylor did
not wait for him at Monterrey. He marched south with what
remained of his army until he found a pass through the hills south
of a little town called Buena Vista and prepared to defend it with
about 4,800 men. Santa Anna arrived with 12,000 and soon
4,000 more came to join him.
*There was a small skirmish on 22 February, 1847, and on the 23rd
Santa Anna attacked Taylor’s lines in earnest, but Taylor was
ready for him. The main road to Buena Vista had gullies on
one side and a steep ridge on the other; Taylor placed artillery
here to block the road. He placed most of his men on a large
plateau above the road.
*Santa Anna’s first attack was up the road to Buena Vista, and the
first wave of men was slaughtered by artillery on the road.
On the main plateau, though, many new recruits broke and ran,
exposing the entire left flank of Taylor’s army. One of his
subordinates said, ‘General, we are whipped,’ but Taylor replied,
‘That is for me to determine’ and he sent Jefferson Davis to hold
*They did so, first by holding their fire to lure the Mexicans
into an inverted V they formed by pulling their centre back, then
firing a devastating volley into the Mexicans in their midst, then
pulling out their Bowie knives for hand-to-hand fighting.
*By this point, Taylor (despite being badly outnumbered) was ready
to charge. Santa Anna tried to prevent or delay this by
sending an officer with an offer to negotiate peace terms, but
Taylor recognised this as a trick (because the Mexicans kept
shooting) and ordered the charge. Although it did not
succeed, the Mexicans who counter-attacked were torn apart by
American cannon fire.
*After this attack failed, Santa Anna pulled his men back to their
camp, and during the night retreated under cover of darkness and
began to move back towards Mexico City. For the moment he
had given up on Northern Mexico, partly because Mexico City itself
was in danger.
*Winfield Scott was the Commanding General of the US Army when the
war began (and held that post from 1841 to 1861, longer than any
other officer). He was a military genius, but arrogant and
inclined to say the wrong thing in public. His troops
thought he was pompous and called him ‘Old Fuss and Feathers’
because he loved fancy uniforms, while Polk distrusted him (and
Taylor, for that matter) because he was a Whig, and he feared he
had political ambitions. By October, 1846, though, Polk had
agreed to let him plan at attack on the Mexican port of Vera Cruz.
*By March, 1847, Scott was ready to land on the shores of
Mexico. He had 12,000 men, while the Mexicans had 3,400 in
Vera Cruz, but they were in a highly fortified city.
*Scott’s men landed south of the city in three waves on 9 March,
1847, without taking a single casualty.
*Scott intended to reduce the city by siege, even though many of
his officers wanted to make a direct assault. It took nearly
two weeks to set up his artillery as he wanted them. This
was hard because they had to create earthworks in sand, which was
hard to dig in effectively, although the high dunes hid much of
the American effort from the Mexicans. Scott even borrowed
some heavy guns from the Navy, designed for bombarding fort walls,
and accepted the Navy’s offer to fire on the city from the sea.
*Scott gave the Mexican commander the chance to surrender on 22
March, but he refused, and despite Scott’s warning, foreigners in
Vera Cruz chose not to leave. That evening, Scott’s
batteries opened fire.
*The bombardment lasted three days, until the city finally stopped
fighting on 25 March, when resident foreigners asked Scott to let
them leave, he refused, and they helped convince General Morales
*This was fortunate, as Scott had been considering an infantry
assault, because he wanted to be able move inland as soon as
possible to avoid the vomito, the deadly yellow fever that hit the
coast near Vera Cruz in the spring of every year.
Furthermore, Santa Anna was moving south after his defeat at Buena
Vista (which he claimed as a victory).
*Scott marched inland towards Mexico City following the path of
Hernando Cortez’s conquistadores after leaving a small force to
garrison Vera Cruz and keep it open to resupply from
America. Santa Anna blocked Scott’s march at Cerro Gordo
(Fat Hill) near the city of Jalapa.
*Scott had about 8,500 men and Santa Anna had 10,000-18,000.
Santa Anna had set up batteries to fire upon the main highway to
Jalapa, which went around several ridges and below the hill of
Cerro Gordo. He did not, however, place many defenders atop
Cerro Gordo or behind the hill, counting on Scott to come down the
highway because all the terrain around it was so rough.
*Scott’s engineers, though, had scouted ahead and discovered a
route behind Santa Anna’s army.
*At 7.00 a.m. on 17 April, 1847, American forces attacked up the
hill of Cerro Gordo from both the front and the rear. Soon
they captured the guns atop the hill and turned them on the
*At first, Santa Anna sent reinforcements to Cerro Gordo, but as
more and more of his men retreated, he fled the field as
well. He had to abandon his carriage, leaving behind one of
his artificial legs (now in a museum in Springfield, Illinois),
food, wine, and $6,000.
*This was a great victory for the US army and a great
embarrassment for Santa Anna. He lost 1,000 killed and
wounded and 3,000 captured, compared to 400 American killed and
wounded. One of the biggest problems was what to do with all
the muskets and cannon captured, because Scott did not have enough
men to use them, so many were destroyed. Scott occupied the
city of Jalapa, then began marching towards Mexico City again.
*In every place he captured Scott made a point of treating the
locals with the greatest possible respect, paying good prices for
any produce they would sell and punishing soldiers who mistreated
the locals. He even attended Catholic Church services, and
encouraged his officers to do the same. He knew that he had
10,000 men in the middle of ten million Mexicans, and could only
win a peace by befriending the locals (many of whom did not trust
or like Santa Anna). For the most part, Scott succeeded in
this policy, eventually to the point that he cut off his supply
lines to the coast, because he could not spare the men needed to
occupy every town and village on the route, and because he was
able to trust that the Mexicans would not cut him off.
*In August, after receiving reinforcements, Scott’s army descended
into the Valley of Mexico. By now he had about 10,700 men
ready to fight, while Santa Anna had gathered about 35,000 men to
defend Mexico City.
*In late August and early September, Scott’s army won several
victories south of Mexico City, of which the most famous was at
*Chapultepec was a castle guarding two of the main roads into
Mexico City, and also served as the Mexican Military
Academy. However, it was relatively lightly defended (less
than a thousand men, including military academy cadets).
*At first they bombarded it with artillery on 12 September,
1847. On 13 September, American soldiers attacked,
eventually, raising so many scaling ladders that fifty men could
climb the castle walls at a time.
*The Mexican commander ordered a retreat, but six cadets of the
Military Academy refused to go, and were killed by American
soldiers until the last one, Juan Escutia, wrapped himself in the
Mexican flag and leapt off the walls. These cadets are now
known as the Niños Héroes (Boy Heroes) and there is a monument to
them at Chapultepec in Mexico City.
*Among the Americans at Chapultepec were a few Marines, who
remember the battle by another name for Chapultepec, near the
ancient home of the Aztec Emperors: the Halls of Montezuma.
*As the American flag was raised over Chapultepec, thirty men
looking on it were hanged: Scott had ordered that a group of
San Patricios captured at Churubusco be hanged in sight of the
American flag flying over Chapultepec.
*After capturing Chapultepec, the US Army broke into Mexico City
and spent the rest of 13 September taking possession of its strong
*At 8 AM on 14 September, 1847, Scott rode into the centre of
Mexico City in his best dress uniform. On 15 September,
Santa Anna resigned as President but continued to lead part of the
army, but soon his soldiers refused to follow him. In 1851
he went into exile in Jamaica, but returned for another term as
president in 1853 (before being forced out in 1854).
*Taylor and Scott were not the only conquerors in Mexico.
*Even before Taylor moved across the Rio Nueces, Army Captain John
C. Frémont had led about 60 armed men into California and slowly
marched towards Oregon. When rumours of war reached
California, some of the 1,000 American settlers in Sonoma declared
their independence from Mexico as the Bear Flag Republic on 14
*Local Mexican officials agreed that American annexation was
inevitable, and did nothing to stop the revolt. Frémont soon
arrived and declared the Republic of California to be annexed by
the United States on 9 July, 1846. Although there were a few
skirmishes, Frémont, with the help of local Americans, some
Mexicans, and the US Navy, had California firmly under American
control by 1847.
*Stephen Kearny had done the same thing in New Mexico. As
soon as the war had begun, he marched along the Santa Fe Trail to
the capital of New Mexico with 1,700 men. He captured it
with no fighting, declared it part of the US on 15 August, 1846,
and was named military governor on 18 August, 1846. In
September he marched towards California, and eventually replaced
Frémont as military governor there.
*In the months that followed Scott’s capture of Mexico City,
Nicholas Trist negotiated the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo, which
the Mexican government signed on 2 March, 1848 (official
ratifications were exchanged on 30 May, 1848). In exchange
for $15 million in cash and the assumption of $3.25 million in
Mexican debts to American citizens, Mexico ceded over half the
territory it had claimed before the war. It not only
recognised the American annexation of Texas (with its border at
the Rio Grande), but also ceded Upper California and New Mexico.
*The treaty barely passed the Senate, however, as ‘Conscience
Whigs’ who thought the war was unjust as well as a cover for the
expansion of slavery opposed it, as did expansionists who thought
America should have tried to keep all of Mexico.
*There were others who had questioned the War. In 1846, the
Transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau refused to pay six
years of unpaid poll taxes because they would have been used, at
that point, to pay for the war, and was imprisoned for a night
until someone paid his back taxes for him. He later
published Resistance to Civil Government (later republished under
the title Civil Disobedience) arguing that it was the duty of a
citizen to disobey an unjust law or a corrupt government (such as
one fighting a war, as he saw it, to expand slavery).
*In 1846 and again in 1847, a Whig Congressman named David Wilmot
had unsuccessfully proposed the Wilmot Proviso as an amendment to
a bill approving funding for the army. His proviso would
have banned slavery in any territories won from Mexico during the
war. The House passed it both times, but the Senate rejected
it. However, war would result in an upsurge in the debates
over the expansion of slavery, as the Missouri Compromise began to
*Worried about the effects of this growing division on the United
States, Ralph Waldo Emerson said ‘Mexico will poison us,’ while
John C. Calhoun worried that ‘Mexico is to us the forbidden
fruit... the penalty of eating it would be to subject our
institutions to political death.’
*The war did have a powerful legacy. Not only did it add
over a quarter of the continental United States to America, but it
provided the first test of the graduates of the United States
Military Academy at West Point, many of whom would later fight in
the Civil War.
*The same year California was officially added to the United
States, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, a bit east of modern
Sacramento, sparking the California Gold Rush.
*Having acquired Texas, California, and New Mexico, settled the
Oregon boundary, lowered the tariff, and established an
independent treasury, James K. Polk fulfilled his promise to only
serve one term. Exhausted by his hard-working schedule, he
contracted cholera on a post-presidency tour of the South, went
home, and died at his home in Nashville, three months after
leaving office. His last words were to his wife, ‘I love
you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you.’
*Polk was followed as president by Old Rough and Ready, Zachary
Taylor, a southern Whig.
This page last updated 6 September, 2018.