PRESIDENT JAMES K POLK
*After winning independence from Mexico in 1836, Texas voted to be annexed by the United States. Most Democrats and Southerners supported this, in order to have Texas’s vast open spaces in which to grow cotton, and because it was simply our manifest destiny. Many Northerners and Whigs opposed annexation, fearing it would shift the balance of power towards the slave states and the south if Texas became a new state or states. Many people also feared that annexation would lead to war with Mexico, who were still not happy to have lost Texas. Therefore, for about eight years, Texas existed as an independent country.
*In April 1844, however, President John Tyler signed a treaty of annexation with Texas. This was initially defeated by the Senate, which was dominated by the Whigs, who disliked both annexation and John Tyler.
*1844 was also an election year. Tyler was not running, because neither party supported him—he had been a Democrat running with the Whig Harrison to balance the ticket, and when Harrison died, the Democrats disliked him for bolting their party, and the Whigs disliked him for not having started in theirs.
*The Whigs nominated Henry Clay, who tried to please every side and ended up pleasing no-one.
*The Democrats were split on the nomination. There were numerous candidates for the nomination for president. Martin van Buren wanted to be president again, despite being out of office for four years, but he was opposed to slavery in the territories—and would later run as the Free Soil Candidate. He opposed annexing Texas. Other nominees presented platforms of expansion or lowered tariffs, but van Buren was expected to win. However, the expansionists brought out a man well-known in Tennessee, where he had been a state legislator, Congressman, Speaker of the House, governor, and friend of Andrew Jackson (as a result of which he was known as ‘Young Hickory’): James K Polk. Because he was not well known nationally, however, he was described as a ‘dark horse’ candidate, a term that is still used to-day for unexpected nominees. ‘Who is James K Polk?’ jeered the Whigs. They would soon find out, however.
*Polk ran on three issues:
1. A lowered tariff
2. An independent treasury (where government money was held in the treasury building and not by private banks, and was kept out of the regular economy)
3. The annexation of Texas and Oregon.
He also promised not to run for re-election, promising to do his best in four years and to not worry about popularity, since he would not run for re-election.
*James K Polk’s election later that year proved to the Senate that the majority of the American people favoured the annexation of Texas, and it was accomplished.
*In December, 1845, Polk sent Ambassador John Slidell to Mexico City to try to buy New Mexico and California for $30 million. The Mexicans would not even talk to Slidell.
*Polk then sent General Zachary Taylor into the disputed area between the Rio Nueces and the Rio Grande. There he and his men were attacked, and some were killed.
*Claiming that American blood had been spilt on American soil, Congress declared war on 13 May, 1846, despite Representative Abraham Lincoln’s ‘spot resolution’ asking to see the spot where blood was shed in America.
*At about the same time, Americans living in California declared themselves independent of Mexico as the Republic of California, and began the ‘Bear Flag Revolt’ led by John Frémont. Together with US Army General Kearny, Frémont defeated the Mexicans and had control of California by January, 1847.
*In February, 1847, Taylor fought Santa Anna in northern Mexico, defeating him repeatedly. Taylor drank hard and he fought hard, and was known by his troops as ‘Old Rough and Ready.’
*At about the same time, Polk sent fat and stuffy 1812 veteran General Winfield Scott (‘Old Fuss and Feathers’) south by sea to attack central Mexico. He captured the port of Veracruz on 27 March, 1847. From there he marched inland with 10,000 men, along the same route taken by Hernán Cortés. This route, and indeed much of his campaign, was planned for him by a captain in the Army Corps of Engineers, Robert E Lee.
*The Mexican War was a training ground for the Civil War. In addition to Robert E. Lee, famous men such as Jefferson Davis, U.S. Grant, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, George McClellan, P.G.T. Beauregard, James Longstreet, Albert Sidney Johnston, Joseph E. Johnston, George Thomas, George Meade, Edmund Kirby Smith, Braxton Brag, Joe Hooker, George Picket, and dozens of others all served in Mexico.
*After the battle of Chapultepec (in which Mexican military academy cadets fought to the death against the Americans, for which they are memorialised in a statue) on 13 September, 1847, American troops entered Mexico City on the 14th and completely possessed it by the 15th.
*The war ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, in which Mexico renounced any claim to Texas, gave up California and New Mexico, accepted $15 million from the US and gave the US $3 million in claims against Mexico by US citizens.
*Later, the US would spend $10 million more to buy the Gadsden Purchase in order to facilitate the construction of a southern trans-continental railroad.
*Many Congressmen, especially northerners, tried to make a law that slavery would be outlawed in the new territories. One such proposal was called the Wilmot Proviso, after Pennsylvanian David Wilmot’s suggestion to that effect. These efforts were unsuccessful, and slavery would expand into Texas and beyond.
*In 1846, Polk also agreed with Great Britain to divide the disputed Oregon Territory. Once claimed by Spain, Russia, Britain and the US, only the US and UK still claimed it. Britain only had a few settlers there, mostly fur trappers working for the Hudson’s Bay Company, whereas America had well of 5,000. Polk and the British agreed to simply extend the Rush-Bagot line along the 49th parallel all the way to the Pacific Ocean, with only the southern tip of Vancouver Island dipping below that line. Some northerners felt cheated, pointing out that all of Texas had been taken, but not all of Oregon.
*By 1848, Polk had done essentially
everything he had promised. He had lowered the tariff, created an
independent treasury (which had problems, but was more stable than the
old state banks where Federal funds had been kept after the demise of the
Bank of the United States), and annexed Texas, Oregon, and more land besides.
He retired to his home in Columbia, Tennessee, and died shortly afterwards.
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This page last updated 23 September, 2003.