James Polk as a Wartime President

As president, James Polk was representative of the times in which he lived because he was a key proponent of the concept of Manifest Destiny, i.e., the divine right of the United States to occupy the continent from coast to coast. He was intent on expanding the parameters of the young nation from east to west, as well as the northern and southern borders. During a period that lasted only three years, Texas was annexed into the Union, the acquisition of the Oregon territory occurred, and the Mexican War resulted in 500,000 square miles of land becoming part of the new country as well. His presidency was considered to be the most forceful one that occurred between presidents Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln.

Besides his desire to widen the geographical limitations of the United States, James Polk had very specific philosophical views as well. He put a strong emphasis on individual freedoms, states' rights as opposed to the idea of having a strong centralized government to make decisions, and believed in an orthodox, limited view of the Constitution. He believed in the absolute primacy of the citizenry as well. These views certainly informed his management of the presidency. His inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1845, was a window into how his presidency would be handled: as the youngest president up until that date, he delivered a message of hope and confidence, a third of which was devoted to the idea of widening the national borders. By that time, the annexation of Texas had all but been accomplished; the new President Polk was left only to finish up the final parts of the process.

Unquestionably, the most prominent issue of Polk's administration related to his foreign policy achievements. The Oregon territory had been held by both the United States and England since 1918. During his presidential bid, however, James Polk declared ownership of the entire region leading up to the southern boundary of Russia-controlled Alaska. After he was elected president, however, he tried to find a more negotiable solution, extending the 49th parallel, which separated the United States from Canada east of the Rockies. However, the British rejected this stance, leading to worries about an impending war; these concerns lasted until the outbreak of the Mexican War. When that conflict was about to occur, it was resolved largely in the way that James Polk had suggested it be resolved.

Congress declared the annexation of Texas on the final day of President John Tyler's administration. Following that legislative action, Mexico, terminated all of its diplomatic connections with the United States, leading Polk to plan to settle any boundary disputes with Mexico, resolve any claims against the Mexican government, and add California to the list of territories belonging to the new nation. His hope was that adding California and Oregon into the mix would help to heal the country, which was extremely divided over the issue of slavery in the new territories. However, Polk's delegates could not negotiate a treaty. Instead, Mexico sent John Slidell, the minister to Mexico, back home, resulting in Polk's decision to go to war. The opportunity for such action occurred when General Zachary Taylor was attacked with gunfire in part of the territory disputed with Mexico north of the Rio Grande River. The result became a war resolution that was enacted in the House of Representatives on May 11, 1846.

Nevertheless, despite the hostilities with Mexico and the outright war, James Polk still intended to acquire California and New Mexico by using diplomacy. Working with Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana, the former dictator who had left Mexico, Polk provided the funds that would allow him to return to Mexico in order to negotiate a peaceful outcome with the United States. Instead, Santa Ana took over the Army as soon as he returned to his native country, and Polk was forced to devise another plan, which would create a $2 million fund in an attempt to purchase peace with Mexico; this proposal was defeated in Congress, however.

In any case, the United States won the war, after a series of battles, and President Polk demonstrated an exceptionally skillful role as commander-in-chief for the forces. Zachary Taylor was able to move his troops south into the core of Mexico, while at the same time, General Winfield Scott gain entry to the country through Veracruz. In the meantime, President Polk maintained tight control over the armed forces because he was suspicious that both of the generals might decide to run for office as possible Whig candidates for president. Winfield Scott overtook Mexico City in April, 1848.

When the war finally ended, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo defined the concessions given up by Mexico: California, New Mexico, and any claims to Texas in exchange for $15 million. President Polk had accomplished taking over the continental United States with the exception of only a small piece of land in the southwest. This slice of terrain was ultimately purchased from Mexico. Polk had hoped that the war and the newly added lands on the West coast would minimize or put an end to the regional hostilities and anxiety that had been destabilizing the union, but he failed in that regard. During the US-Mexican war, tremendous opposition had been growing in Congress as well as in the general populace. These conflicts had only increased as the war progressed, with the issue of slavery becoming more prominent as a regional matter, and several radical Democrats attempted to ban slavery from the newly acquired territories. 10. They viewed the expansion of the boundaries of the United States as a way to maintain and increase the practice of slavery in new areas of the country. Contrary to Polk's goals, regionalism became only more polarized as a result of the expansion.

Since the issue of Texas had already been settled, after his inauguration President Polk became involved with the issue of the Oregon territory boundary; this involved tensions with England, who also wanted to claim that land. Using aggressive methods to make demands to resolve that dispute in favor of the United States was characteristic of Polk's manner of conflict resolution. Although there were fears that the dispute might result in a war with England, Polk would not back down, despite the fact that his attention was divided between that situation as well as mounting hostilities with Mexico. This refusal to compromise, coupled with an absolute commitment to stick to one's position no matter what the challenges presented, characterize President Polk's tenure in office, from beginning to end.

It became evident that President Polk had set his sights on taking charge of California from Mexico, which became as inevitable as had the inclusion of Texas into the union. Despite the fact that he had successfully incorporated a tremendous expansion of land into the total area of the United States, general acknowledgment that he had a strong and unshakable character, had accomplished an extremely favorable agenda domestically and was a competent leader during wartime, however, President Polk has not typically been seen as a great president. In truth, however, his tenure in office revealed him to be a shrewd and commanding leader, both during wartime and peacetime. In addition, his political skills were evident as he aptly and skillfully communicated with the Congress, created the Department of the Interior, developed the first administrative press corps, and staked one of his many claims to fame by always remaining a representative of the people throughout his presidency. Many historians feel that President Polk left office having conducted the most successful presidency since that of George Washington.

Polk, however, had much opposition as well. Many politicians, officials, and average citizens believe that he underestimated the Mexican War’s impact on the issue of slavery; in addition, he appeared to lack concern about issues pertaining to the increasing modernization of the newly developing nation. It was felt that this negligence was a major contributing factor to the chaos and splitting of the two major political parties in 1849-1850. Nor was James Polk popular with his peers; he was fiercely loyal to his party and only his party, tending to be secretive and avoidant. In addition, he was typically in conflict with his two generals of war, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. Despite those unpleasantries, however, he has usually been acknowledged as an extremely effective wartime president 12. Polk committed himself to serving only one term in office, a pledge which he indeed upheld.