President James K Polk and his Donegal connection

By John Powell

James K Polk, the eleventh President of the United States, and the second Irish-American to hold the office, was born in North Carolina in 1795. His family had originally come from Lifford in County Donegal. He moved with his father to Tennessee and became a follower of the Democratic leader, Andrew Jackson.

He was elected Governor of Tennessee in 1839 and in 1844 was elected as Democratic President over Henry Clay, the Whig party candidate. His Vice-President was George M Dallas from Pennsylvania.

Polk’s one term administration was to see an immense expansion of the territory of the United States. The Republic of Texas, which had gained its independence from Mexico, asked to be annexed to the United States. The anti-slavery party in the North opposed the move, which was backed by the slave owing states of the South. In December 1845 Texas formally became a part of the United States.

Not content with Texas, the US Congress next had to face the question of Oregon. The claim included a territory, which took in the Rocky Mountains, north of California to Alaska. Britain disputed the claim wanting to keep the territory as a wilderness in order to get supplies of fur from there. From 1834 onwards wagonloads of American settlers blazed a trail into Oregon and founded Oregon City.

In 1846 the cry went up “The British must go – the whole of Oregon, or none – Fifty-four forty, or fight.” The latter referred to the degree of latitude and longitude claimed by the United States. That year President Polk managed to negotiate a treaty, which divided the territory with Britain. The United States obtained the part that now includes the states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and parts of Wyoming and Montana – some 300,000 square miles.

Though avoiding war with Britain, Polk managed to provoke one with Mexico following a dispute over the western boundary of Texas. The President commanded General Taylor to seize a strip of land between the Rio Grande and the Nueces Rivers in 1846. To quote General Grant, the American troops were there “to provoke a fight.”

When Taylor refused an American request to leave, his troops were attacked by the Mexicans and the US Congress then declared war against Mexico. Thousands of volunteers, mostly from the Southern states, rushed to the colours. The war lasted a year and resulted in the defeat of Mexico after a hard fought campaign.

As a result the United States gained what are now the states of California, New Mexico, Texas and parts of Southern Arizona.

On the domestic front Polk approved a reduction of the tariff and made the US Treasury independent of the banking system. He declined re-nomination and returned to his home in Nashville, Tennessee and died there on the 15th June 1849.

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