James Polk (1813–1861)

James Polk (1813–1861)

James Polk, eleventh president of the United States, was a Democrat and a strong believer in Manifest Destiny. His administration was responsible for the second largest geographic expansion of the U.S. territories when it secured the Oregon Territory— encompassing some 285,000 square miles—ensuring the reality of a continental United States.

The annexation of Texas as a state, which Polk had long sought, led to a declaration of war by Mexico. Thus began the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). Many opponents of slavery, including Lincoln, opposed the war with Mexico. But, unlike the Abolitionists who claimed that the expansion of slavery was Polk’s true purpose for the war with Mexico, Lincoln believed Polk intended it to distract from his unpopular decision in setting the Oregon border far south of the demarcation desired by expansionists.

In 1847, Lincoln began his first term in national office in the U.S. House of Representatives. Here, he hoped “to distinguish” himself by opposing the war, and introduced the “Spot Resolutions,” challenging President Polk to pinpoint the spot where Americans had shed blood on American soil, which Polk had presented as rationale for his push for war with Mexico. (In fact, the incident had occurred on disputed territory historically claimed by Mexico.) Lincoln thought the war was unnecessary and unconstitutional, but agreed that some accessions of Mexican land were “a necessity.”

President Polk oversaw the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848, bringing an end to the war and giving the U.S. control of Texas, establishing the Rio Grande River as the border with Mexico, and ceding to the U.S. the present-day states of California, Nevada, and Utah, and portions of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Mexico was paid ,250,000 and the U.S. agreed to assume .25 million in debt owed to its citizens. Mexico lost nearly two-thirds of its territory.


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