James K. Polk: Foreign Affairs | Miller Center (2023)

During James K. Polk's presidency, foreign policy revolved around the U.S. desire for additional territory in North America. Even before the Revolutionary War, Americans had looked westward, and in the early years of the republic the United States had expanded its borders toward and then beyond the Mississippi River. Whether through a congressional joint resolution, negotiations, purchase, or war, President Polk by the end of his term intended for the United States to stretch from coast to coast, firmly in possession of the Oregon Territory and California.

Annexation of Texas

President Tyler, in the last months of his term, boldly sent a joint resolution to Congress for the annexation of Texas. A resolution required only a simple majority vote in both houses rather than the two-thirds majority in the Senate that is normally required for a treaty. Tyler sent Congress a resolution because he knew that the two-thirds vote in the Senate was not to be had. Congress passed the joint resolution a few days before Polk's inauguration in March 1845. This allowed Texas to bypass the territorial stage and come into the union as the fifteenth slave state in December 1845. Although Mexico had promised war against the United States if it annexed Texas, no war followed. But when Texas moved its militia into disputed territory west of the Nueces River, thereby staking a claim to the Rio Grande as its southern border, Mexico responded by breaking off diplomatic relations with the United States.

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Oregon

During the 1844 campaign, Polk had pledged to settle the boundary of the Oregon Territory with Britain, and once in office, he moved quickly to acquire sole title to Oregon. His supporters in the 1844 campaign had promoted the occupation of the entire territory, as encapsulated in their slogan (which Polk did not disavow), "54°40' or Fight." Both Great Britain and the United States had jointly occupied this region since 1818, and it was clear that Polk wanted the west coast of North America for the United States, possibly even including Mexican-controlled California. In the beginnings of negotiations, Polk bluffed to Britain that he wanted all the territory up to 54°40'. In the end, the President's shrewd but unseemly bluster earned him a compromise rather than a war with the British. In spite of his own supporters' more extreme demands, Polk agreed to a boundary at the 49th parallel, giving the United States present-day Oregon, Idaho, and Washington, as well as control of the Columbia River.

War with Mexico

Polk now turned the entirety of his attention toward Mexico. Much was at stake in the area. Great Britain had been discussing with Mexico for months the possibility of buying California. The British previously had offered to support the independence of Texas in return for the abolition of slavery in the area. Even before settling the Oregon question, Polk had moved troops into the disputed territory just north of the Rio Grande and sent a special envoy, John Slidell, to Mexico. Slidell carried with him a U.S. offer to buy California as well as plenipotentiary powers to settle disputed border claims. Slidell's arrival in Mexico triggered a revolt against the Mexican president—who had indicated a willingness to deal with Slidell—by army officers who pledged to recover the "stolen province of Mexico."

In late April 1846, Mexican troops crossed the Rio Grande and killed eleven U.S. soldiers. In response, Polk requested a declaration of war from Congress, arguing that Mexicans had "shed the blood of our fellow-citizens on our own soil." By May 13, 1846, both nations officially were at war. Most Whigs opposed the war, as did Calhoun, but all remembered how the nation had turned on the Federalists following their opposition to the War of 1812. Hence, only fourteen members of the House and two senators voted against the declaration. Abraham Lincoln, a first-term Whig congressman from Illinois, condemned the war as an "unconstitutional" and aggressive act, even challenging Polk to take him to Texas and show him "the spot" on which Mexicans had shed American blood. This position proved unpopular with his western constituents and figured into his decision not to run for a second term.

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Within seven months, the U.S. Army completely defeated the much larger Mexican Army on its own soil in three triumphant military campaigns. The first phase was conducted by General Zachary Taylor's four-thousand-man army in northern Mexico. Engaging much larger forces, Taylor earned the nickname "Old Rough and Ready" for his victories at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma and, after being reinforced by several thousand volunteers, his capture of Monterrey in September 1846.

Phase Two commenced under General Stephen Watts Kearny, who meanwhile led an army of fifteen hundred regulars and fighting frontiersmen west from Fort Leavenworth to Santa Fe in New Mexico, occupying it on August 18, 1846. Half of Kearny's army then fought their way through the Mexican province of Chihuahua, marching three thousand miles to link up with Taylor's army at Monterrey in the spring of 1847. The other half of Kearny's forces joined American settlers in California under the command of Captain John C. Fremont, who had captured Sonoma and declared California an independent republic. Their flag, displaying the picture of a grizzly bear, gave rise to the term "bear-flag revolt."

The third phase of the war had all the markings of a comic opera. In July 1846, Polk provided safe passage into Mexico for a former Mexican army officer who had been overthrown in a palace coup in 1844 and exiled to Cuba—the infamous General Antonio López de Santa Anna. Commander of Mexican forces at the Battle of the Alamo, Santa Anna was a man hated by Texans and distrusted by his own countrymen. He promised Polk that he would make peace on American terms in return for a payoff of $30 million. When Santa Anna arrived in Mexico City, however, the new government named him supreme commander of the army and president of the republic. He immediately raised a new army and marched north in early 1847 to attack Taylor's force at Monterrey. In the meantime, Polk was growing increasingly worried about Taylor's popularity. Angry with the general for having declared an armistice without his approval after capturing Monterey, Polk transferred half of Taylor's army to General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, whom Polk ordered to lead an invasion of central Mexico.

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Taylor, a Whig who suspected political intrigue on Polk's part, met in battle Santa Anna's fifteen-thousand-man army at Buena Vista on February 22, 1847. When the smoke cleared, Taylor's five thousand Americans had defeated Santa Anna's army in a fierce battle marked by the courageous counterattack of a Mississippi regiment commanded by young Jefferson Davis. When news of Taylor's victory reached back home, his popularity soared and Whigs began publicly to mention his name as a possible candidate for the presidency.

In a daring and unprecedented amphibious landing, Scott captured the port of Veracruz in March 1847. Then, in one of the riskiest field maneuvers in the books, he launched a five-month, hard-fought campaign over the two hundred miles to Mexico City. Most European military strategists predicted disaster, because not only was Scott's army outnumbered three to one, it was cut off from its supply bases, filled with ill-trained volunteers, and operating in unknown terrain. But in the end, and after bloody hand-to-hand fighting, Scott's army stood in possession of Mexico City on September 14, 1847.

With Mexico's capital in American hands, Polk sent diplomat Nicholas Trist to negotiate the terms of Mexican surrender with yet another new government, this one having overthrown Santa Anna after his loss of Mexico City. Expansionist fever at home in his own party pressured Polk to wring every possible concession from Mexico. Some even called for the annexation of "All Mexico," although all Polk really wanted was California. Trist resisted Polk's instructions, however, and so the President recalled him. In spite of this, the diplomat continued to negotiate with Mexico, and on February 2, 1848, he signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which authorized U.S. payment of $15 million for California and New Mexico, and named the Rio Grande as the Texas border. With the treaty in hand, Polk wisely decided to submit it to the Senate. After a short debate, the Senate approved the treaty on March 10, 1848, by a vote of thirty-eight to fourteen. Half of the opposition came from Democrats who wanted more Mexican territory, and half from Whigs who wanted none at all. Mexico, in what was called the Mexican Cession, ceded over one-third of its territory to the United States, increasing the latter's size by one-fourth. This Mexican Cession now contains the present-day states of Arizona, Utah, Nevada, California, much of New Mexico, and portions of Wyoming and Colorado. Just before leaving office, Polk created the Department of the Interior in an effort to help organize and administer these vast new western lands.

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American deaths in the Mexican War surpassed 13,000, although only 2,053 of this number died in battle or from wounds received in combat—the rest died from disease. Another 4,100 Americans were wounded. Mexico suffered nearly 50,000 casualties. The Mexican War was the first war covered by large numbers of the press, and Polk's reliance on volunteers gave the war a democratic character. Influential American men of letters like Walt Whitman and James Fenimore Cooper saw it as the beginning of a world movement to extend democracy.

Treaty of New Granada

Concerned that Britain might use the war with Mexico to expand its claims in Central America and the Caribbean, Polk responded positively to the initiative of New Granada (present-day Colombia) for a commercial treaty. The agreement, signed by U.S. Minister Benjamin A. Bidlack, conveyed to the U.S. the right of way across the Isthmus of Panama. In return, the United States promised to guarantee the neutrality of the isthmus and the sovereignty of New Granada. In so doing, Polk paved the way for the eventual construction in 1914 of the Panama Canal, although a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans already found boosters within Polk's cabinet. Meanwhile, Polk opened discussions with Spain with the aim of purchasing Cuba, although in this case his goal was to prevent another war of annexation being pushed by certain fellow Democrats. However, Spain was not interested in the U.S. offer.

FAQs

Did Polk keep his 5 promises? ›

Polk claimed that the United States would control the entire Oregon Territory without Great Britain's input or that Americans would fight. Polk did not fulfill his campaign promise. In 1846, he agreed with the British to establish the United States-Canadian border at the forty-ninth parallel.

What was James K. Polk's foreign policy? ›

During James K. Polk's presidency, foreign policy revolved around the U.S. desire for additional territory in North America. Even before the Revolutionary War, Americans had looked westward, and in the early years of the republic the United States had expanded its borders toward and then beyond the Mississippi River.

How does Polk justify the expansion of the United States? ›

Polk was backed by many in the United States who believed they had the God-given right to rule the territories to the west. This Manifest Destiny was presented as giving the U.S. permission to do what was necessary to conquer those lands. As a result, the U.S. waged war to take the northern half of Mexico.

What was James K. Polk famous quote? ›

"Well may the boldest fear and the wisest tremble when incurring responsibilities on which may depend our country's peace and prosperity, and in some degree the hopes and happiness of the whole human family."

Why did Polk reject the treaty with Mexico? ›

He believed the Whigs would not support more aggressive expansion. President Polk was motivated to reject the treaty with Mexico because of which of the following? Many Southerners wanted the United States to get larger gains in territory.

Was President Polk happy with the treaty? ›

He reasoned that he could secure a treaty and the U.S. government would still be at liberty to reject it. Polk was livid when Trist ignored his order to return to Washington, but he was nevertheless pleased when Trist signed the treaty with Mexico in February.

What is James K. Polk's main concern? ›

James Polk as President

A workaholic, America's new chief executive set an ambitious agenda with four major goals: cut tariffs, reestablish an independent U.S. Treasury, secure the Oregon Territory and acquire the territories of California and New Mexico from Mexico. Polk eventually achieved all his goals.

What is Polk blaming Mexico for having done to the US? ›

President James K. Polk had accused Mexican troops of having attacked Americans on U.S. soil, north of the Rio Grande. But Mexico claimed this land as its own territory and accused the American military of having invaded.

Did Polk oppose slavery? ›

Although he personally supported slavery and received political report from southerners and westerners as the President of the United States, he also had to consider the growing antislavery sentiment and the recent successes of the abolitionist movement.

What lands did Polk want to add to the US? ›

Democrats replied Polk was the candidate who stood for expansion. He linked the Texas issue, popular in the South, with the Oregon question, attractive to the North. Polk also favored acquiring California. Even before he could take office, Congress passed a joint resolution offering annexation to Texas.

Why did Polk want to expand slavery? ›

Radical members of the Whig party stated that Polk's primary goal in instigating war was to expand slavery in order to increase the political power of slaveholding states.

How did Polk fulfill the idea of Manifest Destiny within the United States? ›

Under Polk, Manifest Destiny was put into action with the annexation of the nominally independent Texas and the ceding from Mexico of parts of nine states.

What was James K Polk slogan? ›

"54-40 or fight" – James K. Polk, highlighting his position on resolving the Oregon Territory boundary dispute with Russia and the United Kingdom.

What did Polk mean when he said fifty four forty or fight? ›

Polk called for expansion that included Texas, California, and the entire Oregon territory. The northern boundary of Oregon was the latitude line of 54 degrees, 40 minutes. "Fifty-four forty or fight!" was the popular slogan that led Polk to victory against all odds.

What were James K Polk last words? ›

James K.

Before his death, the 11th President of the United States reportedly said: "I love you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you." Polk is reported to have said this to his wife who was at his side when he died of cholera at the age of 53.

Who sold Mexico to the US? ›

Santa Anna refused to sell a large portion of Mexico, but he needed money to fund an army to put down ongoing rebellions, so on December 30, 1853 he and Gadsden signed a treaty stipulating that the United States would pay $15 million for 45,000 square miles south of the New Mexico territory and assume private American ...

What did Polk do to the Native Americans? ›

Polk also oversaw 10 treaties with Indian nations, seven of which negotiated acquisition of Indian land. The Kansas, Potawatomi, Chippewa, Winnebago, Pawnee, Menominee and Stockbridge tribes all agreed to give up part of their ancestral homelands. Polk left office in March 1849 and died three months later, at age 53.

How did President Polk defeat Mexico? ›

Polk had a three-part plan for the war with Mexico: First, American troops would drive Mexican forces out of the disputed border region in Texas and make the border secure. Second, the United States would seize New Mexico and California. Finally, American forces would take Mexico City, the capital of Mexico.

Did Polk try to buy Cuba? ›

The United States had been interested in Cuba for a long time. President James K. Polk (also from Tennessee) even tried to buy it once for $100 million dollars. Cuba was a colony of Spain.

Why did Polk lower the tariffs? ›

1844 Election

As a Democrat and a Southerner, Polk strongly favored lowering tariff rates to help the Southern states economically.

Why did Lincoln disagree with Polk? ›

Despite Lincoln's willingness to change his vote, he still believed that President Polk was not “satisfied with his own positions.” Lincoln also stated that “his mind is tasked beyond its power” and Polk who believed the war would only last three to four months, cannot show his people a light at the end of the tunnel.

What did James K. Polk do about slavery? ›

In Public, Polk Played the Role of 'Benevolent' Slaveowner

It also wasn't an attempt to cover up the fact that he owned slaves. This was a well-known fact when he ran for president on the Democratic Party ticket in 1844; and when he took office, he brought enslaved people with him to the White House.

Was Polk honest in his discussions of his policies? ›

While Polk's contemporaries and biographers have given him full credit for determination and scrupulous honesty in personal affairs, they have also recognized a certain indirection or deviousness in his political methods.

How did President James Polk deal with the dispute between the United States and Great Britain over Oregon Country? ›

How did President James Polk deal with the dispute between the United Sates and Great Britain over Oregon country? He compromised with Britain by accepting half of Oregon. Texas allowed slavery.

Was the war with Mexico justified? ›

The United States was justified in going to war because Mexico had shed American blood on American soil, Texas (a land that many Mexicans still considered theirs) was an independent republic and had the right to govern itself, and Texas was trying to become part of the United States, which means that the United States ...

How did Kearny enter New Mexico without a single shot being fired? ›

Kearny and his troops encountered no Mexican forces when they arrived on August 15. Kearny and his force entered Santa Fe and claimed the New Mexico Territory for the United States without a shot being fired.

How did Mexico lose so much land? ›

This treaty, signed on February 2, 1848, ended the war between the United States and Mexico. By its terms, Mexico ceded 55 percent of its territory, including the present-day states California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming.

How many slaves did James K Polk have? ›

Presidents who owned slaves
No.PresidentApproximate number of slaves held
11thJames K. Polk56
12thZachary Taylor300
17thAndrew Johnson9
18thUlysses S. Grant1
8 more rows

How did James K Polk cause the Civil war? ›

The new territories inflamed sectional tensions between Slave States and Free States, and ultimately hastened the coming of the Civil War. James Polk made the United States larger and more powerful than ever before, but this rapid growth caused significant growing pains.

Who did Polk send to Mexico Why? ›

In November 1845, President Polk sent John Slidell to Mexico City in an attempt to buy California and New Mexico. Mexico, in political and economic disarray, had failed to make payments on $4.5 million it owed the United States.

Why did Polk send US troops to Texas? ›

In July of 1845, Polk sent an army led by General Zachary Taylor to Corpus Christi, on the banks of the Nueces River. Troops were officially dispatched to help defend Texas from a potential Mexican attack on Texas. But they also represented a display of power as a U.S. negotiator headed to Mexico.

What did Polk do good? ›

Polk accomplished nearly everything that he said he wanted to accomplish as President and everything he had promised in his party's platform: acquisition of the Oregon Territory, California, and the Territory of New Mexico; the positive settlement of the Texas border dispute; lower tariff rates; the establishment of a ...

Was Manifest Destiny justified? ›

The term "Manifest Destiny" was, in part, an expression of a genuine ideal on the part of Americans. But it was also a justification, in that they wanted territory and needed an excuse or justification for a push into territory that they did not control.

Did the idea of Manifest Destiny actually cause events? ›

The Manifest Destiny caused events rather than justifying actions taken for other reasons. This is seen when squatters and farmers are seen taken over people they see as "inferior" (Native Americans and Mexicans).

Does Manifest Destiny still exist today? ›

It can not be tied to a date, event or even a specific period of time. Manifest Destiny existed and still exists as the philosophy that embraces American history as a whole. Manifest Destiny is an intangible ideology that created American history.

What did James K. Polk promise in the 1844 election? ›

Democratic Party campaign tactics

To ensure the success of their southern strategy, the Democrats also muffled John Tyler. Polk furthermore pledged to serve only one term as president. He would keep this promise, and would die less than three months after leaving office.

Did President Polk follow through his promise of 54 40 or fight? ›

In the beginnings of negotiations, Polk bluffed to Britain that he wanted all the territory up to 54°40'. In the end, the President's shrewd but unseemly bluster earned him a compromise rather than a war with the British.

What inspired Fifty-Four Forty or Fight slogan? ›

Polk's primary campaign issue was to expand the United States to include Texas and the Pacific Northwest. Polk's battle cry was "Fifty-four forty or fight," which meant the United States would accept nothing less from the British than all of the Oregon Country, as far north as the border of Alaska.

What happened when Polk sent a diplomat to try? ›

Polk started out by trying to buy the land. He sent an American diplomat, John Slidell, to Mexico City to offer $30 million for it. But the Mexican government refused to even meet with Slidell. Polk grew frustrated.

Which president died from cholera? ›

Taylor died on the evening of July 9, after four days of suffering from symptoms that included severe cramping, diarrhea, nausea and dehydration. His personal physicians concluded that he had succumbed to cholera morbus, a bacterial infection of the small intestine.

What were the 4 goals of President Polk? ›

A workaholic, America's new chief executive set an ambitious agenda with four major goals: cut tariffs, reestablish an independent U.S. Treasury, secure the Oregon Territory and acquire the territories of California and New Mexico from Mexico. Polk eventually achieved all his goals.

Did James K Polk accomplish his goals? ›

Polk accomplished nearly everything that he said he wanted to accomplish as President and everything he had promised in his party's platform: acquisition of the Oregon Territory, California, and the Territory of New Mexico; the positive settlement of the Texas border dispute; lower tariff rates; the establishment of a ...

What did James Polk promise in the election of 1844? ›

Polk argued that Texas and Oregon had always belonged to the United States by right. He called for "the immediate re-annexation of Texas" and for the "re-occupation" of the disputed Oregon territory.

What were James Polk's failures? ›

He failed to understand the depth of popular emotion over the westward expansion of the South's "peculiar institution." This failure on his part left the issue of slavery unaddressed and thus unresolved at the end of his term in 1849.

What did Polk promise to annex? ›

Polk ran on an expansionist platform where his main promises consisted of the annexation of Texas and the Oregon Territory.

What were the four main goals of James K Polk presidency? ›

According to a story told decades later by George Bancroft, Polk set four clearly defined goals for his administration:
  • Reestablish the Independent Treasury System.
  • Reduce tariffs.
  • Acquire some or all of Oregon Country.
  • Acquire California and New Mexico from Mexico.

What were the 4 goals of president Polk? ›

A workaholic, America's new chief executive set an ambitious agenda with four major goals: cut tariffs, reestablish an independent U.S. Treasury, secure the Oregon Territory and acquire the territories of California and New Mexico from Mexico. Polk eventually achieved all his goals.

What did James K. Polk do to promote Manifest Destiny? ›

Not only was Polk concerned over acquiring the Oregon territory (his camapaign slogan "54'40 or fight" made it clear that he was a proponent of Manifest Destiny), but he was also crucial in acquiring Texas, igniting an easily-won war with Mexico that gave the United States not only Texas with their preferred borders, ...

What did Polk say about Manifest Destiny? ›

James K. Polk's first State of the Union Address, on 2 December 1845, promoted the concept that the US should encompass all of North America. James Polk was the first president to vocalise the concept that the US should stretch 'from sea to shining sea'. This concept of Manifest Destiny was not Polk's own.

How did president James Polk deal with the dispute between the United States and Great Britain over Oregon Country? ›

How did President James Polk deal with the dispute between the United Sates and Great Britain over Oregon country? He compromised with Britain by accepting half of Oregon. Texas allowed slavery.

What was Polk's three strategy to defeat Mexico? ›

Polk had a three-part plan for the war with Mexico: First, American troops would drive Mexican forces out of the disputed border region in Texas and make the border secure. Second, the United States would seize New Mexico and California. Finally, American forces would take Mexico City, the capital of Mexico.

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