1938 11¢ James Polk
Issue Date: September 8, 1938
First City: Washington, DC
Quantity Issued: 618,689,700
Printing Method: Rotary press
Perforations: 11 x 10 ½
Known affectionately as the “Prexies,” the 1938 Presidential series is a favorite among stamp collectors.
The series was issued in response to public clamoring for a new Regular Issue series. The series that was current at the time had been in use for more than a decade. President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed, and a contest was staged. The public was asked to submit original designs for a new series picturing all deceased U.S. Presidents. Over 1,100 sketches were submitted, many from veteran stamp collectors. Elaine Rawlinson, who had little knowledge of stamps, won the contest and collected the $500 prize. Rawlinson was the first stamp designer since the Bureau of Engraving and Printing began producing U.S. stamps who was not a government employee.
James Knox Polk emerged from relative obscurity to capture his party’s nomination for President in 1844, and then upset favorite Henry Clay to win the White House and become the 11th President of the United States.
Portrayed as a servant to the policies of fellow Tennessee native and former President Andrew Jackson, Polk promised the divided Democratic party he would serve only one term of office if elected. He stayed true to his word, and his one term presided over the second-largest expansion of United States territory, fought one war, and threatened another. That expansion followed the country’s principle of Manifest Destiny, or “necessary expansion.” But it gave fuel to the fire of Civil War a decade later, as clashes over slavery in new states heightened tensions.
Polk’s Early Life
James Polk was born on November 2, 1795, in Pineville, North Carolina. He was the eldest of 10 children born to Samuel and Jane Knox Polk. Jane was a descendant of John Knox, who was the founder of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland. In 1806, Samuel moved the family to the Duck River Valley in Tennessee, near the town of Columbia, where James’ grandfather Ezekiel had previously settled. The family farm thrived, but James was not as fortunate.
As a young boy, James was small and sickly. He suffered from constant stomach ailments throughout his childhood, and at age 17, was diagnosed with gallstones. These were surgically removed – without anesthesia – by noted Kentucky doctor Ephraim McDowell, while James was still conscious and strapped to a table, grasping his father’s hand. Many historians believe this process left him sterile, as he did not have any children later in life.
A year later, James started getting formal education at a local church. He had only a basic understanding of how to read and write, but quickly excelled and moved to a school in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. James did well in school and became well-versed in Latin, Greek, and English. He applied to the University of North Carolina, where the Polks had several connections – cousin William was a trustee and Samuel Polk was the university’s land agent in Tennessee.
James qualified on the University of North Carolina entrance exams for admission as a sophomore. He was a top-notch student in college as well, regularly participating in debates, becoming two-time president of the Dialectic (debating) Society. James graduated with honors at the age of 22.
After graduation from college, Polk once again fell ill, and wasn’t able to return home for several months. He spent the time studying law. Once home, he continued his law studies under local attorney Felix Grundy. Grundy also introduced him to politics.
Start of Political Career
With Grundy’s recommendation, Polk took a job as clerk in the Tennessee General Assembly. He passed the bar exam in 1820 and started a private practice. His first case was defending his father from a public fighting charge. He was reelected for another year as clerk, and then ran for the General Assembly.
It was during this election that Polk gained the nickname, “Napoleon of the Stump.” This was due to his small physical stature combined with his powerful speaking style. He became the General Assembly representative for Maury County after defeating William Yancey in 1823. During that time, Polk joined the local militia with the rank of Captain. He was later promoted to Colonel.
During this same time, Polk started what became a long political alliance with Andrew Jackson. Jackson was a popular Tennessee politician, as well as a national war hero. Polk also wed Sarah Childress, who was from a wealthy Murfreesboro family. They married on New Year’s Day in 1824, when Polk was 28 years old and Sarah was 20. Some stories say Jackson had encouraged the romance.
Polk supported Jackson’s nomination for his 1824 Presidential bid. Jackson won the popular vote with far more votes (nearly 50% more) than the next candidate, John Quincy Adams. He won in the electoral balloting, as well. But at the time, a new President needed a majority of the total vote, not just the most votes of any candidate. Since no majority had been achieved, the vote was decided in Congress. The last of the four candidates, Henry Clay, unexpectedly threw his support behind John Quincy Adams in what came to be called the “Corrupt Bargain,” and Adams edged out Jackson for the Presidency.
Congress and Governor
Polk’s strong ties to the enormously popular Jackson and his policies helped Polk get elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1825. He was nicknamed “Young Hickory,” in reference to his ties to Jackson, who was known as “Old Hickory.” After the 1824 Presidential election, Jackson immediately started working toward the 1828 election. Polk and others assisted with this, and Polk became a leader in the Jacksonian Democrat group in Congress. In Polk’s first speech he argued that the Electoral College should be abolished. He also argued for a restructuring of the banking system, which was mostly based in the Northeast. Slavery was becoming an increasingly important issue, and Polk supported the right of individual states to decide the issue for themselves.
In 1828, Jackson again ran for President and won easily. Polk’s loyalty earned him a place as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. He became Speaker of the House in 1835. Polk continued to support Jackson’s policies after Jackson left office. Martin Van Buren, another powerful Jackson supporter, succeeded Jackson as President. Van Buren and Polk worked together closely.
Back at home, Tennessee’s political situation had become troublesome for Polk. In 1835, the Democratic-Republican party lost the governor’s race for the first time since the party was created. Polk felt it was important to return to his home state and help. He left Congress in 1839 and ran for Governor of Tennessee, narrowly defeating Whig candidate Newton Cannon. By 1840, Van Buren was easily beaten in the Presidential race by Whig William Henry Harrison. The Whigs also won back the governor’s seat in Tennessee in 1841, as James Jones beat Polk in a close race. Interestingly, Polk received one electoral vote for the position of Vice President in the Presidential election.
1844 Presidential Election
Polk hoped to be nominated for Vice President in the 1844 Presidential election. Fellow Jacksonian Democrat and past President Van Buren was the leading contender for the Democrats. But Van Buren opposed the annexation of the Republic of Texas, which was the main issue. The majority of the Democratic party favored adding Texas, and Van Buren lost a lot of supporters – including Jackson. Van Buren won the first ballot for the party’s nomination, but did not get the required two-thirds vote. This was repeated through the next six ballots as well, and it became obvious that he would not be able to gather enough support for the nomination. The party turned to another Jackson supporter, Polk, as a replacement candidate, and by the ninth ballot Polk secured the party’s nomination. Polk was the first politician to whom the phrase “dark horse” candidate was applied (a term taken from an 1831 novel by Benjamin Disraeli called The Young Duke, and which indicates an unexpected and unlikely candidate to win).
Polk ran against Henry Clay for the White House. Polk strongly supported American expansion into both Texas and the Oregon Territory, and was elected President. The election was highly divisive to both the Democratic party and the country. In order to try to ease the partisanship, Polk announced that he would only serve for one term.
Polk laid out four principal goals for his administration when he gave his inaugural address: reestablish an independent treasury, lower tariffs, work with Great Britain to settle the Oregon issue, and acquire the California territory from Mexico. He accomplished all four goals, but in ways that sparked controversy – particularly the expansion.
The Walker Tariff was proposed by Democrat-Republican Robert Walker. It reversed the high tariffs enacted under the Whig-supported “Black Tariff” of 1842. In order to promote trade, tariffs were lowered on most goods, except for luxury items such as tobacco. It was passed in 1846, and along with Britain’s repeal of the Corn Laws (another set of highly protective trade restrictions), led to greatly increased trade between the two countries. It also helped ease tensions with Great Britain in the aftermath of a dispute over the Oregon Territory.
“54-40 or Fight!”
American settlers had been moving to the Oregon territory in droves since 1843. Both the United States and Great Britain claimed the territory and administered it. Polk tried diplomacy at first, offering to settle the issue at the 49th parallel (line of latitude). However, British trappers had important posts on the Columbia River in what is now the Washington state area, and Great Britain declined Polk’s proposal.
President Polk broke off negotiations with Great Britain, and expansionist supporters used the phrase, “54-40 or Fight!” in reference to the latitude line that marked where the United States should claim territory. That area would include all of present-day British Columbia. Polk took an aggressive stance that suggested he was willing to go to war with Great Britain to enforce that claim. In the meantime, the trappers were able to relocate trading posts to the area that is now Vancouver. After some tension, the two nations reached a compromise. The old line of the 49th parallel was accepted, and the Oregon Territory established the northern boundary as what is now the U.S.-Canadian border.
Diplomacy did not work as well with America’s southern border. In 1836, Texas had rebelled against Mexico and won. The following year, Texas representatives petitioned the Van Buren administration to be annexed by the United States. Thinking this would provoke a war with Mexico, Van Buren rejected the request. It was revisited under President John Tyler, who submitted the proposal to Congress. The issue of new states raised tensions regarding slavery, and Congress rejected it again. Finally, annexation was approved at the end of 1845, with the provision that Texas had the right to divide into five states.
This did not resolve the boundary issue, however. The U.S. placed the southern boundary at the Rio Grande, while Mexico said it was along the more northerly Nueces River. To protect America’s interests, Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to set up camp along the Rio Grande. The United States was trying to purchase California from Mexico at the same time. Diplomat John Slidell was sent to negotiate, but Mexico refused to meet with him, and expelled him from the country. General Taylor brought troops over the Rio Grande into Mexico. Tensions increased, and finally the situation erupted into violence.
The Mexican-American War
Polk was already incensed that Slidell had been expelled when he received word that Mexican forces crossed the Rio Grande and killed nearly a dozen American soldiers. On May 11, 1846, Polk addressed Congress and demanded a declaration of war. Some Congressmen questioned the accuracy of Polk’s claims, but approved the declaration.
The war proceeded quickly. Taylor and General Winfield Scott rapidly cut through Mexico, with Taylor winning a string of victories in Northern Mexico and Scott capturing Mexico City, the capital. General Stephen Kearney occupied the New Mexico territory, and Mexican forces in California fell to coordinated attacks by Commodore Robert Stockton and Captain John C. Frémont. Hostilities were over by September of 1847.
Aftermath of the War
The War was unpopular in the United States. Many Northern states felt it was a way to expand areas that would support slavery. Polk received considerable criticism for the war, particularly from Senator Daniel Webster and Illinois Representative Abraham Lincoln. The conflict was often referred to as “Mr. Polk’s War.”
Polk, a slave owner and strong supporter of states’ rights, was not heavily pro-slavery. He referred to the Missouri Compromise of 1820 – which had set a geographical line to determine where slavery was legal – as a solution. It wasn’t acceptable to either the North or the South. His efforts to stay neutral only succeeded in angering all sides. In 1848, the House of Representatives censured him (an official reprimand).
The issue deepened the gulf between the pro- and anti-slavery factions. It also took a personal toll on Polk. Frail and prone to illness since childhood, Polk was exhausted and in poor health at the end of his Presidency. He kept his vow of being only a single term President, and did not participate in the election of 1848, which was won by Zachary Taylor.
James and Sarah Polk returned to Tennessee and a new home in Nashville, called “Polk Place.” His retirement did not last long. Greatly weakened and possibly afflicted with cholera, James Polk died on June 15, 1849. His last words reportedly were, “I love you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you.”