James Polk Birthplace Historic Site
North Carolina native and 11th US President James Polk, or “Young Hickory” as he was later known because of this association with fellow Carolinian Andrew Jackson, more than anyone else embodies the idea of Manifest Destiny. His term in office saw the United States grow until it stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. And just like the elder Hickory, he would be associated more with Tennessee than North Carolina.
Born in a log cabin in Pineville on November 2, 1795, Polk was the first of 10 children born into a family of farmers on a 200 acre tract of land. His parents were Scots-Irish and slaveholders who lived in the area along with his father’s extended family.
James Polk Early Life and Move to Tennessee
In 1803, his grandfather and his oldest uncles moved to Maury County, Tennessee. When he was 11, James’ parents moved their family join him. There the Polk family would grow to dominate local politics and were strong supporters of President Thomas Jefferson.
Polk briefly returned to North Carolina in 1816 to attend UNC- Chapel Hill. At the time it was a small school of only 80 students. But of those 80 students, one would go on to become President of the United States and his roommate, William Dunn Moseley, would become the first governor of Florida.
Returning to Tennessee after graduation, he studied law under Felix Grundy and in 1820 was admitted to the bar. His first case was to defend his father on a public fighting charge. But his ambition would soon lead him in a different direction.
Also in 1820, he was formerly introduced to Sarah Childress who would later become his wife. From one of Tennessee’s leading families, she was ambitious and better educated than most men in the state. Andrew Jackson, family friend to both the Polks and the Childress encouraged the young Polk to marry her. From that point on, Jackson would be a guiding force in James Polk’s, taking the young man under his wing and guiding him all the way to the White House.
Polk’s Path to the White House
Turning his attention to Politics, James Polk ran for the Tennessee House in 1823. While many of the voters were part of his extended family, he still campaigned with a passion earning the nickname “Napoleon of the Stump” for his gifted oratory.
After wining the election and taking office, he was quickly thrust in to the middle of a controversy that let him solidify his relationship with Andrew Jackson. Breaking with his political allies, Polk voted to elect Jackson US Senator. From this point on Polk would support Jackson, and more than anyone else, Andrew Jackson would be responsible for advancing his young protege’s career.
Polk continued to support Jackson in 1824 during Jackson’s unsuccessful run for President. When the election was thrown into the US House of Representatives, Polk accused speaker Henry Clay of making a “Corrupt Bargain” by supporting John Quincy Adams in return for being named Secretary of State.
The animosity Polk felt towards the Adams Administration continued when he was elected to the US House from Tennessee’s 6th congressional district. Taking his seat in 1825, Polk became a vocal critic of the administration in favor of Andrew Jackson. His steadfast support earned him the nickname “Young Hickory” compared to Jackson’s “Old Hickory”.
When Jackson defeated Adams in the Presidential Election of 1828, Polk became his strongest supporter in the House, and Jackson used his considerable influence to advance his protege’s career. Polk first became chairman of the House Ways and Means committee in 1833, and then Jackson called in old favors to get Polk elected Speaker of the House in 1835.
Polk held the office of Speaker for two terms, choosing to return to Tennessee and run for governor in 1839. By this time Jackson had been out of office since March of 1837, and Polk feared that he wouldn’t win the speakership again. By this time, he too had presidential ambitions. Governor of Tennessee would give him a much better platform to launch his campaign as no Speaker of the House had ever been elected President. To this day, James Polk is the only person to have held both offices.
James Polk Back in Tennessee and the Dark Horse
Upon returning home, he easily won the Governor’s Mansion as the Democratic Party made a strong showing in the state, taking back the legislature and winning a majority of the US House delegation. James Polk was riding high, but it wouldn’t last. He was defeated in his reelection bid in 1841 and again 2 years later.
After his last defeat for Governor, Polk devised a new path to the Presidency. The 1844 Presidential Election was just getting started and he was determined to be the next Vice President.
Martin Van Buren was the presumptive Democratic nominee, seeking to regain the White House after loosing to William Henry Harrison in 1840. Polk, supported by Andrew Jackson, positioned himself as his running mate. Initially all went well, with Jackson supporting the ticket consisting of his former vice president Van Buren and his protege Polk. But as often happens in politics, things got complicated really fast.
Before the Democratic Convention, Martin Van Buren publicly announced his opposition to the annexation of Texas. Jackson was furious as he felt that opposing statehood for Texas would doom the Democrats chance at winning. So he turned to his old friend James Polk, who like Jackson, was a strong supporter of annexation.
Polk had to play his cards carefully. He couldn’t let on that he was really running for President. During the convention, he stayed in Tennessee and professed full support for Van Buren. He patiently waited and watched as time and time again Van Buren failed to win the necessary 2/3 votes for the nomination. After seven ballots, the convention remained deadlocked, and Polk’s name was put into contention. He only received 44 votes on the eighth ballot, but after that Van Buren withdrew his name. His votes went to Polk, and on the ninth and final ballot, he received 233 votes and the nomination.
That set up a confrontation between Polk and his old advisory Henry Clay. Clay opposed annexation of Texas and both Polk and Jackson felt that the majority of Americans supported it, however annexation was opposed by Northern Abolitionists. Polk managed to link the annexation of Texas favored by Southern Expansionists with the resolution of the Oregon dispute with the United Kingdon favored by Northern expansionists.
By walking that fine line he became the first candidate to win the presidency while at the same time loosing his home state (Tennessee) as well as his birth state (North Carolina).
James K. Polk’s Legacy
In his one term as president, James Polk saw the United States grow by more than three million square miles, settling into the current borders of the continental United States.
He diplomatically settled a dispute with the United Kingdom over the Oregon Country. Under the Treaty of 1818, Oregon was jointly held by the British and Americans. Both nations knew the situation was untenable, but they had failed to reach a resolution. Under Polk it was resolved with the division of the Oregon Territory along the 49th parallel, the American preference.
He also oversaw the annexation of Texas begun under the previous administration. This just served to increase tensions along the southern border as Mexico had never recognized Texas’ independence. Polk offered the Mexican government $30 million to settle the Texas dispute and buy New Mexico and California.
When Mexican President José Joaquín de Herrera refused the offer, Polk ordered US troops into the Nueces Strip between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. The area had long been contested by both the Republic of Texas and Mexico with both claiming it but neither being able to decisively capture it. The presence of US Troops was the spark needed to ignite war.
Lasting from 1846 to 1848, the Mexican-American War resulted in the southern border of Texas being set at the US preferred Rio Grande as well as the conquest of most of the US Southwest including New Mexico and California. In exchange, the US agreed to pay $15 million for damages caused by the war.
Domestically, he reestablished an independent treasury that had been revoked after Van Buren lost reelection. Polk’s treasury reforms would last until the Federal Reserve was established in the 20th Century.
His other accomplishment was the Walker Tariff of 1846 that lowered import tariffs and led to an increase in trade especially with Great Britain. Coming after the Oregon dispute, the lower tariffs helped improve relations with the UK as well.
One Term Wonder
Like Rutherford B. Hayes, James Polk promised to only seek one term as President. Having accomplished the goals he set out for his administration, he kept that promise and in 1848 chose not to seek reelection although he was immensely popular at the time.
He left Washington for the last time on March 6, 1849, and fell ill on a victory tour through the Southern states before returning home to Nashville on April 2. He seemed to recover, but after taking ill again, he died on June 15 at the age of 53. Just over three months after leaving office.
Visiting the James Polk Birthplace
The last 22 acres where the Polk family farm once stood is located in one of the fastest growing and heaviest trafficked area in the Carolinas. Just 5 miles from Carowinds, a small green island within the sea of housing developments and strip malls stands North Carolina’s only monument to the 11th President.
For decades after Polk’s death, there wasn’t any indication that he had ever lived here. Just an empty field where the family home had once been. Then in 1904 the Daughters of the American Revolution erected the first monument to James Polk in his birth state. The monument stood where the Polk home once did.
The site stayed much the same until the 1960’s when changes started taking place. Three local Mecklenburg buildings including a log home where moved to the site and rebuilt to resemble what the Polk’s farm had once looked like. The DAR monument was relocated to near the entrance to the site to make room for the home. The state historic site was officially opened to the public in 1968 in a celebration officiated by Lady Bird Johnson.
In 1988, the Polk Family Cemetery along Old Nations Ford Rd in Pineville was under threat by development. It had long since fallen into disrepair due to neglect, but now the 485 Loop threatened to run right through the middle. In response, the cemetery was moved to a new home at the Polk Historic Site where it could be maintained and protected.
Today the site also includes couple garden exhibits, including a kitchen garden where foods, herbs, and medicines would be grown for use by the family. Picnic tables are in a shady spot near the house and a visitor center with a short movie about the life and times of James Polk.
Tours of the interior of the buildings take place on Saturdays, but it’s best to call ahead and make an appointment if you want to see inside. Otherwise, you can scan a QR Code on the visitor center door for a self guided tour.
Final Thoughts about President James Polk Historic Site
There’s a lot of history and information packed into a small spot at the Polk Site. You could easily see everything in a little over an hour. That’s with watching the film in the Visitor Center. You won’t spend an entire day here, but it can easily be combined with other area attractions, and if you’re looking for a place near Charlotte for a picnic, this may be your spot.
Their website does mention a nature trail, but when I visited in 2021 it was closed. They hoped to have a BSA troop come in and work on it, but it wasn’t a priority. The site is, however located along the Little Sugar Creek Greenway. That’s a paved 19 mile walking/hiking/biking trail leading into downtown Charlotte. This part seems to be especially popular with trail bikers, with lots of folks parking at the Historic Site to start their rides.