James K. Polk 1795–1849
Eleventh president, 1845–1849
The life and career of James K. Polk reflected the country’s westward shift. His path followed the frontier as he moved from his birthplace in North Carolina to Tennessee. Polk, like most Americans in the nineteenth century, favored westward expansion and believed that settlers were destined to move across North America. As president, he acquired more than a million square miles of territory for the United States, in part by fomenting the Mexican-American War. As one of the most consequential presidents in American history, the vast expansion of territory opened up the question of slavery’s future, an issue that sparked conflict during the period leading up to the Civil War. Driven and determined, Polk took office with a limited agenda, accomplished all of it, and left office, as he planned, after only one term.