True Stories of Our Presidents - Charles Morris

James Knox Polk



A North Carolina Boy

We all know of the Declaration of Independence which was written by Thomas Jefferson, and first made public at Philadelphia in 1776; but there was another Declaration written more than as year before this, which was also an interesting document, and perhaps might be well called the first Declaration of Independence. Not many boys and girls know of this, so I shall tell it to you, as it was the grandfather and great uncle of James Knox Polk, the eleventh President of the United States, who helped to have it adopted.

It was in a little country town in North Carolina that this interesting event took place. A number of the people met and made the following declaration: "We, the citizens of Mecklenburg County, do hereby dissolve the political bonds which have connected us to the mother-country, and hereby absolve ourselves from all allegiance to the British Crown, and we do hereby declare ourselves a free and independent people."

This was on the 19th of May, 1775. Perhaps Thomas Jefferson and his fellow patriots had heard of it. At any rate, it showed the same spirit as did the more famous Declaration issued in Philadelphia. When you think that this was the declaration of a few hundred people at most, who lived in one of the counties of North Carolina, it is almost enough to make one laugh. Yet these same people afterward did valuable service for the cause of independence, and their bold Declaration will always be remembered. They were of that strong and sturdy Scotch-Irish people who did so much in settling the great wilderness of the Carolinas. Andrew Jackson was of the same stock, and his mother at one time fled from the British to Mecklenburg County and lived with neighbors of the Polks.

It was in this same Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, that, on the 2nd of November, 1795, James Knox Polk was born. His father, Samuel Polk, was a plain farmer, but the mother is said to have been a superior woman. Soon after James was born, the father took his little family and moved west some two hundred miles, to the frontier of Tennessee, where, in a rich valley on Duck River, he and his neighbors built their log huts and started their homes. Others soon followed, until there was quite a settlement on Duck River.

It was as a farmer's boy, working hard in felling trees, building fences, and planting crops, that James Knox Polk spent his childhood days. His father was a surveyor as well as a farmer, and soon became one of the leading men in that section of the country. He took with him on his long surveying expeditions his son James, then a bright but rather frail boy. They climbed mountains, waded through mountain gorges, and often had narrow escapes from the Indians. The boy, no doubt, had fine times helping to build the camp fires and cook the game at night in the Tennessee woods.

He was fond of study and was sent to the public schools and soon showed a taste for reading the best books he could get. A boy who is willing to learn and desires to get good books is very likely to succeed. So it was with young Polk. His mother did much to assist him, and through her training he became a very careful student, and cultivated a fondness for books.

When he got older his father placed him in a store; but that kind of life did not please the boy at all, so his father soon took him away and sent him to a college at Murfreesboro that he might get a better education. He afterward sent him to the University of North Carolina. Here he was so regular in his habits and so punctual that his fellow students said, when they desired to declare that something was sure to happen, "It is as certain as that Polk will get up at the first call."

He was twenty-three years old when he graduated from the University. He graduated the best scholar of his class, but he studied so hard that his health was affected, and he had to take a good rest.

He was getting pretty old for school life, but he was not through yet, for now he decided to study the law. So he went to Nashville, in Tennessee, and there he entered the office of a lawyer named Felix Grundy.

You may remember that "Old Hickory," the hero of New Orleans, lived near Nashville, in his home called the Hermitage. He often stopped at Grundy's office for a chat, and young Polk was much attracted to him. His friendship for Andrew Jackson lasted through his life and had much influence on his character and career.

In due time the student became a lawyer, and hung out his sign in Columbia, in the "Duck River District." He had most pleasant manners, and had learned to speak with a great deal of ease and eloquence, so it was not long before he was in great demand to make speeches on all kinds of subjects.

Some one has said, There is nothing in this world so profitable as pleasant words and friendly smiles, provided that these words and smiles come honestly from the heart." This describes the young man of whom we are speaking, for he had kind words and sunny smiles for every one, and they came from his heart."

He grew so popular as a political speaker that his friends called him the "Napoleon of the stump." I do not know why, except because he conquered the good will of his audiences. In politics he was a Democrat of a strenuous kind, and in 1823 his neighbors elected him to the Legislature of Tennessee. In the next year he worked with all his strength and power of oratory for the election of his old friend, Andrew Jackson, to the Presidency. One bill he carried through the legislature was to put an end to the practice of dueling.

Mr. Polk was very fortunate in marrying a young woman of great beauty and culture. Her name was Miss Sarah Childless. She little dreamed that her husband would become President and she mistress of the White House and the first lady of the land. But she was of fine character and had the grace and dignity suited to that high position. The marriage was a very happy one.

While she was mistress of the White House a pleasing story is told of her and Henry Clay, one of the most famous statesmen and orators of the United States. While sitting at table one day, Mr. Clay said in his most courtly way, "Madam, I must say that in my travels, wherever I have been, in all companies and among all parties, I have heard but one opinion of you. All agree in praising in the highest terms your management of the domestic affairs of the White House; but, as for that young gentleman there (meaning her husband, the President), I cannot say as much. There is some little difference in regard to the policy of his course."

Mrs. Polk was quite equal to the distinguished statesman, and replied, "Indeed, I am glad to hear that my administration is popular, and in return for your compliment I will say that if the country should elect a Whig next fall, I know of no one whose elevation would please me more than that of Henry Clay; and I assure you of one thing, if you do have occasion to occupy the White House on the 4th of March next, it shall be surrendered to you in perfect order from garret to cellar." Her reply caused a loud shout of laughter.

Mr. Polk rose rapidly in popular favor, and was elected to high offices. In 1825 he was elected a member of Congress, where he served for fourteen years. Afterward he became Governor of his native State. While in Congress, he was a great friend of General Jackson, and always took his side whenever he was criticised, and this was pretty often, for Jackson did many things which people did not like.

For five sessions Mr. Polk was Speaker of the House, a position which needed all his courtesy and strength of mind. In 1839 he resigned from Congress and was elected Governor of Tennessee. But he was defeated for a second term, for the Whigs were in power there. We are told the amusing story that Polk rode about the country with the Whig who was contesting with him for the governorship, and that they even slept in the same bed. Two years after he ran for governor again, and was once more defeated by his old bed-fellow.

But his time for much higher honors was coming. A great question had arisen in the southwest. I will tell you all about it when I come to speak of President Taylor, and will only say here that Texas had broken away from Mexico and was asking the United States to take it in. A fierce excitement arose over this. The Southern people thought it would make a fine slave State and wanted it badly. The anti-slavery people of the North fought against it with all their strength.

Among those who worked for annexation none were more active and earnest than James K. Polk. I do not fancy that he thought this would help him much. He simply thought it was the right thing to do. But it did help him a great deal, for it made him President of the United States. When the time for the election of 1844 came on, the Democrats took him up for their candidate for the Presidency. "Old Hickory" was still a great power in American politics and gave him much help in getting the nomination. Henry Clay, the great Southern orator, was the Whig candidate. Everybody thought he would be elected; but he did not want Texas annexed, and that lost him many votes, so that Polk was elected by a small majority.

On his way from Nashville to the Capital, the new President traveled part way by steamer and the rest of the way by stage. There were railroads in those days, but they were very few. It was during President Polk's term of office that we had the war with Mexico on account of the admission of Texas to the United States. The hero of this war was General Zachary Taylor, who afterward became President, and when you read of his life you will learn more about it. At the end of the war the United States acquired a large territory, which included in addition to Texas, all of California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. All this territory, equal to many times the size of the States of Pennsylvania or New York, was obtained from Mexico.

Mr. Polk served only one term as President, and was succeeded by General Zachary Taylor. As the 4th of March, the day on which the inaugural ceremonies are held, fell on Sunday, they were held on Monday, March 5th. Mr. Polk and General Taylor rode to the Capitol in the same carriage, as was customary, and the same evening Mr. Polk returned to his home in Tennessee.

On his way south the late President was met everywhere with the greatest enthusiasm, and the large cities gave him receptions. He passed through Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans, in each of which he had a grand ovation. He made his home in Nashville, Tennessee, where he had bought a beautiful mansion, but he did not live long to enjoy the rest he so well deserved. Cholera was in the air that summer, and he became one of the victims of the subtle disease. He had seemed well, and could be seen every day about his dwelling giving directions for improvements. He appeared erect and healthful and with an activity of manner which gave promise of a long life. He was but fifty-four years of age, and only his flowing gray locks made him look beyond the middle age of life. Yet he had felt symptoms of the prevailing disease when corning up the Mississippi River, and soon after his return home became suddenly ill. In a few days afterward he died.

Kneeling at his bedside as he passed away was his aged mother, who offered up a beautiful prayer to the Lord of lords and the King of kings committing the soul of her son to his heavenly keeping. He died on June 15, 1849.