Remembering James K. Polk, our nation's 11th president

The James K. Polk memorial at the Tennessee State Capitol.

As far as Presidential monuments and tombs are concerned, the memorial for James Knox Polk, our nation's 11th president, is a modest affair.

Located in downtown Nashville, Tennessee, on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol, you might even be surprised to stumble upon it if you didn't know it was there. It seems a low-key tribute for a man who once was the President of the United States, but then again, Polk was a one-term president who isn't one of the first names from the lips of historians who from time to time debate and issue updated lists and rankings of the greatest presidents ever.

And yet, he has consistently ranked in the top 15 by many those same historians. His list of accomplishments is fairly noteworthy, and he might fairly be considered among the best one-term presidents we've ever had.

A protege of Andrew Jackson, another president hailing from the Volunteer State who also happens to be buried in Nashville, Polk served from 1845-1849 after emerging as a compromise candidate on the ninth ballot when Democrats were struggling to find consensus among the favorites. He pledged to serve one term and ultimately stood by his word stepping down after a single term.

President James K. Polk Home and Museum

His most notable accomplishment was the westward expansion of the United States including the annexation of Texas and the Oregon Territory. He also stewarded the Mexican-American War which led to the cession of much of northern Mexico to the United States including large portions of what became Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

Polk's father, Samuel, emigrated to Middle Tennessee in 1806 settling in what soon became known as Columbia. James left Tennessee in 1816 for college attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for two years before returning to the Columbia area. He embarked on a career as an attorney and was involved in politics almost from the point of his return to Tennessee.

In 1824, Polk married Sarah Childress, the same year he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives representing his district in Middle Tennessee. He eventually ascended to the position of Speaker of the House in 1835 serving until 1839 in that role when he left Congress to run for Governor of Tennessee. He was elected as the state's ninth governor that fall, but in two successive runs in 1841 and 1843, he was narrowly beaten twice. After being politically left for dead in Tennessee, his unlikely emergence as a candidate for president in 1845 marks one of the biggest political comebacks in U.S. political history.

Following his short but eventful presidency, Polk embarked on a celebratory tour of the South. He became sick after visiting New Orleans, and was hospitalized for several days before finally returning to Nashville on April 2 where he and Sarah planned to spend their retirement. He fell ill again in June from what was assumed to be cholera (contracted during his Southern tour), and on June 15, 1949, he passed away barely 100 days after leaving office. Due to the nature of his death being caused by an infectious disease, he was initially buried at the Nashville City Cemetery, but he was moved several months later to the grounds of his Polk Place residence.

His wife, Sarah, lived another 42 years before passing away in 1891. She was also buried at Polk Place, but in the aftermath of her death, a legal battle over possession of the property ensued, and both Polks were moved to their current resting place at the Tennessee State Capitol in 1893. In 2017, a bill was introduced proposing that their remains be moved to the President James K. Polk Home and Museum in Columbia, Tennessee, which is where Polk lived from 1818 to 1824. It is the only surviving home that was once the residence of our nation's 11th president.

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