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President James K. Polk a Slaveholder’s Slaveholder

[The slave]“dreads the punishment of stripes more than he does imprisonment, and that description of punishment has, besides, a beneficial effect upon his fellow slaves.”--James Polk

James Knox Polk’s father, Sam, was one of the two most prominent businessmen in booming Columbia, Tennesee during the early 19th century. He served as the agent of his first cousin, Colonel William Polk who was a very large land speculator. The entrepreneurial examples of these two men shaped James Polk’s outlook in a powerful way molding a man whose primary calling was as an attorney and a politician. Sam Polk moved from his home in North Carolina and developed his slave plantation in Maury Country, Tennessee prospering through a variety of business enterprises revolving around slaves, transportation, and commercial activities. At his death, he left an estate that included eight thousand acres of land and fifty-three slaves. In addition, Ezekiel Polk, the future president’s grandfather died in August 1824 leaving Polk thousands of acres and twenty-four enslaved Africans-Americans.

Young James Polk excelled in politics after graduating from the embryonic University of North Carolina in 1818 and practicing law in Tennessee. Prior to becoming Governor in 1839, Polk served in the House of Representative fourteen years, all the while continuing to profit from his slaves and their toil. Polk was active and aware as a slaveholder and land speculator and his political interests often intersected with his personal financial interests. After the Choctaw Nation’s lands had been expropriated by white settlers, Polk hastily purchased the fertile land during a period when the price of cotton was sharply increasing. After selling his Somerville plantation he and his brother-in-law Silas Caldwell purchased 920 acres of land near Coffeeville, Mississippi east of the Yazoo delta. Correspondence to and from Polk during this period indicate the extent to which the health of his slaves suffered during his feverish efforts to enrich himself. During this period he constantly searched for profitable opportunities to purchase and sale of enslaved Africans sometimes referring to individual black children that he would purchase as “it.”

Throughout his life, Polk’s slaveholding motivations were concerned with profit-making not paternal care. If the bottom line meant the breakup of black families Polk would not hesitate to do what was necessary in this regard. Almost every financial manuever involving slaves meant the breakup of their family and friendship networks. Not surprisingly, Polk hid from his slaves the pending move of his Somerville plantation, inherited from his father, to the new Coffeeville lands. He wrote his wife that “I am resolved to send my hands to the South, [and] have given money to [an agent] to buy a place?. I am determined to make more money or loose [lose] more.” He wrote her that the “negroes have no idea that they are going to be sent to the South, and I do not wish them to know it, and therefore it would be best to say nothing about it at home, for it might be conveyed back to them.”

On many occasions Polk’s self-interest obliged him to breakup families, tearing children from parents, sisters from brothers, cousins from cousins, and husbands from wives. He constantly craved young laborers to work his frontier plantations and if this meant purchasing a child and separating him or her from their mother, it would be done. Within the parameters of a cruel social system Polk could occasionally act in a humane way that was respectful of a slave’s marriage. In 1834, for example, he purchased Henry Carter to prevent the breakup of his marriage to another slave, Mariah. Both were soon regarded as the most valuable of his slaves to him, and their son Henry became a house servant, a domestic slave, in Tennessee remaining by Polk’s side all the way into the White House.

Many of the slaves under Polk’s rule ran away and faced a severe regime of punishment if and when they were caught. After Polk’s brother died in Charlotte, North Carolina in April 1831, seven of his slaves were to be put on the auction block and sold for the benefit of Polk and other kinfolk. Two young men who were to be sold, however, escaped before the auction could take place and headed for Tennessee where they had been raised. Caught a distance away, in the Appalachian mountains, they were jailed and likely whipped by Polk. The year before Polk advised Congress that merely imprisoning a resistant slave was insufficient to inculcate discipline maintaining that, a slave “dreads the punishment of stripes more than he does imprisonment, and that description of punishment has, besides, a beneficial effect upon his fellow slaves.” The future president thus gave convincing testimony as to the deliberate reign of terror ordinary African Americans faced during the antebellum era.

The Democrat Polk defeated the Whig Party’s Henry Clay in the presidential election of 1844 by 170 to 105 electoral votes. James K. Polk’s presidential policy was dominated by a successful effort to expand the territory of America on behalf of the nation’s slaveholders. From the outset of his administration President Polk declared presented four goals legislatively a reduction of the tariff, the establishment of an independent treasury, settlement of the Oregon border question and the acquisition of California. Beyond these, however, were territorial goals. In January 1846, General Zachary Taylor was directed by the Polk administration to enter Mexican territory in order to provoke an attack from the Mexican army. After this occurred, President Polk was able to immediately proclaim that a state of “war existed by the act of Mexico” and circumvent the need for congressional approval. Soon it was a matter of “our country, right or wrong” a slogan that anticipated the fierce opposition to the war that was expected. In Congress Thomas Corwin of Ohio seemed to empathize with the plight of the peoples victimized by a foreign invading force when he declared that he “would welcome them with hospitable hands to bloody graves!”

Born in 1795, in North Carolina; and moving later to Tennessee, James Knox Polk grew up in a politicized family that stressed a politics of independence from the central government.104. Early in his political career Polk adopted the view that slavery was an instituted imposed upon the American colonies by Britain. “This species of population was found amongst us [in 1776]. It had been entailed upon us by our ancestors, and was viewed as a common evil.” Although,

©Christopher Brian Booker, 2014.

President James Knox Polk

James Knox Polk, 11th President

1845 to 1849

Birth:November 2, 1795, Pineville, North Carolina

Death: June 15, 1849

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Religion: Presbyterian

Profession: Lawyer, Planter

Political Party: Democratic

Primary Form of Relationship with African Americans: Slaveowner, pro-slavery Politician

Important Online Works

Inaugural Address of James Knox Polk, Tuesday, March 4, 1845.

Life Portrait of James K. Polk, May 28, 1999

according to Polk, it was unpleasant to be near blacks, his slaveholding career brought in him close contact with them. In 1825, as a young attorney, he was elected to Congress and served there for fourteen years. Working closely with Andrew Jackson, Polk gradually rose to prominence on the national political scene playing a key role in both the Gag Rule battle and the debate over westward expansion that roiled the House of Representatives and working hard and long to maintain white unity in the face of the periodic challenges to the system of slavery.

Congressman James Polk's maiden speech in the House of Representatives set the tone for his entire career. In it he expressed his regret at the fact that the " unfortunate subject " of slavery had entered the national debate indirectly through the discussion of related issues. Polk quietly conceded that slavery was an evil in a manner similar to that of slaveholding Founding Fathers—it was an evil, to be sure, but one that had been foisted upon the American colonists by their British overlords. Now, so the line went, there were significant practical obstacles were on to abolishing it, obstacles that might make it more costly to abolish than to maintain and perpetuate it. As the Speaker of the House, Polk was in a key position during an era when petitions to abolish slavery began to be lodged. Not only was he active in profit-making from slave labor, his closest friends and relatives had also grown wealthy from their slaves’ labor.

Polk’s staunch positions in support of both slavery and U.S. expansionism were consistent with his financial interest in slavery. Future president James K. Polk supported the “gag rule” measures that effectively prevented any congressional debate on slavery. Polk termed abolitionism “fanatical, wicked and dangerous agitation” on a “delicate question” Polk was also wary of the threat of black slave rebellion and felt that it was foolish to carry on any dialogue concerning the abolition of slavery. When forced to speak on the subject by the rising animosities among the American political elite, Polk still sought to restrict black knowledge of the debate. Speaking in Tennessee's plantation belt, Polk criticized “the incendiary and intermeddling ethers of the Abolition Convention lately held in London” stating that he feared quoting from the proceedings because the passages were “too dangerous to be made known to the numerous slaves within hearing.”

By 1844, Polk’ efforts to defend slavery won him the Democratic nomination for president. As president, Polk led the efforts to expand the border of the United States. It was not coincidental that term “manifest destiny” was coined during the 1840s by John L. Sullivan, a prominent editor. American expansionism foresaw the removal of non-white indigenous inhabitants from Texas westward. Slaveowners sought fresh lands for expansion, having quickly exhausted much of the land of the Southwest. This would allow the beleaguered system space and prevent its encirclement by social systems banning human slavery. Such societies would tend to have a corrosive effect on a system based upon the hopelessness of black freedom and the futility of escape. Any talk of freedom, any agitation for liberty would encourage “insolence” on the part of the enslaved Africans, and otherwise encourage resistance. Thus, the slaveholders had the need for system completely sealed from the outside world's influences. Slaveowners worked towards this objective as it would best protect their investments and secure the perpetuation of their peculiar institutions.

Selected Bibliography:

Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk. New York: Oxford, 2003.

Foner, Phillip S. History of Black Americans: From the Compromise of 1850 to the End of the Civil War. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1983.

Mayer, Henry. All On Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery(New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998).