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A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents Volume 4, part 3: James Knox Polk

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James K. Polk

JAMES KNOX POLK was born in Mecklenburg County, N.C., November 2, 1795. He was a son of Samuel Polk, a farmer, whose father, Ezekiel, and his brother, Colonel Thomas Polk, one of the signers of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, were sons of Robert Polk (or Pollock), who was born in Ireland and emigrated to America. His mother was Jane, daughter of James Knox, a resident of Iredell County, N.C., and a captain in the War of the Revolution. His father removed to Tennessee in the autumn of 1806, and settled in the valley of Duck River, a tributary of the Tennessee, in a section that was erected the following year into the county of Maury; he died in 1827. James was brought up on the farm; was inclined to study, and was fond of reading. He was sent to school, and had succeeded in mastering the English branches when ill health compelled his removal. Was then placed with a merchant, but, having a strong dislike to commercial pursuits, soon returned home, and in July, 1813, was given in charge of a private tutor. In 1815 entered the sophomore class at the University of North Carolina. As a student he was correct, punctual, and industrious. At his graduation in 1818 he was officially acknowledged to be the best scholar in both the classics and mathematics, and delivered the Latin salutatory. In 1847 the university conferred upon him the degree of LL.D. In 1819 he entered the law office of Felix Grundy, then at the head of the Tennessee bar. While pursuing his legal studies he attracted the attention of Andrew Jackson, and an intimacy was thus begun between the two men. In 1820 Mr. Polk was admitted to the bar, and established himself at Columbia, the county seat of Maury County. He attained immediate success, his career at the bar only ending with his election to the governorship of Tennessee in 1839. Brought up as a Jeffersonian and early taking an interest in politics, he was frequently heard in public as an exponent of the views of his party. His style of oratory was so popular that his services soon came to be in great demand, and he was not long in earning the title of the "Napoleon of the Stump." His first public employment was that of principal clerk of the senate of the State of Tennessee. In 1823 was elected a member of that body. In January, 1824, he married Sarah, daughter of Joel Childress, a merchant of Rutherford County, Tenn. In August, 1825, he was elected to Congress from the Duck River district, and reelected at every succeeding election till 1839, when he withdrew from the contest to become a candidate for governor. With one or two exceptions, he was the youngest member of the Nineteenth Congress. He was prominently connected with every leading question, and upon all he struck what proved to be the keynote for the action of his party. His maiden speech was in defense of the proposed amendment to the Constitution giving the choice of the President and Vice-President directly to the people. It at once placed him in the front rank of Congressional debaters....