James K. Polk (1795-1849)
Two presidents dominated the landscape of mid-19th century America—Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. Sandwiched between them, however, was James K. Polk, a remarkable and highly effective president. Indeed, he was the only one of any stature to serve after Jackson and before Lincoln. Generally speaking, Polk is thought of as a war president; but he was more than merely a president who presided over war against a foreign country (Mexico). Polk emerged as the champion of “manifest destiny,” the belief that the United States enjoyed a special dispensation and even imperative to extend its boundaries westward, even all the way to the Pacific coast. To carry out such a mandate, providential or otherwise, Polk used war and diplomacy to push the borders across the continent to the southwest as well as the northwest. Convinced that such efforts would excite and unify the nation, he seemed unprepared for the divisions created by his bold territorial initiatives.