James Knox Polk
Burial Location Visited President Grave #
Nashville, Tennessee July 22, 2006 30th Visited

James K. Polk had the shortest
retirement of any president. He
died just three months after his
term ended. Polk has been buried
in several locations throughout
Nashville since his 1849 death,
but since 1893 he has remained
downtown on the grounds of
the Tennessee State Capitol.

In 2017, the President James K. Polk Home
and Museum launched a petition to exhume
President and Mrs. Polk and reinter them at
its facility in Columbia, 47 miles south of
the statehouse. The proposal reached the
Tennessee legislature in 2018, and it voted
to keep the Polks in Nashville.

* Fast Facts * *

- First Lady: Sarah Childress Polk

  - Spouse: Sarah Childress Polk (m. 1824-1849)

- Political Party: Democratic Party

- Term: 1845-1849

- Vice President: George Mifflin Dallas

- Born: November 2, 1795

- Died: June 15, 1849

- Age: 53

- Cause of Death: Cholera

- Last Words: "I love you, Sarah, for all eternity, I love you."

- Cemetery: Tennessee State Capitol, Nashville, Tennessee
- GPS Coordinates: 36°09'59.7"N 86°47'02.2"W

* Background on James K. Polk * *

* In 1844, the Democratic Party was enduring an identity crisis. The front-runner for the party’s presidential nomination was former President Martin Van Buren, but Southern Democrats were displeased that he opposed Texas annexation. Other candidates included moderate Michigander Lewis Cass and the pro-slavery secretary of state, John C. Calhoun. Whig nominee Henry Clay observed the Democratic Party was in an extreme state of “utter disorder, confusion and decomposition.” With sectionalism threatening the party’s stability, its factions struck a compromise and put forth an unexpected nominee: former Speaker of the House James K. Polk. A big advantage for the dark horse candidate was that he had the support of fellow Tennessean Andrew Jackson. Jackson was disillusioned with his former vice president Van Buren because of his Texas stance and endorsed the expansionist Polk. The Whigs dismissed Polk as a nobody, as indicated by their oft-repeated phrase, “Who is James K. Polk?” Yet multiple factors, including Clay’s conflicting messages about Texas and slavery, tipped the election in Polk’s favor.

* One of the reasons Polk appealed to the various Democratic factions was because he vowed to serve just one presidential term. Once “Young Hickory” won and took office, he set out to achieve all his goals within his four year window. Among these was U.S. expansion to the Pacific coast, which he aimed to do in part by settling a border dispute with Great Britain over Oregon. At the time, both American and British citizens could settle in the area. The intention was to incorporate Oregon as a free territory, an aspect of the 1844 party platform that was included to placate anti-slavery members. Polk ran for president under the slogan “Fifty-four forty or fight!” and asserted that the United States would declare war if Britain did not cede all of its land extending up to the 54th parallel. As president, Polk pushed for a compromise instead of a declaration of war. Secretary of State James Buchanan and British Ambassador Richard Pakenham composed a treaty, and it was passed by the U.S. Senate in June 1846. Though the boundary was established at the 49th parallel, hundreds of miles south of the 54°40′ latitude line, the U.S. still gained 360,000 square miles of land.

* To solidify America’s hold on the Pacific Coast, Polk also had the goal of acquiring California from Mexico. In 1845, while Texans were deliberating on the annexation deal signed by former President John Tyler, Polk instructed the military to seize San Francisco and other ports in case war broke out. In an effort to entice Mexico to turn over California, Polk’s administration offered to assume responsibility for reimbursement of all American citizens’ claims against the Mexican government, along with a $25 million land payment. When these tactics failed, the president ordered General Zachary Taylor to the Rio Grande, which Texans claimed was the border with Mexico. Mexicans, who insisted the true boundary was farther north at the Nueces River, attacked the Americans. On May 13, 1846, Congress declared war on its southern neighbor. The president orchestrated the movements of American forces and ordered them to occupy additional California ports, as well as the Mexican province of New Mexico. When the conflict ended in 1848, the U.S.-Mexico border was confirmed at the Rio Grande, and the U.S. acquired land that eventually became part of six states. Polk had succeeded in his quest for territorial expansion. With all his goals achieved, including lowering tariffs and reestablishing the Independent Treasury, he left office in 1849 after one term, as promised.

Sources Consulted                                                                                                                                                     

Daley, Jason. "Tennessee Votes to Keep Polk's Grave Where It Is. For Now." Smithsonian.com. March 20, 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/tennessee-votes-keep-polks-grave-where-it-now- 180968544/.

Heidler, David S., and Jeanne T. Heidler. Henry Clay: The Essential American. New York: Random House, 2010.

Holt, Michael F. "James K. Polk." In The Reader's Companion to the American Presidency, edited by Alan Brinkley and Davis Dyer, 140-49. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.

Lamb, Brian, and the C-SPAN Staff. Who's Buried in Grant's Tomb?: A Tour of Presidential Gravesites. New York: PublicAffairs, 2000. Reprinted. New York: PublicAffairs, 2003.

The Presidents. "John Q. Adams to Polk (1825-1849)." History Channel, 2005.

The Reader's Companion to the American Presidency. Ed. Alan Brinkley and Davis Dyer. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.

The Ultimate Guide to the Presidents. "Power to the People 1825-1849." History Channel, 2013.

"US Presidents Freemasons." Grand Lodge of Virginia. Accessed July 4, 2019. https://grandlodgeofvirginia.org/us-presidents-freemasons/.

Williams, Frank B., Jr. Tennessee's Presidents. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1981. Reprinted. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2004.

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