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It has been 170 years since James K. Polk served as the 11th president of the United States—one of three Tennesseans over the course of American history to serve in the presidency.

James K. Polk courtesy of Polk Memorial Association
James K. Polk courtesy of Polk Memorial Association

His legacy, however, lives on at UT through the James K. Polk Project.

Launched at Vanderbilt University in 1958, the project moved to UT in 1987. Over the years, it has published 13 volumes of Correspondence of James K. Polk.

The Polk project is one of three presidential projects organized by researchers at UT as part of the Tennessee Presidents Center, with offices in Hoskins Library. The center is dedicated to publishing the correspondence of Andrew Jackson (the seventh president), Polk, and Andrew Johnson (the 17th president).

UT is one of only two universities to have multiple presidential papers projects.

Michael Cohen
Cohen

“Polk’s presidency continues to affect Americans today,” said Michael David Cohen, research associate professor of history, who serves as the Polk project editor. “The Polk project allows us to make important historical documents, otherwise usable only through extensive travel and painstaking work with faded handwriting, easily accessible to anyone with access to a library or a computer.”

Among the many issues covered in Polk’s correspondence throughout his presidency are the annexation of Texas, the creation of the modern United States–Mexico border, the debate over slavery, and presidential power during wartime.

The 14th and final volume, containing letters from the last months of Polk’s presidency and life, is currently in progress.

On April 12–13, a conference held at the East Tennessee Historical Society in Knoxville will draw scholars from UT and around the country to mark the end of the project.

Here are a few important notes about Polk and his presidency:

  • Polk was one of only two presidents (with Rutherford B. Hayes) who pledged during his campaign to serve only one term.
  • During his presidency, Polk oversaw the Mexican-American War (1846–48), in which the United States acquired half of Mexico’s territory, stretching from Texas to California. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war, created the border that, with small changes, exists today.
  • Polk authorized the use of two naval ships to carry privately donated supplies to Ireland and Scotland during the Potato Famine in 1847. This was the first use of US naval ships for a humanitarian mission.
  • A strong supporter of the separation of church and state, Polk appointed Catholic priests to accompany the army at a time when many Americans held anti-Catholic sentiments. These priests ministered to Catholic soldiers and assured Mexican civilians that the United States was not making war on their religion.
  • Polk gave money to help Mormons who were starving on their journey west to the Salt Lake Valley, then still a Mexican territory. His wife, Sarah Childress Polk, donated candy and flowers to a fundraiser for those Mormon emigrants.
  • Under Polk’s presidency, the United States established diplomatic relations with Guatemala, Ecuador, Bolivia, and the Papal States (Vatican City).
  • Polk died of cholera three months after leaving the White House—making his presidential retirement the shortest in US history.
  • Polk visited Knoxville for a public dinner on Independence Day 1840.
  • Polk is the only president who had served as speaker of the house.

Learn more about the Polk project. The volumes of Polk’s letters are available to be viewed online through UT Libraries’ Tennessee Research and Creative Exchange (TRACE).

CONTACT:

Brian Canever (865-974-0937, bcanever@utk.edu)

Michael Cohen (mdcohen@utk.edu)