President James K. Polk and the Expansion of America
OverviewJune 7, 2022, 4:00 pm
When James K. Polk was inaugurated president in 1845, the United States extended only from the Atlantic Ocean to the eastern border of Texas. Four years later, it was a transcontinental nation with boundaries close to those we know today. It was also in the throes of an intensifying debate over the enslavement of African Americans — one that a dozen years later would erupt in civil war.
In this lecture, Professor Michael Cohen will chronicle Polk’s successful efforts—through diplomacy with the United Kingdom and the Republic of Texas, and through a war with Mexico—to increase the United States’ size by one-third. He then will explore the consequences of Polk’s decisions for sectional divisions, for People of Color, and for religious minorities including Catholics and Mormons. Polk firmly believed in constitutional principles, such as representative government and the separation of church and state. But his vision of democracy excluded many of the people inhabiting the newly expanded country.
Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America, by Walter R. Borneman
Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk, by William Dusinberre
Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk, by Amy S. Greenberg
Invading Mexico: America’s Continental Dream and the Mexican War, 1846–1848, by Joseph Wheelan
- Why did the United States, under President Polk, go to war with Mexico despite peacefully settling the Canadian border with the United Kingdom?
- Whom did the United States’ geographic expansion benefit, and whom did it harm?
- How did Polk and other Protestant Americans feel about people with other religions?
- What do you consider Polk’s most important legacy for later decades or centuries?