This Day in History: December 2nd- Expansion

This Day In History: December 2, 1845

United StatesJames K. Polk is one of those presidents that most people draw a complete blank on, like Fillmore or Hayes. He may not be high on the recognition scale, but Polk got things done- perhaps the only U.S. president to accomplish every major point he promised when campaigning for office, doing it all in just one term to boot. When he entered the White House, Oregon Territory was occupied jointly by the US and Great Britain, and the lower west quarter of what would become the United States belonged to Mexico. When his term ended, he’d expanded the United States to its current contiguous boundaries by strong-arming Great Britain and winning a war with Mexico.

On December 2, 1845, “Fifty-four forty or fight!” President James K. Polk made his first annual address to Congress. He took the opportunity to re-interpret the Monroe Doctrine in light of the new spirit of Manifest Destiny. Expanding the country “from sea to shining sea” was the name of the game.

Polk’s plan included pushing the US border south to the Rio Grande River in Texas, booting the Brits out of the Oregon territory, and taking over California- essentially, proposing potential war with major powers on multiple fronts all at the same time.

Even though Polk was worried about backlash from the likes of Great Britain, and felt they would attempt to thwart his attempts to control Texas and California as well, in the end they didn’t try very hard to stop the United States in their expansion efforts. Given that British citizens in Oregon were outnumbered at this point about 6 to 1 by U.S. citizens, Britain decided on a compromise instead of outright war, agreeing to split Oregon at the 49th parallel, a proposal the United States accepted. Mexico, however, was a different story.

War inevitably broke out between the two nations in 1846 when Polk sent American troops into the region. Under the command of Winfield Scott, the US Army marched inland from the Gulf of Mexico and ultimately defeated Santa Anna.

The end result was everything Polk had hoped for. For the low, low price of $15 million (about $400 million today), about half what the U.S. had offered before the war, Mexico handed over the territory that is now New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and California. The contiguous boundaries (more or less) of the modern United States were now in place.

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Bonus Facts:

  • As a child, Polk had a period in 1812 where his health went downhill.  It was discovered that he had bladder stones that were too big to pass.  Without any anesthetic other than brandy, and while being conscious through the whole thing, Dr. Ephraim McDowell operated on Polk, cutting him open and manually removing the stones from his bladder… Ouch. Despite that such surgeries, apart from being amazingly painful, at the time were also extremely high risk, he survived the ordeal just fine, though some have speculated it may have played a part in his apparent inability to have children.
  • At 49 years old when he was elected President, Polk was at the time the youngest to ever hold the office.  He supposedly promised at the outset to serve just one term and to accomplish his four stated goals in that span: Reestablish an Independent Treasury System; reduce tariffs; acquire New Mexico and California from Mexico; and Acquire the majority or all of Oregon Country.  He did all this, making him possibly unique as a President, in that he did everything he promised to do and in the one term he promised to do it in.
  • Polk died just three months after leaving office, having apparently overworked himself  (he lost a lot of weight while in office and his health gradually declined, supposedly from lack of rest).  He also possibly contracted cholera in his farewell tour. His last words were to his wife, who had helped him compose his speeches and who he nearly always ran his political decisions by to get her opinions on things:  “I love you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you.”
  • Polk inherited many slaves from his father, which he ordered all should be freed when his wife died (not before, so that she would be taken care of via the income from his plantation the slaves ran).  This ended up being a moot point, as they were freed via the Emancipation Proclamation.
  • In August of 1848, the New York Herald reported the discovery of gold in California and others soon followed.  President Polk fanned the flames in December of 1848 when he addressed congress and announced that gold had indeed been found in California.  Over the next seven years approximately 300,000 people moved to California as a result of the Gold Rush.  This was no small thing at the time as California wasn’t the easiest place to travel too with the transcontinental railroad not being built until 1863; so anyone from the Atlantic side of the U.S. and world needed to either make the grueling journey by land or go by sea, traveling all the way around the tip of South America or through the jungles of Panama to shorten the voyage.
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One comment

  • This otherwise good and interesting article is damaged by two poorly worded sentences that should have been fixed by the author (or corrected by a competent editor):

    1. “The contiguous boundaries (more or less) of the modern United States were now in place.”

    There are no such things as “contiguous boundaries.” The word, “contiguous” — which is related to the word, “contact” — comes from the Latin verb meaning “to touch together.” So, there exist the “contiguous United States” — the forty-eight states that are “touching” each other. It is not the boundaries, but the states, that are contiguous. I would also recommend replacing the potentially misleading phrase, “more or less.” Therefore, the quoted sentence should have stated something like the following:

    “The modern boundaries of the contiguous United States were now very close to being in place.”

    2. “Without any anesthetic other than brandy, and while being conscious through the whole thing, Dr. Ephraim McDowell operated on Polk, cutting him open and manually removing the stones from his bladder.”

    This sentence is so poorly worded that I did not know whether to laugh or cry when I read it! The long, opening phrase was intended by the writer to refer to James Polk, but its position (misplaced) causes it to refer mistakenly to Dr. McDowell. I certainly hope that the good doctor was “conscious through the whole thing,” but I don’t think that he should have been drinking brandy under the circumstances! How, then, should the sentence have been written? The two parts of the sentence should be exchanged in position, resulting in something like the following:

    “Dr. Ephraim McDowell operated on Polk, cutting him open and manually removing the stones from his bladder, even though Polk had received no anesthetic other than brandy and remained conscious throughout the procedure.”

    Thank you.