11th President (1845-49)
“Thank God, under our Constitution there was no connection between church and state.” -JKP
When Democrats gathered in Baltimore, Maryland, in May 1844, none could have foreseen the eventual outcome. Former President Martin Van Buren came to Baltimore with a clear majority of delegates pledged to him on the first ballot, but many Democrats opposed the New Yorker for a variety of reasons. Some simply thought Van Buren was a losing candidate given his unpopularity in 1840, when he had lost decisively to the Whig candidate, William Henry Harrison. Also, many “Young Democrats” judged Van Buren as a member of the “old dynasty” associated with “old politics.” Others were southern men enraged that Van Buren had recently come out in opposition to Texas annexation.
When Van Buren announced his opposition to annexing Texas, he committed political suicide. The desire to annex Texas was especially strong among Southern Democrats who viewed Texas as a new bastion for slavery. The Southern Democrats blocked Van Buren’s nomination through eight ballots, and on the ninth vote they nominated a fellow southerner from Tennessee, James Knox Polk.
Challenging the well-known Whig candidate Henry Clay in the 1844 Presidential election, Polk promised to actively encourage America’s westward expansion. He favored Texas statehood and the acquisition of the Oregon Territory. Although critics expressed concern that aggressive expansionism might lead to a war with Great Britain or Mexico and might destroy the tenuous balance between free states and slave states, a majority of Americans accepted Polk’s vision of a continental nation.
With political forcefulness and savvy, President Polk tirelessly pursued his ambitious goals. Texas joined the country as the 28th state during his first year in office. Tense negotiations with Great Britain concluded with American annexation of the Oregon Territory south of the 49th Parallel. Following a controversial two-year war, Mexico ceded New Mexico and California to the United States. The Polk Administration also achieved its major economic objectives by lowering tariffs and establishing an independent Federal Treasury.
True to his campaign pledge to serve only one term as President, James K. Polk left office and returned to Tennessee in March 1849. The nation’s expansionist aims had been realized. When he died of cholera three months later, thousands of Americans were rushing west in search of California gold.
California Gold Rush
John Sutter was a Swiss emigrant who arrived in California in 1839. He became a Mexican citizen and received a land grant of 50,000 acres in Sacramento Valley. He built Sutter’s Fort at the site of present day Sacramento. At Sutter’s Fort he developed farming and other businesses. Sutter’s Fort became a rest station for travelers and immigrants to California. In 1847 John Sutter hired James Marshall to build a sawmill at a site named Coloma.
On January 4, 1848, James Marshall picked up a piece of metal at the mill that looked like gold. He took the metal to Sutter. They tested it and confirmed that it was gold.
News of James Marshall’s discovery traveled to the East Coast. But communication was slow in the middle of the 19th century. People in the big eastern cities of New York and Boston heard only rumors about gold in California. It was not until December 1848, almost a year after Mr. Marshall’s discovery, that President James Polk told Congress the rumors were true. During the next weeks and months, thousands of young men from the Northeast left their homes and families to seek great riches in California.
The Gold Rush really put California on the map. It made it desirable. It made the East Coast really want California to become part of the U.S.