The Eleventh President of the United States of America
Series on Presidential Slavery
James Knox Polk was born on November 2, 1795, in a log cabin in Pineville, North Carolina. His father Samuel Polk was a farmer, slaveholder, and surveyor of Scots-Irish descent. The Polk clan dominated politics in Maury County and in the new town of Columbia. James learned from the political talk around the dinner table; both Samuel and Ezekiel were strong supporters of President Thomas Jefferson and opponents of the Federalist Party.
James Knox Polk was a slaveholder for most of his adult life. His father, in 1827 left James more than 8,000 acres of land, and divided about 53 slaves among his widow and children. James ultimately inherited twenty of his father’s slaves, either directly or from deceased brothers. In 1831, he became an absentee cotton planter, sending slaves to clear plantation land near Somerville, Tennessee. Four years later Polk sold his Somerville plantation and, together with his brother-in-law, bought 920 acres of land, a cotton plantation near Coffeeville, Mississippi, hoping to increase his income.
The land in Mississippi was richer than that in Somerville, and Polk transferred his Tennessee slaves there, taking care to conceal from them that they were to be sent south. From the start of 1839, Polk, having bought out his brother-in-law, owned the entire Mississippi plantation, and ran it on a mostly absentee basis for the rest of his life.
Adding to the inherited slaves, in 1831, Polk purchased five more, mostly buying them in Kentucky, and expending $1,870; the youngest had a recorded age of 11. As older children sold for a higher price, slave sellers routinely lied about age. Between 1834 and 1835, he bought five more, aged from 2 to 37, the youngest a granddaughter of the oldest. The amount expended was $2,250. In 1839, he bought eight slaves from his brother William at a cost of $5,600. This represented three young adults and most of a family, though not including the father, whom James Polk had previously owned, and who had been sold to a slave trader as a chronic runaway.
The expenses of four campaigns (three for governor, one for the presidency) in six years stop Polk from making more slave purchases until after he was living in the White House. In an era when the presidential salary was expected to cover wages for the White House servants, Polk replaced them with slaves from his home in Tennessee. Polk did not purchase slaves with his presidential salary, likely for political reasons. Instead, he reinvested earnings from his plantation in the purchase of slaves, enjoining secrecy on his agent: “that as my private business does not concern the public, you will keep it to yourself”.
Polk saw the plantation as his route to a comfortable existence after his presidency for himself and his wife; he did not intend to return to the practice of law. Hoping the increased labor force would increase his retirement income, he purchased seven more slaves in 1846, through an agent, aged roughly between 12 and 17. The 17 year old and one of the 12 year olds were purchased together at an estate sale; the agent within weeks resold the younger boy to Polk’s profit. The year 1847 saw the purchase of nine more. Three he purchased from Gideon Pillow, and his agent purchased six slaves, aged between 10 and 20. By the time of the purchase from Pillow, the Mexican War had begun and Polk sent payment with the letter in which he offered Pillow a commission in the Army. The purchase from Pillow was a slave Polk had previously owned and had sold for being a disruption, and his wife and child. None of the other slaves Polk purchased as President, all younger than 20, came with a parent, and as only in the one case were two slaves bought together, most likely none had an accompanying sibling as each faced life on Polk’s plantation.
I believe it would be safe to say that our 11th president James Knox Polk ran a slave purchasing business through an agent while he was president. The slave holding presidents were the leaders of our country, they did not find slave ownership wrong unless it benefited them politically.
Discipline for those slaves owned by Polk varied over time. At the Tennessee plantation, he employed an overseer named Herbert Biles, who was said to be relatively tolerant. Biles’s illness in 1833 resulted in Polk replacing him with Ephraim Beanland, who tightened discipline and increased work. Polk backed his overseer, returning runaways who complained of beatings and other harsh treatment, “even though every report suggested that the overseer was a heartless brute”. Beanland was hired for the Mississippi plantation, but was soon dismissed by Polk’s partner, who deemed Beanland too harsh as the slaves undertook the arduous task of clearing the timber from the new plantation so it could be used for cotton farming. His replacement was discharged after a year for being too indulgent; the next died of dysentery in 1839. Others followed, and it was not until 1845 that Polk found a satisfactory overseer, John Mairs, who remained the rest of Polk’s life and was still working at the plantation for Sarah Polk in 1860, when the widow sold a half-share in many of her slaves. There had been a constant stream of runaways under Mairs’ predecessors, many seeking protection at the plantation of Polk relatives or friends; only one ran away between the time of Mairs’ hiring and the end of 1847, but the overseer had to report three absconded slaves (including the one who had fled earlier) to Polk in 1848 and 1849.
Polk’s will, dated February 28, 1849, a few days before the end of his presidency, contained the nonbinding expectation that his slaves were to be freed when both he and Sarah Polk were dead. The Mississippi plantation was expected to be the support of Sarah Polk during her widowhood. Sarah Polk lived until 1891, but the slaves were freed in 1865 by the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States. By selling a half-interest in the slaves in 1860, Sarah Polk had given up the sole power to free them, and it is unlikely that her new partner, having paid $28,500 for a half-interest in the plantation and its slaves, would have allowed the laborers to go free had she died while slavery was legal.
During his presidency, many abolitionists harshly criticized him as an instrument of the “Slave Power“. Polk did support the expansion of slavery’s realm, with his views informed by his own family’s experience of settling Tennessee, bringing slaves with them. He believed in Southern rights, meaning both the right of slave states not to have that institution interfered with by the Federal government, and the right of individual Southerners to bring their slaves with them into the new territory. However, he accused both northern and southern leaders of attempting to use the slavery issue for political gain.
Polk’s time in the White House took its toll on his health. Full of enthusiasm and vigor when he entered office, Polk left the presidency exhausted by his years of public service. He left Washington on March 6 for a pre-arranged triumphal tour of the South, to end in Nashville. Polk had two years previously arranged to buy a house there, afterwards dubbed Polk Place.
Polk’s funeral was held at the McKendree Methodist Church in Nashville. Following his death, Sarah Polk lived at Polk Place for 42 years and died on August 14, 1891 at the age of 87. Their house, Polk Place, was demolished in 1901, a decade after Sarah’s death.
Then, in 1893, the bodies of James and Sarah Polk were relocated to their current resting place on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville. He has been deemed the president who can never rest, as there have been many attempts to relocate their graves, to date none are successful.
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