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Celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation: James Knox Polk



James Polk was a slaveholder for his entire life. He became an absentee cotton planter, sending slaves to clear plantation land that his father had left him in Tennessee, later buying a cotton plantation in Mississippi which he ran for the rest of his life. Polk rarely sold slaves, although as president could better afford it, and bought more. Polk’s will stipulated that their slaves were to be freed after his wife Sarah had died, but the Emancipation Proclamation and the 1865 Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution freed all remaining slaves in rebel states long before her death in 1891.

1826: “When this country became free and independent, this species of population (slaves) was found amongst us. It had been entailed upon us by our ancestors, and was viewed as a common evil; not confined to the locality where it was, but affecting the whole nation. Some of the States which then possessed it have since gotten clear of it: they were a species of property that differed from all other: they were rational; they were human beings.”

1838: “The Abolitionists (are) fanatical and wicked agitators.”

Polk had focused goals for a one-term presidency:

• Reestablish the independent treasury system.
• Reduce tariffs.
• Acquire some or all of Oregon Country.
• Acquire California and New Mexico from Mexico.

By linking acquisition of new lands in Oregon (with no slavery) and Texas (with slavery), he hoped to satisfy both North and South.

The Bear Flag Rebellion helped fan Polk’s complete embrace of Manifest Destiny; his attention on California was his interest in San Francisco Bay as an access point for Asian trade. His envoy John Slidell was rebuffed in an attempt to buy Mexican territory, causing Polk to remark that this slight was “ample cause of war.”

He also sent Romulous Saunders to purchase Cuba from Spain. Cuba had slavery, thereby was attractive to the South but not the North. Spain, however, was making huge profits from sugar, molasses, rum and tobacco, so rejected the overture.

“The agitation of the slavery question is mischievous and wicked, and proceeds from no patriotic motive by its authors. It is a mere political question on which demagogues and ambitious politicians hope to promote their own prospects for political promotion. And this they seem willing to do even at the hazard of disturbing the harmony if not dissolving the Union itself.” 1848

Against a rapidly changing landscape, the empire builders started the politics that would lead to the creation of Nevada. One of Polk’s last acts as president was to sign the bill creating the Department of the Interior (3.3.49), also known as the “Department of Everything Else” which also would have major impact on what became Nevada.

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