U.S. President James K. Polk died 160 years ago today, at the age of 53.
He was one of the most unlikely candidates to become president. He was a Tennessee congressman (and one-term governor) and a loyal supporter of Andrew Jackson, but he did not seek the limelight or the presidency. The Democratic convention of that year (1844) was mostly a contest between Martin Van Buren and Lewis Cass of Michigan. After seven ballots neither of them had enough votes to secure the nomination. Polk’s name first appeared in the running on the 8th ballot, and on the ninth he emerged as the party candidate. He won the national election and took office in March of 1845.
Polk served just one term, but it was eventful and he was no slacker. During his time in office he went to war with Mexico (1846-48) and added California and Texas to U.S. holdings; he reached an agreement with England (1846) that made the Oregon region U.S. property; gold was discovered in California (1848), further expanding settlements in the western U.S.; and the first recorded baseball game was played in New Jersey (1846).
He retired in 1849 to his home in Nashville, but died 103 days later from some intestinal ailment. Popular opinion held that the presidency wore him out. Others point to a history of stress-related stomach and bowel troubles, but modern scholars believe he contracted cholera during a visit to New Orleans in May of 1849.