Correspondence of JAMES K. POLK


James K. Polk presided over four years of rapid scientific innovation. New technologies transformed the ways Americans preserved and disseminated information. Daguerreotypists captured the earliest known photographs of the White House and the earliest that survive of a sitting president. Polk used an ancestor of the photocopier to duplicate his outgoing letters. Railroads crisscrossed the land and steamboats sped through the water. The first U.S. postage stamp enabled Americans to pay to send, rather than to receive, their mail.1

Few inventions impacted Americans’ lives as much as the telegraph. Samuel F. B. Morse had demonstrated his electrical system of communication in 1838. After receiving a federal grant in 1843, he built a forty-mile line between Baltimore and the nation’s capital. The first major news item conveyed through the completed line, in May 1844, was Polk’s nomination by the Democratic party for the presidency. Morse and other entrepreneurs proceeded to lay lines across the country.2

For the first time in history, humans could communicate instantaneously beyond the range of sight or sound. Polk telegraphed federal appointments as far as Illinois and Kentucky.3 Through the telegraph and other media, he received updates from and sent orders to a distant war front faster than any prior commander-in-chief. He thus could direct military activities from the White House to an unprecedented degree.4 Meanwhile, newspapers reported stories from Washington, Mexico City, and elsewhere using the new technology. Thanks to the decade-old “penny press”—papers sold for a mere cent—information became both current and affordable for millions of Americans.5

Today, too, is an age of technological revolution. Our computers, smartphones, and Internet lie many inventive steps beyond the fanciest devices of the 1840s. Much like the telegraph and the penny press, though, they enable us to share information instantaneously and, increasingly, affordably with a large audience. James K. Polk and his contemporaries, one inventor told him in 1848, had entered a “great Era of Improvement.”6 Now the James K. Polk Project enters the twenty-first century.

Between 1958 and 2017, the Polk Project produced thirteen hardcover volumes of the Correspondence of James K. Polk . Published by Vanderbilt University Press and, since 1993, the University of Tennessee Press, they render accessible Polk’s incoming and outgoing letters from July 1817 to March 1848. No longer do students, scholars, or history enthusiasts need to obtain Library of Congress microfilm, travel to other libraries and archives, contact private collectors, decipher faint handwriting, and research people and topics mentioned in letters. Thousands of transcribed and annotated letters, plus summaries of all other known extant correspondence, can be found on a single bookshelf.

Now we go further. Working with Newfound Press, the digital imprint of the University of Tennessee Libraries, the Polk Project is making the eleventh president’s letters even easier to find. As of January 2016, the first twelve volumes of the Correspondence are available, at no charge to the user, at (They also can be found through our project website, Volume 13, recently published in hardcover, will join them in 2019. These PDF volumes include all contents of the hardcover ones, plus they are full-text searchable. Users can download them to any device with access to the World Wide Web.

The volume you are now reading represents a step further still. Work continues on Volume 14 of the Correspondence, which will complete the series. In the meantime, as we prepare that volume’s annotation and letter summaries, we see no reason not to share the transcriptions. Here you can read 104 letters that Polk wrote and 260 that he received between April 1, 1848, and his death on June 15, 1849. They contain few notes, chiefly describing the texts, identifying enclosures, and citing other Polk letters referenced. But they are accurate, carefully proofread reproductions of the primary documents.

Newfound Press publishes this early edition of Correspondence of James K. Polk , volume 14, April 1848–June 1849 , with sophisticated technology to maximize its usability and sustainability. Not only are the letters on this XML-based website easily navigable, searchable, and copy-and-paste friendly. They also are encoded, by Backstage Library Works under Newfound Press’s direction, according to the standards of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). TEI, since its publication in 1994, has become a widely accepted set of guidelines for the presentation of texts in digital format. The standard used by publishers, libraries, museums, and scholars, it ensures the continued usability and consistent presentation of Polk’s letters both across devices and applications and over time as technology develops.

We hope you enjoy our most advanced digital product to date. Thanks to the generosity of Newfound Press and of the Polk Project’s sponsors, this electronic volume is—and will remain—completely free to the user. Historians and others can begin learning from these important documents of the final year of Polk’s administration and his three-month retirement. We, meanwhile, are hard at work preparing the annotations, briefs, and calendar for the complete Volume 14, to be published by the University of Tennessee Press and, later, by Newfound Press. That volume also will include a calendar summarizing letters from earlier periods that we have located since publishing their chronologically appropriate volumes. Soon the Correspondence of James K. Polk , with all the annotations and supplementary materials that readers have come to expect, will be complete in both print and digital formats.

So please dive in. The letters on this site help to illuminate the aftermath of the Mexican War, including Polk’s unsuccessful effort to establish territorial governments for the lands acquired from Mexico; the election of Polk’s successor, in which Whig and Mexican War general Zachary Taylor defeated Democrat and Polk friend Lewis Cass; and renewed concern over Polk’s having misled senators in 1845 about his intentions regarding Texas annexation. They discuss the heated debate over slavery in the United States, the spreading revolutionary activity in Europe, and American interest in purchasing Cuba. Correspondents include California gold seekers, India’s poet laureate, and the wives of John Quincy Adams and Robert E. Lee. Polk exchanged personal letters with friends and relatives including three of his siblings; his nephew and ward; and his wife, Sarah Childress Polk. Letters from the last months of his presidency and from his brief retirement address the final illness and the anticipated legacy of one of the most consequential presidents in U.S. history.

  1. On photography, see Clifford Krainik, “A ‘Dark Horse’ in Sunlight and Shadow: Daguerreotypes of President James K. Polk,” White House History, 2 (June 1997), pp. 44–47; on press copies, which are marked as such in this series’ headnotes, see Barbara Rhodes and William Wells Streeter, Before Photocopying: The Art & History of Mechanical Copying, 1780–1938 (New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press; Northampton, Mass.: Heraldry Bindery, 1999), pp. 193–96; on rail and water routes, see Jerry Musich, “Mapping a Transcontinental Nation: Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century American Rail Travel Cartography,” in Cartographies of Travel and Navigation, ed. James R. Akerman (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2006), pp. 99–100, 109, 116–18, 121–23, and Louis C. Hunter, Steamboats on the Western Rivers: An Economic and Technological History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1949), pp. 32–52 and pp. 644–45, table 2; on the stamp, see Richard R. John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1995), pp. 160–61.
  2. Paul Starr, The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications (New York: Basic Books, 2004), pp. 158, 161–62, 166, 169–71.
  3. See, herein, Polk to Joseph Lane, August 21, 1848; Polk to William L. Marcy, August 23, 1848; and Joseph Knox Walker to Polk, August 23, 1848.
  4. See, for example, Thomas Ritchie to Polk, June 14, 1848, herein, and Polk to Gideon J. Pillow, April 14, 1847, in Correspondence of James K. Polk , vol. 12, January–July 1847 , ed. Tom Chaffin and Michael David Cohen (Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2013), pp. 176–78.
  5. Starr, Creation of the Media, pp. 131–34, 174.
  6. George C. Wheeler to Polk, August 28, 1848, herein.