No US presidents are natives of Mississippi, but one, James K. Polk, owned substantial property in the state. Polk was born in North Carolina in 1795 and became a lawyer and politician in Tennessee. Though he never lived in Mississippi, from 1835 until his death in June 1849, he was one of the wealthiest owners of land and slaves in the Yalobusha County area. Six years after winning election to the US House of Representatives in 1825, Polk inherited land in in southwestern Tennessee and started a cotton plantation using slave labor. In 1835 he bought 920 acres in Yalobusha County. While living in Washington, D.C., and Tennessee, he and his wife, Sarah, made considerable income from the Mississippi plantation.
When Polk and his partner and brother-in-law, Silas Caldwell, started their Mississippi plantation, they sent twenty slaves—twelve adults and eight children—to start clearing the land. The Polk plantation had thirty-four slaves by 1840 and fifty-six at the time of Polk’s death. As a slave owner, Polk aspired to the type of paternalism he associated with benevolence and responsibility. He had an overseer submit monthly reports, worried when slaves escaped or tried to escape, and occasionally stepped in to prevent slaves from being sold away from their family members. However, in at least one case, when Polk declined an offer to sell a slave named Caroline because he preferred “not to separate her from her family relations,” he was actually refusing to sell a recently married woman who hoped to move to the neighboring plantation where her new husband lived. Thus, Polk’s definition of “family relations” did not match that of the person involved.
Polk’s slave-owning career is intriguing because it shows what a public figure found controversial about slavery and what he did not. First, as a political figure, he knew that the buying and selling of slaves was particularly unpopular, so he kept secret the fact that he bought at least nineteen slaves for his Mississippi plantation while serving as president (1845–49). In addition, his will provided that all of his slaves would be freed after he and his wife died. (Sarah Polk lived for more than forty years after her husband’s death, by which time slavery had long since been abolished.) While privately planning to free his slaves, Polk much more publicly opposed the abolitionist movement and supported the expansion of the right to own slaves in the American West. He backed the gag order against discussing abolitionist petitions in the US Congress, and during his presidency, the United States went to war against Mexico for Texas, greatly expanding the amount of American territory in which slavery was legal.
- Walter R. Borneman, Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America (2008)
- William Dusinberre, Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk (2003)
- John Seigenthaler, James K. Polk (2004)
- Charles Sellers, James K. Polk, Continentalist, 1843–1846 (1966)
- Charles Sellers, James K. Polk, Jacksonian, 1795–1843 (1957)