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James K. Polk


“If the unsought and unexpected position in which I have been placed by my political friends,

shall have a tendency to promote the success of our cause, I shall be most happy

to have been the instrument in their hands of effecting so great a good. "

James Knox Polk, 1792-1849.  11th President of the United States, 1845-1849.  Superb content Autograph Letter Signed, James K. Polk, two pages (recto and verso), 7¾" x 9¾", with integral leaf attached, on blind-embossed stationery, Columbia, Tennessee, July 31, 1844. 

This is an outstanding letter—the first we have ever seen in which Polk openly mentions the "dark horse" nature of his presidential candidacy.  Better yet, the letter has never been on the autograph market before.  It comes from a descendant of the recipient.

Polk, then the Democratic Party presidential nominee, writes to one of his supporters, Indiana attorney John Law, likewise a Democrat.  Marking the letter "(Private)", Polk writes, in full:

I was gratified to receive your letter of the 12th instant and thank you for the information which you give me of the prospects of the Democracy of Indiana, in the pending political contest.

If the unsought and unexpected position in which I have been placed by my political friends, shall have a tendency to promote the success of our cause, I shall be most happy to have been the instrument in their hands of effecting so great a good.  It is a source of sincere gratification to me to learn from yourself, as well as from others, in various parts of the country that there is perfect union and harmony of action in the Democratic Party.  In this state, our whole Democracy are roused to the most energetic action, and have the greatest confidence that they will carry the state.  Our friend the Hon. A. V. Brown happened to be at my house when I received your letter, to whom I showed it as requested to do by you.  He desired me, when I answered, to present his respects to you and to say to you that he would be pleased to hear from you.  Thanking you for your kind letter, I shall be pleased to hear from you again when your leisure may permit.

Early in the spring of 1844, there was little doubt that former President Martin Van Buren would be the Democratic presidential nominee and that Henry Clay would get the Whig nomination.  But then the question arose whether the United States should accept the annexation of the Republic of Texas, which had gained independence from Mexico a few years earlier.  The issue profoundly affected the political scene.  On April 27, both Van Buren and Clay released letters to the press, stating that they opposed "immediate annexation" of Texas, which would be a slave state.  Both emphasized the dangers to the Union that would result from sharp sectional division over the slavery issue, and both predicted that annexation would lead to an unjustifiable war with Mexico.

Clay had no rivals for the Whig nomination, which he received by acclamation at the party's convention early in May. When the Democrats convened on May 27, Polk supported Van Buren and hoped to be nominated to run with him. Several Southern delegations, however, withdrew their support for Van Buren, citing his stand against annexation.  Soon it became apparent that although Van Buren could get a majority of the convention votes, he could not get the two-thirds necessary to win the nomination. 

With a deadlock threatening, convention managers sought a candidate who supported Van Buren, and thus was acceptable to his supporters, but who also had previously declared himself in favor of annexation.  At the urging of former President Andrew Jackson, the convention chose Polk—who became the first "dark horse" ever to receive a major party's presidential nomination.  News of the unlikely event was transmitted by telegraph over the line between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., another first.

Polk went on to defeat Clay in the general election, even though he lost his home state of Tennessee.  He received a substantial vote in crucial New York, Van Buren's home state.  Overall, Polk won the popular vote by a margin of about 39,000 out of 2.6 million, and he received 170 electoral votes to Clays 105.

Law, to whom Polk wrote this letter, was a judge of the Indiana Seventh Judicial Circuit.  In 1855, President Franklin Pierce would appoint him judge of the Court of Land Claims.  Law also served in the United States House of Representatives from 1861 to 1865, during the Civil War.  Aaron Venable Brown, whom Polk mentions in this letter, was Polk's law partner and was himself serving in the House of Representatives in 1844.  The following year he became Governor of Tennessee, and he finished his career as President James Buchanan's postmaster general.

Polk has boldly penned and signed this letter in brown ink and has addressed it in his own hand.  The letter has normal mailing folds.  Portions of the front and integral leaves that were under the wax seal, which is still present, were torn when the letter was opened, but they are well removed from and do not affect the text.  The letter itself is very bright and clean, but the address leaf has typical soiling.  There is a notation "President J K Polk" in another hand on the address leaf.  Fine condition.




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