The Disgusting Story of a President Who Secretly Purchased Enslaved Children

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The Disgusting Story of a President Who Secretly Purchased Enslaved Children

James K. Polk served as the eleventh President of the United States.

Dec 24 · 5 min read
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President James K. Polk | Photo Credits: Mental Floss

TThe Slavemaster President, James K. Polk served as president of the United States (US) from 1845 to 1849. One of Polk’s astounding contributions was expanding the territories of the United States during the Mexican-American War. This is regarded as a notable achievement as the size of the country is said to have grown by more than one-third, extending the US border to the West Coast.

This expansion gave rise to country-wide discussions about whether slavery should be incorporated into the newly annexed regions. The bulk of the debate showed how white northerners were growing profoundly dissatisfied with the extension of slavery. As a consequence of this, Polk tried to conceal his own personal investment in slavery.

It is reported that during the four years Polk spent in the office, he bought 19 enslaved people, some of them which were children and some young adults. Lisa Mann, a historian at the White House Historical Association stated that of the 19 enslaved people the President purchased, 13 of them were children. Mann writes that this entire slave keeping practice was swept under the rugs by a conclusive strategy adopted by Polk. He used to instruct his confidants to buy the slaves for him and then transfer them discreetly to him.

So, the question then comes to mind, what did Polk do with these slaves? As a consequence of the 1830 Indian Removal Act, many indigenous people were removed from their native territories and Polk purchased some of these lands. Hence, the President used to send his slaves to work on the Mississippi plantation, which was part of the lands he had purchased.

Polk played the role of a ‘Benevolent’ Slaveowner in public.

It is surprising to note that despite slavery being a cruel act that many at the time had started to condemn, Polk did not consider the act as morally and ethically unjust. Hence, the clandestineness shown by Polk was not due to his embarrassment of being involved with such a barbaric act. Instead, Polk’s indulgence in slavery was a renowned fact even during his Presidential Campaign from the Democratic Party. When Polk won the elections and took charge of the office, he brought the enslaved people to the White House with him. A more astonishing fact is that Polk is one of the twelve US presidents known to have engaged in slavery.

So, what was it then that caused Polk to adopt such a secretive attitude? The explanation for this anonymity undoubtedly had to with the changing attitudes of the white northerners regarding the morality of splitting up enslaved families. Not only this, but Polk had made many arguments during his campaign, which would be undermined had his indulgence in slave practice not been so concealed. A letter written by Polk in 1846 stated that:

“It would unnecessarily subject me to assaults from the abolition newspapers if the public found out about his purchases of children and young adults.”

Furthermore, Amy S. Greenberg, who is the author of Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk, and a professor at Pennsylvania State University stated that:

“By the time you get to James K. Polk, slaveowners are saying slavery’s actually this really great system because slaveowners really care about their slaves,”

She then further adds:

“It becomes a common thing for national politicians, if they own slaves, to say, ‘Well, I own slaves, but it’s only because I inherited them’; or ‘I own slaves because they’re part of my wife’s dowry, but I’d never buy or sell slaves unless it’s what the slaves want,’”. “And when Polk runs for president, this is what his surrogates on the campaign trail all do. They say, ‘Oh, James K. Polk has never bought or sold a slave except to keep families together.’”

From these comments made by the people, it becomes quite evident how the rich used to justify slavery and portray it as a symbol of mercy rather than injustice. All of this ties in with the fact that Polk, or much of the other US presidents for that matter, were not ashamed of their indulgence in slavery due to their success at deceiving the public on the matter.

Polk desired inexpensive, productive, and young slaves.

What the people did not know, however, was that Polk was not buying slaves to keep families together, rather he was acquiring enslaved children and young adults for himself. Michael David Cohen, a research professor at American University and former editor of the James K. Polk Project at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, states that Polk, in a letter to his cousin, had defined his favorite slaves as those who were ‘young and effective’.

Cohen further stated that:

“He wanted them, younger ones, because…they’d be around for a long time so he’d get his money’s worth out of them. And also, in the case of girls, they would have a lifetime over which they could give birth to additional slaves because any child born to someone, he owned was considered his property as well.”

With all this, Cohen notes, that Polk was trying to use the Mississippi plantation and the slaves who worked on it for him as a retirement project for him and his wife, Sarah Childress Polk. This is quite baffling to see, how a US president treated children as assets that could be used to further his own financial status.

What is more astounding is that Polk purchased children rather than young adults because not only were the children relatively inexpensive to buy, but they also lasted longer; hence, Polk used this as a way of raising his revenues on the Mississippi farm he owned. Greenberg states that coupled with the violence of slavery, the prevalence of diseases such as malaria in Mississippi meant the mortality rate was very high. Around 46 percent of the enslaved children in the antebellum South died before the age of 15, and that number was at least 51 percent, probably even higher on Polk’s plantation.

Polk’s presidency ended in 1849, and he died a few months later in June 1849. His widow continued on the path of slavery established by Polk during his reign. It is interesting to note that two decades later when the Civil War began, black men from the very plantation Polk owned, escaped to join the Union Army and fight against the brutal and barbaric practices of slavery.

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