Exploring the collections of the Mercantile Library:

The St. Louis Mercantile Library's First President... of the United States
The Presidential Inauguration this week recalls the first Presidency under which our library served the public, in yet another divisively tense and tumultuous era of American history. In fact, our founding year, 1846, was coined the “Year of Decision" for just such reasons. It is amazing that the merchants of St. Louis in those days forged a great, lasting library when war was in the air, and stirring daily events and convulsions were met with their calm steady hand on the cultural pulse of our early citizens.

When the St. Louis Mercantile Library was incorporated in April of 1846, the United States had just finished the first full year of James K. Polk’s first and only term. Few individuals would have a more direct impact on the economic fortunes of St. Louis and commerce in the city than this man from Tennessee. Indeed, the echoes of Polk’s decisions would echo to this day.
James K. Polk, Eleventh President of the United States, Hand-colored lithograph, Currier & Ives, c. 1840-1850. Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library
Polk was a protégée of President Andrew Jackson, like Martin Van Buren.  However, unlike Van Buren, he did not have the talent to cultivate allies at social events. His plain spoken manner was appreciated by Jackson, but it didn’t serve Polk well in developing his own base of power in Washington outside of Jackson himself. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives during Jackson’s Presidency, and became Speaker and Chair of the Ways and Means Committee. Polk served as a member of the House of Representatives for 14 years and then left to become governor of Tennessee, partly to help his mentor, Jackson.

Polk sought the Vice-Presidency under the planned re-emergence of Martin Van Buren in the 1844 election. He had spent many months with his few political friends and worked to position himself as a compromise candidate that would be acceptable to all factions of the Democratic Party and balance out their support for Van Buren. This politicking was more successful than he hoped and it actually caused his name to be raised as the candidate for President because of a continued impasse between supporters of Van Buren and five other candidates for the nomination. 
Autographed letter by James K. Polk to Robert M. Burton, Esq. concerning election strategy, dated May 2, 1836. Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
After winning the nomination, he found himself running against Henry Clay of Kentucky who had easily won the Whig nomination and was expected to trounce the Democrats. Clay was easily expected to win the election and continue the Whig Party’s hold on the White House for another term. However, because of a series of missteps made by Clay about public sentiment towards Texas Annexation and westward expansion, Clay found himself on the outside of the public’s feelings about Manifest Destiny. Because of this, Clay lost to Polk by over 1,300,000 votes.
Portrait of Franklin Pierce, engraving after a portrait by G. P. A. Healy (1813 - 1894), from
The White House Gallery of Official Portraits of the Presidents, 1901.
From the collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library
Polk took office with a set of goals and a determination to not run for a second term. He wanted to lower tariffs, settle the Oregon Question (a long festering territorial issue with Great Britain), acquire California from Mexico to secure U.S. access to the Pacific, and establish an “Independent” Treasury that would manage the supply of money in the United States. For St. Louis, secure access to Oregon would be a boon to the fur trade and increase the number of emigrants moving through the city on their way west over The Oregon Trail. Access to California would put the city on a straight-line path to the Pacific and the potential overland commerce that would rise from that. Lower tariffs and an independent Treasury would help with the city and region’s economy by increasing foreign commerce and stabilizing the economy.
Old 76 and Young 48, Richard Caton Woodville (1825-1855), engraving by Joseph Pease for the American Art Union, 1851. Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
War News from Mexico, Richard Caton Woodville (1825-1855), engraving. 
Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
Polk inherited the issue of the annexation of Texas from John Tyler. (Texas was another potential source of commercial growth for St. Louis.) He had no objection to completing the process if Texas itself wished to be annexed, and sent troops and naval forces to make sure Mexico, which had repudiated the treaty that established an independent Texas, would not intervene. This move led to a provocation which developed into the Mexican-American War. The conflict would start a mere six days after the opening of the St. Louis Mercantile Library when Mexican forces attacked a U.S. Army cavalry patrol in a disputed area between Texas and Mexico in what became known as “The Thornton Affair” on April 25, 1846.
The War Between the United States and Mexico Illustrated, embracing pictorial drawings of all the principal conflicts, by Carl Nebel, with a description of each battle, by George Wilkins Kendall, 1851. Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library
Illustration by Carl Nebel for Kendall's The War Between the United States and Mexico Illustrated (New York, 1851). Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
The war itself would start on May 13th, 1846 and was generally supported by the population of the United States. However, there were several groups and prominent individuals who opposed the war. Many Whigs, including Representative Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, opposed the war. This was done not without risk as Lincoln himself lost political support because of this. Frederick Douglas was another prominent voice opposing the war. Douglas, along with many other anti-slavery activists, saw the war as a means for the South to expand slavery into newly acquired lands. In a similar vein, Henry David Thoreau opposed the war and spent time in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax to help fund the war that he believed was unjust.
While Polk was dealing with the onset of the Mexican War, he also was negotiating with Great Britain about the border of Oregon. In June of 1846, the British offered a proposal that would accept the American proposal of the border being set at the 49th Parallel, but with the exception of Vancouver Island, which would remain in British Hands. The proposal was approved by Polk and ratified by the Senate by a vote of 41 to 14, and thus settled one of the longest running foreign policy issues facing the United States to that time. This stabilized a border and helped for the long term growth of the Oregon Territory.
Map of Oregon Territory by Washington Hood, 1838. Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
Henry Warre (1819-1898), Falls of the Kamanis Taquoih River, from Sketches in North American and the Oregon Territory (London, 1848). Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
In Mexico, over the course of the rest of 1846, all of 1847 and part of 1848, the U.S. Army and naval forces captured California with the support of local forces led by John C. Fremont, New Mexico was captured by Stephen Kearny without firing a shot and Mexico City was occupied by forces under Winfield Scott and Zachary Taylor after a series of bloody campaigns into the interior of the country. Hostilities would be in force until May 19, 1848 when Mexico ratified the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.  The United States would add to its territory, land that would become all or parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico, California, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming and Colorado.

Domestically, President Polk was able to get the tariffs lowered and an independent Treasury set up by the summer of 1846.  He was helped by the majority the Democratic Party held in the House, but the Tariff question had to be resolved by Vic President Dallas casting a tie-breaking vote in the Senate. 
Broadside illustrations depicting Winfield Scott (left) and Zachary Taylor (right). 
Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library. 
Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, title page (Washington, 1849).
Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
Polk had achieved all of his objectives in one term and did not run for a second.  His health was beginning to fail and he felt he had nothing more to accomplish.  He was succeeded by Zachary Taylor, one of his Mexican War Generals and mentor to Ulysses S. Grant. Taylor ran as a Whig and used his war record to defeat Lewis Cass of Michigan, who Polk favored as his successor, and Free Soil Candidate, Martin Van Buren. 

The split among the Democrats would foreshadow later elections and ongoing tensions brought about by Polk’s successful territorial gains, culminating by the split in the Election of 1860 which led to Abraham Lincoln’s return to Washington as President of the United States. Polk’s legacy remains complex, but it cannot be ignored that his accomplishments had significant impact on the nation and on our community here in St. Louis.
The first Mercantile Library Reading Room dating back to the time of Polk, festooned with newspapers everywhere at the ready. Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
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