About this Collection
The papers of James K. Polk (1795-1849), governor of Tennessee, representative from Tennessee, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and eleventh president of the United States, contain approximately 20,500 items dating from 1775 to 1891, with the bulk falling in the period 1830-1849. The collection includes correspondence, presidential letterbooks, diaries, speeches and messages, account and memorandum books, family papers, financial and legal records, printed matter, portraits, and other papers relating chiefly to Polk’s political career in Tennessee and on the national level. The papers document struggles during Andrew Jackson’s administration over the Bank of the United States, Nullification Crisis, and internal improvements. For the period of Polk’s presidency, the papers cover the annexation of Texas, war with Mexico, the Oregon question, and the acquisition of the territories of New Mexico and California. Other subjects represented include slavery, tariff issues, patronage and office seeking, plantation matters, and family affairs. The collection also contains three volumes of the papers of Polk's wife, Sarah Childress Polk.
Notable correspondents include George Bancroft, James Buchanan, Edmund Burke, Lewis Cass, John Catron, J. F. H. Claiborne, George Mifflin Dallas, Andrew Jackson Donelson, Felix Grundy, Andrew Jackson, Cave Johnson, Amos Kendall, William L. Marcy, John Y. Mason, Gideon Johnson Pillow, Thomas Ritchie, Martin Van Buren, Robert J. Walker, Levi Woodbury, and Silas Wright.
The Index to the James K. Polk Papers (PDF and page view), created by the Manuscript Division in 1969 after the bulk of the collection was microfilmed, provides a full list of the correspondents and notes the series number and dates of the items indexed. This information is helpful in finding individual letters or documents in the online version. Additional letters received by the Library after 1969 are not listed in this index.
Brief History of the Polk Papers
James K. Polk’s papers were acquired by the Library of Congress by gift and purchase during the years 1903-2012. Polk apparently did not begin the systematic preservation of his papers until 1825 or thereabouts. In the 1830s, as Polk’s political career advanced and his influence grew, his papers accumulated in increasing numbers. Correspondence, principally letters he received, predominates in this period and makes up the bulk of the collection thereafter. In the winter of 1848-49, as his administration drew to a close, Polk made preparations for his return to Tennessee. Boxes and packages began to be forwarded to Tennessee from Washington, Baltimore, and New York, and early in January an important shipment that included “Books, Pictures & [other articles] of value” was dispatched to his home in Nashville. After Polk’s death in 1849, ownership of his papers passed to his widow Sarah Childress Polk. Upon Sarah C. Polk’s death in 1891, her niece, Sally Polk Jetton Fall (Mrs. George W. Fall), inherited the Polk Papers.
The Library of Congress acquired approximately 10,000 items from Mrs. Fall in 1903. The Chicago Historical Society transferred additional correspondence and the bulk of Polk’s diaries to the Library of Congress in 1910. Sadie Fall Gardner Grant (Mrs. Rollin P. Grant), a daughter of Sarah Polk’s niece, augmented the Polk papers with a significant donation of materials in 1927. Between the years 1954 and 1973, the Library of Congress produced a microfilm edition of the materials in series 1-9 and 11, with a related index published in 1969. In the years since, scattered extant original documents have been added to the collection.
Presented on this website are digital scans of both the microfilm and original materials not previously microfilmed (with the exception of printed messages to Congress and two booklets included in series 10). A fuller history of the provenance of the collection was prepared for the Index to the James K. Polk Papers, pp. v-xiv (PDF and page view) and subsequently reproduced in the finding aid (PDF and HTML). A version appears on this website as the essay Provenance of the James K. Polk Papers.
Description of Series
The James K. Polk Papers are arranged into twelve series. Series 1-9 and 11 were reproduced on 69 reels of microfilm, scans of which comprise the bulk of this online collection. Materials in series 10 and 12 were scanned from the originals, with the exception of published booklets and messages to Congress in series 10. A list of the series follows.
Series 1: Diaries, 1845-1849 (Reels 1-3)
Contains twenty-five volumes of a diary written by James K. Polk. The volumes are arranged chronologically. As he later noted, Polk started his diary on August 26, 1845, when a “very important conversation took place in [the] Cabinet,” and he decided that he needed to keep a “journal or diary of events and transactions which might occur during [his] Presidency.” The result is one of the most complete sets of presidential diaries known to exist. The twenty-five volumes contain slightly less than 4,000 pages, with only occasional gaps.
Series 2: General Correspondence and Related Items, 1775-1849 (Reels 4-55)
This series consists primarily of letters received by Polk, as well as receipts, legal documents, petitions, and other related items. The material is arranged chronologically.
Series 3: Additional Correspondence and Related Material, 1826-1849 (Reels 56-57)
Consists of letters received by Polk and related material, arranged chronologically.
Series 4: Letterpress Copy Books, 1845-1849 (Reels 57-58)
Contains five volumes of copies of Polk’s outgoing letters, arranged chronologically. The first four volumes include indexes to the contents of each volume.
Series 5: Messages and Speeches, 1833-1849 (Reels 59-61)
Includes drafts of messages to Congress and other speeches, most of which are in Polk’s handwriting. Printed copies of some messages are included whether or not the manuscript also appears. The material is arranged chronologically.
Series 6: Notes, 1831-1847 (Reels 61-62)
Consists of notes written by Polk on a variety of subjects, including the Bank of the United States, internal improvements, congressional apportionment, tasks performed for constituents, and surplus revenue. The notes are arranged alphabetically on numbered mounting sheets and in an “executive record book.”
Series 7: Account and Memoranda Books, 1817-1850 (Reel 62)
Contains miscellaneous account books and volumes of memoranda. The volumes are arranged chronologically by the first date in each volume.
Series 8: Miscellaneous, 1827-1884 (Reel 63)
Includes broadsides and broadsheets (many of which were sent as letters to Polk), and other printed matter or documents pertaining to legal cases and politics, especially Democratic Party politics in Tennessee. This series also includes newspaper clippings. Each group of material in the series is arranged chronologically.
Series 9: Sarah Childress Polk Papers, 1838-1891 (Reels 63-64)
Consists of letters received by Sarah Polk, invoices, receipts, checks and related documents, which are arranged chronologically.
Series 10: Printed Matter, 1826-1886 (Not filmed; scanned from originals except for readily available published booklets and messages to Congress, which were not digitized)
Consists of speeches by James K. Polk, newspapers, pamphlets and miscellaneous printed material. Printed messages to Congress and two booklets were excluded from scanning.
Series 11: Omitted Correspondence, 1811-1849 (Reels 63-67)
Consists of microfilm reproductions of manuscripts that appear in series 2, but were incompletely filmed or omitted entirely when part of the microfilm edition was prepared in 1954.
Series 12: Additions, 1775-1849 (Not filmed; scanned from originals)
Contains correspondence and miscellany including duplicates and fragments, engraved portraits, extracts copied from historic documents, and philatelic covers. The material is arranged by the year in which the items were added to the collection, and therein alphabetically by type of material.