The president who secretly bought enslaved children

Mildred Europa Taylor October 17, 2022
James Polk. Image via obamawhitehouse.archives.gov

During the late 1700s and early 1800s, the cruel practice of owning slaves was common among those who served as presidents, history says. Enslaved workers even helped build the White House.

It is documented that many of the commanders-in-chief were enslavers while in office as most of them came from families and societies that enslaved people. James K. Polk, the 11th president of the United States, owned about 19 slaves while in office. He purchased enslaved people and separated children aged 10 through 17 from their families while in power. He then sent these enslaved children or young adults to work on his Mississippi cotton plantation while he lived in the White House.

But he hid his purchase of enslaved children and young adults from the public and made everyone believe that he was a “benevolent and paternalistic slave owner” who kept slaves because they were inherited from family members, according to The White House Historical Association.

Indeed, Polk’s father, James Knox Polk, who helped establish the county of Maury and Columbia, Tennessee, was not only a well-known person in his community and county judge but also a slave owner who owned a plantation. When he died in 1827, he left behind 8,000 acres of land and 53 enslaved people to his wife and ten children.

From 1845 to 1849 when Polk was in power, 13 of the 19 slaves he had were children, with the youngest being a 10-year-old boy called Jerry. But he secretly purchased these enslaved children through surrogates. He would ask surrogates to buy enslaved children on his behalf and then transfer them to him secretly, according to historian Lina Mann.

At the time, Congress had passed the Indian Removal Act and President Andrew Jackson had forcefully evicted the Choctaw Nation from their land in northern Mississippi. People rushed to purchase the vacant land, and Polk did the same, establishing a plantation there. And that was where his enslaved children worked.

Why did Polk purchase enslaved children in secret?

As already mentioned, many U.S. presidents owned slaves, so it wouldn’t be surprising if Polk did the same. But he concealed the fact that he kept enslaved children because white northerners at the time hated the breaking up of enslaved families. He reportedly wrote in an 1846 letter that if the public got to know about his purchases of enslaved children and young adults, “it would unnecessarily subject me to assaults from the abolition newspapers.”

The White House Historical Association writes: “If the public had known the extent of his activities as president, there likely would have been a violent outcry. During the 1840s, tensions over the spread of slavery into newly acquired western territories exacerbated sectional divisions between the North and the South, while the abolitionist movement fueled criticisms of slave owners. Several national events occurring during this time period likely encouraged Polk to keep his transactions private.”

Polk had also campaigned that he loved to keep families together. In reality, he was breaking families apart for profit. Even though scores of enslaved children died due to the harsh treatment associated with slavery and diseases, Polk continued to choose the young because it was cheap buying them. He also believed they were effective.

“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,” a research professor, Michael David Cohen, was quoted by History.com.

In effect, Polk wanted a profitable retirement from his purchase of young adults as slaves but it was his wife, Sarah, who benefited greatly as Polk died just four months after his presidency ended. His wife continued his slave trading. 

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