James Knox Polk was born near the Little Sugar Creek in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina in 1795. His childhood was tumultuous and unconventional, and several events and themes in his childhood undoubtedly helped shape the powerful personality of the future president. One thing is certain, however- his early life was highly influential in his political beliefs; they initially mirrored that of his family, but then matured into their final form- Jacksonian Democracy. (Seigenthaler 11)
A unique religious upbringing was one of the things marking Polk’s childhood as different. His parents, Samuel and Jane, were members of the Presbyterian congregation nearby. While Jane was very devout (having descended from a key figure in the Reformation), Samuel wasn’t quite so enamored with organized religion. When Reverend James Wallis, the pastor performing the baptism, asked Sam to fully endorse the Christian faith, he refused. Wallis likewise refused to carry out the religious ceremony, and James Polk would not receive a baptism until he was on his deathbed.
Samuel Polk’s lack of belief in the Christian faith stemmed from an ongoing confrontation between his own father, Ezekiel Polk, and the Reverend. Ezekiel Polk was a deist who did not believe in organized religion, and he had a dogmatic and highly quarrelsome personality. When the pastor provoked his anger, Ezekiel started a campaign to convert Wallis’s churchgoers to deism- however, this measure failed with very few successes. This environment of religious conflict proved an influence on the young James Polk, showing him different world views as well as differing values on the part of his mother and father.
While his mother held conventional, Presbyterian leanings, his father was far more dedicated to building a fortune and farming the land. (Seigenthaler 12-13) In his later life, Polk showed a firm belief that political and secular matters came far before religion, in terms of importance and as a guiding factor in his decisions. While he often attended church with his wife, he clearly indicated his presence there was a result of her initiative rather than his own. His diary holds clues to his true feelings about God, as he rarely brings the matter up (something he would have done far more often had e been highly devout), and there is no reason to believe Polk even prayed to him for support and guidance in life- something that was as common as eating or drinking during the time period.
Whatever his approach to Christianity in his personal life, he understood that religion and government should be entirely separated; he even went against the public sentiment to ensure the constitutional wall remained intact. These beliefs are a clear result of the free-thinking ideas of his family, teaching the childhood Polk that religion is not the alpha and omega, so to speak, of life. Seigenthaler 13-14) Whereas most children during Polk’s childhood would spend their days outside, exploring and playing in the forest or fields, Polk could not. His had chronic stomach disorders that “sapped his vigor and made strenuous work or even play difficult. ” (Seigenthaler 18)
He was always frail as a child, never having much strength to help his father on the farm. Polk did what he could, but often he was unable to complete them. Even non-physical pursuits such as commerce or academia were affected by his poor health. His education…was substantially delayed ‘in consequence of having been very much afflicted. ’” (Seigenthaler 19) When Polk was seventeen years of age, his condition was at last diagnosed as urinary stones. In order to remove them, he had to get a difficult and dangerous procedure performed upon him. Medicine in this era was still fairly primitive, and this major surgery had to be performed without anesthesia or even proper hygiene. Even performed by a talented doctor, it was an excruciating ordeal for the young Polk- as well as permanently damaging.
Many delicate “ejaculatory ducts, tissue, nerves and arteries” (Seigenthaler 20) were most likely left unable to perform their normal duties, which is the most probable reason that James Polk never fathered a child in his lifetime. This unfortunate and nearly tragic series of events shaped the adult Polk, changing his personality dramatically. It would be impossible to say how he would have turned out without these experiences- but it is definitely safe to say that without them, he would not be the nearly the same person.