1795 James Polk is born On this day in 1795, James Knox Polk is born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. Polk grew up on his father’s plantation in Tennessee and attended the University of North Carolina, from which he graduated with honors in 1818. Like many presidents before and after him, he worked as a lawyer before entering politics. Polk’s father, a confirmed Democrat, was a friend of war hero and future President Andrew Jackson, and Polk soon became one of Jackson’s political disciples. He served first in the Tennessee legislature and then in the U.S. House of Representatives (1825 – 1839), where he supported then-President Jackson’s efforts to close the Bank of the United States, and speaker of the House between 1835 and 1839. He then served as governor of Tennessee from 1839 to 1841. Although many considered him a “dark horse,” he won the presidency in 1844 with the backing of the aging, but still popular, Jackson. As president, Polk earned a reputation for being a workaholic and is remembered for his conviction that it was America’s “manifest destiny” to expand freely across the continent and spread democracy. In 1846, spurred by a desire to gain Mexican territory for the United States, Polk led the country into a controversial war with its southern neighbor. Polk insisted that Mexicohad “invaded” the U.S. during an earlier skirmish between American and Mexican troops that had spilled over the ill-defined territorial boundary along the Rio Grande River. His most vocal opponent in Congress was a representative from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln protested not so much expansionism itself, but Polk’s justification of the war, which he described as unconstitutional, unnecessary and expensive, calling Polk “a bewildered, confounded and miserably perplexed man.” Although the Mexican-American War was ultimately successful in territorial terms, Polk lost public support after two bloody years of conflict in which the U.S. lost 13,780 men and spent a whopping $100 million. Toward the end of 1848, Lincoln, who was beginning to make a name for himself as a persuasive orator, began coaching a Republican presidential candidate who would become Polk’s successor: Zachary Taylor. Ironically, Taylor had first won public recognition while serving as commanding general of the Army during the Mexican-American War. Knowing his chances at winning a second term against the war hero Taylor were slim, Polk bowed out of the 1848 campaign. Polk’s acquisition of 525,000 square miles of new territory caused heated debate in Congress over the question of whether the new states carved out of the territory would allow slavery. This issue would become the most divisive debate to face Congress and the nation since the American Revolution. Polk died three months after leaving office from an intestinal disorder that his doctors claimed was aggravated by overwork. 1865 Warren G. Harding is born On this day in 1865, Warren Gamaliel Harding, the future 29th American president, is born in Corsica, Ohio. In 1891, Harding married a spunky divorcee named Florence Mabel Kling De Wolfe. Florence was influential throughout Harding’s political career and it was at her urging that Harding, who was working as an editor of the Marion Starnewspaper, entered politics. In fact, she was once quoted as saying, “I know what’s best for the President. I put him in the White house. He does well when he listens to me and poorly when he does not.” With this staunch behind-the-scenes support, Harding was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1915. Though this first political success was overshadowed by his 35-year-old son’s death from alcoholism and tuberculosis that same year, Harding’s rapid rise to political prominence continued, culminating in his election to the presidency in 1920. As president, Harding was a strong supporter of new technologies. In 1922, he became the first president to have his voice transmitted by radio when he addressed a crowd at the dedication of a memorial site for Francis Scott Key, the composer of the “Star Spangled Banner.” The broadcast heralded a revolutionary shift in how presidents addressed the American public. Early in 1923, he installed the first radio in the White House and that June, he recorded a speech on an early “phonograph.” Harding’s presidency is perhaps best remembered, however, for scandal. In the Teapot Dome Scandal of 1922-23, his secretary of state, Albert Fall, was accused of leasing oil-rich government-owned land at Teapot Dome, Wyoming, to business interests in return for financial “gifts” amounting to almost $500,000. Fall was later found guilty of bribery and sentenced to one year in prison, earning the unfortunate distinction of becoming the first cabinet member to go to prison for misconduct while in office. Despite battling charges of corruption within his administration, Harding managed to pursue legislation for social change. He contributed to the advancement of civil rights for African Americans and women. As a senator and progressive Republican candidate for the presidency, Harding tried to pass an anti-lynching law in 1920, which was defeated, and, unlike his predecessors, vigorously supported suffrage for women. Still, the Teapot Dome Scandal took its toll on Harding’s administration and his physical health. On August 2, 1923, he died suddenly from a heart attack while visiting San Francisco during a tour of the country. Vice President Calvin Coolidge was awakened early the next morning with the news that he had inherited the presidency.