Next Tuesday, Dec. 28, is the 175th anniversary of President James K. Polk’s approval of statehood for Iowa, while noting in his diary “nothing of much interest occurred today.”

Polk’s 1846 diary entry is puzzling to present-day Iowans, but it helps if you know a little about the geopolitical world of Polk’s time. 

His four years as president (1845-1849) resulted in a dramatic, 800,000-square-mile expansion of the country that was only slightly smaller than President Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase (828,000 square miles) from France a generation or so earlier in 1803.

While Jefferson’s acquisition was peaceful, Polk’s was not. 

Polk went to war with Mexico from 1846 to 1848 to acquire territory that today stretches across seven states, including all of California, Nevada and Utah, most of Arizona and pieces of New Mexico, Colorado and southern Wyoming. 

Apart from Polk’s war, three states – Texas, Iowa and Wisconsin – joined the Union under his watch. Only two presidents added more – five states entered the Union under President James Monroe (1817-1825); six were admitted under President Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893).

Polk served one four-year term and is not widely recognized today, not even in our own Iowa county that bears his name.

He is, however, well regarded by historians, professors and other professional observers of the presidency. In CNN’s 2021 survey of 142 political experts, Polk was ranked No. 18, between John Quincy Adams and Bill Clinton. 

One reason Polk’s leadership is not much appreciated today is that historians draw a direct line between his policies and the Civil War. 

Polk, like his mentor Andrew Jackson, was a slave owner from Tennessee, and his expansionist efforts are seen as having exacerbated divisions between free and slave states. 

When Iowa became the 29th state in 1846, it was part of an effort that Southerners, including Polk, saw as tipping the balance of congressional power away from the slave states of the South.

Northern free states already had a much larger population than the slave states, but the South maintained control of Congress because each state has two votes in the U.S. Senate and before the Civil War there were more slave than free states.

The year Iowa gained statehood the United States consisted of 15 slave states, including recently admitted Texas, and 13 free states.  

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 brought in Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state. The agreement also recommended that additional states carved out of the Louisiana Purchase should come into the Union as free states.

Polk and others hoped to offset future additions of free states by making slave states out of the territories won from Mexico. It never got that far, but that was the hope.

Iowa was the first free state to be carved out of the Louisiana Purchase following the Missouri Compromise.

“The birth of Iowa as a state was a long and painful process – a seven-year fight over economics, boundaries and the growing tension between slave and free regions of the United States,” the Des Moines Register’s Larry Fruhling wrote in a1996 history of Iowa.

One reason it took Iowa seven years to achieve statehood was disagreements over the size of the state. The Iowa Territory organized in 1838 included large chunks of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. 

Some said that if Iowa were smaller, more free states could be added to offset the 15-13 majority that slave states enjoyed in the U.S. Senate. Two proposals would have extended Iowa’s borders to include today’s Minneapolis-St. Paul area. 

That didn’t happen and the actual shape of Iowa is worth exploring in a future column. 

For now, let me note that Polk also failed to mention Wisconsin in his diary on May 29, 1848, the day it, like Iowa, was admitted to the Union as a free state, but he wrote several lines about Texas on Dec. 29, 1845, the day he approved its admission as a slave state.