Leadership

225 years of Tar Heels: James K. Polk

An 1818 Carolina graduate, James K. Polk served as the 11th president of the United States from 1845 to 1849.

James K. Polk.
Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, James K. Polk Papers.

225 Years.Editor’s note: In honor of the University’s 225th anniversary, we will be sharing profiles throughout the academic year of some of the many Tar Heels who have left their heelprint on the campus, their communities, the state, the nation and the world.

Carolina alumni go on to do remarkable things, including holding the nation’s highest elected office. After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1818, James K. Polk became the 11th president of the United States, securing victory in a close race with Henry Clay.

Polk was Tar Heel born and bred, a native of North Carolina’s Mecklenburg County. Carolina’s students, faculty, staff and visitors who cross campus today will encounter Polk Place, the quad named after the only Carolina alumnus to serve as U.S. president.

A young Polk graduated from Carolina with honors and delivered a commencement speech in Latin as valedictorian of his class. Since there were only 14 students in the Class of 1818, that may not seem much of a distinction. But consider that among his classmates were the future governor of Florida, bishop of Mississippi and paymaster general of the U.S. Army.