James Knox Polk was born on November 2, 1795 at a home (a log cabin of course) on Little Sugar Creek in Pineville, North Carolina, just southwest of Charlotte. He was the first of 10 children born. His mother, the former Jane Knox, named him after her father, James Knox. Jane was a grand-niece of John Knox, the man who had brought the Reformation to Scotland. His father Samuel Polk was a farmer and surveyor of Scots-Irish descent, and like many southerners, he was also a slaveholder. The Polks had immigrated to America in the late 1600s, settling initially on the Eastern Shore of Maryland but later moving to south-central Pennsylvania and then to the Carolina hill country. Samuel and Jane were married on Christmas Day of 1794.
The Knox and Polk families were Presbyterian. Religion was a subject of some conflict in the home as Polk's mother remained a devout Presbyterian, while his father and paternal grandfather Ezekiel Polk, like Thomas Jefferson, were deists who rejected Presbyterianism as being dogmatic. When James was supposes to be baptized, Samuel Polk refused to declare his belief in Christianity, so the minister, James Wallis, refused to baptize the child. The Polk family and Wallis had a long-standing feud. When Ezekiel Polk's wife had given birth to a stillborn child, Wallis insensitively told Ezekiel that the child would be denied admission to heaven. The remark caused lifelong antipathy between the Polks and the clergyman. A determined Jane Polk nevertheless instilled in her son many Calvinistic characteristics such as self-discipline, hard work, and piety. His father instilled in the child more worldly values such as how to be a good farmer and how to build wealth.
In 1803, Ezekiel Polk and four of his adult children moved their families to the Duck River area in what is now Maury County, Tennessee. Samuel Polk and his family followed in 1806. The Polk clan were the leading family, especially when it came to politics in Maury County and in the new town of Columbia. Samuel became a county judge, and the guests at his home included Andrew Jackson, who had already served as a judge and in Congress. As he grew up, James Polk was indoctrinated in anti-Federalist and pro-Jeffersonian comments.
James K. Polk himself recalls his early years as a time when he was in poor health. In his own diary, he records that he "enjoyed bad health." He was slightly build, and low on energy. He experienced recurring bouts of stomach problems. He did accompany his father on surveying trips, but was unable to help with any heavy lifting. His father proposed a mercantile career for the boy and arranged for young James to work in a friend's general store. But that didn't work out so well.
At age 17 James Polk was diagnosed as suffering from urinary stones. At this time, around 1812, medical science knew of no other means to address this problem than by crude surgery, conducted at a time before anesthesia. Sam Polk sought out the best surgeon available. He selected Dr. Syng Physick of Philadelphia, a man known as "the American Father of Surgery". Polk was placed on a bed in a covered wagon for an 800 mile trip to Physick's hospital. But as the pain increased, a change of plans took place and the covered wagon headed to Danville, Kentucky instead, where Dr. Ephraim McDowell, another contemporary well-known physician resided and practiced.
Polk biographer John Siegenthaler gives this account of the operation the future president underwent:
"By modern standards the operation was a terrifying procedure. It occurred under whatever sedation was obtainable from brandy. Jim's legs were held high in the air and being restrained by straps and assistants, the operation was done as quickly as possible. The procedure was to cut into the perinium (the area immediately behind the scrotum and in front of the anus) with a knife and thence through the prostate into the bladder with a gorget, a pointed sharp instrument designed for this purpose. The stones were then removed with forceps or a scoop."
The operation must have been very traumatic for the teen-aged Polk and it is believed to be the reason that Polk did not father any children. Polk spent a week recovering before he was able to travel back home. As soon as he had healed, he was sent off to a Presbyterian academy at the Mount Zion community, near Columbia, Tennessee. Although Polk was the oldest boy in his class and had no previous formal education, it is said that he excelled at his academics and was also praised by headmaster Reverend Robert Henderson for his "exemplary moral conduct". From there he went on to Bradley Academy at Murfreesboro where he also did well. That school's headmaster, Reverend Samuel Black, called him "the most promising young man in the school."
Pleased by his son's academic prowess, Samuel Polk sent his oldest son next to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He managed to stay out of a controversy at the school in which students revolted over the censorship. Polk became active in the school's Dialectic Society, a debating club. There made acquaintances with many future politicians including his roommate, William Molseley, who later became Governor of Florida. Polk graduated with honors in May 1818.
After graduation, Polk moved to Nashville, to study law under renowned trial attorney Felix Grundy, who became a mentor to him. It was here that Polk began his entry into politics. On September 20, 1819, he was elected clerk of the Tennessee State Senate, which then sat in Murfreesboro and to which Grundy had been elected. He was re-elected clerk in 1821 without opposition, and continued to serve until 1822. In June 1820, he was admitted to the Tennessee bar, and his first case was to defend his father on a charge of public fighting. He secured his release for a one-dollar fine.