11- James K. Polk

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11- James K. Polk

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Editado: Jun 14, 2012, 4:36pm

Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America
James K. Polk by John Seigenthaler
A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent by Robert W. Merry
Slavemaster President by William Dusinberre

Polk was the only president who was also the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Polk was the first President to have his inauguration reported by telegraph.
Polk was the first president to voluntarily retire after one term.
Polk survived a gallstone operation at age 17 without anethesia or antiseptics.
He spent only 37 days away from his desk during his four years as president
During his term, gaslights were first installed in the White House.

Editado: Jul 1, 2009, 8:10pm

Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman is a quite good book about a one term president. A President who tends to fall within the top ten on lists of Presidents created by questioning historians, but who is likely mostly unknown by most residents of the USA. Ok, the C-Span list has him 12th, though the book mentioned that he was 9th on the last list released.

Polk had four goals when he entered the White House. He accomplished all four. 1. bring Texas into the Union; 2. acquire California; 3. fix the border of Oregon, and secure a treaty with the British; 4. have an independent Treasury, 5. lower tariffs. Ok, some mixture of that is the four goals. I've confused myself as to which were his goals.

He brought in the US southwest, California and fixed the border of Oregon. John Tyler, in the final moments of his administration, annexed Texas. Though it was Polk who fixed the border.

He was president during the Mexican war, unpopular though it was, it was successful and lead to the expansion of the US to the mainland borders seen today (except for a section of land in the Southwest that was secured later; and Alaska)

Jul 12, 2009, 3:14am

I am currently reading that book as well, pretty interesting so far.

Jul 16, 2009, 1:57am

OK I finished Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman

Polk is definitely an interesting President, as said before he is considered one of our better Presidents despite not being so well known. He was definitely a hands-on President and like said before-he set his goals and he accomplished them (as well as his promise that he would only be an one term President). I remember Polk being called the dark horse candidate and Borneman makes the argument that Polk was definitely not as much as a dark horse as people think. I don't know if I entirely agree with the argument and it seemed that Polk's friendship with Andrew Jackson helped him greatly as well. I definitely learned more about the Mexican War than ever before from this book, but I wish it went into more detail about other events during the Polk term-there had to be something else right?

Jul 19, 2009, 6:58pm

An interesting side note... Currently I'm reading A Call to the Sea which is about Charles Stewart who was an early naval officer. The interesting thing is that Stewart was also a candidate for president in the democratic party in 1844. Ultimately, Stewart really didn't want the position and his group of supports turned to vote for Polk. Charles Stewart continued his service as a commodore in the US Navy under the Polk administration.

It is so interesting that alot of early popular American's ran in the same circles and knew each other.

Editado: Nov 13, 2009, 8:53am

Here is the Wall Street Journal's review of a new book on Polk, A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent by Robert W. Merry. As one of the few presidents who came from NC I have to keep an eye on him. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703740004574513890063641378.html

Nov 13, 2009, 9:08am

Just finished up Walter R. Borneman's Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America. It looks like that's the one to read! 8^}

I thought the book was one of the better bios I've read so far - dare I say it, almost on par with McCullough's John Adams. Yeah, Borneman sticks to the four main objectives in Polk's term. But when I finished the book, I felt like I knew more about the man than after reading other, more analytical or more "complete" books of other Presidents.

Nov 14, 2009, 1:34pm

For those who are audio freakies, the Borneman books is available in audio---probably at your public library. Glad to hear it's a good one.

Editado: Dez 11, 2009, 1:20pm

The Presidency of James K. Polk by Paul H. Bergeron

If you were a land-grabber or a manifest destiny expansionist, Polk was the president for you. I think there must have been enough of those people voting in 1844 because he ran on the "expansionist" platform which demanded, at least, the annexation of Texas - and he beat the wily politician, Henry Clay, whose Missouri Compromise of earlier times might have shot him in the foot.
Many of the historians I have read put Mr. Polk up in the top ten of the presidents so far. To accept that, I believe that you have to accept that it's OK to steal land (territory) from the native land-users and by force of arms if necessary. At least there were purchases made of some earlier acquisitions, even if the purchases were from others who had done the stealing.
Those (my left-leaning sensibilities dealt with) were positive actions for the country we now inhabit. There were other positive things done during his administration - reduction of tariffs, reorganization of the Treasury, establishment of the Smithsonian - and, apparently, few negative things.
He said during his electioneering that he would serve but one term and he stuck to that promise. I doubt that he was fatalist, but he died of illnesses 6 months after handing over to Zachary Taylor. Author Bergeron suggests that the 1850s, et seq, would have mystified Mr. Polk, that he would not have understood them and that he would not have approved of them. The age in which he functioned as an American and a politician vanished at the beginning of the 1850s. Modern America pretty much began then and, although it could be said that his hand set it up, he is unknown or un-thought-of by most Americans today. I have asked around and will defend that statement.
This book is more about the politician and the time than it is about the man.

Editado: Jan 10, 2010, 12:48am

Author: Walter R. Borneman
Read: Dec 31 - Jan 8
Format: audio, PLAYAWAY, 13 hours, 445 page equivalent
Source: public library
Narrator: Alan Nebelthau
Subject: James Polk, President, US History, western expansion
Setting: California, Oregon, Tennessee, Washington, DC
Challenges: 101020, SYLL, USPC, 75 Book
Stars: 3

James Knox Polk is remembered mainly as the first "dark horse" president but historians feel that he was a near-great president. He grew as a politician under the tutelage of Andrew Jackson. He was a compromise candidate of the Democrat party in 1844 after serving as Governor of Tennessee and Speaker of the House of Representatives. He promised before election that he would only serve one term ad that his objectives were to reduce the tariff, create an independent federal Treasury, annex Texas and bring in Oregon and California . He accomplished all of these while serving as commander-in chief during the Mexican American War.

Polk was a no-nonsense President who, when Rivers and Harbors legislation was proposed ( the largest bit of pork barrel legislation ever put before the congress) at the same time as important legislation regarding tariff reduction, Polk waited for the passage of the other vital legislation before vetoing the rivers and harbor bill with the message "many of the projects were of a local measure and far beyond what could be called essential to the nation's commerce" .He stated that "to call the mouth of a creek, a harbor, cannot confer the authority to spend money for its improvement. Should this bill become law, the precedent that it establishes will inevitably lead to large and annually increasing appropriations and drains upon the treasury. For it is not to be doubted that new and other localities will demand of their representatives in Congress " equal representation.

Polk presidency seems to be mirror reflection of what is happening in today's politics - he was accused of starting the Mexican War and the Whigs were constantly battling to show him up, but when it came time to act, the appropriations that were needed were passed without issue. To this day we have unnecessary expenses for "improvements" that are not needed simply as part of pork barrel legislation. What a shame that we did not learn from history.

Abr 10, 2010, 11:42am

I just finished Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman. Plenty of reviews of this book above and I too agree this was a very good book. Really before reading Polk's biography, I knew absolutely nothing about the man or his presidency. With all his accomplishments it is surprising that he is not more well known. It is also a shame the he died only a few months after he left office. He was still relatively young and one wonders what else he may have accomplished if he had lived longer.

Maio 7, 2010, 3:02pm

Put me down as having read A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent by Robert W. Merry. I finished it on 1-8-2010.

Here is the review I did of it:

"Well written book, portrays Polk's presidency neutrally, with out a lot of bias, other than the author would overall give him a high passing grade. And I would agree after reading this book.

One thing that struck me was the similarities between "Polk's war" (Mexican war) and the present "Global War on Terror" (GWB's war). Not the combatants, but the opposition to both wars, along mostly party lines. History doth seem to repeat itself.

Enjoyable read about a period of American history usually glossed over."

Bill Masom

Maio 7, 2010, 5:50pm

Polk is perhaps the least well-known of the "most significant" American Presidents. His major accomplishment was dramatically increasing the size of the United States through the Mexican War, America's first truly egregious immoral war, which horrified the likes of Thoreau and Lincoln. He himself was little more than a colorless bureaucrat who acted for the powerful interests of his supporters. (There may very well be similarities between him and GWB, although he was a smarter man and a more canny politician than Bush.) The ill begotten territories won in the Mexican War, and the determination of the Southern planter elite to introduce slavery there, is perhaps the major cause of the Civil War. If there is such a thing as a universal justice in history -- and I doubt this -- one could suggest that the Civil War was America's punishment for the sin of the Mexican War.

Maio 7, 2010, 6:37pm


I in no way was trying to compare the two men (Polk and Bush II) It just struck me that both of their wars seemed to have the same kind of political reactions to them.

I also am not trying to argue weather either of the wars was just, necessary, or legal. Just that it struck me that there were definite similarities between the two wars politically.

If I read this groups page correctly, the discussions should not get political. So, again, good, bad, or ugly, the two men seemed to have had wars, that produced the same kinds of political reactions, mainly along party lines.

And it seems both men, and their wars, still cause those kinds of reactions today. I just saying.......

Bill Masom

Maio 8, 2010, 11:16pm

Oh I didn't mean to get political and I apologize if it came off that way. My GWB reference was as much of a tangential aside as yours was. The focus of my commentary was Polk, and it is impossible not to "get political" in a 19th century sort of way when discussing a 19th century figure. My point was simply that Polk was far from an admirable figure in his historical contribution even if that contribution designates him a President of some significance. As far as Polk's war goes, I would argue that the opposition was not simply along party lines, although Whigs did almost universally stand against it.

Jul 21, 2010, 11:49am

I read Bergeron's book and didn't like it. Pretty dense and boring. A whole chapter on patronage? Really? Took an interesting presidency and bogged it down with minute details.

Merry's book on the other hand was spectacular, for those looking for reading material on Polk, I recommend it highly. Took most of the facts that Bergeron recorded and made them into an interesting narrative, and also included the impact that people like Taylor, Scott, and Trist made on Polk's legacy, and how he fought them tooth and nail along the way.

I liked James Polk by John Seigenthaler as well. The part in the beginning pertaining to Polk's childhood and his family's religious quarrels was especially interesting.

Editado: Set 21, 2010, 10:08pm

Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman ****½ 9/20/10

The presidency of James K. Polk (1845-1849), rated "near great" by many historians, became largely lost from public consciousness in the furor of the Civil War, but it has been experiencing a renewed respect due to biographies such as this. Polk had four major goals as President, all of which he accomplished: establish a national treasury, reduce the tariff, settle the boundaries of the Oregon Territory with Britain, and acquire California. These last two added modern Oregon, Idaho, Washington state, California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Montana to our country's territory. Polk was also heavily involved in acquiring Texas, which was annexed by President Tyler the day before Polk took office. He is also known for the strength with which he guided his Cabinet and the entire administration and the power he wrested for the Presidency, so visible in recent years.

Borneman provides an evenly-paced and very readable account of Polk's life and work and the political atmosphere in which his career flourished, failed, and then reached its apex. It was eerie, however, to read the means by which the U.S. approached gaining a strong enough foothold in Texas, California and the Oregon Territory that claims for those areas could potentially be made: the government encouraged Americans to move and settle there in large numbers without permission from either the Mexican or British governments, respectively. Sound familiar?

Out 1, 2010, 7:19pm

James K. Polk
by John Seigenthaler

This was a book I had rejected initially, but turned out to be very satisfying indeed. I wanted a substantial biography, something that would not just recount the life of the man, but also reflect the zeitgeist of the era in which he lived. The pickings of Polk biographies at the Seattle Public Library were pretty thin. Besides the inevitable juvenile biographies, there were only a few volumes. This one had a page count that seemed to indicate a lightweight effort, a couple of others focused solely on Polk's presidency. So I chose a book called Slavemaster President, which seemed might halfway fit the bill. It didn't. But it turned out to be an interesting read in its own right. (see below) However, it seemed like I would appreciate Slavemaster more if I had a quick briefing on Polk's life. So I borrowed this volume. It turned out that it's part of a series, The American Presidents, that tries to connect the events of each presidents life and career with the events and culture around him. 'Twas almost exactly what I was looking for. So anyway, James Polk. According to Mr. Seigenthaler, Polk was one of our most effective presidents. In his single term of office (having chosen up front not to seek reelection) he managed to complete the annexation of Texas, acquire the California territory, establish a fixed border between Canada and the U.S. and create an independent treasury. Yet he lacked the charisma of other effective leaders, like Jackson or Lincoln, and hence his name doesn't readily spring to mind when one thinks of the great American presidents. James K. Polk is a good political biography, showing the development of his career and life. It offers a glimpse of Jacksonian politics from the front lines in Congress and on the campaign trail in Tennessee. My only complaint is that it is too short.

Slavemaster President
by William Dusinberre

One thing I enjoy about reading presidential biographies is that instead of seeing the American presidents as two-dimensional caricatures, I get to discover them as real men with personal concerns and beliefs. While this book isn't a biography, it did offer an interesting picture of James K. Polk, showing why he might have made the decisions and support the policies that he did. I don't recall learning, way back when I studied history in school, much about Polk. Oh, I knew that he had run for president on the promises of annexing Texas and Oregon, and of not seeking re-election. But beyond that I don't recall anything else. I don't think we learned that Polk was an ardent Jacksonian. And I really doubt if we were taught that Polk was a slave owner. Well, he was, and Mr. Dusinberre has documented that aspect of Polk's life, giving a vivid picture of slavery from the slave owner's point of view, where human beings are property and business concerns often trump human compassion. It's rather... disgusting, really. The book then goes on to look at Polk's presidency and shows how his concerns as a slave owner might have affected it. That also was a trifle disgusting, seeing how the politicians at the time were so caught up in grabbing more territory and preserving the "peculiar institution" that seems to define the antebellum South. I'm sure there's a fair amount of bias in the book, but Mr. Dusinberre makes a compelling argument for his conjectures. The only real quibble I have with him is when he takes Polk and his contemporaries to task for not setting the country on a course that might have avoided the Civil War. It's far easier to run a nation with hindsight. Anyway, check it out, it's interesting stuff.

Nov 12, 2010, 12:47pm

Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman

President James K. Polk, our 11th president, was one of our least-known great/near great presidents. In this excellent biography, possibly the best presidential bio I've read since David McCullough's John Adams, I got to know him a whole lot better.

Polk accomplished what he set out to do. One key area was the acquisition of territory in the west, California, the Oregon Territory, among others. The most interesting parts of this book, I thought, dealt with this topic.

Polk also presided over the Mexican-American War (who knew that there were Whig generals and Democrat generals?) and strengthened the presidency, in terms of war declarations and others.

Interestingly, he died soon after he left office. I think he had a post-presidency of 119 days. His widow survived him by over 40 years.

This is quite a fascinating book. Highly recommended!!

Out 12, 2011, 8:34pm

Just finished James K. Polk by John Seigenthaler and found it to be a very succinct and informative story of his life and presidency. As mentioned by many people above, he was very goal oriented and didn't let much get in his way of achieving those goals. Not a very charismatic president but one who got things done. I'd be interested in reading a bit more about him and the events that occurred during his presidency

Jul 6, 2012, 6:42pm

Completed Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman. I found this to be an interesting, readable biography of President James Polk. One thing I especially liked was the last chapter, which was a bit of a roundup of the major players I had been reading about. It always adds some perspective to a story to find out what happened to the characters without having to rely on another book. The Epilogue about Sarah Childress Polk was a nice touch too.

Maio 10, 2013, 9:30pm

I met the author of A Country of Vast Designs (Robert W. Merry) and his enthusiasm for Polk made me want to read this book. This was also a very good biography. It was an easy read, and Merry's admiration of James Polk really showed (without making him out to be some god). I'd recommend it.

Jan 27, 2014, 6:17am

Finished Polk: The Man who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman. I thought it was an excellent biography and one of the most enjoyable I have read in the challenge so far.

Jan 29, 2014, 11:40pm

A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent by Robert W. Merry. Took me forever to read this. Didn't know anything about him. This book was fascinating with it's coverage of the Mexican War and his desire to obtain the Manifest Destiny. I thought about how they fought a war where messages were weeks in coming with news and how now their is an immediacy to communication. We see how slavery was starting to affect the politics of the country and it was getting harder for them to ignore it.