Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America

Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America

by Walter R. Borneman

Biography. In Polk, Walter R. Borneman gives us the first complete and authoritative biography of a president often overshadowed in image but seldom outdone in accomplishment.

  • Language: English
  • Category: History
  • Rating: 3.81
  • Pages: 448
  • Publish Date: April 8th 2008 by Random House
  • Isbn10: 1400065607
  • Isbn13: 9781400065608

What People Think about "Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America"

As a presidential history buff, I often get asked who I thought was the greatest president, and not wanting to bring up the usual suspects (Washington, Lincoln, FDR, etc.) I would calmly say James K. He is the only president who accomplished all he set out to do*. During Jackson's second term, Polk was elected Speaker of House, where he earned a reputation for order and never challenged anyone to a duel. James Polk became the first president to achieve the office, before his fiftieth birthday. But Clay decided to clarify--as only he could--his position on annexation, it looked to some Whigs that, at best, their candidate was flirting with the increasingly popular mantel of expansionism and, at worst, trying to have the issue both ways." p.122 Polk was the clearly the strongest President in between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. His most famous act came from the Mexican-American War, a war, which Mexico had been threatening since the U.S. first thought of annexing Texas. When the attack came, known as the Thornton Affair after the young American officer in command, President Polk had his cause for war. In 1848, even though the Whigs were against the war, they nominated Zachary Taylor, the general, for president. Even though President Polk did not run for re-election, health and a one-term pledge kept him out, General Taylor would never attack Polk in his victorious campaign against Lewis Cass and Martin Van Buren.

Well worth the wait, Bornemans biography is an articulate, comprehensive and interesting examination of Polks life, and his one-term presidency in particular. While the focus of this book is clearly James Polk, the author is careful to provide enough background and context to fully prepare even a layman jumping into Polks life (and era) for the first time. But while I appreciated the books background and stage-setting, several readers have fairly observed that the biography occasionally feels like a survey course focused on the history of the 1830s and 1840s. Overall, Walter Bornemans biography of James Polk is a straightforward and often fascinating examination of one of our nations most effective and consequential presidents. For anyone interested in a comprehensive and engaging look at the life of James Polk, Walter Bornemans biography is a safe bet.

Walter Borneman argues that Polk was actually a dynamic figure who greatly expanded both the territory of the growing United States and the power of the Presidency. While Borneman does a good job in laying out how Polk administered his presidency, as a full-fledged presidential biography, he falls short of the mark. He was elected to the House of Representatives seven times, and served two of those terms as Speaker. Yet, Borneman does not write about what Polk actually did while he was a Congressman, or any notable achievements or actions taken while he was Speaker. We do not know, as Borneman focuses more on Polk's correspondence with Jackson and others than he does on his actions in office. Another disappointing facet of this book is that Borneman never stops to probe what kind of person Polk was. Borneman acknowledges that Polk owned slaves, but really does not go beyond that. He does note that, towards the end of his life, in Polk's will he stated that, if he outlives Sarah, he wants his slaves to be freed at his death. To say that Borneman goes so far as to excuse Polk's moral obtuseness and his constant pushing of political matters over personal would be to go too far. Borneman concludes with good chapters about Polk's extremely brief post-presidency, and his presidential legacy. Polk was quite enfeebled by the time his term as President ended. Borneman believes that Polk most likely died of cholera, brought on by a combination of him being physically exhausted already and never being in robust health to begin with. Lincoln had wanted to run again, and probably would have if not for the agreement.) The assessment chapter is good, and I wish more presidential biographies had something similar. Borneman briefly goes into how Polk's legacy has shifted over time, seeming to grow in stature in regards to his accomplishments. Also, if Presidents were viewed solely by what they wanted to accomplish vs what they actually did accomplish, Polk would rate the highest of anyone who has held that office.

His election was said by the London Times to be "the triumph of every thing that is worst over every thing that is best in the United States." I don't agree, but essentially, Polk was elected for the sole reason that he was the only candidate to support the immediate annexation of Texas. The Whig candidate, the omnipresent Henry Clay, became inexplicably wishywashy on the Texas issue (likely to differentiate himself from the Democrats' platform) and could not win back voters who were set on concurring the whole North American continent. Though it was the issue of the day, Texas was actually acquired by President Tyler in a last minute compromise with his anathematic congress. So, Polk inaugurated four other promises: Resolve the Oregon border, acquire California, reduce the tariff (an issue dividing the agrarian south and the commercial north almost as violently as slavery), and establish an independent treasury. Diplomatic efforts (including a mad rush over the Oregon Trail to occupy land with Americans) won the day, and led scouting parties south into California when the "conflict" was settled quicker than expected. And thus is the Mexican American War. In short, America wins, but not so much that we get Mexico, for which some in Congress were holding out.

I would say no on both counts but if I start nitpicking how any given section of America was acquired I doubt I'd like what I found. Polk died almost immediately after leaving office (103 days later to be precise) so it was probably a good thing he did only serve one term. If I had any complaints it would be that the middle section kind of seemed to forget it was about Polk and just covered the Mexican-American War.

There seems to be little debate that Polk did accomplish his agenda, which basically consisted of lowering tariffs, establishing a national bank, and pursuing what had been recently dubbed "manifest destiny," the westward expansion of the United States. Suffice it to say that while author Walter Borneman acknowledges the conflicts both within Polk's own government and with others, I couldn't help but conclude that both of them viewed this virtually boundless expansion as some sort of entitlement: The land was there, it bordered ours, the United States was expanding to the south and west, ergo it should belong to us. According to Borneman, Polk didn't think it was a "political" issue, and he addressed its relevance only as it affected his ability to gain the support of northern and southern states during his virtually unimpeded quest to extend his country's boundaries.

So Polk's last day was technically over on Sunday, March 4 at noon but Taylor was not sworn in until the next day.

At times it also seems like the sections on the Mexican War are more about the broader war than how Polk experienced it, and some characters are covered in detail even if Polk never directly dealt with them.

Glad to have a biography written in the 21st century after having just finished two from the early twentieth, I found Polk to be both entertaining and complete.

I have come to admire what Polk stood for and accomplished as a president and realize that he was a product of his times also.