Thursday, July 29, 2010


A review of Walter R. Borneman’s Polk (2008)

(Rating 5 of 5)

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. Polk.’ There were two reasons for this, one, I wanted to say something that would shock them; and, two, he actually is one of the better presidents. He is the only president who accomplished all he set out to do*. The entire country would look rather different today if it were not for Polk.

Walter Borneman does an incredible job capturing the essence of the eleventh president. A very sick child, he had to have gallstones removed when he was only eleven. He grew up on his father’s slave holding plantation, and during his life, he would inherit twenty slaves. He would marry Sarah Childress, who would become the most active first lady politically since Abigail Adams. Polk was admitted to the bar and his first client was his own father.

(Sarah Childress Polk)

Borneman traces Polk’s incredible rise to power as one of the young politicians that strongly followed Andrew Jackson's leadership. Jackson was so found of Polk that their relationship earned the young man the nickname ‘Young Hickory.’ In 1823, he was elected to the state legislature where his speaking skills earned him his second nickname, ‘Napoleon of the Stump.’

(James K. Polk talents helped him become the Speaker of House)

In 1825, having been elected to the United States House of Representatives, he became be a loyal ally of Andrew Jackson. 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. After two terms as the Speaker, Polk left Congress and was elected Governor of Tennessee in 1838; the last time Polk would win an election in Tennessee.

(President Jackson was Mr. Polk patron on his rise to the White House)

Due to an economic downturn in the Van Buren Administration, Polk was voted out of office with all the other Democrats in 1840; he tried to reclaim his lost office in 1842 and failed. Then something remarkable happened in 1844, I divided Democratic Party gave a man whose political future seemed hopeless, a new shot. Polk was able to secure the presidential nomination away from a great many better known candidates, making Polk the first ever ‘dark hoarse’ candidate**. As the Democratic nominee, Polk would go on to defeat Henry Clay in the general election. James Polk became the first president to achieve the office, before his fiftieth birthday.

“As the 1844 campaign shifted into high gear, the Whigs may well have despised James K. Polk, but at least they knew where he stood—particularly on the issue of Texas. For Clay, it was bad enough that he was repeatedly forced to deny that his same-day announcement with Van Buren against Texas annexation was merely coincidental and not evidence of another corrupt bargain. 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

(Henry Clay, was beaten by Polk in 1844, which was his last shot at the presidency)

Polk was the clearly the strongest President in between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. He achieves everything he set out to do. Some of his lesser-known accomplishments were the reduction of tariffs, and the Independent Treasury. The Independent Treasury allowed the Treasury Department to be responsible for keeping and managing the nation’s money itself and not have to act though any bank.

(President Polk, our most effective president)

One of Polk’s larger accomplishments was the securing of the disputed Oregon Territory without any military conflict with the British Empire. Despite the famous slogan forty-four-forty-or-fight it became, according to Borneman, forty-four-forty-or-compromise.

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. Polk put troops on the disputed territory and waited. When the attack came, known as the Thornton Affair after the young American officer in command, President Polk had his cause for war. His methods earned him many enemies, including a young Whig Congressman named Abraham Lincoln.

(Young Abe Lincoln was no fan of Polk)

“That evening at a special Cabinet meeting, there was other dissension in the ranks. Buchanan presented a draft of his proposed dispatch to American missions abroad announcing the declaration of war. The secretary of state proposed to inform foreign governments that ‘in going to war we did not do so with a view to acquire either California or New Mexico or any other portion of the Mexican territory.’ Polk for his part was incredulous. What Cabinet meeting had Buchanan been attending for the past year?” p.207

(Secretary of State James Buchanan, not the most effective cabinet officer nor president)

The war went on for two years, ending with the U.S. taking a sizable chunk of territory in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo for fifteen million dollars. When the issue of slavery came up, Polk stated he did not think slavery was possible in the new territories, but did not support the Wilmot Priviso to ban it.

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.

(Zachary Taylor was one of the top generals of the Mexican American War and Polk's successor as president)

Polk’s post-presidency did not last long. He died after only a few months out of office, in his will he ordered that his slaves be set free when his wife died, but his wife lived all the way until 1891, which made that pledge irrelevant.

I really enjoyed this book, and I would highly recommend it to anyone. It is a fascinating book about a fascinating topic. The presidency of James K. Polk is one of the most accomplished on record.

*You could, of course, argue that Abraham Lincoln accomplished more then he set out to do.

**'Dark Horse' refers to a candidate who is not well known.

{First video is of the folk band They Might Be Giants and the song James K. Polk, the second video is the same song performed by young fans.}

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please feel free to leave a comment on any article at anytime, regardless how long ago I posted it. I will most likely respond.