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A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent

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  • Posted April 3, 2010

    A Country of Vast Designs by Robert W. Merry

    James K. Polk was a frail man of diminutive stature who avoided confrontation, however, he was also driven, possessed an all-consuming sense of duty, had comprehensive analytical skills, and was convinced he was a man of destiny. As our 11th president, he has, in many cases, not been remembered as a man of significance, but in reality, he truly was.

    Under Mr. Polk's watch, we achieved our westward expansion (later known as "Manifest Destiny"), a dream of many Americans. This was accomplished by completing the annexation of Texas, negotiations with the British over the Oregon Territory, and winning a war with Mexico. The States of Texas, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma became territories of the United States during Mr. Polk's administration. This represents approximately 1/3 (approximately 1.3 million square miles) of today's continental United States (approximately 3.6 million square miles). This also gave us major shorelines and ports on 2 oceans, which played major parts in the historical growth of The United States. It should also be added that before serving, Mr. Polk committed to serving just 1 term and lived up to that commitment. Less than 4 months after he left office, Mr. Polk succumbed to cholera.

    Critics of Mr. Polk fault his entry into the Mexican War as contrived and not necessary. According to them, he was overreaching and aggressive in seizing lands from Mexico. It is interesting that they seem to have conveniently forgotten how we obtained our lands from the Indians in the first place.

    In "A Country of Vast Designs", Robert W. Merry provides an in depth view of the weaknesses and strengths of this president, his unlikely trip to the Whitehouse and the machinations involved in acquiring this territory. Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, James Buchanan, John Calhoun, Thomas Hart Benton, Winfield Scott, Zachary Taylor, and Santa Anna all play key roles in "A Country of Vast Designs".

    From my own perspective, as someone who is a self professed "history nut", I did not know anything about James K. Polk. He first came to my attention when I read "Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West" by Hampton Sides which is a history of Kit Carson. Carson was Mr. Polk's main man in the West rounding up the Indians. During the reading of that book, I began to realize the impact of the Polk presidency. Coincidentally, Robert W. Merry published his book afterward and I knew I had to take a look at it. I'm glad I did.

    Polk's legacy is best summed up in the words of Harry Truman "a great president. Said what he intended to do and did it." [1]

    I heartily recommend this book.

    www.holysmoley.com

    Sources
    [1] Truman, Harry S. and Robert H. Ferrell, Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman, Letter to Dean Acheson (unsent), August 26, 1960 (University of Missouri Press, 1997), p. 390.

    [2] Merry, Robert W., A Country of Vast Designs, James K. Polk, The Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent (Simon & Schuster, 2009)

    [3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book: Presidents_of_the_United_States_(1789_1860)

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 20, 2010

    Fascinating biography of an underappreciated American President

    The biography was, on the one hand, a difficult, slow read; on the other, quite challenging as it made me want to understand better that period of our history.....the expansion of America's boundaries to essentially what they are today...and the process by which achieved.

    The difficulty was in trying to understand the language of conversation spoken in the mid-19th century.........and the nuances of rather complicated political issues during the period. The characterizations of the leading figures were detailed and brought to life their varying personalities through their differing opinions on the important issues of the day. The most telling, but hardly surprising element, throughout the book is how slowly events and communication evolved then compared to today's intantaneous, internet world.

    It is clear that the author performed extensive research to achieve a comprehensive study of the times, and particularly of Polk himself. Clearly, the author succeeded in establishing James Polk as a committed, forceful effective, uncharismatic president whose achievements are probably unknown to most yet so significant to the history of our country. Here is a public office holder sworn to term limits who actually abided by his promise!

    In other words, it was a very worthwhile, informative read because of what I did not know at the start but had learned by the end.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 2, 2010

    A review of the presidency of James K Polk and his impact on the US.

    This book provides and excellent overview of how James K Polk, in one term as President, expanded US territory close to what we know now. He promised to serve only one term, set four goals for his presidency and accomplished all of them. I found the discussion of his efforts to solve the issue of the Oregon territory with England and the Mexican war the most interesting. I knew little of this president before I read this book, but feel Polk may have been one on our most important presidents once I finished the book. Robert Merry's writing and information were very good. This book may not be what a serious historian needs, but for the person interested in history, this book was a very good read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 19, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Well written

    This was a well written account of a very important president. Not only were Polk's actions and inactions shown, but also an understanding the political climate and internal struggles. This was a fair account, showing both the good and bad. This book increased my understanding of the years leading up to the civil war and the workings of Congress during this time.

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  • Posted December 7, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Fantastic!

    I have always admired President Polk as one of the most untaught and unknown leaders in American History, this is a shame. He has shaped our country arguably more than any president, from an expansionist standpoint. I enjoyed this book and would recommend to anyone who loves history. Unlike text books, this is not boring, I wish the textbook writers would write as interesting as this because more students might actually appreciate our history.

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