James K. Polk (American Presidents Series)

( 4 )

Overview

The story of a pivotal president who watched over our westward expansion and solidified the dream of Jacksonian democracy

James K. Polk was a shrewd and decisive commander in chief, the youngest president elected to guide the still-young nation, who served as Speaker of the House and governor of Tennessee before taking office in 1845. Considered a natural successor to Andrew Jackson, “Young Hickory” miraculously revived his floundering political career by riding a wave of public...

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James K. Polk: The American Presidents Series: The 11th President, 1845-1849

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Overview

The story of a pivotal president who watched over our westward expansion and solidified the dream of Jacksonian democracy

James K. Polk was a shrewd and decisive commander in chief, the youngest president elected to guide the still-young nation, who served as Speaker of the House and governor of Tennessee before taking office in 1845. Considered a natural successor to Andrew Jackson, “Young Hickory” miraculously revived his floundering political career by riding a wave of public sentiment in favor of annexing the Republic of Texas to the Union.

Shortly after his inauguration, he settled the disputed Oregon boundary and by 1846 had declared war on Mexico in hopes of annexing California. The considerably smaller American army never lost a battle. At home, however, Polk suffered a political firestorm of antiwar attacks from many fronts. Despite his tremendous accomplishments, he left office an extremely unpopular man, on whom stress had taken such a physical toll that he died within three months of departing Washington. Fellow Tennessean John Seigenthaler traces the life of this president who, as Truman noted, “said what he intended to do and did it.”

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This newest addition to the American Presidents series edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. offers a solid portrait of an unlikable man who achieved extraordinary things. A Tennesseean like Polk, Seigenthaler (founding editorial director of USA Today) agrees with those who rate this dour, partisan, grudge-holding, one-term president a success. Polk took office in 1845 with four aims in mind: to lower the tariff, take federal deposits away from private banks, wrest the Oregon territory from joint possession with Great Britain and make California an American territory. In achieving everything he sought, Polk was more successful than most presidents. National sentiment favored him. He was politically skillful. And by declaring that he'd serve for only one term, Polk freed himself to push ahead without his eyes on re-election. But Seigenthaler fails to evaluate the consequences of Polk's successes. His first three goals were reasonably uncontroversial, their effects specific and contained. But his last-to take California from Mexico-ended in war with that nation, ostensibly over Texas. The war brought Texas, California and the entire Southwest into American possession. It also cost Mexico half its territory. More consequentially, it heightened national tensions over slavery and set in motion the bitter events that culminated in civil war. To be sure, those events lie beyond the biography of a man who died long before the Civil War began. But a presidency takes on meaning from its context and consequences. In the end, this biography nicely paints a four-year term, but leaves us wanting an assessment of its significance within the longer span of history. (Jan. 4) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
James Knox Polk is so little known to even the educated public that essayist James Thurber once suggested that a society be formed to invent and circulate amusing anecdotes about him. Yet Polk, who acquired roughly one-third of the territory that today comprises the United States, is consistently ranked by historians as one of the most effective U.S. presidents. Seigenthaler crisply summarizes the conventional case for Polk's (near) greatness. Coming into office, Polk listed four goals for his administration: reducing tariffs, acquiring California from Mexico and Oregon from the United Kingdom, and introducing the "independent subtreasury" system to take U.S. funds out of the coffers of private banks. He accomplished them all. As to why Polk is not better remembered, Seigenthaler notes that historians have generally sympathized with Whig critics of the Mexican War and that Polk's journals reveal an unsympathetic and small-minded personality. One could add to this that the battles over tariffs and bank policy are utterly incomprehensible to all but a handful of specialists today, and the fall of the British Empire makes it hard for Americans to appreciate how much skill and daring went into the diplomatic bluff that led Sir Robert Peel's government to accept a division of the Oregon Territory that so markedly favored the weaker United States.
Kirkus Reviews
James K. Polk waged war against Mexico, and almost against Britain, to increase the size of the US by a full third. Yet, writes fellow Tennessean Seigenthaler, "somehow he is the least acknowledged among our presidents, which is somewhat mystifying." Perhaps not so mystifying, given that the Mexican-American War, widely known at the time as "Mr. Polk's War," was highly controversial, protested by the likes of Emerson, Thoreau, and a young Abe Lincoln. Even today, a certain amount of shame attaches to the American invasion of Mexico, which netted California, New Mexico, most of Arizona, and other territories, serving to lessen Polk's reputation. Seigenthaler, founding editorial director of USA Today and veteran Tennessean journalist, allows that Polk, like his mentor Andrew Jackson-Polk's career, he writes, "was grafted as a limb to the trunk of Jackson's political tree"-was always spoiling for a fight. But, he argues, Polk worked from a sense of "moral certitude and self-righteousness" and probably believed, as did so many of his compatriots, that only American intervention could save Mexico from its innate barbarism. Interestingly, Seigenthaler adds, Polk seems to have been reading the mood of the nation correctly when he advocated annexation of the then-independent Republic of Texas in 1844, which the leading politicians, Democrat Martin Van Buren and Whig Henry Clay, refused to do. Swept into national office, Polk came to see states' rights as secondary to the national interest, and he became a champion of American empire-building. His work in this regard won him admirers, but it also led him to "virtually incarcerate himself in the White House for the full tenure of his presidency"and to micro-manage his generals 2,000 miles distant, who disregarded his orders anyway. The stress of his presidency, the author suggests, condemned him to an early grave, and he died soon after leaving office. Against many historians, Seigenthaler applauds Polk for achievements that he insists are "nothing short of remarkable, changing forever the geography and economy of the country."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805069426
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/4/2004
  • Series: American Presidents Series
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 229,267
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

John Seigenthaler is the founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. An administrative assistant to Robert F. Kennedy, he was an award-winning journalist for The Nashvile Tennessean for forty-three years, finally serving as the paper’s editor, publisher, and CEO, and was named founding editorial director of USA Today in 1982. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

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Read an Excerpt

James K. Polk


By John Seigenthaler

Times Books

Copyright © 2003 John Seigenthaler
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-805-06942-9


Chapter One

The Bent Twig

Where did they come from, the conflicted character traits that combined to make James K. Polk less than a natural leader, yet justifiably judged among presidents of great achievement?

Edward Cook, whose Life of Florence Nightingale helped illuminate for the world the heroine of the Crimean War, warned biographers about the "natural temptation" to draw too heavily on youthful experiences in explaining the adult. So often, he admonished, writers "magnify some childish incident as prophetic of what is to come thereafter." The child, after all, is not in all things father to the man.

True enough. Nonetheless, Polk's early life offers fascinating clues that perhaps help explain the development of a president with the missionary zeal of a fundamentalist preacher determined to convert the populace to Jackson's Democracy. Polk's oratory fell somewhat short of evangelistic eloquence, but his religion was partisan politics.

Polk's boyhood was marked by several distinctive influences. There was an upsetting religious conflict between his parents. There was the upheaval of the family's move from an established community to an unknown frontier destination. There was a continuing, debilitating pattern of poor health. There was a privileged and focusededucation. But perhaps most influential was his intense political indoctrination at the family hearth. "He grew up imbued with the principles of ... Jefferson," wrote George Bancroft, the historian who served in his cabinet.

His maturation as a Jeffersonian Republican and then as a Jacksonian Democrat is the aspect of his life easiest to track. Eugene McCormac, his biographer, simply concluded that Polk's faith in Republican doctrine was "inherited." It is quite clear that from early childhood both his grandfather and his father engraved on the boy's mind a political creed that never faded. For Ezekiel and Sam Polk, Republican philosophy was their gospel; Jefferson was their Jesus. Born on Little Sugar Creek near Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1795 - just four years after the nation had ratified the Bill of Rights - Polk was three years old when President John Adams signed the Sedition Act, which sought to kill public censure of his Federalist policies. Jim Polk was six by the time Jefferson, having defeated Adams in 1800, pardoned those Republican critics who had been convicted of castigating Federalists under the act.

While the boy was much too young to understand everything he heard around the family table in Mecklenburg County, the demonizing of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and Federalist principles seemed to comport with what he knew of the world. Jefferson was the first president he remembered, his first political hero, the leader his elders believed in and admired. In simplest terms, there was an ongoing contest between Jefferson's adherents and his enemies, the power elite.

As Polk grew into adulthood, everything he had grasped about the conflict between Federalist and Republican values seemed to reinforce a basic and logical argument that the country would be better served if national government was the declared servant of all the people (or all those who were not slaves) and was barred from acting chiefly as the agent of rich and powerful constituencies. Jackson was the heir to the Jeffersonian philosophy, as Henry Clay was to the creed of Hamilton. Polk knew where he was in that fight, and it became his own.

God and Family

But if there was agreement in the household as it related to politics, there was discord when it came to Polk's early religious life. As a newborn babe, he was thrust into the eye of a spiritual storm. In his Mecklenburg community, where Presbyterianism was as common as patriotism, he was a marked child: unbaptized.

Following their marriage, his parents, Samuel and Jane Knox Polk, attended the Presbyterian congregation at Providence, a farming community a few miles from where they lived along Sugar Creek. Polk's mother was a great-grandniece of John Knox, the religionist who brought the Reformation to Scotland, and was delighted when Sam agreed that their son, born just ten months and seven days after their Christmas Day marriage in 1794, would be given her family name and baptized in her family's tradition.

The moment came when the Reverend James Wallis, a stern and dogmatic pastor, expected the child's parents to affirm their Christian faith. Sam balked. He would make no such avowal. Whereupon Pastor Wallis also balked; no parental commitment to the Christian faith, no baptism, he decreed. It was not until fifty-three years later, on his deathbed, that James K. Polk was christened by a Methodist minister.

The controversy in which the pastor visited the sin of the father on the son had its roots in a two-year-old argument between Reverend Wallis and Sam's opinionated, confrontational, deist father. Ezekiel fell out with the minister in April 1793 after his second wife bore him a stillborn son, who, according to the pastor's doctrinal belief, would be denied admittance to heaven. Grandfather Polk declared unholy war against Reverend Wallis, seeking, without great success, to convert the preacher's church members to deism. Into that abrasive religious environment, Polk was born.

Jim's childhood and formal education were interlaced with religious orientation and tension. Certainly his mother's piety was a positive force. His father's absorbing values were materialistic with a near-religious dedication to commerce, farming, and building wealth.

Soon after his marriage Polk dutifully paid for a pew in the Presbyterian Church, and throughout his life he often found time to attend Sunday services with his wife, Sarah. As a young, ambitious politician, he became a Mason and signed on with the state militia, but never joined a religious congregation.

During Polk's years of public service, as throughout most of the nation's life, religion mattered in society. Alexis de Tocqueville, who arrived from France in 1831 (when Congressman Polk was thirty-six), wrote, "The religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention." He was "astonished" by the "peaceful dominion" of religious tolerance throughout the United States. He was told by clergymen and laity alike that it was due "mainly to the separation of church and state." Tocqueville never met Pastor Wallis but did discover "men full of a fanatical and almost wild spiritualism" across the country. He concluded that "religious insanity is very common in the United States." Separation of church and state, in those days, as now, did not keep preachers out of politics. (Jefferson was attacked during the 1800 presidential campaign by a Connecticut minister for being a "howling atheist.") Nor did the "wall of separation" deter politicians from openly seeking denominational support. (In his first race for Congress Madison pledged to support a Bill of Rights in order to win Baptist backing.)

In his presidential diary, Polk occasionally mentions the quality of a sermon he heard at church with Sarah, but more as if he were a theater critic than a worshipper. The churchgoing was at Sarah's initiative. Most often he notes in his diary that he "accompanied his wife" to church. She had no hesitation in interrupting a Sunday-morning presidential conference by walking into his office and inviting (it may have been a demand) the assembled conferees to attend with her.

Rarely in his life did he 'speak on his religious commitment. When expressing a slight partiality for the Methodist Church, he comes across more as if he were considering which fork in a road to take for a comfortable horseback ride, rather than selecting a path to salvation.

As president, he rarely referred to God in his diary or suggested that he prayed for guidance or heavenly intervention in his life - not even during the war with Mexico. On one occasion, after an angry argument with a preacher, he did "thank God" for the constitutional wall between government and religion. Once, when frustrated by individuals seeking official appointments, he promised that if "a kind Providence [permitted him] length of days and health," he would write "the secret and hitherto unknown history" of the evil workings of government. Again, the deity turned up in the diary when he discussed with his cabinet how to handle the growing difficulties with Great Britain and Mexico. The country should stand firm against both countries, said Polk, "and leave the rest to God and the country." But religion was second to politics in Polk's life.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from James K. Polk by John Seigenthaler Copyright © 2003 by John Seigenthaler . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 7, 2008

    Over All: Pretty Bad

    All in All a very bad book. It was a complete waste of time and I will read a picture book before picking up that thing again. If you can: stay away from the book

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 10, 2004

    The Greatest Unknown President

    Although little remembered today, James K. Polk was once known as one of America's strongest and most succesful Presidents and he should still rank as such. He waged the Mexican War, expanded the nation's boundaries, and as his diaries, show, was an intensive and accomplished administrator. Unlike many modern politicians, he set strong daring goals and actually met them. Polk only served one term more than 150 years ago and died shortly after leaving office or he would be better known today. But students of the presidency and modern political leaders would do well to emulate Mr. Polk's example.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2004

    Tribute ot Native Son of Tennessee

    From the NashvilleCityPaperBookClub Saralee says What makes a truly great president of the United States? Is it character, an agenda, the ability to lead, or governing during a war? If you believe it is a combination of all of these things, James K. Polk should be listed among our greatest of presidents. Times Books has begun publishing a series that will include a book about each of the U.S. presidents. The books are written for the busy person and are usually under 200 pages. Nashvillian John Seigenthaler, who served as the publisher and CEO of the Tennessean and founded the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, was asked to recount the life of our 11th president in James K. Polk: 1845-1849. The author is at his best when describing the political climate of Tennessee during the time of Polk's climb to power. Former President Andrew Jackson was a mentor to Polk in both positive and negative ways. Just like today, there were many in Tennessee who shaped national policy and like today, they were of different political parties and had different goals. How do you think Polk handled the different factions? Both Polk and Jackson were big believers in 'manifest destiny' or in the right of the United States to expand its territory. Polk was in favor of making Texas a state and had a vision to expand the United States to the Pacific Ocean by acquiring the land that later became the states of Oregon, Washington and California. Do you think the Polk administration went about the acquisition in the right way? What about the continuation of slavery? Polk was on record about how horrible slavery was but he continued to own slaves, as did his widow. Could he have made a difference and tried to end slavery sooner? Polk also entered office saying he would only serve one term. Do you think he was able to accomplish most of his agenda because he only served one term? Why isn't Polk as popular with Tennessee historians as Jackson? Larry's language Do events about the presidential election of 1844 sound very familiar today? There were arguments about tariffs in international trade, the state of the Treasury and the issue of war predominated. A Tennessean was elected president, but the margin of victory in Tennessee was only 113 votes and he failed to carry his home state. Nashvillian John Seigenthaler is uniquely qualified to evaluate how those issues affected America in his book James K. Polk: 1845-1849. Seigenthaler has lived, witnessed, participated in, and enjoyed presidential politics for more than 50 years having been friend, mentor and advisor to several of our modern presidents and national leaders. From his vantage point as one of the nation's leading journalists and editors, Seigenthaler has gained great knowledge and insight about the public policies and politics that make America great. At the time of his election, President James K. Polk was the youngest man ever elected to our highest office. Clearly he got to the White House because of the mentoring, friendship and guidance of President Andrew Jackson, although Polk's determination and steadiness were also major assets. Polk also benefited from his rivals, Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren, taking the wrong side of the argument about whether the United States should annex the Republic of Texas. When Polk won the election, he led the movement of 'manifest destiny' to gain Texas, the southwest and California, and Polk negotiated successfully with Great Britain to resolve our claims to the Oregon territory. Polk lived a difficult but successful life. Born to a slave owning family, he underwent kidney stone surgery without anesthesia on an emergency basis as a teenager. He was very successful in school, work, and politics as he was elected to Congress, became speaker of the House of Representatives, and governor of Tennessee before twice losing in an attempt to be reelected governor. Polk was a surprise nominee for the Democrats when he won

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 25, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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