Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk

Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk

by William Dusinberre
     
 

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James Polk was President of the United States from 1845 to 1849, a time when slavery began to dominate American politics. Polks presidency coincided with the eruption of the territorial slavery issue, which within a few years would lead to the catastrophe of the Civil War. Polk himself owned substantial cotton plantations-- in Tennessee and later in Mississippi-- and…  See more details below

Overview

James Polk was President of the United States from 1845 to 1849, a time when slavery began to dominate American politics. Polks presidency coincided with the eruption of the territorial slavery issue, which within a few years would lead to the catastrophe of the Civil War. Polk himself owned substantial cotton plantations-- in Tennessee and later in Mississippi-- and some 50 slaves. Unlike many antebellum planters who portrayed their involvement with slavery as a historical burden bestowed onto them by their ancestors, Polk entered the slave business of his own volition, for reasons principally of financial self-interest. Drawing on previously unexplored records, Slavemaster President recreates the world of Polks plantation and the personal histories of his slaves, in what is arguably the most careful and vivid account to date of how slavery functioned on a single cotton plantation. Life at the Polk estate was brutal and often short. Fewer than one in two slave children lived to the age of fifteen, a child mortality rate even higher than that on the average plantation. A steady stream of slaves temporarily fled the plantation throughout Polks tenure as absentee slavemaster. Yet Polk was in some respects an enlightened owner, instituting an unusual incentive plan for his slaves and granting extensive privileges to his most favored slave. Startlingly, Dusinberre shows how Polk sought to hide from public knowledge the fact that, while he was president, he was secretly buying as many slaves as his plantation revenues permitted. Shortly before his sudden death from cholera, the president quietly drafted a new will, in which he expressed the hope that his slaves might be freed--but only after he and his wife were both dead. The very next day, he authorized the purchase, in strictest secrecy, of six more very young slaves. By contrast with Senator John C. Calhoun, President Polk has been seen as a moderate Southern Democratic leader. But Dusinberre suggests that the presidents political stance toward slavery-- influenced as it was by his deep personal involvement in the plantation system-- may actually have helped precipitate the Civil War that Polk sought to avoid.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
It might seem self-evident that a "slavemaster president" would pursue policies he believed profitable. And while Dusinberre struggles to be fair, his heart is in that theory. Yet the author is no cynic and realizes that statesmen do rise at times above crude self-interest and that earlier slaveholding presidents, notably Jefferson, felt slavery to be an incubus even as they benefited from it. — Edwin M. Yoder Jr.
Library Journal
In this excellent book, historian Dusinberre (Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps) combines first-rate scholarship and a wealth of data to create a compelling narrative on the dual roles of President Polk. The book is not a biography, instead focusing on Polk's management of his slaves and his public positions on slavery and related issues. The author suggests that Polk's policies were critical to the development of the secessionist movement in the South and that these policies derived from his personal financial interests. As the owner of a plantation in Mississippi, Polk needed to secure the persistence of slavery in territories where it already existed in order to insure that slavery on his plantation could continue, thus affording him a comfortable lifestyle upon retirement. As an expansionist, Polk supported annexing Texas and other Mexican territories, and here, too, personal interests caused him to press the states' rights/pro-slavery position. Dusinberre's research also expands our understanding of the management of plantations. Essential reading for anyone wanting greater insight into the factors that led to the Civil War, this work is highly recommended for all academic and larger public libraries.-Thomas J. Baldino, Wilkes Univ., Wilkes-Barre, PA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"A good look at the very hard, often harsh, conditions on a new plantation in a frontier area."—CHOICE

"This is a striking and important book. James K. Polk tried to keep his activities as a slaveowner and absentee planter separate from his public life as a politician and, eventually, president. William Dusinberre brings the two sides of Polk's career together again. He has done more than anyone else to examine the lives of Polk's slaves, and reveals often-disturbing evidence about the harshness of their conditions. He also shows how Polk's perspectives as a planter shaped his administration's expansionist policies. This will be essential reading for all interested in the debate on slavery and the origins of the Civil War."-Christopher Clark, University of Warwick

"Slavemaster President is a powerful combination of careful research, clear prose, and controlled passion. At the core of the book is a meticulous reconstruction of James Knox Polk's cotton plantation. But Dusinberre is after much bigger analytical fish than a single case study would suggest: he uses Polk as a launching pad for a full-scale reinterpretation of the antebellum South. In so doing, he reintegrates the social and political history of southern slave society, bringing us closer than ever to understanding precisely how the politics of slavery led ultimately to Civil War."—James Oakes, The Graduate Center, City University of New York

"No other study that I can think of juxtaposes so revealingly the personal experiences of the enslaved with those of their enslaver, or the career of a slaveholder with the leadership of a president. By bringing to life the world of the enslaved people for whom James K. Polk was responsible even as Polk himself became responsible for slavery's westward expansion, Dusinberre presents a truly original synthesis of biography and social history that challenges us to reexamine the politics of the sectional conflict."—James Brewer Stewart, Macalester College

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780199924189
Publisher:
Oxford University Press
Publication date:
10/01/2007
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
File size:
4 MB

Meet the Author

William Dusinberre is author of the award-winning Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps.

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