Volume 12 of the Correspondence of James K. Polk documents a critical seven months in one of America’s most transformational presidencies. Polk was the eleventh U.S. president (1845-49). Many of this volume’s letters chronicle the Tennessean’s prosecution of the Mexican War, a conflict that, along with his 1846 acquisition of what is today’s Pacific Northwest, increased by one-third the size of the United States. The letters, most of them until now unpublished, also lift the veil on the personal life and business affairs of one of the most private men ever to occupy the presidency.
Between January and July 1847, the Democratic president and his supporters celebrated American military triumphs at Buena Vista, Sacramento, Veracruz, and elsewhere. In July, the war’s final engagements lay months away. The lines of authority between Polk and his generals and diplomats in Mexico were almost as muddled as those among officials of the rivalry-ridden Mexican state. Yet the administration, as the letters document, already was pondering the size of the war’s territorial spoils for the United States.
The letters also reveal often-overlooked foreign-policy interests under Polk, including Hawaii and Cuba, as well as the administration’s concern with European affairs. Polk took a personal interest in the famine ravaging Ireland and in March 1847 placed two naval ships into civilian hands to transport to Ireland foodstuffs donated by private charities.
The correspondence also documents Polk’s concerns with domestic politics. He had arrived at the White House having forsworn a second presidential term. Even so, he and his Democratic supporters kept a wary eye on the party’s fortunesfrom the 1848 presidential race to elections for state houses and Congress. Political-patronage appointments also won his attention. The letters reveal a party leader determined to use the spoils of office to reward allies and deny political opponents berths in the federal bureaucracy.
Correspondence concerning business affairs of his Mississippi plantation documents Polk the businessman, intimately involved in the trading of slaves. Other letters, to family members and old schoolmates, reveal the publicly hard-nosed president as a doting husband, son, uncle, and friend.
About the Author
Tom Chaffin, research professor of history at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is author of, among other books, Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire.
Michael David Cohen, assistant research professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is author of Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War.