The most extraordinary thing about James K. Polk is that most of us know almost nothing about him. Among professional historians, he is commonly regarded as one of our greatest presidents, but among general readers, even history buffs, this one-term chief executive is pretty much a cipher. For me, Robert Merry's A Country of Vast Designs not only fleshed out this methodical, uncharismatic Jacksonian; it also gave me the most vivid sense I ever had of the antebellum political scene and its memorable array of willful, even bizarre major players. As for the Mexican War itself, Merry doesn't toss it down as an inchoate sequence of discontinuous battles; he places it within the tumultuous sectional, party and personality clashes of the time.
R.J. Wilson, Bookseller, #1002, New York NY
Robert Merry’s authoritative biography of James K. Polk. . . provides a compelling, perceptive portrait. . . Merry joins his skill at portraiture to thorough scholarship and a shrewd grasp of human nature.”
–The Wall Street Journal
“Filled with intricate stories of personal conflict, psychological gamesmanship, and unintended consequences. . . one of the most astute and informative historical accounts yet written about national politics, and especially Washington politics, during the decisive 1840s.”
The New York Times Book Review
“Polk was our most underrated President. He made the United States into a continental nation. Bob Merry captures the controversial and the visionary aspects of his presidency in a colorful narrative tale populated by great characters such as Jackson, Clay, and Can Buren.”
–Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein: His Life and Universe
“[Merry] brings a historian's perspective, a journalist's nose for the story and a novelist's eye to one of our country's most dramatic and defining moments. In strong, precise and elegant prose, Mr. Merry brings the key players of the day to life in terms of both personal characteristics and the causes they personified.”
…a refreshing challenge to the new conventional wisdom…Merry's historical rebuttals are not, however, his book's chief distinguishing feature. A Country of Vast Designs is mainly a thorough, well-wrought political history of Polk's presidency. The origins, conduct and results of the war with Mexico necessarily dominate the narrative, but Merry covers all of the other major issues and events, and many of the minor ones as well…Merry is well aware of how intrigues and manipulations have always held sway in Washington, and he reports the machinations of the Polk years with clarity and an insider's verve. Filled with intricate stories of personal conflict, psychological gamesmanship and unintended consequences, his book, although bound to stir controversy, is one of the most astute and informative historical accounts yet written about national politics, and especially Washington politics, during the decisive 1840s.
The New York Times
Merry, president and editor-in-chief of Congressional Quarterly Inc., offers a wide-ranging, provocative analysis of the controversial presidency of James K. Polk. Using a broad spectrum of published and archival sources, Merry depicts Polk as an unabashed expansionist. His political career was devoted to extending American power across the continent. Polk saw the fulfillment of manifest destiny as transcending even the festering issue of slavery. Elected president in 1844, he pursued confrontational diplomacy with Britain, structured a war with Mexico and enlarged the U.S. by over a third, essentially to its present boundaries, in a single term of office. Polk's achievements were correspondingly controversial across the political spectrum. Merry uses congressional debates and newspaper quotations to depict the genesis of a fundamental, enduring debate on America's nature and role. Conceding Polk's “personal lapses and his least impressive traits.” Merry makes a strong case that Polk's America embraced a sweeping vision of national destiny that he fulfilled. Merry's conclusion that history turns not on morality but on power, energy and will may be uncomfortable, but he successfully illustrates it. 16 pages of b&w photos; 1 map. (Nov.)
Merry (publisher, Congressional Quarterly; Sands of Empire) presents his view of James Knox Polk's presidency, describing how Polk turned his vice presidential ambitions into presidential ambitions as the first "dark horse" candidate, and then was able to accomplish his four major objectives: tariffs for revenue only, an independent federal treasury, no national debt, and expansion of the nation's boundaries to the Pacific. Drawing on Polk's correspondence, secondary sources, and records of Congressional debates, Merry focuses on the politics behind the events, showing how Polk was a master of political strategy and tactics. Merry also considers Polk's negative traits—drabness, lack of leadership qualities, tendency to micromanage—and how these led to dissension within his own party and at times jeopardized his program. VERDICT This well-written book complements Walter Borneman's Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by providing a detailed look into the Washington politics of the 1840s, making it a good starting point for general readers and undergraduates desiring to understand that era.—Stephen H. Peters, Northern Michigan Univ. Lib., Marquette
The president and editor in chief of Congressional Quarterly offers a lively biography of perhaps the most consequential one-term president in American history. By 1844 Andrew Jackson's protege, James K. Polk, had compiled a distinguished House career that saw him rise to the office of Speaker. After serving as Tennessee's governor and then losing two re-election bids, the ferociously ambitious "Young Hickory" angled for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination. He hitched his wagon to the resurgent Martin Van Buren, whose opposition to the annexation of Texas disappointed Jackson and created an opening for Polk to emerge with the presidential nomination, the first truly dark-horse candidate in American history. After narrowly defeating Henry Clay and pledging to serve only one term, Polk set his disciplined mind and political skills to cementing the Texas annexation, reducing the tariff and creating an "independent treasury," settling the dispute with Britain over the Oregon Territory and fomenting a war with Mexico that, to him, appeared necessary to acquire land that positioned America to dominate the continent. Though he lacked the charisma and leadership skills of his mentor, Polk achieved every one of these goals, but his stealthy maneuvering and self-righteousness inspired no love or loyalty. He left office with his party hopelessly split and the nation transformed in a manner that only heightened philosophical and regional differences that led later to civil war. Merry (Sands of Empire: Missionary Zeal, American Foreign Policy, and the Hazards of Global Ambition, 2005, etc.) skillfully places Polk within the era's political firmament, and he ably assesses his complexcharacter and chronicles his contentious relations with a variety of players, especially the conniving Secretary of State James Buchanan and the egregiously vain Gen. Winfield Scott. Polk fully embraced the country's expansionist impulse, never questioning the sometimes dubious means he employed to advance what he saw as America's destiny. The nation, in Emerson's phrase, "of vast designs and expectations" moved quickly to the 1848 election, and the exhausted Polk died four months later. Hugely entertaining popular history. Agent: Flip Brophy/Sterling Lord Literistic