Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America

Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America

by Walter R. Borneman


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Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman

In Polk, Walter R. Borneman gives us the first complete and authoritative biography of a president often overshadowed in image but seldom outdone in accomplishment. James K. Polk occupied the White House for only four years, from 1845 to 1849, but he plotted and attained a formidable agenda: He fought for and won tariff reductions, reestablished an independent Treasury, and, most notably, brought Texas into the Union, bluffed Great Britain out of the lion’s share of Oregon, and wrested California and much of the Southwest from Mexico. On reflection, these successes seem even more impressive, given the contentious political environment of the time.

In this unprecedented, long-overdue warts-and-all look at Polk’s life and career, we have a portrait of an expansionist president and decisive statesman who redefined the country he led, and we are reminded anew of the true meaning of presidential accomplishment and resolve.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812976748
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/14/2009
Pages: 468
Sales rank: 208,717
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Walter R. Borneman is the author of several books, including Polk, 1812: The War That Forged a Nation, The French and Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America, and Alaska: Saga of a Bold Land. He is the president of the Walter V. and Idun Y. Berry Foundation, which funds postdoctoral fellowships in children’s health at Stanford University.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
Old Hickory’s Boy
JAMES K. POLK always had what any politician craves—the unqualified support of his era’s greatest hero. To be sure, some folks vilified the very name of Andrew Jackson. But they were usually in the minority, and from his fabled victory at New Orleans in 1815 until his death in 1845, Jackson cast a huge shadow across the American political landscape. Throughout most of that time, there was never much doubt that James K. Polk was Old Hickory’s boy.
It was no small coincidence that the men were born within twenty miles of each other in the frontier hills of the Carolinas. Jackson was the elder by twenty-eight years. Because Jackson’s recently widowed mother was traveling to join family, there is some doubt which sister’s home, and hence which side of the North Carolina–South Carolina border, Elizabeth Jackson was at when her third son was born on March 15, 1767. But young Andrew grew up at his aunt Jane’s on the South Carolina side and stayed there until he rode north to Salisbury, North Carolina, to study law seventeen years later.
The law and a lust for adventure soon led Jackson west across the Great Smoky Mountains to Tennessee. In Jonesborough at the age of twenty-one, he fought his first duel, after taking the sarcasm of opposing counsel during a trial a little too personally. Both parties fired into the air, and Jackson left the field satisfied that his reputation was secure. Later in that same year of 1788, he arrived in Nashville.
On the great Cumberland River, Nashville was still very much a fledgling frontier settlement, a town of a few hundred people that nonetheless had already managed to erect both a courthouse and a distillery. Jackson’s boisterous personality attracted plenty of attention. In 1796, after helping to draft a state constitution, Andrew Jackson was elected Tennessee’s first delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. He was all of twenty-nine years old.
By then, back in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, Samuel and Jane Polk had welcomed their firstborn. Jackson’s Scots-Irish ancestors had barely reached America when Jackson was born, but the Polks were old-timers, Scots-Irish themselves. Sam’s great-great-grandfather had arrived along the eastern shores of Chesapeake Bay in the late 1600s. The Polk clan soon migrated to south-central Pennsylvania and then to the Carolina hill country.
Jane was a Knox, descended from a brother of Scottish Reformation leader John Knox. She was a no-nonsense Presbyterian, and she named the baby she delivered about noon on November 2, 1795, James Knox Polk after her father.
Just about everyone else in Mecklenburg County was also Presbyterian, but there were various shades to their zeal. Sam Polk’s father, Ezekiel, was a case in point. After the children he fathered with his second wife all died in infancy, Ezekiel became disillusioned with Presbyterian orthodoxy and began to espouse deism.
When Sam and Jane presented Ezekiel’s grandson to be baptized, a young “fire and brimstone” minister named James Wallis chose to interrogate Sam at length about the depths of his own commitment to Presbyterian doctrine. A heated argument ensued and the result was that little James Knox Polk was taken home without receiving the sacrament of baptism. Jane was mortified.
Quite an uproar ensued throughout Mecklenburg County as Ezekiel voiced his views louder and louder and the Reverend Wallis preached back with equal passion. As if mortification weren’t enough, Jane Polk was soon caught squarely in the middle of the debate when her widowed mother married none other than the Reverend Wallis’s widower father. But by then, Ezekiel and most of the Polks were looking farther west.
In 1803, Ezekiel Polk led four of his children and their families into the Duck River country of Middle Tennessee in search of new land. At first, Sam and Jane stayed behind in Mecklenburg with their son James and his two younger sisters and a brother. By the time another son was born and the crops of 1806 harvested, Sam and Jane had also left Mecklenburg and made the four-hundred-mile trek over the Smokies to Ezekiel’s settlement south of Nashville. Ostensibly a farmer and part-time surveyor, Sam Polk quickly turned to land speculation.
With half the area populated by kin, it wasn’t long before the Polk clan was instrumental in establishing the county of Maury and the new town of Columbia as the county seat. Sam Polk was soon a county judge, a respected civic leader, and well on his way to becoming downright wealthy. One of the influential men of Tennessee to grace the Polk house from time to time was Andrew Jackson, by then an ex-judge of the state superior court and a well-established land speculator in his own right.
Sam’s son James, however, was not doing well. His schooling to date had been marginal, in large part because of his rather poor health. On a rough-and-tumble frontier where robust men like Andrew Jackson epitomized manhood, James was decidedly frail. In time, his chronic abdominal pains were diagnosed as urinary stones, but in this era before general anesthetic or even proper antiseptic agents, a surgical solution was a major undertaking.
In the fall of 1812, Sam Polk determined to send his almost-seventeen-year-old son to Philadelphia to receive the care of Dr. Philip Syng Physick, later known as “the father of American surgery.” Resting uncomfortably on a makeshift bed in a covered wagon, James bounced along as the eight-hundred-mile journey from Columbia began.
But before traveling very far into Kentucky, James “was seized by a paroxysm more painful than any that had preceded it.” Doubting that he could survive all the way to Philadelphia, the Polks turned instead to Dr. Ephraim McDowell of Danville, Kentucky, who—relatively speaking—was also a surgeon of some note.
Relying on a liberal dose of brandy as both anesthetic and antisepsis, Dr. McDowell made an incision behind the young man’s scrotum and forced a sharp, pointed instrument called a gorget through his prostate and into the bladder. The urinary stone, or stones, were then removed with forceps. Any way one looks at it, the procedure was a ghastly invasion of one’s body. James recovered quickly, however, and outwardly appeared no worse for the wear.
Relieved of this health burden, James made the most of his newfound energy. Sam Polk offered to set his son up in the mercantile business, but James was determined to get a proper education. In July 1813, James—despite the fact that his principal biographer chose to call him “Jimmy” and “Jim,” there is no evidence that his elders and peers called him anything but James—enrolled at a nearby Presbyterian academy.
After a year, his father agreed to send him to a more distinguished academy in Murfreesboro. James excelled there and by one account was “much the most promising young man in the school.” Such promise was to be rewarded, and with Sam Polk by now well able to afford it, James was admitted to the University of North Carolina as a second-semester sophomore in January 1816. He had just turned twenty.
At that time, the University of North Carolina was staffed by a single administrator, one professor, a senior tutor, and two recent graduates who served as additional tutors. The most valuable education may have come from membership in one of the university’s two literary societies. James Polk joined the Dialectic Society during his first term at Chapel Hill and was soon engrossed in its weekly debates and essay presentations. It was here that he learned to speak, write, and formulate an argument.
Unfortunately, no detailed minutes remain from the meeting at which the Dialectic Society debated the question “Would an extension of territory be an advantage to the United States?” Which side did young Polk take? A majority voted no. Another topic asked whether an elected representative should “exercise his own judgment or act according to the directions of his constituents.” Polk favored the latter, as did a majority of his classmates. A less serious question asked “Is an occasional resort to female company beneficial to students?” The all-male assemblage was unanimous in its verdict.
In due course, Polk was elected to a succession of offices in the Dialectic Society and broke a precedent by winning reelection to the presidency. In presenting a speech on that occasion, Polk told his peers, “your proficiency in extemporaneous debating will furnish you with that fluency of language, that connexion of ideas and boldness of delivery that will be equally serviceable in the council, in the pulpit and at the bar.” Considering the large number of his University of North Carolina contemporaries who went on to public service, including his roommate William D. Moseley, who became governor of Florida, Polk’s advice was well taken.


Table of Contents

List of Maps xi

Introduction: Dark Horse, Bright Land xiii

A Prologue in Two Parts xv

Key Dates in the Life of James K. Polk xxi

Part I The Man

1 Old Hickory's Boy 5

2 Carrying the Water 19

3 Tennessee and Old Tippecanoe 37

4 The Last Defeat 52

5 Hands Off Texas 67

6 A Summons from Old Hickory 84

7 Baltimore, 1844 94

8 "Who Is James K. Polk?" 111

Part II The Conquest

9 Making Good on Texas 133

10 Standing Firm on Oregon 150

11 Eyeing California 170

12 Mission to Mexico 190

13 "American Blood upon American Soil" 202

14 54°ree;40' or Compromise! 216

15 To Santa Fe and Beyond 233

16 Mr. Polk's War 253

17 Old Bullion's Son-in-Law 269

18 A President on the Spot 286

19 Securing the Spoils 300

20 The Whigs Find Another General 316

21 Homeward Bound 331

22 A Presidential Assessment 345

Epilogue: Sarah 358

Acknowledgments 361

Notes 363

Bibliography 396

Index 405

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Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Easy to read history with just the right level of detail. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and could not put the e-reader down at times. Truly a fascinatioing account of a brief period of history that has been forgotten and not taught about because of the war fifteen years later.
publicus More than 1 year ago
Borneman's Polk is exceedingly well researched and crafted. Not a single factual error is apparent. Polk's relationships to the people and events of the period are well developed and paint a well integrated picture of the man and his times. This book is simply must reading for anyone interested in the topic.
rogelio More than 1 year ago
The events and history surrounding James Polk and this period of history are quite interesting and not written about with regularity. The forces that influenced Texas, California and Oregon joining the Union are spelled out. I wouldn't call this stimulating reading and I had to jar myself to keep going. The history lesson is worthwhile.
lapd00duke More than 1 year ago
Polk was one of the most interesting presidential biographies I have read to date. The author does an outstanding job telling the life and dedication of Polk. Outstanding read and would recommend to anyone.
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