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."
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.