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Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America [Hardcover]

Walter R. Borneman
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

April 8 2008
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.


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From Publishers Weekly

Tennessee Democrat James K. Polk is generally ranked among the nation's most effective chief executives. In this straightforward, unnuanced biography, Borneman (1812: The War That Forged a Nation) relates why. Coming into office determined to annex Texas, gain the Oregon Territory from Britain, lower the tariff and reform the national banking system, Polk achieved all four aims in his single term in office (1845–1849). But Borneman overlooks that in more or less completing the nation's lower continental territory, Polk bequeathed a fateful legacy to the nation-not so much transforming the U.S. (as the subtitle overstates) as setting it on the road to civil war. With the annexation of Texas came war with Mexico, which stripped that nation of half its lands while gaining the U.S. the southwest and California. It also unloosed the mad genie of slavery's possible further spread westward. Polk left the nation larger but politically crippled and morally weakened. But Borneman sticks to the narrative and doesn't place his subject in a larger historical context. 'Tis a pity, for Polk's administration ought to be a lesson to all candidates and all presidents at all times. 16 maps. (Apr. 8)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Review

“A terrific portrait of a man and his times.”—Jon Meacham, author of American Lion and Franklin and Winston

“For quite a while we’ve needed a new biography of James K. Polk–America’s great underrated president. Now, at last, Walter R. Borneman has delivered the goods. This book is both well written and diligently researched. Highly recommended!” –Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University, author of The Great Deluge

“Borneman gives us a book that is full of interest and insight and is a pleasure to read.”—Robert Middlekauff, Bancroft Prize-winning author of The Glorious Cause

“[An] informed and readable biography.” —Wall Street Journal

“Borneman is a trailblazer in the mold of his subject [and has produced] a volume that can stand with all but the very best presidential biographies.”—Louisville Courier-Journal

“With impressive exuberance . . . Borneman rightly describes his subject as America’s greatest expansionist president.”—Austin American Statesman

“Borneman manages to pull [many] threads together into a comprehensible and entertaining narrative. . . . [His] biography gives Polk his due.”—Rocky Mountain News



From the Trade Paperback edition.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Brilliant Biography of an Underrated President Feb. 1 2010
By Rule 62 Ken TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a brilliantly written biography of one of history's lesser-known presidents. It is the first Polk biography I've read that really gives the reader an understanding of what transpired in the major political fights of Polk's life. These include not only his congressional elections and the election for speaker of the house, but his three elections for Governor of Tennessee (one successful, two not). It also gives a very vivid picture of what transpired at the convention where Polk was hoping to be nominated for Vice-President and came out of it at the Presidential nominee. It's almost like watching CNN coverage of it, without the panels of talking heads.) The book gives an especially good account of the election of 1844 and how Henry Clay blundered away what should have been a slam dunk election for him. (It reminded me of Hillary Clinton in some ways).

The account of how he lost two elections for Governor to a skinny opponent (6'2" and 125 pounds) named James Chamberlain Jones (or "Lean Jimmy" as he was called) is especially delightful reading.

The book also describes one of the best accounts I've ever read (make that THE best) of the relationship between Andrew Jackson and Polk, and also gives more insight into the kind of person that Sarah Polk must have been.

The book just doesn't focus on Polk, it also tells the reader much about the background of the people in his life and times (such as Henry Clay, Cave Johnson, Aaron Brown, Sam Houston, Martin Van Buren, to name a few) and into the pertinent issues of his time (such as Texas, expansionism, slavery/abolition, the national bank).
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  77 reviews
36 of 41 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The first Imperial Presidency May 24 2008
By Jonathan R. Nelson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Overall an interesting and well-written book on the political life of President James K. Polk. The primary focus of the book and Polk's presidency was foreign policy, specifically the expansion of the United States, both through shrewd negotiation and gamesmanship (with Great Britain to acquire the Oregon Territory) and a dubious, but ultimately successful war to acquire the territory from Texas to the Pacific Ocean (the Mexican War). Borneman makes a good case that Polk was one of our most successful and significant presidents, but I would have liked to learn more about Polk the man beyond the fact that he was often in poor health and was a micro-manager. I would also have liked more about First Lady Sarah Polk. Besides Polk, the book also introduces the reader to an interesting cast of supporting players such as President John Tyler, Polk's ever-changeable Secretary of State James Buchanan, and the pompous and self-serving Gideon Pillow. One final quibble: Maybe this is just me, but I found Borneman's habit of referring to people by their nicknames ("Old Hickory", "Red Fox", "Old Rough and Ready", etc.) kind of irritating, but still a good read.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dark Horse? Aug. 12 2009
By JMack - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
One of the main contentions of Walter R. Borneman in "Polk" is that the "Dark Horse" label does not truly apply to James K. Polk. In agreeing with this statement, one might only contend that history's retrospective review of Polk's presidency often trivializes his accomplishments. Thus, he may be seen as a "dark horse" in the pantheon of great presidents.

In comparison to other biographies on Polk, this may be the most complete. As I suspect other readers did, I felt I learned a great deal reading this book. At times the dialogue becomes too engulfed in military speak, but this is a forgiveable offense. Westward expansion did engage the United States in significant conflict. As a result, much of the text during Polk's presidency is focused in the conflict.

James K. Polk only sought one term as president. Unlike Borneman, some biographers have recorded this as a boastful and perhaps arrogant belief that Polk could accomplish all he wanted in one term. In fact, Polk was simultaneously appeasing the whigs that wanted a one term limit and the democrats to support him in the hopes that they could win the White House in four years. Polk expressed four goals for his presidential term: reduce the tariff, establish an independent treasury, acquire the Oregon territory, and acquire New Mexico and California from Mexico. Although Texas was a central focus of Polk's campaign, it would be admitted to the Union only weeks before Polk took office.

Polk was unpopular among certain colleagues. For this reason, the legacy of Polk is somewhat forgotten. Living only 103 days after leaving the White House also did not help to highlight his legacy. More than 150 years after Polk's death, people are awakening to Polk's importance in American history. The biography penned by Walter R. Borneman is commendable in moving toward this progress. It may be the best written, most thorough biography of Polk available.
23 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Less of a biography than a survey of the times July 16 2008
By CKE - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
While I would recommend "Polk" to all fans of the period I would caution that it seems to lack a little in the life of the man. While I doubt that this is the fault of the biographer since outside of his presidential diary - Polk did not leave a large written record. Borneman deicated less than 20 pages to Polk's early life, and hardly mentions his times growing up in Pineville, N.C. - my question is this because there is little known or was it left out to help the book flow?

Having mentioned this fault, I do find the book to be both readable and entertaining. In fact, Broneman has written one of the best political accounts of the turmaoil that lasted between the end of Jackson's term and the end of Polk's.

My final tally - if you are looking for a biography that is an equal of "John Adams" you may be disappoined, but if you are looking for an interesting overview of the 1830's and 1840's.. you probably have found the very best possible book!

Score "B+"
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Good Start, But I Didn't Get the Full Polk "Picture" Feb. 3 2011
By Postscript - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I'm on a quest to read a biography about every American President (yes, I'm a history nerd) and my latest conquest was James K. Polk. Someone passed along some information on this book and Polk was someone I didn't know much about, so I thought I would give it a try.

Overall, the book was just okay. At times, it felt like the story got bogged down in details, without giving me a good grasp on the type of person Polk was. In particular, I felt like the accounts of the Mexican-American War were pretty tedious. I'll admit, I'm not much of a military historian and there may be people out there that find different military movements and strategy interesting, but it just ain't me. By focusing so much on the military stuff, the book and the story really moved away from Polk - in fact, if that part were trimmed down or simplified, the book could have been shorter without losing any of the insight provided into Polk's presidency.

I did glean a few key take-aways from this book:

- Polk was the last "big" Jackson protegé.
- Polk had four clear goals for his time as President and was able to achieve all of them in just one term. In fact, he announced at the start of his term that he wouldn't serve two and was still able to make all of his goals happen. This is really unusual.
- Polk was a bit of a micro-manager as President.

And while I took these things away and still remember them, they stuck with me more because the author repeated these points multiple times than because the story truly demonstrated them.

With biographies like this one, I enjoy learning about the influential people in the main character's life - with Polk it was Jackson and Polk's wife, Sarah. I have a good grip on Jackson because of my own previous reading and because Borneman highlighted their relationship quite a bit. However, I really would have liked to learn more about Polk's wife. From the little bit of information included in the book, it sounds like they had an incredibly strong and loving relationship. Borneman provides an epilogue focused entirely on Sarah, but mentions very little about her in the rest of the book. Supposedly Polk's last words were, "I love you, Sarah, for all eternity, I love you." A pretty powerful statement, but even after reading the book, I don't understand why those were his last words!

I like my history and biographies to tell a story and the good ones do. I feel like this book kind of lost sight of the story in favor of the details.

Bottom Line: A decent start, but I feel like I need to read at least one other book about Polk before I can really "get" him. Three stars.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Underrated President June 17 2008
By Eric Mayforth - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This biography recounts the life of James K. Polk, our eleventh president and the strongest president in the quarter-century between the presidencies of Jackson and Lincoln.

Polk was Andrew Jackson's protégé, and the book traces Polk's path through the House of Representatives to the Tennessee governorship. In the cliffhanger election of 1844, Polk became the youngest elected president to that point in American history. Polk served as chief executive during a time when railroads and the telegraph were rapidly changing America, when there was lively debate over westward expansion, when the conflict over slavery was slowly heating up, and when settlers were heading west on the Oregon Trail.

The book demonstrates how American politics of the 1840s had many similarities to the politics of today. Then as now, politicians jockeyed for their party's presidential nomination years in advance, there were third-party spoilers, and there were even campaign biographies of the candidates published in the presidential election year. Polk's experience also shows that the presidency had already become a taxing, all-consuming job even by middle of the nineteenth century.

The book outlines the border disputes and negotiations with Britain and Mexico concerning Oregon and the Southwest--had some of the negotiations turned out differently, our country's total land area could have been much larger or much smaller than it is today. Polk also wanted to purchase Cuba from Spain.

A brief history of the Mexican War is included, and the book relates how during this period the power to declare war migrated from Congress (where it had been during the War of 1812) to the presidency.

Polk's legacy is marred by his position on slavery, but his territorial acquisitions make him one of the most consequential presidents of the nineteenth century.
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