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.