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A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent Hardcover – Deckle Edge, November 3, 2009

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This Book Is Bound with "Deckle Edge" Paper
You may have noticed that some of our books are identified as "deckle edge" in the title. Deckle edge books are bound with pages that are made to resemble handmade paper by applying a frayed texture to the edges. Deckle edge is an ornamental feature designed to set certain titles apart from books with machine-cut pages. See a larger image.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; y First printing edition (November 3, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743297431
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743297431
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.6 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (93 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #357,168 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"A crucial architect of modern America, James K. Polk deserves to be elevated out of the mists of history. In this engaging book, Robert Merry does just that, recapturing the passions and personalities of a forgotten era in American life." -- Jon Meacham, author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House

"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 populated by great characters such as Jackson, Clay, and Van Buren." -- Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein: His Life and Universe

"Bob Merry is a wonderful writer, lively and very clear-eyed, and he tells a fascinating chapter in American history. Long neglected, James K. Polk turns out to be a rich, memorable figure -- a war president whose will to conquest achieved the modern map of America." -- Evan Thomas, author of Sea of Thunder

"In Polk's single four-year term, the United States added western lands from New Mexico through Washington State. Robert Merry skillfully draws a comprehensive portrait of Polk's extraordinary successes in a time of bitter politics and explains why this intense leader remains underappreciated." -- David O. Stewart, author of Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy

More About the Author

I grew up in the little fishing town of Gig Harbor, Washington, but my passion for history emerged during my third grade year in Charlottesville, Virginia, where my father pursued a Ph.D. at Mr. Jefferson's University. There I encountered history in abundance, not least the university itself, so much of it designed by Jefferson. Also there was Jefferson's Monticello, nearby Civil War battlefields, numerous statues of famous Americans going back 200 years. I knew from that time that history would be an important part of my life.

My dad eventually became a newspaperman in Tacoma, Washington, and I followed him into that trade. I was editor of my junior high school newspaper, my high school paper, and the University of Washington Daily. Following a stint in the army, most of it as a counterespionage agent in West Germany, I got a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. But it was always my dream to cover big events of historical sweep. Thus, after two years at the Denver Post, I arrived in Washington, D.C., to become a national political correspondent for a Dow Jones weekly newspaper called The National Observer. It was a wonderful editorial product but a business failure, and in 1977 the parent company killed it off. I was pleased to be invited to join the Washington bureau of Dow Jones' other newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, where I spent nearly 10 years covering Congress, the White House, economic policy, and national political campaigns. It was a great experience.

But around 1987 I concluded I was finished with the political chase and wished to become a publishing executive. Thus I became managing editor at Congressional Quarterly Inc., the Washington-based publishing enterprise specializing in news and information on Congress, politics, and public policy. Later I became executive editor and then CEO, a position I held for a dozen years.

So I had two wonderful career segments -- covering Washington for one of the country's leading newspapers; and leading a fine news organization with the hallowed mission of lubricating the wheels of American democracy with ongoing flows of highly valuable civic information.

Along the way I produced three books. First came TAKING ON THE WORLD (Viking, 1996), a biography of prominent postwar columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop. I sought to use these two journalistic giants -- blood relatives of the Roosevelts; close friends of the Kennedys -- as a kind of window on 40 years of American political, diplomatic, and social history. Next came SANDS OF EMPIRE (Simon & Schuster, 2005), a polemical work that explored the philsophical underpinnings of the ideas driving American foreign policy in the post-Cold War era -- and driving policy, as I believed, in the wrong direction.

And now comes A COUNTRY OF VAST DESIGNS, a biography of President James K. Polk and an exploration of the powerful wave of expansionist sentiment that washed over America in the 1840s. In just four years America expanded its territory by a third and accumulated the vast expanse of Texas (annexed at the risk of war with Mexico), the American Southwest (acquired as a result of that war with Mexico), and the Pacific Northwest (brought into the union after a harrowing round of negotiations that almost caused a war with Great Britain). I portray James Polk, the mastermind and driving force behind this expansionist wave, as a smaller-than-life figure with larger-than-life ambitions. He achieved all his goals, but the efforts of this relentless politician sapped his strength and health, and within four months of his leaving office he died in his sleep at age 53.

Customer Reviews

Must read for history nerds.
Robert Pinna
To win the Oregon Territory for the United States which was in dispute with Great Britain when Polk obtained office.
C. M Mills
This book was really entertaining and well written.
Avid Reader

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

136 of 143 people found the following review helpful By reviewer25 on November 6, 2009
Format: Hardcover
"A Country of Vast Designs" is an excellent reminder of how a well researched and well written book can illuminate what was an otherwise dark and often forgotten piece of the American landscape. Merry's detailed and colorful story telling add depth, perspective and entertainment. For example, his account of the Democratic nomination of 1844 reminds us how crafty our nineteenth century politician were - orchestrating power plays in whispers and back rooms - and how luck played a major role in one's nomination. Particularly gripping is the brief description of the removal of Polk's bladder stone under the anesthetic of the day - bourbon, an episode which more than likely left him impotent.

What most impresses me about this book is how faithful Merry is to Polk's character - for better or for worse. He manages to take a less-than-appealing historical figure and neither lionize nor villainize him. Instead we come to know a man who had a bigger impact on our nation's history than he is popularly given credit for. And whether or not the gains to our boarders were ill gotten does not change the fact that we are fundamentally a different place for all his work.

The book is a fascinating read for those looking to understand the generation of presidents that was born after the founding fathers - that second group of leaders who had the difficult job of stewarding the US through its early adolescence, and making manifest the aspirations of the founding generation. We all should understand more about Polk. Merry's book is an appealing and sophisticated way in.
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Format: Hardcover
Quick! How many books have you read on James Knox Polk (1795-1849) our eleventh President of the United States? Most honest readers would admit to perusing none and knowing little about this important president! Robert Merry's excellent biography of Polk and his tumultous times hopes to rectify the paucity of knowledge most citizens have of Polk and his age.
James Knox Polk was born in North Carolina in 1795. He moved to Nashville, Tennessee where he became a lawyer coming under the influence of the formidable 7th President Andrew Jackson. Wheras Jackson, the hero of New Orleans and Democratic president for two terms was called "Old Hickory" Polk became known as "Little Hickory." He was a strong advocate of Jackson serving in the wild and wooly politics of frontier America.
Polk emerged as the first dark horse to emerge from a Democratic Convention with their nomination for President of the United States. Polk defeated Henry Clay the Whig standarbearer in the 1844 election. He was supported by his wonderful wife Sarah Childress Polk whom he had married following the advice of Andrew Jackson. Sarah was vivacious and social whereas Polk was self-righteous, stern and a workaholic. The couple were childless.
Polk told reporters that he would only serve one term as chief executive and kept that promise. He had four major goals as president all of which were achieved. Those goals were:
1. To lower the tariffs
2. To institute an independent and working banking system
3. To obtain California.
4. To win the Oregon Territory for the United States which was in dispute with Great Britain when Polk obtained office.
Polk was a wartime president.
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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Robert Pinna on November 30, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Must read for history nerds.

Extremely well written, moves like a novel and hard to put down.

Outlines the key premises of Jacksonian democracy and the impact they had on our country. Explains the events and execution of the Mexican-American war, the annexation of Texas and Oregon and the expansionism that led to the California and New Mexico territories.

Presents the key philosophical differences on trade (free vs. protectionist), banking, expansionism, America's role in the world and the sectional tensions surrounding slavery that would lead to the civil war.

Fascinating also to see how partisan the politics of this period were. If anything, more cutthroat and divisive than today, with bickering, posturing and positioning for personal advantage in both congress and the cabinet.

Demonstrates the incredible impact one person in the position of American president can have on the world.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on February 10, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A Country of Vast Designs
James K. Polk, The Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent
Robert W. Merry

James K. Polk was a frail man of diminutive stature who avoided confrontation, however, he was also driven, possessed an all-consuming sense of duty, had comprehensive analytical skills, and was convinced he was a man of destiny. As our 11th president, he has, in many cases, not been remembered as a man of significance, but in reality, he truly was.

Under Mr. Polk's watch, we achieved our westward expansion (later known as "Manifest Destiny"), a dream of many Americans. This was accomplished by completing the annexation of Texas, negotiations with the British over the Oregon Territory, and winning a war with Mexico. The States of Texas, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma became territories of the United States during Mr. Polk's administration. This represents approximately 1/3 (approximately 1.3 million square miles) of today's continental United States (approximately 3.6 million square miles). This also gave us major shorelines and ports on 2 oceans, which played major parts in the historical growth of The United States. It should also be added that before serving, Mr. Polk committed to serving just 1 term and lived up to that commitment. Less than 4 months after he left office, Mr. Polk succumbed to cholera.

Critics of Mr. Polk fault his entry into the Mexican War as contrived and not necessary. According to them, he was overreaching and aggressive in seizing lands from Mexico. It is interesting that they seem to have conveniently forgotten how we obtained our lands from the Indians in the first place.
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