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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent brief biography, March 31, 2006
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This review is from: James K. Polk and the Expansionist Impulse, 3rd Edition (Library of American Biography Series) (Paperback)
Between the end of Andrew Jackson's presidency in 1837 and the beginning of Abraham Lincoln's in 1861 there was a 24 year period of presidential mediocrity. Eight presidents served during this era, four of them for less than a single term, forming a roster of forgettable names: Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. Only one man in this era of mediocrity stands out at all: James Polk.

What makes Polk stand out from these others is that he actually accomplished something noteworthy. During his presidency, the U.S. warred with Mexico. This war was significant not only because it marked the first time the U.S. fought a war in foreign territory, but more importantly, it resulted in the U.S. acquiring a vast amount of land, including California and New Mexico (it also forced Mexico to recognize that Texas was now part of its northern neighbor). In addition, Polk was able to more peacefully obtain what would become Oregon and Washington from England.

The acquisition of Mexican land was controversial during the war and even remains the source of argument today. Long before the controversies of weapons of mass destruction, there were the debatable origins of the Mexican War; Polk was determined to acquire land and set up things to force a conflict. Besides the somewhat dubious origins of the war, the result for the U.S. was also filled with negatives; the new territories would exacerbate North-South conflicts (particularly about slavery) and - though temporarily alleviated by the Compromise of 1850, would eventually lead to the Civil War.

Sam Haynes has written an excellent if brief biography of Polk. In just over 200 pages, he reviews Polk's entire life, focusing on his one term as president. Haynes remains reasonably objective, with as much praise for Polk's better qualities as criticism for his deficiencies. If you are interested in Polk or this era of American History, this is a good introduction.
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James K. Polk and the Expansionist Impulse, 3rd Edition (Library of American Biography Series)
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