on June 5, 2005
When I read about President James K. Polk's accomplishments in the swift overview history classes in school, I remember wondering why he is not more well-known. He set out four main goals that he would achieve in one term, was successful on each one, kept his promise in not running for President again, retired and died within three months of leaving office as if his life purpose was fulfilled and there was nothing more to give to the country. One cannot ask for anything more from a President. He is always highly listed in presidential rankings, but most Americans have probably never heard of him. Perhaps it is because he only served one term and succeeded and preceded two mediocre administrations (Tyler and Taylor). Serving almost 20 years before the Civil War may have also dimmed his legacy as many American history buffs focus their attention on the war years and those immediately preceding them. Secessionist grumbling, although very much present during Polk's political career, had not yet reached the boiling point. After reading the James Buchanan book of this American Presidents series, I looked forward to learning again about Polk's achievements in Seigenthaler's book.
Like all of the American Presidents series books, this biography is a brief (156 pages of actual text) overview of Polk's career. I do not fault Seigenthaler's work for being short and terse because these books are meant for the busy reader who does not have the time to read massive volumes. I do fault the author for concentrating so much on Polk's congressional career at the expense of what really made him great: his term as the 11th President of the U.S. In this book, Polk does not become President until page 102.
I agree with a previous reviewer. The one thing that sticks out in my mind after reading this book, besides Polk's extreme partisan politics and the control he wielded as President, was the urinary stone (not gallstone) operation he suffered through when 17 that probably left him sterile or impotent (pp. 19-20). On this point, Seigenthaler offers painful detail. For the rest of the book, Seigenthaler moves quickly through events, but the key things covered are how the "corrupt deal" of 1824 (putting John Quincy Adams in office) affected Polk's political aspirations (p. 33), his allegiance to Andrew Jackson in fighting Nicholas Biddle and the Second Bank of the United States (pp. 51-3), and events leading to his nomination for the Presidency. The initial front-runner for the Democratic party, former President Martin Van Buren, did not even want Polk as a VP candidate after Polk lost two gubernatorial bids in Tennessee. Van Buren and Whig candidate Henry Clay made nomination-killing decisions in opposing the annexation of Texas (a very popular cause). Polk was a Jackson disciple with the nickname "Young Hickory," but he was not a complete yes-man. For example, he sided with John C. Calhoun and against Jackson on the issue of state nullification (however, Polk was no secessionist) (p. 48). When he was elected President, Polk made his own choices when it came to the cabinet (actually, he probably favored running the entire administration himself) even when the choices disagreed with the aged Jackson's wishes (p. 112).
After describing how Polk put his cabinet together, Seigenthaler rushes through Polk's main achievements in 40 pages. His four goals were to (1) lower the tariff, (2) create an independent treasury (his Constitutional Treasury Bill would last until 1913 when it was replaced by the Federal Reserve System), (3) acquire Oregon from the British, and (4) acquire California from Mexico. One plus about this book was that I did come away from it with a greater understanding of who Polk was as a person and what motivated him. He was self-righteous almost to the point of humorless. He was a control-freak while in office and extremely partisan. He was highly critical of his generals Scott and Taylor during the war with Mexico, even though they were highly capable and successful, for no other reason than because they were Whigs. He was a strong Unionist and probably would have had a Lincoln-esque legacy if he (rather than Buchanan) were President when secessionist furor was at its height. His relationship with Secretary of State Buchanan is described here better than in the Buchanan biography in this series. The book is very well written but, content-wise, I think Polk's presidential years are found lacking.
When the Democratic party nominated the nation's first dark horse presidential candidate in 1844, the opposition Whig party responded with the cry, "Who is James Polk?" Today, many people unfamiliar with this era of the nation's history might ask the same question. Veteran journalist John Seigenthaler provides the answer in this compact, well-organized biography, the latest entry in the "American Presidents" series.
Of course, the Whigs, and the rest of the country, knew who Polk was, but they were surprised to see him contending for the highest office in the land. As a young man, Polk had risen rapidly from the Tennessee legislature to the US House of Representatives, where he was a powerful and effective speaker. He returned home to run for governor of the state, seeing that position as his eventual springboard to the presidency. He served a single two-year term in the statehouse, but lost the next two elections. Most in the political arena thought Polk's fortunes were in eclipse before his surprising emergence as the Democratic nominee and subsequent victory over Henry Clay in the general election.
Polk promised to serve only one term in the presidency, a pledge that he kept. He also laid out four principal goals for his administration--a lower tariff, restoration of an independent national treasury, and securing Oregon and California for the United States. He accomplished all of these, the most challenging being the acquisition of California, which came at the price of an unpopular war with Mexico.
Historians have consistently rated Polk as among the presidential greats or near-greats. But he has little historical resonance with the public in comparison with outsized figures such as Washington, Jackson, Lincoln and the Roosevelts. Seigenthaler explains this as being a product of Polk's colorless, humorless, driven personality. He quotes extensively from Polk's presidential diary to illustrate the rivalries and jealousies that often seemed to control his thoughts and actions. While he may have been a small man in some ways, Polk accomplished great things, Seigenthaler concludes...and that's why his life and career are worthy of greater acknowledgment today.--William C. Hall
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. is the overall editor of the "American Presidents" series. This features short biographies of American presidents, their backgrounds, their accomplishments (or lack thereof), and their post-presidency lives. The purpose of this series, in Schlesinger's words (Page xvi): "It is the aim of the American Presidents series to present the grand panorama of our chief executives in volumes compact enough for the busy reader, lucid enough for the students, authoritative enough for the scholar."
Nicknamed "Little Hickory," after Andrew Jackson, as his political career matured, James K. Polk is routinely judged to be one of the better American presidents. However, for the most part, he is little known to most Americans. This book provides a basis for understanding why his reputation among historians is so positive. The author, John Siegenthaler, insists that (Pages 1-2): "In the nineteenth century, only Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln would wield the power of the office of chief magistrate as effectively."
The book discusses his family background and his youth. He had some serious medical problems, leading to surgery in a time where surgery was not far from butchery. He was intellectually rigid, not very imaginative, was incapable of thinking outside the box. Yet he was talented and determined to achieve his goals.
Early in his career, "Old Hickory" and Polk became allies. It was a relationship that would redound greatly to Polk's benefit. He was a firm Democrat, in Jackson's tradition. In the 1820s, he was elected to the House of Representatives. After Jackson's accession to the Presidency, Polk served as one of his champions in Congress, eventually becoming Speaker of the House.
Then, he returned to Tennessee to run for Governor. He triumphed. However, after this, his political luck disappeared, as he became a two time loser. In the run-up to the presidential race in 1844, his only desire was to become the Vice-Presidential nominee of the Democratic Party. He became the first "dark horse" candidate to be nominated as President (the machinations are worth reading!) and then elected to the highest office in the land. He had promised to serve only one time and listed 4 goals that he intended to achieve, including the admission of Texas into the Union.
After many struggles and much pain, he succeeded. However, the tough years in the White House had an effect on him, and he was dead shortly after his term ended.
This book is a good read; it is relatively brief (156 pages of text); it lays out why he is rated so highly, although one can surely disagree with his positions. I would recommend this highly for what it is--a brief introduction to a person who is rated as one of our better presidents.
on January 13, 2004
James K. Polk promised to do four things as president: Lower tariffs; reinstitute an independent treasury; acquire Oregon from the British; acquire California from Mexico. He did all four. He also promised -- and again delivered on that promise - to serve only one term as president. Shortly after retiring from the presidency, Polk died. The knowledge of his deeds seems to have barely outlived him.
Why has Polk's record been so little studied when compared to the recognition given other accomplished presidents? John Seigenthaler believes that it is in part due to the man's character. He was cold and distant from everyone but his wife; he had no hero-worshippers or sycophants who could burnish his reputation after his death; he left no distinct image of himself that captured the public's imagination. He simply did what he said he was going to do and then he left the stage.
Polk's rise to the presidency was fortuitous. A sickly boy, who at seventeen had life-threatening surgery that probably left him sterile, Polk was a good university student who went into the law and then into politics. From the beginning of his political career, he was a Democrat with strong ties to Andrew Jackson, ties which would serve him well when his political career later took a turn for the worse.
Seigenthaler, a native Tennessean, is at his best when describing the relationship between the two Tennesseans, Polk and Jackson. At first, Polk was no one's choice for the Presidency in 1948. He had failed in his last two elections. But through his connection to Jackson, careful maneuvering, and the careless errors of the frontrunners, Polk emerged as the winner. Surprisingly, once elected, he acted as if he was his own man, taking little consideration of the views of men (including Jackson) who helped elect him.
I knew of Polk's reputation and some of his accomplishments before this book, but I had never read a biography of the man. This is a good introduction - it's well-written and long enough to hit on all the highlights of Polk's life without committing yourself to a full biography.
on March 3, 2005
Seigenthaler's book on James K. Polk is a brief, but highly informative biography on one of our nation's most obscure, yet accomplished presidents. Polk didn't possess the stature of Washington, the eloquence of Lincoln, or the charisma or magnetic personality attributed to the Roosevelts, but he acted and did what he set out to do.
The author traces Polk's early years in rural North Carolina, which were important years in that he was early on shaped by his family's strong adherence to Jeffersonian Republicanism. While his family shared this common political outlook, they weren't as unified in terms of religion, his mother was a devout Presbyterian, but his father and grandfather had their own views after some confrontations with their minister, topics that are discussed by the author. Polk himself wasn't baptized until near the very end of his life.
Like other presidents born in North Carolina, Polk moved west to Tennessee. He became a serious student and excelled at UNC-Chapel Hill. He began a public service career that became quite impressive, serving in Tennessee's state legislature, the U.S. House of Representatives, also serving as Speaker of the House, governor of Tennessee, and U.S. President for one term, which was a pledge he imposed on himself and indeed kept.
Polk's religion was politics, as Seigenthaler stated, and his political idol was Andrew Jackson. Polk steadfastly supported Old Hickory throughout his political career, appropriately earning the nickname Young Hickory. But he also learned from his mentor's mistakes. Polk appeared dead politically by 1844. He had lost two bids for governor and failed to deliver Tennessee's electoral votes to the Van Buren ticket in 1840. But by the time of the Democratic Convention, with skillful political maneuvering, Polk emerged as the "Dark Horse" candidate, was nominated and went on to defeat Henry Clay in the general election, albeit by a very narrow margin.
Polk established a set of goals that he completed by the end of his four years as president and they were: establishing an independent treasury, settling the Oregon boundary dispute with Great Britain, lowering the tariffs, and acquiring California. He accomplished all these goals. Because of this impressive record, many historians have ranked Polk as a near-great president. But the acquisition of California and much of the Southwest through war fought with Mexico has left a major stain on Polk's legacy.
The Mexican-American War is certainly subject to fair criticism, let's face it, it was all about taking more land, and if that meant war, so be it. The war's consequences, which would inevitably involve the question of slavery and that institution's extension, were all part of a ticking time bomb that would explode a decade later. Blaming Polk to an extent is fair, but we must also understand the time period, the obsession with westward expansion, Manifest Destiny as it has been called, a term which Polk epitomizes better than any other president. Polk was also a slaveholder, though he wasn't as rabid as others like John C. Calhoun. Polk was a creature of his time.
Polk's personality has also led many to consider him unpalatable. He was an austere man, could be petty, stubborn, arrogant and excessively partisan, traits that don't usually win admiration, but do demonstrate his humanness. He was however free from personal scandal, at least as far as I know. He was unquestionably a workhorse, and others during the time noticed how he looked aged beyond his years. He died only months after retiring.
I've gone on too long, but I highly recommend this book. I personally thought it was a little too short in areas, but overall a good biography of a relatively obscure president who accomplished quite a bit in only one term, though not free from controversy.
on January 20, 2016
A college professor I know says James K. Polk (1845-1849) was our greatest president. Why? Because Polk did exactly what he said he would do. He said he would serve one term and achieve four goals: lower the tariff, re-create Van Buren’s independent treasury, acquire Oregon from the British, and acquire California from Mexico. And that is exactly what he did. Mind you, the first two goals were within his reach, but the latter two? Not so much. In fact, at one point he risked putting the United States in the untenable position of having to fight a war on two fronts—in the American Southwest with Mexico, and in the American Northwest with Britain. James K. Polk was a risk-taker on a grand scale, foolishly so perhaps, but he got away with it. Still, the stress must have been terrible. He left office in an exhausted state and died three months later. John Seigenthaler’s short book (156 pages) makes for an engaging read and is a nice introduction to our nation’s 11th president.
James K. Polk would have been right at home among today’s faceless corporate managers who do not lead by building consensus, but rather operate behind closed doors consumed with endless analysis. People—the ones on the front line—do not figure into the equation. Like President Jimmy Carter, Polk was a micromanager, but without Carter’s deep-seated humanity and folksy grin. The author describes Polk as stiff and humorless, a guy who never took a vacation, “an obsessed workaholic, a perfectionist, a micromanager, whose commitment to what he saw as his responsibility led him to virtually incarcerate himself in the White House for the full tenure of his presidency.” Polk was also a thorough Jacksonian Democrat committed to slavery and to small government; the enemy of paper money, the national bank and bankers in general; and a fierce foe of Henry Clay’s American System of national improvements. Nonetheless, Polk was a shrewd politician who read the mood of the nation perfectly, who campaigned for lowering the tariff and annexing Texas. Against overwhelming odds, he received his party’s nomination and was duly elected president.
In office but a year and a half, Polk achieved three of his four goals. Having successfully bluffed Britain with the threat war in the Northwest, on June 15, 1846, he had reached agreement with the British on acquiring the Oregon territory; six weeks later he signed the tariff bill into law; in August the legislature passed his Constitutional Treasury. Texas, meanwhile, entered the Union, on Polk’s watch, of course, December 29, 1945. That left California—and a prolonged war with Mexico to get it.
As the war went on Polk became increasingly frustrated with his two ranking field commanders, Major General Winfield Scott and Brigadier General Zachary Taylor. With much smaller forces than the Mexican army, but better led, Scott and Taylor won battle after battle. But victory was not the issue; with Polk it was their political affiliation: Scott and Taylor were both Whigs—and both had political aspirations. “Nowhere does Polk’s intense partisanship appear more obvious or more wrongheaded than in his diary comments about Taylor and Scott,” writes the author. “His extensive musings about their Whig leanings reflected a vindictiveness that sometimes was petty and bordered on irrational.” Meanwhile, with criticism mounting against the war, the Democrats lost the House of Representatives in the midterm elections. A young Congressman named Abraham Lincoln was against the war, as well as the political leader he greatly admired, Henry Clay, and former president and now Congressman John Quincy Adams. They believed the war—which the U.S. had provoked— was being fought solely for expansionist aims and was ethically indefensible. Surprisingly quiet on the matter was South Carolinian John Calhoun who had bedeviled Andrew Jackson’s presidency with the Nullification Act and the threat of Southern secession. Why so quite? Because he had his eyes on expanding slavery into Texas and into the new territory once the war had ended—California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.
After reading this book, I couldn’t help thinking of William Shakespeare’s play (Henry IV Part 2) where the dying king tells his son, “Be it thy course to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.” The Mexican-American War was that, a foreign conflict that busied the minds of Calhoun and the slave-holding South with dreams of a thousand square miles of new land to plant cotton tended by slaves. It was during Polk’s presidency that the term “Manifest Destiny” entered the American lexicon, thanks to newspaper editor John Sullivan who coined the term in 1845, as justification for war with Mexico.
Polk had succeeded in achieving his four goals, but at what cost? Almost 13,000 American soldiers died, and Polk died soon thereafter. Having lost nearly half of its nation, Mexico was crushed both economically and psychically; and slavery, the greatest single issue dividing Americans, was encouraged to grow with expansion into Texas and the new southern territory, thus hastening the onslaught of the American Civil War. Does such a legacy make Polk our greatest president?
on January 31, 2014
I read all the Biographies of the Presidents by way of the Presidential series. If you are going to do it, read John Hancock first because he was the first Continental Congress President. You will find as you read these how the lives of each President intertwined with the next. The job is a lineage.
on July 5, 2016
President Polk is one of America's most important leaders and most people do not know what he did to grow the nation from sea to shining sea. the editor of the book series, The American Presidents ranks him among the greatest presidents Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. I rank him right after Jefferson in importance in spite of the fact he was despised by Yankees as a Southern planter.
Young Hickory was in the right place, at the right time to be at the crucible of American democracy. The book is a little too general and seems to be aimed at children and not serious readers or scholars
on June 29, 2016
Well written, not a boring page. President Polk was a Patroit with integrity. We could use some like hi today.
President Polk said what he would do, and did what he said, without without equivocation. Not many history books hail him as a great president, but he actually was. He brought Texas into the union, and expanded the nation from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
on May 17, 2006
This is a great political biography. It is well written and easy to read while really getting across the facts and details. This book really got the spirit and life of Polk across while still really getting the political issues of the time and making them understandable to any reader. Definitely a book to read if you are interested in Polk, the Presidency or this political era.