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.
on May 24, 2008
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.
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!
on June 17, 2008
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.
on February 3, 2011
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.
on March 17, 2011
For any faults it may have, if you want to read a 1-volume full biography of James K. Polk, this and Robert Merry's book are your only choices (at least in the last 50 years or so). I haven't read Merry's book, so I cannot make that comparison.
Strengths: fascinating subject, full modern scholarship, reasonable length, excellent description of the times and political context in whick Polk lived and served, long overdue treatment of such a notable president.
Weaknesses: focused on his political life to near exclusion of his personal life, one of the more notable First Ladies got extremely short shrift, much stronger in explaining the "whats" than the "whys."
Bottom line: I enjoyed it and am extremely glad it was written (I did not want to have to read McCormac's 80-year-old bio or Sellers' 2-volume set from the 1960s), but I would have liked to know more about Polk personally and his family.
on July 5, 2011
This work was well-written, but was much more history of the times than biography of one person. this may be due to lack of biographical sources, but might also be a conscious choice of the author.
The history was good information, and well presented. It is clear from the text that half of the sub-title was justly written: "The man who transformed...America". It was less clear to me from the text how Polk "...transformed the presidency".
I really liked how the text covered the Mexican War. It made clear the ambiguities about the beginning and ending of the war.
Overall, if you are looking for history of the period covered, this is a good one to read. If you are looking for a definitive biography of Polk as a person, you'll need to keep waiting.
Walter Borneman's biography, "Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America", is a solid look at our 11th president. Written with a good pace that never skimps on facts, "Polk" examines the life of this extraordinary, though often neglected, historical figure. Borneman correctly points out that had Clay, Van Buren, or another candidate won the 1844 presidential election, the very borders of the United States might look very different today. The author also states that few U.S. presidents enjoyed as much success as Polk. From the start of his administration Polk set out to do four things: create an independent treasury, reorganize America's tariff laws, settle the Oregon question with Britain, and acquire what is now the American southwest from Mexico- by either diplomacy or force. All four goals were achieved and Polk lived up to his promise to serve only one term. This work is no hagiography, however, and Borneman frequently shows Polk's less admirable qualities. Due is given to the ambiguity under which Polk requested a declaration of war against Mexico, and his often petty prejudices and dislikes against other American notables.
One of the main reasons I picked up this book was to learn more about the U.S.-Mexican War. While the book does contain a great amount of detail on the subject, too often it is at the expense of the biography, and the book reads more like a straight history narrative in these chapters. As history it is a wonderful exploration of the war, but as biography, it falls a bit flat. There are several relatively large sections of these chapters that do not deal directly with Polk at all, but rather figure like Zachary Taylor, Winfield Scott, John C. Fremont, and others. In fairness, Borenman notes this in the introduction. Still, a closet tie to the subject during the narrative is always appreciated in a biography.
All told, however, this is a fine look at an amazing period of U.S. history, seen through the perspective of one of its principle players.
on June 27, 2009
This book SHOULD have been called "The War for Texas and California" or something to that effect. It gives amazing detail and insight into the strategies the U.S. employed to bring Texas and California into the Union.
But how does it do in giving us a feel for the type of person Polk was? That is a different story. It starts like any good biography does with his early days: where he was born and where he went to school. We learn about his success and failure in running for governor of Tennessee. But once he becomes President, the book almost entirely revolves around the war with Mexico and all the people involved in the war. It becomes a play-by-play of what happened in Mexico while Polk sits in Washington. And it's VERY detailed. It would be just like a biography on George W. Bush talking only to the war in Iraq and not much else (and I am sure such a book exists!).
The author draws from a wealth of letters and even Polk's own diary. We learn about his feelings for General Zachary Taylor, Secretary of State James Buchanan, and we even get a glimpse of young Illinois senator Abraham Lincoln. And much like George W. Bush, Polk's zeal to acquire California and Texas really transcended much of America's own sentiment, which is why it became known as "Polk's War."
For anyone wanting a detailed account of American history during the late 1830's and early 1840's, it's a great book.
James Polk, I learned from Walter Borneman, set four objectives for his presidency and achieved them. Two of those objectives resulted in a 38% increase in US land mass, fulfilling the manifest destiny yearnings of his era. Polk ranks high among historians but is unknown among the general population. Andrew Jackson, his mentor, accomplished a lot less and lives on in the national consciousness and the $20 bill.
This book won't bring Polk's legacy forward, but for those who are interested it does a good job of defining his presidency. The book shows how Polk met the constraints any manager meets, the biggest of which are people problems. A century before Peter Drucker, Polk demonstrates the ability to set a goal and focus.
Borneman does little to define Polk's character or personality. You do not feel you know Polk, nor any other key people of this time. One example is that while Sarah Polk's name appears here and there and is defined in 2 page summary at the end, the reader really doesn't see what that role is. Is she an assistant or hostess? Confidante or an advisor? What did she influence and how?
Polk's cabinet and army included not just rivals but contenders for his position. Each had a reason to minimize his achievements and with Polk's death, so soon after his presidency, this has to be a big factor in halting his influence and historical presence. Polk had no heir carry his flame. He had no wealth to found a university or hospital. There was no big constituency with an interest in preserving his name.
If his presidency were to be viewed today, among the general public, Polk might still not achieve the status the historians accord him. Americans, proud of their coast to coast country, might not approve of Polk's means of achieving it. Also Polk was not only a slave owner, but also was a preserver of the status quo on this issue.
This book can serve as a basis for later works. Its author puts forward a lot of important material. Borneman didn't inspire my interest in Polk, (and irritated me with nick names - "Old Bullion", "Rough and Ready", "The Red Fox") but he did pique my interest in this less heralded period of American history.