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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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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.)
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"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
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The prospects for winning the presidential election were not encouraging. The Whig party nominated Henry Clay. Henry Clay was a powerful orator, had a solid reputation for crafting compromises in congress and had overwhelming name recognition. Heny Clay had made many enemies and ran a lackluster campaign that centered around the question of, "Who is Polk". Polk favored Texas annexation that appealed to southerns and westerns. Polk was able to line up critical support from his northern Democrat party base. Polk was nicknamed "Young Hickory" as opposed to "Old Hickory" that Andrew Jackson was affectionately called. With the help of a third party candidate that drew off critical support for Clay in the north, Polk was elected as the eleventh president in 1844.
In a surprising show of candor, Polk discussed his objectives with his Navy Secretary, George Bancroft. Polk stated four objectives that he wanted to achieve as president. First, he wanted to settle the Oregon dispute with Great Britain that would extend America to the Pacific Ocean. Second, he wanted to acquire California from Mexico to make America a truly ocean to ocean nation. Third, he wanted to reduce the Tariff of 1842 which was overtly protectionist with a pure revenue neutral tariff. Fourth, he wanted an "independent treasury" designed to protect federal monies and ensure currency stability.
James K. Polk accomplished all four of these objectives and more. During the Polk administration, the annexation of Texas was completed, American arts and literature flourished and American inventions such as the telegraph began shrinking the vast distances of a continental nation. It was great period of optimism with manifest destiny practically becoming the American motto.
Polk kept a detailed diary in which he confessed his strengths and short comings. He realized that he did not have the stature and presence of Andrew Jackson who could use intimidation to gain support and favors, and Polk realized that he was not a good orator like Henry Clay or Daniel Webster. Polk realized that hard work, consensus forming, and staying focused could overcome these deficiencies. Above all James Polk had a loving wife, the formerly Sarah Childress who was his constant companion and confidant.
Robert Merry does an excellent job in describing the politics of the era. The Whigs wanted a central bank (similiar to the present day Federal Reserve). Polk and Democrats opposed a central bank. Polk opposed federally sponsored internal improvements while Henry Clay and the Whigs supported internal improvements.
Polk was never in good health and he literally worked himself to death while president. He died within a few months of leaving office. There were years where he never ventured more than ten miles from Washington because he wanted to remain focused on his objectives and defuse opposition. One of his few excursions from Washington was to attend a class reunion at the University of North Carolina. The author closes the book in describing James K. Polk's place in history and how academic scholars rank him in effectiveness. It is obvious to this reviewer that James K. Polk was the best of the nine one-term presidents that served between Jackson and Lincoln.
This reviewer highly recommends this book because it covers a critical period in American history that is not familiar to many, the reader learns about critical issues of this era, and provides a loving description of a president that had a profound effect on our nation's history.
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