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A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent Hardcover – 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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
“Robert Merry’s authoritative biography of James K. Polk. . . provides a compelling, perceptive portrait. . . Merry joins his skill at portraiture to thorough scholarship and a shrewd grasp of human nature.”
–The Wall Street Journal
“Filled with intricate stories of personal conflict, psychological gamesmanship, and unintended consequences. . . one of the most astute and informative historical accounts yet written about national politics, and especially Washington politics, during the decisive 1840s.”
--The New York Times Book Review
“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 tale populated by great characters such as Jackson, Clay, and Can Buren.”
–Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein: His Life and Universe
“[Merry] brings a historian's perspective, a journalist's nose for the story and a novelist's eye to one of our country's most dramatic and defining moments. In strong, precise and elegant prose, Mr. Merry brings the key players of the day to life in terms of both personal characteristics and the causes they personified.”
--Washingtonian --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Merry does a good job of covering Polk's presidency, though I was not too taken with his narrative. At times it was flowing, at other times it seemed to bog down. The best parts of this book are recounting Polk's surprising rise to the presidency and the sectional politics that dictated the make-up of his cabinet, as well as the events leading up to the Mexican War. This was certainly a controversial event and one that drew significant criticism of Polk. Merry also fully addresses Polk's attitude towards slavery, which was clearly a nuisance he wished to avoid.
Overall, this is a good telling of Polk's presidency and the Mexican-War-as-viewed-from-Washington. As I said, the narrative could be better in spots, but this is still a worthwhile read.
By far his greatest accomplishment was making the United States a continental power. After years of dissatisfying and often contentious joint rule with Great Britain in the Oregon Territory, Polk negotiated the current border between the US and Canada. Although his predecessor, John Taylor, laid the ground work for the annexation of the Republic of Texas into the Union, it was Polk who sealed the deal.
This led directly into the Mexican-American War, where the US seized much of the American southwest and California. Polk gave America geographical depth, and access to both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. He laid the groundwork for some of the issues that would cause the Civil War (should slavery be permitted in the new territories) and America’s rise as a world power in the twentieth century.
A detailed and exacting book, A Country of Vast Designs can only further a reader’s understanding of our unique history.
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.
In "A Country of Vast Designs", Robert W. Merry provides an in depth view of the weaknesses and strengths of this president, his unlikely trip to the Whitehouse and the machinations involved in acquiring this territory. Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, James Buchanan, John Calhoun, Thomas Hart Benton, Winfield Scott, Zachary Taylor, and Santa Anna all play key roles in "A Country of Vast Designs".
From my own perspective, as someone who is a self professed "history nut", I did not know anything about James K. Polk. He first came to my attention when I read "Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West" by Hampton Sides which is a history of Kit Carson. Carson was Mr. Polk's main man in the West rounding up the Indians. During the reading of that book, I began to realize the impact of the Polk presidency. Coincidentally, Robert W. Merry published his book afterward and I knew I had to take a look at it. I'm glad I did.
Polk's legacy is best summed up in the words of Harry Truman "a great president. Said what he intended to do and did it." 
I heartily recommend this book.
 Truman, Harry S. and Robert H. Ferrell, Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman, Letter to Dean Acheson (unsent), August 26, 1960 (University of Missouri Press, 1997), p. 390.
 Merry, Robert W., A Country of Vast Designs, James K. Polk, The Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent (Simon & Schuster, 2009)
 [...]: Presidents_of_the_United_States_(1789_1860)
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