“James K. Polk and the Expansionist Impulse” is Sam Haynes’s 1996 biography of our eleventh president. He is also the author of two other books, his most recent titled “Unfinished Revolution: The Early American Republic in a British World.” Haynes is a history professor and Director of the Center for Greater Southwestern Studies at UT Arlington.
Haynes’s biography is the oldest of my three books on James Polk and is also the slimmest. At a little over two-hundred pages of text, it is not quite brief enough to serve as a “Cliff’s Notes” on the life of Polk, but neither can it qualify as a full-scale, comprehensive biography.
Unlike most other Polk biographers, Haynes does not seem predisposed to a favorable view of Polk and his legacy. Instead, he paints a decidedly balanced, and at times bluntly critical, portrait of the former president’s strengths and faults. Where most authors are inclined to defend their subjects no matter their shortcomings, Haynes is content to simply let the facts speak for themselves.
History remembers far more of Polk as a public servant than as a private individual; similarly, the vast majority of this biography is focused on Polk as politician. We hardly come to know James Polk the frail son of a successful surveyor and farmer, the committed friend or, in his later life, the loving husband. As a result, and given the book’s often dense jungle of detail, Haynes’s biography more often resembles a history textbook than the colorful and analytical biography of a president.
Due to the speed with which the author travels through Polk’s early life, he misses or avoids interesting tidbits such as the fact that Andrew Jackson (Polk’s political hero and mentor) was an old friend of the Polk family. One gets the sense from this book that Polk may have met Jackson only after his election to the Tennessee state legislature rather than as an impressionable young man. Other biographers have also observed it was Jackson, ever the reliable counselor, who gently nudged Polk into a relationship with Sarah Childress (who Polk eventually married).
Despite the book’s imperfections, it should be noted that among contemporary biographers Haynes was early in publishing a thorough, balanced look at Polk’s presidency. History largely ignored (or forgot) Polk during the Civil War, and when the public regained interest in Polk decades later popular opinion ranged from neutral to negative. And while Haynes presents both sides of the case (to such an extent he seems ambivalent at times) in the end he observes that Polk was clearly a strong and capable chief executive.
Overall, Sam Haynes has authored a solid and serviceable – but not often exciting – biography of James Polk. Not comprehensive enough to be considered a definitive work on the eleventh president, Haynes’s book provides a sturdy introduction to Polk in less time than is required by many other biographies. Too much a textbook for my taste, “James K. Polk and the Expansionist Impulse” is certainly sufficient for a reader interested in an efficient presentation of facts with few of the bells and whistles a longer treatment would afford.
Overall rating: 3½ stars