American history, biographies, book reviews, James Polk, presidential biographies, Presidents, Robert Merry, Sam Haynes, Sarah Polk, Walter Borneman
Historians generally regard James Polk as one of the “near-great” presidents, ranking him just behind Eisenhower, Truman and Polk’s mentor Andrew Jackson. Depending on which survey you consider, his standing varies only slightly.
Those who hold Polk in relatively lower regard tend to penalize him for starting a war with Mexico in order to grab California and New Mexico. And although the Gold Rush a few years later seemed to justify the effort to snag California, more than a few people these days might wonder whether it was worth it in the end.
But no matter how you score your presidents on “greatness”, Polk is almost universally hailed for having been an effective president. It helps that he achieved every one of his four major goals coming into office. Some seemed rather audacious, such as kicking Great Britain out of Oregon, but he accomplished them all with great determination and a willing Congress. Yet Polk is the least well known of the best-ranked presidents.
Although he kept an extensive diary, he tended not to reveal much of his innermost self and even his friends didn’t seem to know him particularly well. Polk was an introverted workaholic and a micromanager. He disliked delegating tasks because no one could ever live up to his standards.
And in case you thought his wife – who by all accounts was quite sociable, lively and smart – was any more carefree than her husband…she didn’t tolerate dancing or hard liquor at official White House functions. Unfortunately for their relationship he lived only 103 days after leaving the White House. She survived another forty-two years – dressed in black nearly the entire time.
But there is no need to mourn while reading James Polk’s biographies. Although none of the three I read were great, they were all solid. Polk’s enigmatic nature undoubtedly adds a layer of complexity to any biographer’s job, but the challenge of animating him is offset by the four active and engaging years he occupied the White House.
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* First up was “A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent” by Robert Merry. Published in 2009, this is the youngest of my three Polk biographies. At its core it is too focused on Polk’s presidency at the expense of his earlier life, but this seems to be a common issue with Polk biographies. Although the book was slightly stiff for my taste, it covers his single term in office thoroughly and just might be the perfect book for a political scientist. (Full review here)
* The second biography of Polk I read was Walter Borneman’s “Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America” published in 2008. Although the focus of this book is also Polk’s presidency, the author imbeds more historical context and background into the text. For this reason, Borneman’s biography is probably the best of the group for someone less familiar with the social and political environment in the 1840s. It was also my favorite biography of the bunch, though not by a wide margin. (Full review here)
Last I read Sam Haynes’s “James K. Polk and the Expansionist Impulse.” This biography has the advantage of being the shortest and most potent per page. However, it isn’t quite short enough to qualify as a pure precis of Polk’s life…and yet it isn’t comprehensive or detailed enough to qualify as a full-scale biography. Haynes’s book is perfect for someone interested in dense and slightly colorless efficiency without the fluff or frill. (Full review here)
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Best Biography of Polk: Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter Borneman
Runner-up: A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk by Robert Merry
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Heather R said:
I really appreciate Polk, primarily for completing everything he set out to do and not selfishly going for another term after. I read the only bio I could find on his wife, and find her to be equally as impressive.
I would be interested in adding that one to my “to read” list. Do you remember the name of the bio on Mrs. Polk?
Ian Powell said:
Is this the one? The only one I could find; haven’t read it.
Sarah Childress Polk: A Biography of the Remarkable First Lady by John R. Bumgarner. 176 pp. McFarland & Company, 1997.
Ian Powell said:
The best biography on James K. Polk is by Charles Grier Sellers, now professor emeritus at UC-Berkeley. Unfortunately, Sellers abandoned his biography of Polk after completing the first two volumes (1957-1966), taking readers to the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846. Reportedly, Sellers, a Southern liberal who had taken part in the Civil Rights Movement as a Freedom Rider, had grown disillusioned with Polk, who had provoked a war against a neighboring country in the name of expanding territory for slavery. I suspect the escalating contemporary conflict in Vietnam may have also contributed to his ambivalence about finishing. Ironically, Sellers is largely the one responsible for plucking Polk from obscurity and giving him the reputation he currently enjoys as our best one-term president and the most successful chief executive in terms of fulfilling all of his campaign promises. Still worth checking out, even if the most crucial, last three years of the subject’s life are missing.
Ian Powell said:
Essay on Sellers’s Polk biography by a younger academic historian, including speculation on what the missing volume 3 would have contained, based on Sellers’s voluminous notes.
Click to access 2.pdf
Mr. Polk, what a guy. For Mr. Polk, I first read Charles Grier Sellers two out of three volume work, covering to August 1846. These two books were excellent. For me, Sellers provided an excellent combination of academic and general history. As a biographer, Sellers is remarkably fair and presents Polk as the consummate politician and statesman that he was. Polk had set his mind on being a one term president, attempting to select a cabinet of individuals who would work with him versus using their cabinet position as a stepping stone to the presidency, and that is exactly what he did.
In an attempt to get a full picture of Polk, I needed information from mid-1946 on, enter Borneman’s Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America. Borneman’s book was also excellent, but more on the general history style. Overall, I would not hesitate to suggest these three biographs to obtain a solid perspective on Polk.
Before Polk the US was a backwater nothing nation. Unimportant to anyone but the locals. Because of Polk’s achievements the nation became one “from sea to shining sea” thus enabling it to grow and become the greatest nation in human history.
Arguably the greatest President pre Lincoln and only Lincoln, T. Roosevelt and Reagan since were his equal.
One of only three Democrats in the White House worth remembering: Jackson, (the true founder of the Party), Polk and Truman.
James…is that you? 🙂
I decided to start reading a biography about every president (in order) a few months ago and just finished Borneman’s biography on Polk based on your recommendation. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and loved the information about the Mexican War.
I love your site, by the way. I found it after reading Unger’s book on Monroe and realizing I needed to do a better job of researching the best options before buying a biography. Your recommendations have been spot on so far, so thank you. I need to go back and read better biographies of Jefferson (I read American Sphinx, I don’t think it worked well as a main biography) and Monroe at some point. I’m looking forward to reading about Lincoln and US Grant, but have a slog ahead of me before then, as I understand it.
I decided to read a biography of each president in order a few months ago and just finished Boreman’s Polk biography based on your recommendation. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and really liked the extra details he put in about the time and the people around Polk. I also really enjoyed all the details about the Mexican war.
I love your site, by the way. I found it after reading Unger’s Monroe book and realized I needed to do a better job of researching the best options before buying a biography. Your recommendations have been spot on so far. Thank you.
At some point, I need to read different books on Jefferson (I read American Sphinx which I don’t think worked well as a main biography) and Monroe. I’m looking forward to reading about Lincoln and US Grant, but as I understand it, I have quite a slog ahead of me before then.
I’m glad to hear the site is useful so far – but don’t be surprised when our opinion diverges a bit at some point! I agree with you (what, with the benefit of about 7 years of hindsight) that American Sphinx is not the ideal main bio. But there are several choices for Jefferson and you will undoubtedly note that I recently read a just-released bio of Monroe which for me is the best of the lot. And if you ever start to despair (when reading about…well…whomever) just persevere – Lincoln and Grant are phenomenal. What a rich collection of really wonderful books to choose from there!
Have you read the below sermon preached during the time of Pol’s presidency? I love the fact that he uses the Naboth Vineyard text – LOL. Interesting real time view.
A sermon of the Mexican War, preached at the Melodeon, on Sunday, June 25, 1848