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