The American Presidents Series
James K. Polk
The Story of a Pivotal President Who Championed America's
Westward Expansion and Solidified the Dream of Jacksonian Democracy
In the summer of 1844, James K. Polk's political career was in ruins. As the
Democratic National Convention approached, Polk had thought himself assured of
the vice presidential nomination, but the presidential front-runner, former
president Martin Van Buren, had made it clear that he had little interest in
him. Van Buren was on a mission to regain the White House, which he had lost in
1840, and he needed a strong running mate. Polk had three strikes against him.
First, Polk had been unable to deliver his and Andrew Jackson's home state of
Tennessee in 1840, while Polk was governor. Second, he was fresh from having
lost the governor's mansion -- for a second time. And third, Van Buren -- as
well as the Whigs' candidate, Henry Clay -- had just taken a stand against the
annexation of Texas, whereas Polk had come out in its favor.
But as the delegates assembled in Baltimore, Polk perceived a wave of public
sentiment in favor of bringing Texas into the Union, and he rode that wave all
the way to the nomination and eventually the White House -- the first "dark
horse" candidate to do so. Congress soon annexed Texas, and Polk continued to
look west, becoming the champion of what was known as "manifest destiny." He
settled the disputed Oregon boundary with Great Britain, extending U.S.
territory to the Pacific Ocean, and waged war on Mexico in hopes of winning
California and New Mexico. The considerably smaller American army never lost a
battle, and the southwest territories became part of the United States in 1848.
At home, however, Polk suffered a political firestorm of antiwar attacks,
particularly from the Whigs. Despite tremendous accomplishments in just four
years -- from pushing the westward expansion to restoring an independent
Treasury to ushering in an era of free trade -- "Young Hickory" left office
feeling the sting of criticism and suffering from a stressful presidency that
had taken a heavy physical toll. He died within three months of departing
Washington. Fellow Tennessean John Seigenthaler traces the life and legacy of
this president who, as Harry S Truman noted, "said what he intended to do and
This newest addition to the American Presidents series edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. offers a solid portrait of an unlikable man who achieved extraordinary things. A Tennesseean like Polk, Seigenthaler (founding editorial director of USA Today) agrees with those who rate this dour, partisan, grudge-holding, one-term president a success." --Publishers Weekly
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