Thursday, January 10, 2008

James K. Polk

by John Seigenthaler

This was a book I had rejected initially, but turned out to be very satisfying indeed. I was looking for a biography of James Polk, America's eleventh president. I wanted a substantial biography, something that would not just recount the life of the man, but also reflect the zeitgeist of the era in which he lived. The pickings of Polk biographies at the Seattle Public Library were pretty thin. Besides the inevitable juvenile biographies, there were only a few volumes. This one had a page count that seemed to indicate a lightweight effort, a couple of others focused solely on Polk's presidency. So I chose a book called Slavemaster President, which seemed might halfway fit the bill. It didn't. But it turned out to be an interesting read in its own right. (more on that in its own review) However, it seemed like I would appreciate Slavemaster more if I had a quick briefing on Polk's life. So I borrowed this volume. It turned out that it's part of a series, The American Presidents, that tries to connect the events of each presidents life and career with the events and culture around him. 'Twas almost exactly what I was looking for. So anyway, James Polk. According to Mr. Seigenthaler, Polk was one of our most effective presidents. In his single term of office (having chosen up front not to seek reelection) he managed to complete the annexation of Texas, acquire the California territory, establish a fixed border between Canada and the U.S. and create an independent treasury. Yet he lacked the charisma of other effective leaders, like Jackson or Lincoln, and hence his name doesn't readily spring to mind when one thinks of the great American presidents. James K. Polk is a good political biography, showing the development of his career and life. It offers a glimpse of Jacksonian politics from the front lines in Congress and on the campaign trail in Tennessee. My only complaint is that it is too short. Check it out.

LibraryThing link

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