Saturday, January 26, 2008

Slavemaster President

by William Dusinberre

One thing I enjoy about reading presidential biographies is that instead of seeing the American presidents as two-dimensional caricatures, I get to discover them as real men with personal concerns and beliefs. While this book isn't a biography, it did offer an interesting picture of James K. Polk, showing why he might have made the decisions and support the policies that he did. I don't recall learning, way back when I studied history in school, much about Polk. Oh, I knew that he had run for president on the promises of annexing Texas and Oregon, and of not seeking re-election. But beyond that I don't recall anything else. I don't think we learned that Polk was an ardent Jacksonian. And I really doubt if we were taught that Polk was a slave owner. Well, he was, and Mr. Dusinberre has documented that aspect of Polk's life, giving a vivid picture of slavery from the slave owner's point of view, where human beings are property and business concerns often trump human compassion. It's rather... disgusting, really. The book then goes on to look at Polk's presidency and shows how his concerns as a slave owner might have affected it. That also was a trifle disgusting, seeing how the politicians at the time were so caught up in grabbing more territory and preserving the "peculiar institution" that seems to define the antebellum South. I'm sure there's a fair amount of bias in the book, but Mr. Dusinberre makes a compelling argument for his conjectures. The only real quibble I have with him is when he takes Polk and his contemporaries to task for not setting the country on a course that might have avoided the Civil War. It's far easier to run a nation with hindsight. Anyway, check it out, it's interesting stuff.

LibraryThing link

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