The president and editor in chief of Congressional Quarterly offers a lively biography of perhaps the most consequential one-term president in American history.
By 1844 Andrew Jackson’s protégé, James K. Polk, had compiled a distinguished House career that saw him rise to the office of Speaker. After serving as Tennessee’s governor and then losing two re-election bids, the ferociously ambitious “Young Hickory” angled for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination. He hitched his wagon to the resurgent Martin Van Buren, whose opposition to the annexation of Texas disappointed Jackson and created an opening for Polk to emerge with the presidential nomination, the first truly dark-horse candidate in American history. After narrowly defeating Henry Clay and pledging to serve only one term, Polk set his disciplined mind and political skills to cementing the Texas annexation, reducing the tariff and creating an “independent treasury,” settling the dispute with Britain over the Oregon Territory and fomenting a war with Mexico that, to him, appeared necessary to acquire land that positioned America to dominate the continent. Though he lacked the charisma and leadership skills of his mentor, Polk achieved every one of these goals, but his stealthy maneuvering and self-righteousness inspired no love or loyalty. He left office with his party hopelessly split and the nation transformed in a manner that only heightened philosophical and regional differences that led later to civil war. Merry (Sands of Empire: Missionary Zeal, American Foreign Policy, and the Hazards of Global Ambition, 2005, etc.) skillfully places Polk within the era’s political firmament, and he ably assesses his complex character and chronicles his contentious relations with a variety of players, especially the conniving Secretary of State James Buchanan and the egregiously vain Gen. Winfield Scott. Polk fully embraced the country’s expansionist impulse, never questioning the sometimes dubious means he employed to advance what he saw as America’s destiny. The nation, in Emerson’s phrase, “of vast designs and expectations” moved quickly to the 1848 election, and the exhausted Polk died four months later.
Hugely entertaining popular history.