A spirited biography of one of the most effective single-term presidents (1845–1849) who promoted war against Mexico and left office having vastly expanded both American borders and the powers of the executive office.
Veteran American historian Borneman (1812: The War that Forged a Nation, 2004, etc.) draws no parallels with the present administration but makes a convincing case that James K. Polk (1795–1849) deserves high marks as a hands-on leader who laid the groundwork for an American empire. Born near the birthplace of his mentor, Andrew Jackson, Polk made his mark in Tennessee politics as his fellow Tennessean rocketed to national prominence. He ran successfully for Congress in 1825, supported Jackson enthusiastically during his presidency (1829–37) and rose to the position of Speaker of the House. Borneman rejects the traditional view of Polk as a dark horse who emerged from obscurity to win the deadlocked 1844 Democratic convention. In fact, he was nationally known, a fiercely ambitious man with an eye on the presidency who enjoyed vigorous support from Jackson. Once in office he conducted himself with Jacksonian energy. After welcoming Texas into the Union and settling the boundaries of Oregon, he sent provocative orders to troops along the Southwest border, using the inevitable skirmish to demand that Congress declare war. The Mexican War (1846–48) was popular in the South and West, less so in the North despite his proclamation that America was fighting to defend freedom. Once again, Borneman draws no parallels with present wars, pointing out that Polk made no secret of his intention to annex Mexican territory. At the end of a single term, he had achieved all his announced goals, domestic and foreign, often against fierce opposition. Polk’s single-minded, jingoistic, workaholic personality would charm few readers today, but Borneman’s admiration for his subject shines through.
A lucid, often witty account of a remarkably assertive leader whom historians, when polled, consider one of our near-great presidents.