James K. Polk The American Presidents Series: The 11th President, 1845-1849

The American Presidents

John Seigenthaler; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., General Editor

Times Books




208 Pages



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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 did it."


Praise for James K. Polk

"James Knox Polk surely is history's most underappreciated president. Few Americans have any awareness that in four years he engineered the annexation of Texas, bluffed the British out of Oregon, waged war with Mexico to take California and New Mexico, enlarged the country's land mass by a third and made the United States a continental nation. To read his presidential diary is to be retrospectively introduced to a chief magistrate who was tough-minded, strong-willed, egocentric, sometimes petty, usually predictable, often duplicitous, and always partisan. He served but one term by his own choice, pledging as a candidate that he would not seek reelection. He kept his word. A complete workaholic, he left office worn and ill and went home to Nashville to recover his health. It hardly seems fair that three months after leaving the White House he was dead."—John Seigenthaler on James K. Polk

"John Seigenthaler's succinct biography of the 11th president—among the latest volumes in Times Books' American Presidents series—is well worth reading in this election year . . . Seigenthaler does a fine job wending his way through the morass of intrigue that was Polk's political career."—Frank Wilson, The Philadelphia Inquirer

"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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  • John Seigenthaler; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., General Editor

  • John Seigenthaler is the founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. An administrative assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, he was an award-winning journalist for the Nashville Tennessean for forty-three years, finally serving as the paper's editor, publisher, and CEO, and was named founding editorial director of USA Today in 1982. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

    Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., is the preeminent political historian of our time. The recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Humanities Medal, he published the first volume his autobiography, A Life in the Twentieth Century, in 2000.

  • Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Dominique Nabokov