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Book review: Polk by Walter R. Borneman

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James K PolkThis is about the time in my reading that I am reminded about why I am doing this project. I’m right in the middle of that time period in history that (before this project) I could barely remember the names of the Presidents and now I could tell you why President James K Polk shows up high on the list of effective administrations. I really enjoyed Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman.

Know before you read

One of Borneman’s main points is that Polk has been mislabeled as a ‘dark horse’ and that label belittles the president’s accomplishments. Your preconceptions of Polk will definitely be challenged with this book. I learned a ton about Polk from this book, mostly because I was starting from nothing.

Also please note that about three-quarters of this book are about Polk’s 4 year presidency (+election). There are fewer than 100 pages about his rise to national prominence, his time as Speaker of the House or governor. But the detail presented of the presidential years more than makes up for it.

James K Polk

It is incredible to me how much about President Polk I had apparently forgotten since high school. Arthur Schlesinger asked more than 50 leading historians to rank the presidents (by performance in the White House). Polk’s “was easily the least recognized name among the well-known high scorers of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln…” etc (p 352). Borneman has totally convinced me that ‘dark horse’ is a misnomer for Polk — especially when you think of some of the compromise candidates that came after him. Definitely read this book to learn about that angle of Polk’s presidency.

Borneman spends quite a bit of time away from Polk — off in Mexico, California, Texas and elsewhere, describing battles and negotiations and all the machinations that led to Polk being able to solidify the Oregon border and acquire the southwest from Mexico. This book acts as a mini Mexican-American War history. Polk’s presidency was the fulfillment of all the hopes of Manifest Destiny until that point.

The subtitle of this book claims Polk transformed both American and the presidency itself. The change in U.S. borders by the end of his term are clear. The transformation of the highest office becomes obvious when examining the way Polk wielded his executive power.

“In the evolution of American presidential power, it is difficult to overstate the transition that occurred on May 13, 1846. The framers of the Constitution specifically reserved the power to declare war for the legislative branch. …Not only did James K Polk almost demand that Congress recognize that a state of war already existed, but also he left little doubt that those who failed to respond to his charge would be branded cowards” (208-9).

Congress has never again taken their time to debate whether or not to declare war.

Little sidenote: It’s interesting how hard Borneman hits the Polk-as-Jackson’s-favorite angle, considering neither of the Andrew Jackson biographies I have read communicated that at all.

Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman was great. I learned so much! I very much enjoy Borneman’s writing style (clear, detailed without being slow) and will be reading all of his other books.

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