Sunday, April 28, 2013

Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter Borneman

James Polk was the president who brought Texas into the Union. He also added California, and the states of the Southwest. He made war with Mexico to achieve those ends. He also made peace with England that defined the northern territorial line of the United States and finally settled the Oregon Territory question for good.

Born in North Carolina his family moved to Tennessee when he was a young man. After studying law he moved into politics. His most important mentor was Andrew Jackson. Jackson even introduced young James to Sarah Childress who would marry the up and coming politician. Polk's early career was meteoric. At the age of 30 he was elected to the House of Representatives. He would serve 7 terms and the last two terms he would spend as the Speaker of the House. He was elected Governor of Tennessee. Everyone thought that he would be an easy presidential contender. Then he lost his reelection bid for governor. He then lost the second attempt at the governor's office four years later. Everyone assumed that Polk was finished. Then, in 1844, the Democratic Convention was unable to agree on a candidate for President. Polk became that candidate.

Everyone knew that admitting Texas to the Union would cause a conflict with Mexico. The territory between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers was claimed by both the United States and Mexico. Polk sent troops to occupy the region. A group of American cavalry were attacked by a force of Mexican cavalry. Several Americans died in the action. Polk requested a declaration of war because "American Blood has been shed on American soil." As a result of the war Polk was able to expand the boundaries of the United States. The war was controversial and Polk had to contend with the opposition led by the elder statesman John Quincy Adams. Assisting Adams on the opposition was a young Congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln.

Polk ran with the promise to serve only one term. He kept his promise. After his term of office ended Polk took a tour on the way home to Tennessee. After his return home he became ill and died only three months after leaving office. Walter Borneman is a well respected historian and he has given a wonderful look at the life and Presidency of James K. Polk. This book is well written and is a good look into the issues that led only eleven years after his death to the Civil War.

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