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

You have to give James Polk credit: he accomplished everything he set out to achieve in his single-term presidency.

Polk entered office in 1844 with four goals for his nascent administration: drastically reduce the tariff, re-establish an independent treasury, settle the question of ownership over Oregon, and win the war with Mexico to establish California and New Mexico as American territories.

A micro-manager and personally-destructive workaholic, Polk died shortly after he left office, leaving his wife Sarah to mourn him for the remaining 42 years of her life.

Born in 1795 in North Carolina and, as opposed to Harrison, in an actual log-cabin, Polk was the eldest of ten children. A sickly child, he was primarily inflicted with gastro-intestinal issues and Borneman recounts what must have been an astonishingly painful procedure that Polk endured as a young man when a doctor in Kentucky cut his groin open to remove urinary stones. Polk was anesthetized only with a bottle of brandy.

Sadly, this procedure most-likely resulted in leaving Polk sterile (possibly impotent) for life as he and Sarah would never bear children of their own.

Nevertheless, he went on to study law and eventually was elected to the Tennessee legislature in 1823 at the age of 28, a year before marrying Sarah. Although apparently a bit of a bore (she would later ban liquor and dancing from the White House), Sarah was a constant companion and advisor to Polk throughout his political career. Oddly, Borneman takes pains to praise Sarah as one of the most capable and consequential first-ladies, even giving her the book’s final chapter, but barely mentions her in anything more than passing throughout the majority of the book’s pages.

It’s a shame Borneman gives her such lackluster coverage as reading and learning about dynamic former first ladies like Abigail Adams, Dolly Madison, and Elizabeth Monroe and even more tragic figures like Louise Adams has been some of the more illuminating aspects of these presidential biographies.

(Post note: Amy Greenberg writes illuminatingly of Sarah Polk and her substantial influence throughout President Polk’s career in her account of the U.S. invasion of Mexico, A Wicked War. In fact, I learned more about Sarah Polk in pages 72-75 of Greenberg’s fascinating book than I did reading Borneman’s entire biography of the eleventh president. It’s a real shame because no account of Polk’s presidency is complete without detailing Sarah’s immense contribution.)

As a protégé of Andrew Jackson, Polk would go on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives as a staunch states-rights Democrat, eventually leaving in 1839 to become Governor of Tennessee. He would eventually run two unsuccessful campaigns for re-election against a smooth-talking, impossibly tall and skinny Whig named Lean Jimmy. The chapters detailing Polk’s frustrating losses to Lean Jimmy are some of the most entertaining portions of Borneman’s text.

Despite his statewide losses in Tennessee, Polk won the Presidency after becoming a sort of compromise candidate at the 1840 Democratic convention, an event meticulously detailed by Borneman, after Van Buren failed to win the party’s nomination. He would go on to do something so many U.S. politicians of his era did, that is defeat poor old Henry Clay in a national election.

Chapters on Polk’s White House are cross-cut with chapters detailing both the Mexican War and the various adventures of Western provocateurs like Steven Kearny, Kit Carson and John Frémont.

In fact, Borneman covers the Mexican War in such detail that I ended up dropping John S. D. Eisenhower’s book on the war, So Far From God, that I was meant to read after this one. Instead, I went straight to Hampton Sides’ Blood and Thunder, feeling like I’d gotten my fill of the conflict and didn’t need to spend additional weeks covering the same ground.

I’ll likely return to Eisenhower’s well-regarded book one day, but I was ready to move on especially seeing as I still have biographies on Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, Ulysses S. Grant, and James Buchanan ahead, all of which will no-doubt devote additional chapters to the conflict.

I feel like Walter Borneman wrote a good biography of America’s 11th president, but it’s a hard book to love. It often felt just a little tedious and could have used a touch more personality in its prose, but it’s a book I would still recommend. If you’re looking to learn about Polk and the larger Mexican conflict in one volume, it’s a worthy resource.