James K. Polk (1845-1849)


Book: Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America

Author: Walter R. Borneman

1. Date- Written at the height of discussion anew on the imperial president, 2008’s Polk work was a study on America picking and choosing. Not much was clearer than in modern day. Things were clear on 9/11. But what of the 2003 Iraqi War? Had the president gone too far? Does political effectiveness as a President necessarily equal a successful term? Borneman takes these relatable and contemporary values and places them back in yesteryear. His study takes these modern conflicts of emotion and ethics and puts them around the neck of a slaveholding albeit effective President Polk. There is no doubt that Polk succeeded by most estimations. The question asked then and Borneman re-asks today is at what moral and physical costs does it toll on Polk and America? 2008 America was at war and called imperialists. These similar epithets were hung around an exploding America that gained 38% in size during Polk’s presidency. The time of publication can play a huge role in the tone and rhythm of a piece. There can be no mistaking that 2008 is everywhere in this work. The new look provides a true benefit to the reader as well. With over a century and a half past the death of the 11th President, hindsight becomes clearer and clearer. Polk, a consensus top ten(ish) chief magistrate, gets the new perspective he deserves. Though time has passed since this book hit the shelves, there is no fresher look at 1840s America than this work on Polk.

Grade: A-

2. Scope- Borneman early on shows that this biography will have a focused scope. Though it does complete the full biography arch from cradle to grave, the non-political aspects of Polk are clearly pushed to the back burner. By the end of two dozen pages, the Polk story is already in political hyperdrive speeding through a long congressional career, the accomplished feat of Speaker of the House and the trials as Governor of Tennessee. Conversely, there is little to discuss at on the other end of Polk’s life. With the shortest ex-presidency of all time, a dozen pages of explanation seems appropriate for this sized work. The scope of the presidency is where the work shines. On the public side of the narrative, Borneman’s main theme that hands-on Polk had his hand in every jar is used effectively. He lets Polk’s subtle and other times obvious influences show how connected he was to all of the workings of the executive branch. The complete discussion about the political and public decisions of Polk makes it clear that Borneman decides to not dwell too much on the personal angle of Polk. Though his wife is mentioned specifically in the beginning and in the final note on the work, the focus on Polk the person is left on the cutting room floor. Normally this could be a tremendous flaw as far as the scope is concerned. However, the man who worked 18 hours a day while President and could have literally died of overwork did not have much of a personal life to speak of. Perhaps this lack of personal discussion is the most telling aspect of this work overall. Overall, more is needed on the tremendous accomplishments at a blistering pace for the youthful Polk, especially because Borneman likes to harp on dispelling the “dark horse” image. Polk indeed was no dark horse, which is why Borneman misses his chance to show a pre-presidential master on a national stage. A complete scope, but one that barely checks that box.

Grade: B-

3. Author- Walter Borneman is an author and a lawyer whose sole biography effort was this work on Polk. Otherwise, Borneman has focused upon bigger topics in the 18th and 19th centuries. His works have covered everything from the rise of the railroads to specific military engagements. By covering the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, Borneman expands on his earlier research of the War of 1812 and the colonial French and Indian War. He cites two of his previous works, Alaska: Saga of a Bold Land and 1812: The War That Forged a Nation in this biography. In May 2014, Borneman returned to the 18th Century with the release of American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution. The task remains the same. Borneman in his mission revisits past periods and uncovers little known facts. He does this to try to recast old figures into a home in modern America. The reader will notice a scholarly outlook that clearly reflects Borneman’s educational background. Polk’s work contains these telltale signs with a clear thesis and central themes revisited throughout the work. Even in his sole biography, Polk the subject does not always remain center stage. Other times Borneman leaves his hero out of the narrative completely. It is in this scholarly style that he feels background information not entirely in keeping with the biographical narrative can be just as essential to the reader’s understanding. Borneman loves to put it this way, “My overriding goal in writing history has been to get the facts straight and then present them in a readable fashion.” His books are not of epic length or substance, but they are a welcome addition to anyone looking for an accessible window in American history.

Borneman’s remarks at the time of release

Grade: B+

4. Length- Recording in just over 400 pages, Borneman’s 2008 work on Polk arrives solidly in the short biography genre. In line with his other works, Borneman brings a middle length look at American history. It allows him to continue his goal of creating accessible and “readable” works. When it comes to Polk, Borneman makes the interesting point often overlooked when accessing the 11th president. Despite receiving consistently excellent accolades from presidential historians, Polk has gone decades without a biography in multiple stretches since his death. Considering Borneman acknowledges this, it is odd that he chose to curtail the length of this work instead of creating the 21st century standard in Polk biography. There is a clear opportunity to look deeper into the subject. For a study of the Polk presidency there is a great length especially considering Polk’s single term. Where the length seems a bit too brief is in the rapid look at his pre-presidency. There isn’t anything pedestrian about his pre-presidency that would suggest a rapid flyover. For example, Polk remains the only President who previously served as Speaker of the House. This historical fact is crucial to understanding Polk’s ability to find success in tough spots and know how to whip up support for a cause. A few pages along the brisk early narrative is less than sufficient even for a short biography. The overall length of 400+ pages is fine, just not thorough enough for the most in depth look at Polk in a generation. It is not as if Polk is a bottom dweller for commanders-in-chief. This is a clear cut top ten president with much to offer to a modern generation of American readers. Nice length but the parts that are missing feel gigantic.

Grade: B-

5. Mission- The mission of this work matches most efforts from Borneman. The goal is to create a look into the past and make it as digestible as possible for the modern reader. Despite his legal background, Borneman does a solid job of writing a readable and quick study of his subjects. The mission is not readily apparent at first, but becomes clearer as the work evolves. At the conclusion, he delves deeply into his interest in bringing to life the man in President Polk. He makes it clear that it certainly is curious that this top ten President is dramatically overshadowed by similar and even far inferior chief executives. This portion of the mission is incredibly welcomed because Polk has very much to offer to modern readers. Here was a man who was a product of his time and unabashedly expanded America. He bet that posterity would not be shortsighted and relish an America that stretched to the Pacific. Borneman does a solid job of showing that the map of the United States has a direct relation to Polk’s success as President. He also finished this work as George W. Bush was leaving office. Bush is a president who always harped on the fact that he would be validated by history much the same way that Polk steadfastly believed. There are warts as we look back at slaveholding Presidents who expanded without any concern for Native Americans or the plights of slaves. However, Polk was the product of his time and Borneman holds a solid strength in reserving judgment. His writing does this by simply casting a light on the previous age. Finally, when discussing previous works on Polk, Borneman displays a final segment of his mission. Despite standing unparalleled in accomplishment of his four main goals, Polk rarely gets the knee-jerk assumption as a presidential heavyweight. Sometimes even the best presidents can be forgotten unless their story keeps being told. Borneman is trying his best for old James Knox Polk.

Grade: A-


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