Book: James K. Polk- A Political Biography
Author: Eugene Irving McCormac
1. Date- At nearly 100 years old, this two-part look at the eleventh president can hardly be classified as a modern perspective. In fact, it is essentially a window in the past. The 1920s was quite the time for political biography. With Civil War veterans recently deceased or even still living, the crusade to win the narrative of the antebellum period was in full force. Sandwiched between 1915’s Birth of a Nation and the late 1930s Gone with the Wind, antebellum America and the ensuing Civil War was portrayed in literature and film as a noble tragedy. For this alone, a modern reader should delve into this 1922 classic listening for the fervent quest to legitimize America’s insatiable thirst for expansion while hopelessly chained to slavery. In McCormac’s book, it takes ten pages for him to inform the reader that he will not harp on Polk’s personal life or judge his human character. He simply tries to present facts in a light only colored by political events. A reader of works from this “lost cause” of the confederacy or antebellum period must be ready for a tacit admission of the confederacy’s death but search in vain for any regrets for their actions. Consequentially, Polk is not an evil slaveholder a modern writer may claim he to be. He is but one that showed “restraint” and “compassion” to the ones he owned as property. Continuing this perspective, the southerners of yesteryear were helpless against the conspiratorial and treasonous abolitionists who sought slavery’s eradication. The final note the reader may notice about the time this was published is in respect to the narrative style. McCormac throws the “show don’t tell” of 21st century political biography almost entirely overboard, explicitly stating a move to a new topic and over-justifing the tabling of discussions for later in the work. It is an interesting work albeit with an active tour guide who speaks in jargon that a century of writing has left in the past. Despite a jumbled take on this old work one fact will emerge immediately. This was written at a time in the distant past.
2. Scope- Leaving any illusions to a personal look at Polk in the front yard, the house of McCormac is a total scope of the political life of James K. Polk. He uses his two volumes to completely cover Polk’s stunning and brief rise to the political peak. From his meteoric rise in the US House to his crushing defeat at home for governor, the early political life of Polk is given breadth and depth. Tying easily into McCormac’s mission of shattering the “Who is James K. Polk” myth of his contemporaries, he shows in deep detail the importance of Polk in important political developments and by his significant public facilities. His scope is solid and he is able to effectively pivot to the discussion of Polk’s rise to presidential candidacy, not as a “dark horse” his contemporaries tried to portray him as, but a seasoned political veteran. It is in this way that McCormac’s scope is crucial to carrying out this aspect of his mission. The scope can be misleading. Typical of this period of Presidential biography, McCormac makes a glaring error of completely omitting his personal life. For example, one of his missions is to dispel the vision of Polk The Novice. His scope obliterates that ill-informed moniker. Conversely, he falls flat footed when trying to say that Polk sought expansion as part of a national policy and not a sectional slave conspiracy. Nowhere in his justification for a national motive and not a motive to extend slavery is even a passing acknowledgement by McCormac that Polk was an active slaveholder. Leaving out this fact of Polk the slaveholder, and a proud one at that, does disservice to the modern idea of a “biography.” This demands the man with all his warts and not just his public career. Ask a future reader of a Bill Clinton biography if they are ok with Monica being left on the cutting room floor.
3. Author- Eugene McCormac was born in the aftermath of the Civil War and died in the darkest days of WWII. In that lifetime, he would spend nearly five decades in academia including 39 years at the University of California at Berkeley. At his death, his fellow professors of history credited, “his inflexible integrity, his sense of humor, and his devotion to his theme.” Despite being born in the Midwest, his education was varied, receiving his undergrad in America’s Heartland but his Doctorate at Yale in 1901. He quickly became an author who was a lightning rod for his out-of-the-box thinking. He chose to portray servitude and slavery, not as a black/white issue, but as one forced upon the helpless colonialists as early as the Mayflower. It would be the first in a series of works on this theme. His 1911 work on colonial opposition branded him “unpatriotic” and “an example of ‘false and disloyal history.'” However, his banner work was this look into James K. Polk. It was the best example of McCormac’s attempt to show history as a detached and fact based exercise, divorced from the partisan or emotional passions of the contemporary. Even though political biography was remaining in his career writing arsenal, McCormac would always be known as Polk’s most dedicated biographer. With almost 100 years gone after this monumental work, McCormac’s detached and straightforward style has made this Polk biography the standard for all Polk scholars.
4. Length- The two works were meant to be read together. Part One seemingly ends without any extensive bibliography or index. It is not until Part Two, which contains a complete index and note section to cover both works. For that reason this Presidency Project will judge them as one work as opposed to others that have an explicit author’s intention of being read separately. As it lands, this 1922 work is not two short biography gems, but one long biography that provides a perfect tome for those looking to complete this project with long biographies. At a combined 750+ pages, this standard in Polk biography allows the reader to see a rapid rise to the mountaintop slowed down to a crawl. Unlike other presidents that have long two term political careers, Polk’s career as a statesman barely lasts 25 years. With the entire second volume almost exclusively covering Polk’s lone term, the reader is allowed to see a short career with a long narrative. There is time for a proper look at his pre-presidency and presidency. His shortest post-presidency on record (a baffling three months) is even given its proper due. A nicely paced long biography who a man who died far too young.
5. Mission- This work was written in the heyday of southern apologists that ensnarled record high enlistments of the KKK. Dubious racial past was not new for the KKK. Future President Harry S. Truman was inducted in 1924 out of fear of political exile and President Warren G. Harding was rumored to have been sworn in during a meeting in the Oval Office itself. Though the Harding recollections have largely been in doubt, there was an unquestionable view in the 1920s that the Civil War was less of a liberation than a tragic loss of a noble crusade. Though McCormac does not explicitly state as his mission to do this, his work is a continuation of “correcting” the Polk narrative as a slaveholding conspirator. He does this in many ways. First, he makes the extended case that Polk was simply fulfilling his destiny by extending lands into the modern American Southwest. This was not to extend slavery as his detractors still contend to this day, but as a noble quest to bring America to new exciting lands. One must not read into McCormac’s decision to almost completely omit Polk as a slaveholder. It is no concerted effort to make a mission out of correcting the record. However, there is no doubt that McCormac’s mission had the same fundamental blind spot as his subject in Polk. Slavery had become more than just a political issue and writing only about Polk as a political animal did not tell the whole story. His mission to try to bring Polk from political obscurity to political promenience by harping only on political works only reinforces a misguided and blind mission to idolize “a noble cause.” Mission accomplished by McCormac, but an incomplete story on a consequential presidency.