James K. Polk (1845-1849)


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.

Grade: C

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.

Grade: C

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.

Grade: B

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.

Grade: A

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.

Grade: B-


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-