Reviews for Polk : The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America


Kirkus Reviews 2008 February #2
A spirited biography of one of the most effective single-term presidents (1845-1849) who promoted war against Mexico and left office having vastly expanded both American borders and the powers of the executive office.Veteran American historian Borneman (1812: The War that Forged a Nation, 2004, etc.) draws no parallels with the present administration but makes a convincing case that James K. Polk (1795-1849) deserves high marks as a hands-on leader who laid the groundwork for an American empire. Born near the birthplace of his mentor, Andrew Jackson, Polk made his mark in Tennessee politics as his fellow Tennessean rocketed to national prominence. He ran successfully for Congress in 1825, supported Jackson enthusiastically during his presidency (1829-37) and rose to the position of Speaker of the House. Borneman rejects the traditional view of Polk as a dark horse who emerged from obscurity to win the deadlocked 1844 Democratic convention. In fact, he was nationally known, a fiercely ambitious man with an eye on the presidency who enjoyed vigorous support from Jackson. Once in office he conducted himself with Jacksonian energy. After welcoming Texas into the Union and settling the boundaries of Oregon, he sent provocative orders to troops along the Southwest border, using the inevitable skirmish to demand that Congress declare war. The Mexican War (1846-48) was popular in the South and West, less so in the North despite his proclamation that America was fighting to defend freedom. Once again, Borneman draws no parallels with present wars, pointing out that Polk made no secret of his intention to annex Mexican territory. At the end of a single term, he had achieved all his announced goals, domestic and foreign, often against fierce opposition. Polk's single-minded, jingoistic, workaholic personality would charm few readers today, but Borneman's admiration for his subject shines through.A lucid, often witty account of a remarkably assertive leader whom historians, when polled, consider one of our near-great presidents.Agent: Alex Hoyt/Alexander Hoyt Associates Copyright Kirkus 2008 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.

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Library Journal Reviews 2008 March #2

Borneman (1812: The War That Forged a Nation ) presents a birth-death biography of Polk, albeit one leaving readers wishing there were more details of his subject's early life. About half of the book dwells on the presidency of a man who resolved from the start to serve only one term. Yet Polk exerted tremendous influence over the nation's path between 1845 and 1849. Borneman soundly argues that Polk was not the dark horse candidate so often portrayed but Andrew Jackson's protg who met his primary objectives for his administration: reduce the tariff, create an independent federal Treasury, and bring in Oregon and California. Borneman contends that Polk was the most assertive president up until Lincoln, especially regarding the Mexican War, which Polk used to further his aim of adding to U.S. territory. The major battles in Mexico are covered, of interest to military history buffs. Borneman has a pleasing style and makes fine use of primary sources that all demonstrate why Polk is habitually ranked as one of the ten best presidents by historians. More detailed and extensive than John Seigenthaler's entry in the presidential series from Times Books, this is highly recommended for all public and academic libraries.--Bryan Craig, MLS, Nellysford, VA

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2008 February #1

Tennessee Democrat James K. Polk is generally ranked among the nation's most effective chief executives. In this straightforward, unnuanced biography, Borneman (1812: The War That Forged a Nation ) relates why. Coming into office determined to annex Texas, gain the Oregon Territory from Britain, lower the tariff and reform the national banking system, Polk achieved all four aims in his single term in office (1845-1849). But Borneman overlooks that in more or less completing the nation's lower continental territory, Polk bequeathed a fateful legacy to the nation--not so much transforming the U.S. (as the subtitle overstates) as setting it on the road to civil war. With the annexation of Texas came war with Mexico, which stripped that nation of half its lands while gaining the U.S. the southwest and California. It also unloosed the mad genie of slavery's possible further spread westward. Polk left the nation larger but politically crippled and morally weakened. But Borneman sticks to the narrative and doesn't place his subject in a larger historical context. 'Tis a pity, for Polk's administration ought to be a lesson to all candidates and all presidents at all times. 16 maps. (Apr. 8)

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