Borneman, Walter, Polk; The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America, New York, Random House, 2009.
Long the subject of scorn for biographers, James K. Polk has enjoyed historical redemption in recent years. Polk’s brief, but eventful presidency now has historians ranking him as one of our most effective executives. Walter Borneman presents ‘Little Hickory’ as a transformative leader every bit as influential as his iconic mentor.
“But to Polk, as indeed to Jackson, the issue of national expansion was imperative to the nation as a whole and distinctively separate from the advancement of a slave-based economic system.” Like many biographers, Borneman links Polk to expansion and Andrew Jackson. What distinguishes this effort is Borneman’s view that Polk was not part of a wider slave-holding conspiracy. Borneman skillfully establishes the widely divergent interests driving American expansion. Slavery was just one special interest intertwined in a mass movement westward. Though Polk was a slave owner, Borneman astutely notes the lack of evidence linking Polk to any Southern conspiracy.
Borneman’s analysis is most effective when he delves into the mysterious character of Polk himself. Polk’s presidential diary is an invaluable source and Borneman uses it liberally when trying to explain his motivations. Reminisces of Polk’s peers are also used to provide long overlooked insight into a notoriously reticent public figure. David Crockett, Andrew Jackson, and Sam Houston all recognized the potential in Polk. Borneman uses their voices to cast serious doubts on the long-held ‘dark horse’ theory of Polk’s rise to power.
In his attempt to explain the broader impact of Polk on history, Borneman’s narrative does feel more like a history survey course. Too often, he expounds on historical events and figures, straying away from his essential topic. His lengthy retelling of Texas’ road to independence is interesting, but seems out-of-place in this monograph. Frequent digressions seem to take away from a fuller picture of Polk and his transformative impact.
Walter Borneman’s biography of Polk is a much-needed addition to the history of American expansion. While he doesn’t fully provide the definitive study of Polk’s impact on American history, he has written a compelling and thoroughly readable account. James K. Polk emerges in a clearer light and is worthy of recent revisions to his much debated legacy.