James K. Polk

In This Review

James K. Polk

By John Seigenthaler
Times Books, 2003
208 pp. $20.00

James Knox Polk is so little known to even the educated public that essayist James Thurber once suggested that a society be formed to invent and circulate amusing anecdotes about him. Yet Polk, who acquired roughly one-third of the territory that today comprises the United States, is consistently ranked by historians as one of the most effective U.S. presidents. Seigenthaler crisply summarizes the conventional case for Polk's (near) greatness. Coming into office, Polk listed four goals for his administration: reducing tariffs, acquiring California from Mexico and Oregon from the United Kingdom, and introducing the "independent subtreasury" system to take U.S. funds out of the coffers of private banks. He accomplished them all. As to why Polk is not better remembered, Seigenthaler notes that historians have generally sympathized with Whig critics of the Mexican War and that Polk's journals reveal an unsympathetic and small-minded personality. One could add to this that the battles over tariffs and bank policy are utterly incomprehensible to all but a handful of specialists today, and the fall of the British Empire makes it hard for Americans to appreciate how much skill and daring went into the diplomatic bluff that led Sir Robert Peel's government to accept a division of the Oregon Territory that so markedly favored the weaker United States.

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