The Magazine

Polk's Empire

The president who did what he said he would do--and in one term.

Nov 9, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 08 • By EDWARD ACHORN
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Afraid of confronting adversaries head-on, preferring to disparage them in the pages of his diary, he misled some powerful officials into believing they could dominate him--among them his appallingly self-serving secretary of state, James Buchanan, later one of America s worst presidents. Gideon Welles, then a civilian naval officer, said of Polk: "He possessed a trait of sly cunning which he thought shrewdness, but which was really disingenuousness and duplicity."

Polk comes across as a very cold fish--dour, humorless, sanctimonious, publicly oblivious to the horrors of slavery, obsessed with detail, and altogether incapable of relating to the common man. In one telling incident, a juggling act visited the White House, astonishing and delighting 50 assembled guests. Polk later grumbled that the display contributed little to the audience's "edification or profit," adding that he considered his own time in attendance "unprofitably spent."

After losing two straight bids for governor of Tennessee, Polk seemed highly unlikely to capture the 1844 Democratic presidential nomination. Yet even after he pulled it off, Merry notes, "at no time did he allow his correspondence to betray any hint of excitement or even surprise."

We can only speculate over how much his personality was stunted by a horrifying incident in his teen years, when he underwent an operation for agonizing urinary stones, with only brandy for a sedative. The doctor cut through the prostate into the bladder, and "knowing what we know now about the nerves that line the prostate and control much of the sexual function, it would seem likely the operation left the young man impotent or sterile, perhaps both."

If so, the impotent man proved a very potent president. Polk set out to accomplish four aims: settling the Oregon question, thus scuttling the risk of a war with England; acquiring California, one way or another, from Mexico; creating an independent treasury system; and lowering tariffs. Through an act of extraordinary will, he achieved all four--and died, a spent man, four months after leaving office.

Some of Merry's diversions into the more arcane corners of the politics of Polk's time can be tedious, leaving me wishing for a straighter path; and I could have used more maps, especially when the subject was the Oregon territorial disputes and America's battles in Mexico. But A Country of Vast Designs is a welcome exploration of a president who, whatever we might think of his personality, used his time in office to vastly expand the power and influence of the freest and greatest country in history.

That may make James K. Polk a pariah in certain circles, but it also makes him unquestionably great.

Edward Achorn, deputy editorial pages editor of the Providence Journal, is the author of the forthcoming Fifty-nine in '84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had (Smithsonian/HarperCollins).