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A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent

3.78  ·  Rating Details ·  4,382 Ratings  ·  207 Reviews
When James K. Polk was elected president in 1844, the United States was locked in a bitter diplomatic struggle with Britain over the rich lands of the Oregon Territory, which included what is now Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Texas, not yet part of the Union, was threatened by a more powerful Mexico. And the territories north and west of Texas -- what would become Califor ...more
Hardcover, 575 pages
Published November 3rd 2009 by Simon & Schuster (first published November 3rd 2008)
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brian
Mar 25, 2012 brian rated it liked it
politicians with an eye on posterity have gotta seriously dig that old saw about 'politicians, buildings, and whores all getting respectable if they last long enough'... had iraq worked out, all the enmity and dissent, all the death and torture and mismanagement, all the bluster and hubris would've largely been forgotten. shit, if, a few decades down the line iraq emerges as a functioning democracy, you can bet your ass history will blurb it all as 'a rocky road to a lasting peace.'

polk present
...more
James Thane
Jan 13, 2012 James Thane rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
While historians have generally ranked James K. Polk on the list of America's greatest presidents, he remains largely unknown and unappreciated by the vast majority of American citizens, dwarfed in reputation by Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, the two Roosevelts et al., who also populate the list. Robert W. Merry speculates that this is due in part to the fact that Polk lacked personal magnetism and was, even in his own day, largely unable "to pull large numbers of fond acolytes to his side....U ...more
Matt
When asked the greatest president, how do you respond? There are a lot of ways to answer. You can go the obvious route and pick Lincoln. Or you can go with the original, and choose Washington. After those two, the question gets trickier, more subjective, and tends to say as much about the answerer as it does about the president. Old liberals will say Roosevelt (Franklin, that is), while modern conservatives would go with Reagan. Someone with a Shakespearian bent might choose LBJ, while a person ...more
Mara
For the first time in my presidential reading endeavors, I felt like I might have been better off giving in to chronology. With Polk everything is all Jacksonian this, Jacksonian that, Jackson, Jackson, Jackson. Polk was Lil Bow Wow to Jackson’s Snoop Dog (though they went with the decidedly lamer ‘handles’ of Young and Old Hickory, respectively). Long of the short- not really knowing what it means to be Jacksonesque had me at a real disadvantage. (In fact, if you’re looking for a competent summ ...more
Steve
Jan 07, 2014 Steve rated it really liked it
http://bestpresidentialbios.com/2014/...

“A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent” is Robert Merry’s third book and was published in 2009. He is a former Wall Street Journal Washington correspondent and executive at Congressional Quarterly. Currently the editor of The National Interest, his most recent book “Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians” was published in 2012.

Although Merry’s biography
...more
Jerome
Oct 24, 2012 Jerome rated it really liked it
During the presidency of James K. Polk (1795 - 1849), the boundaries of the United States expanded by one-third to stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. The finances of the United States were, after many years, put on a firm footing by the establishment of the Treasury. And the United States enjoyed economic growth and prosperity by Polk's deft handling of the tariff. Yet, Polk fought a difficult two-year war with Mexico and narrowly averted a second war with Great Britain. The territ ...more
Arminius
May 10, 2015 Arminius rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
If you want to learn about the United States’ 11th President or about the tumultuous 1840’s “A Country of Vast Designs” is a good place to start. James K. Polk was a Tennessean who grew up in the era of Andrew Jackson. In fact, Old Hickory groomed Polk’s political career through the House of Representatives up into the Speakership, through the Tennessee Govern ship and finally to the Presidency. Polk asked Jackson what he needed to do to succeed in politics. Jackson replied to marry a nice woman ...more
rmn
Feb 21, 2010 rmn rated it it was ok
James Polk is the most important president of whom you have probably never heard. Ok, maybe you have heard of him, but you likely have no idea of his influence on the United States. He followed his mentor Andrew Jackson's political philosophy and seized new territory for the US while trying to keep the federal government out of domestic issues. This book is about the most important event of his tenure and his lasting legacy, the Mexican War, which Polk both started and finished.

While this is a p
...more
Lars Guthrie
Feb 13, 2010 Lars Guthrie rated it really liked it
'A Country of Vast Designs' is the second entry in a project I have laid out for myself inspired by two well-received history books from 2009: Merry’s biography of James K. Polk and T.J. Stiles’s biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, 'The First Tycoon.' Reading about them prompted a desire to go deeper into Nineteenth Century America.

I put together a short list including these two works, starting with 'What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848' by Daniel Walker Howe, then mov
...more
Jay Connor
Jan 17, 2010 Jay Connor rated it it was amazing
In the Epilogue, author Robert W. Merry perhaps best presents the paradox which is the Presidency of James Polk: "probably no other president presents such a chasm between actual accomplishment and popular recognition."

The four years of Polk's presidency -- 1844 to 1848 -- are as significant to our America as any others, beyond the presidencies of Washington, Lincoln and FDR. During this time, Texas, Oregon, California, New Mexico and Arizona together with land comprising Washington State, part
...more
Mitchell
Jul 09, 2014 Mitchell rated it really liked it
By the time you are done reading this book you will have to feel sorry for James Know Polk. Here was a president who in just one term took America to the Pacific coast and almost doubled its territory, he put an end to the uncertainty hanging over American currency, expanded free trade, and put the country on a sound economic footing. He did his utmost to avoid war, but found it to be impossible. He completely destroyed his health and died at the age of 53 just a few months after leaving office. ...more
Brian
Mar 02, 2014 Brian rated it it was amazing
A country of Vast Designs covers the presidency of James K. Polk and the era of Manifest Destiny that saw the United States expand through wars of conquest and diplomatic overtures to formally include Texas, most of the modern day southwest including California, and Oregon/Washington. The book which looks at the Polk administration and follows the military and diplomatic movements of America’s first Dark Horse candidate who even more amazingly committed to be only a one term president. The oppos ...more
Andie
Jul 05, 2016 Andie rated it really liked it
He doesn't get enough credit #44in52
Henry Sturcke
May 14, 2016 Henry Sturcke rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
James K. Polk outlined four goals for his administration just before taking office as the 11th president of the U.S. and accomplished all of them. So why doesn’t he get more respect?
This is the question that looms over Robert Merry’s account of this, the most effective of single-term presidencies. In an epilogue, entitled Legacy, he addresses it head-on and arrives at an answer not all readers will agree with.
Those four objectives were: reduce tariffs (previously used for protectionism, he aimed
...more
Suzanne
While I enjoy presidential biographies, I’ll be the first to admit that finding a book which captures my interest, on such a high level, as A Country of Vast Designs is rare. Make no mistake, this isn’t your ordinary ho-hum history book. Merry confines this biography to pretty much the topic of American expansionism and in doing so, creates a story of America and President James K. Polk, that is absolutely riveting.

Polk’s ascendency to the presidency was a marvel in itself. A split within the De
...more
Aaron Million
This book is billed first as a biography of James K. Polk, the eleventh U.S. President. But it is mainly a (good) review and discussion of his administration. The first several chapters actually focus more on Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay than they do on Polk; he is more of a secondary character. Merry zooms through his career in the House of Representatives (including being Speaker of the House) and says next to nothing about his two years as Governor of Tennessee in 1839-1841. He also does not ...more
Paul Donahue
Jun 14, 2010 Paul Donahue rated it really liked it
If James Polk had had a business card, his job title might've read "President" or "American expansionist," but the best would have simply been: "Badass." A former House Speaker, he received a total of zero votes in the first 8 nominating elections at the 1844 Democratic Convention, and emerged late as a compromise candidate. He pledged from the beginning to serve only one term, and never wavered from it. His one-term goals: overhaul the American banking system, lower tariffs (and increase trade) ...more
Mal Warwick
Oct 25, 2016 Mal Warwick rated it it was amazing
When we conjure up images of our greatest American Presidents, a handful of names invariably comes up: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, of course; Thomas Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, too; perhaps Theodore Roosevelt as well.

Today many of us would add one or more from among those who have served in the White House since World War II. However, most historians would say it’s too early to understand the impact of their actions. Virtually anything any President does these days seems impo
...more
Tom
Jan 11, 2013 Tom rated it liked it
While I enjoyed this it was a brute as reflected in the amount of time it took me to finish. I learned almost as much about Andrew Jackson as I did James Polk. Some tidbits that piqued my interest 1] a quote from Jackson that is still relevant today "The people have a right to expect a "prudent system of expenditure" that will allow to government to "pay the debts of the union and authorize the reduction of every tax to as low a point as . . . our national safety and independence will allow." To ...more
Jeff
Jan 13, 2011 Jeff rated it it was amazing
Why isn't Seattle in Canada? Why is San Francisco not a major Mexican city? Turns out, James K Polk had a lot to do with the answers to these questions. For me, this book was a page turner as the events of the 1840's, a long neglected period in my knowledge of US history was unveiled.

The book hits just the right balance between too much detail and too much generality as it explores the life and times of our eleventh president, an unrepentant expansionist and devotee of his mentor and hero, Andr
...more
Carole
Oct 30, 2013 Carole rated it really liked it
This book covers a period in American history that is not well known or given adequate attention, even though Polk's administration accomplished an astounding expansion of the American nationhood and almost singlehandedly accomplished the nation's "Manifest Destiny." Merry writes in a straight forward manner and recounts Polk's single minded focus on expansion despite all sorts of obstacles, including an amazingly difficult vice president (Buchanan). The book is very readable and well researched ...more
Clay
Aug 09, 2011 Clay rated it liked it
Well written book but somewhat diluted rhetorically by bias toward Andrew Jackson and the Whig. Rather inadequate in its coverage of the Mexican war but refreshing in the way critics of that war are given credit. The machinations of England in negotiations for the claims on the Oregon territory are not fully developed, nor is the political effect of England's support of and behind the scenes designs on the Texas Republic. But still, in the end, the best book I have read on the matters it covers. ...more
Lance
Aug 24, 2013 Lance rated it it was amazing
Terrific book about Polk's term as president and the addition of about a third of the territory of the United States. Scholarly, readable and fascinating, this account of a president with a clear goal and his pursuit of it is well told and thoroughly researched. If, like me, you know little about the Polk presidency and the Mexican War, this book is an eye-opener. Recommended for history fans and general readers with an interest in American politics.
Karl Rove
Aug 03, 2011 Karl Rove added it
Shelves: read-in-2010
A wonderful volume on one of America’s more consequential and lesser-known presidents who was a mixture of Reagan vision and Carter micro-management. Polk died days after relinquishing office, but had accomplished all three big goals he set for his term and left America’s economy strong and the nation a continental power.
Julie
Overall very interesting to read about westward expansion and about some of the people behind the names of places/streets/cities I see in the Bay Area. I didn't like the way the book was organized. I thought within each chapter Merry jumped around a lot from what was happening in the Mexican war and what was going on back in DC. But, it is a relatively easy and engaging read.
Richard
Oct 26, 2012 Richard rated it really liked it
The crowning achievements of James K. Polk's Presidency are like historical sausage. Everybody appreciates the end result of a country which emerged after 1848 in the aftermath of our Mexican War; a country which for the first time spanned from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, foreshadowing a world superpower based on a great contiguous amount of territory unencumbered, for the first time in its history, with the need to defend against the land claims of foreign governments. As with sausage ma ...more
Brent Ecenbarger
Aug 28, 2016 Brent Ecenbarger rated it really liked it
Shelves: presidents, biography
James Polk is a president I knew more about than John Tyler or Martin Van Buren, but was still mostly limited to the expansion of the country and his mostly favorable place among his peers in the Oval Office by comparison. Although Polk was a one term president, he accomplished a great deal, and virtually everything he set out to do. This was despite having a Whig heavy House of Representatives for the last two years of his term, and a congress overall in flux with the democrat party beginning t ...more
***Dave Hill
James K. Polk is America's forgotten President, languishing in that historical blind spot between Andrew Jackson and Abe Lincoln. But he's a key player in the shaping of America as it is today, quite literally -- his determination to expand the US to the Pacific Ocean by settling the Oregon Territory dispute with Britain, assimilating Texas, and warring on Mexico to seize almost the rest of what today is the Continental United States produced the map of the US we now know. It also led to the ong ...more
Scott Martin
Oct 23, 2016 Scott Martin rated it really liked it
(Audiobook). This work focuses on the presidency of James K. Polk, one of histories least acknowledged, relatively successful one-term presidents. During his term, the US ended up going to war with Mexico over the addition of Texas and nearly went back to war with England over the Oregon territories. However, between 1844 and 1848, the US managed to stave off war with England, convincingly defeat Mexico and add those lands which would all but fulfill the Manifest Destiny of the expansion of the ...more
Jess
Nov 25, 2016 Jess rated it liked it
I needed to read a book about a good president after this election….

James K. Polk has been rated as in the top ten of American most successful presidents in historical polls over the years. He is one of the very few presidents who managed to achieve all his party’s platform promises in only one term. He refused to seek out a second term. Most of his administration policies and doctrines were created by himself without influence from his cabinet or other politicians. He had a focused political ag
...more
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  • Henry Clay: The Essential American
  • Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield
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  • President James Buchanan: A Biography
  • Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy
  • John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life
  • Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America
  • Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President
  • The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation's Call to Greatness
  • James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity
  • Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President
  • Andrew Johnson: A Biography
  • The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace
  • James Madison: A Biography
  • Woodrow Wilson: A Biography

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