Steven Peterson's Reviews > James K. Polk

James K. Polk by John Seigenthaler
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Aug 22, 09

Read in April, 2008

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. is the overall editor of the "American Presidents" series. This features short biographies of American presidents, their backgrounds, their accomplishments (or lack thereof), and their post-presidency lives. The purpose of this series, in Schlesinger's words (Page xvi): "It is the aim of the American Presidents series to present the grand panorama of our chief executives in volumes compact enough for the busy reader, lucid enough for the students, authoritative enough for the scholar."


Nicknamed "Little Hickory," after Andrew Jackson, as his political career matured, James K. Polk is routinely judged to be one of the better American presidents. However, for the most part, he is little known to most Americans. This book provides a basis for understanding why his reputation among historians is so positive. The author, John Siegenthaler, insists that (Pages 1-2): "In the nineteenth century, only Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln would wield the power of the office of chief magistrate as effectively."

The book discusses his family background and his youth. He had some serious medical problems, leading to surgery in a time where surgery was not far from butchery. He was intellectually rigid, not very imaginative, was incapable of thinking outside the box. Yet he was talented and determined to achieve his goals.

Early in his career, "Old Hickory" and Polk became allies. It was a relationship that would redound greatly to Polk's benefit. He was a firm Democrat, in Jackson's tradition. In the 1820s, he was elected to the House of Representatives. After Jackson's accession to the Presidency, Polk served as one of his champions in Congress, eventually becoming Speaker of the House.

Then, he returned to Tennessee to run for Governor. He triumphed. However, after this, his political luck disappeared, as he became a two time loser. In the run-up to the presidential race in 1844, his only desire was to become the Vice-Presidential nominee of the Democratic Party. He became the first "dark horse" candidate to be nominated as President (the machinations are worth reading!) and then elected to the highest office in the land. He had promised to serve only one time and listed 4 goals that he intended to achieve, including the admission of Texas into the Union.

After many struggles and much pain, he succeeded. However, the tough years in the White House had an effect on him, and he was dead shortly after his term ended.

This book is a good read; it is relatively brief (156 pages of text); it lays out why he is rated so highly, although one can surely disagree with his positions. I would recommend this highly for what it is--a brief introduction to a person who is rated as one of our better presidents.
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