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

(Simon & Schuster America Collection)

3.81  ·  Rating details ·  6,564 ratings  ·  270 reviews

In a one-term presidency, James K. Polk completed the story of America’s Manifest Destiny—extending its territory across the continent by threatening England with war and manufacturing a controversial and unpopular two-year war with Mexico.

Paperback, 578 pages
Published November 2nd 2010 by Simon Schuster (first published November 3rd 2008)
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Start your review of A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent
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
James Thane
Jan 13, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
May 06, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

“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
Feb 21, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Jay Connor
Jan 17, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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,
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 ...more
Steven Peterson
May 27, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Presidential ratings of greatness by historians normally rank James K. Polk pretty high. This book answers the question: "Why?" Polk was a flawed president, in that his personality was not exactly fit for the office. Nonetheless, he left an estimable record (whatever one thinks of the means to the ends) and he epitomized the spirit of "Manifest Destiny."

He, with votes from a fractious Congress, changed the structure of the tariff, in the end leading to greater revenue for the treasury. He
May 22, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Brian Willis
Jul 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
If you rank Presidents based on the importance of their achievement in the development of the country, Polk must be high on the list. The entire Western United States is his legacy; California, Oregon, Texas, New Mexico as we more or less know them are his achievement. As Merry points out, he achieved his four keystone policy issues and stepped down after his promise to stand for only one term.

Merry's biography reminds me of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals in a lot of ways. Although it
Apr 01, 2011 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
Mal Warwick
Oct 25, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
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
A commanding biography of Polk, Merry has written a competent and complete story of Polk's life, especially in the lead-up to and during his presidency.

Polk, often considered 'the last good president before the civil war' was a man not expected to become president. But with the issue of slavery splitting the nation and the oversized personalities of many of the leading politicians of the era (most of whom were never fated to reach the presidency) Polk became the compromise candidate for the
Lars Guthrie
Feb 13, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
'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
Frank Stein
Robert Merry has an amazing story to tell, even more amazing because it has been largely forgotten. From 1845 to 1849, a single-term U.S. President expanded the size of his country by almost half. In a bloody war with Mexico, he captured Texas, California, and most everything in between. At the same time, he successfully negotiated with the British to take full control of what are now the states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho, a land that had been jointly administered by the two countries since ...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
Sep 17, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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 ...more
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.
Karl Rove
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.
Jul 05, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
He doesn't get enough credit #44in52
Greg Kurzawa
James K. Polk was the eleventh president of the United States, and history's mixed opinion of him seems based mostly on his 1846 Mexican-American War. Polk wanted a U.S. that stretched from sea to shining sea and the only thing standing in his way was Mexico (and Britain for a bit, but he managed to brush them aside without starting a war). At the beginning of Polk's presidency in 1845 Britain and the U.S. shared joint custody of the Oregon territory; Texas was an independent republic--although ...more
Apr 05, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The good news is the subject matter for which I chose this book is covered well and conveyed in a captivating manner. I read this to learn exactly how America expanded westward beyond Louisiana. This biography/country-ography covers in adequate detail.

Here, you will discover how America acquired Texas and the Oregon territory, and how America took over the west coast. It involved military struggles, political drama, and diplomatic negotiations. All of that is covered in exhausting detail.

Tim Basuino
Another used bookstore find... Polk certainly has one of the higher accomplishment/effort ratios is presidential history (his goals were to acquire most of the west not covered by Louis/Clark, and to settle the Texas issue), only to die shortly thereafter.

The book was informative enough, talked extensively about Polk's cabinet (certainly Merry reflects the 11th president's lack of love for Buchanan), and provides context for what and why he did what he did. Regrettably I wouldn't quite put this
Henry Sturcke
May 07, 2016 rated it really liked it
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
John Allgood
Mar 27, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting assessment of James Polk’s career and presidency. While he expanded the United States more than most any president, he remains an unlikely historical figure. A dark horse candidate who, by most accounts, lacking in personal charm, did more for the US than most. Well worth reading for anyone interested in the Mexican-American war and the pre-Civil War period.
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
Paul Donahue
Apr 19, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 12, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Polk is a fascinating man and the era in which he governed over is often overlooked in the annals of American history but should never be, especially in this day and age with President Trump. Trump fashions himself an Andrew Jackson like leader and if so, then Polk would be what emerges from the Trump era. It's intriguing to see what may come from what has come. Meticulously detailed, A Country of Vast Design is one that could offer better insight into the man, Polk, himself, but still offers a ...more
Nov 23, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: presidents
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." ...more
Jan 13, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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,
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Robert W. Merry (born 1946) is an American journalist, publishing executive, commentator, and author. He is the editor of The American Conservative.

Robert W. Merry was born in 1946 in Tacoma, WA. He served three years in the U.S. Army, including two years as a counterintelligence special agent in West Germany. He graduated from the University of Washington with a bachelor's degree in journalism in