Friday, October 31, 2014

A Biography of James K. Polk

Had you told me in highschool that I would grow up to be a man who would blog enthusiastically about a James K. Polk biography... I would have probably been really interested in the concept of "blogging."

That's because I've always been a little bit of a history nerd, and more than a little interested in the Presidents of the United States, in particular. And I've always been aware that when people like me hit a certain age, it suddenly becomes more fun to read a biography about an obscure president than even the latest sci-fi novel on the shelf.

Anyway, here's my Goodreads review on:

Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and AmericaPolk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a really quick and easy read for me. The writing was crisp and conversational, and struck a balance between showing the political tensions & ambitions of each player without making anyone out to be a particular hero or villain.

I also appreciate writers who avoid the Great Man approach - a difficult task when so many of the characters viewed themselves as Great Men. Having read about Polk, I feel prepared to move on to learn more about his contemporaries, or even Andrew Jackson.

View all my reviews

To expand on that, what I really took away from this book were these things:

First, it was great growing up in Arizona, so I'm very grateful for Polk's role in acquiring that particular territory - but did we really need to stomp immediately across the entire continent without regard for the people already living there? It's interesting to see the various factions of Polk's time arguing over how to take over the land ("54'40" or Fight!" or  compromise?) and how it should be brought into the Federal system (slave states or not?), but no one ever questioned Manifest Destiny or the immorality of forced relocation and near genocide.

I guess one shouldn't expect a President who so assiduously avoided the question of slavery to have many compunctions about displacing indigenous people - especially considering that his mentor, Andrew Jackson, was responsible for the Cherokee's infamous trip down the "Trail of Tears".

It's not as though I'm about to give up my lifestyle, or lobby for reparations 160 years after the fact, but I try to deal with the regret by embracing the fact that our world has changed to the point where my reaction to reading about these events is not a purely positive, gung-ho cheer leading reaction. Maybe we can't change the past, and maybe we have to accept that "that's how the world worked, then" - but maybe we can try to make sure that's not how the world works now or in the future.

Secondly, as loosely as Americans tend to apply the term, what does "founder" really mean? After all, Polk was the 11th President; he was born after the Constitution was adopted. He doubled the size of the country, but young as it was, he didn't have much to do with "founding" it. I know a lot of people who have a vague notion of doing things the way "the Founders" would have done them, but there were a lot of things that Polk did that frankly, many of the real Founders would have found appalling.

For example, the book talks at length about how Polk expanded the Constitutional powers of his office in ways that were almost scandalous. As a Democrat, Polk also took a great deal of criticism from his Whig opponents - including one young Congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln. The book also makes a point of the irony that Lincoln, who challenged Polk's claim that American blood had been spilled on "American soil" and implied that the Congress had been tricked into declaring the Mexican War, would go on to stretch those powers even further in the name of holding the Union together.

But while the Civil War looms ahead, despite Polk's best efforts to ignore the signs, reading about the Mexican War really made me think about my family's place in our history.

My 3-great grandfather, Joseph Frey, was a soldier in that war, who served under General Winfield Scott and was discharged at Mexico City when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. He was a German-speaking immigrant who came to New York from Baden-Wuerttemberg some time before 1840, and he would go on to serve New York as a sergeant in the Civil War, as well. He died in the Soldier's Home in Washington, DC in 1877. Joseph was my maternal grandmother's great-grandfather.

While the war was underway, one of my paternal grandfather's great-grandfathers, Robert Greenlee, was fleeing the so-called Great Potato Famine in Ireland for Pennsylvania. He arrived in 1847 with his father, uncle, and brothers. Meanwhile, just one whole state over, William Callin - another one of my paternal grandfather's great-grandfathers - was clearing the Ohio farm that would become a stop on the Underground Railroad.

None of these people knew each other. They probably wouldn't have understood each other very well had they met, and they would have all been stunned to discover what was just around the corner for them and their families. They would see the railroads built across the continent, their children would move west - those who survived the War - and their grandchildren would meet each other and have MY grandparents. (Small world!)

I wonder what each of them thought as the Polk administration unfolded during those four years. I doubt they all would have agreed on his foreign policy goals, his approach to using tariffs to fund government, or his plan to create an independent treasury any more than we agree today on fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, taxes and debt, and the Federal Reserve!

But there they were, and this was their world - as much as it was the world of President Polk - which is what I mean when I say I'm "not much for the Great Man approach" to history.

And if I've piqued your interest at all in Polk, but you don't have the time to read his biography, perhaps I could interest you in this, instead:

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