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A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, The Mexican War and the Conquest… (2009)

by Robert W. Merry

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5321833,873 (3.9)13
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 California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and part of Colorado-belonged to Mexico. When Polk relinquished office four years later, the country had grown by more than a third as all these lands were added. The continental United States as we know it today was established-facing two oceans and positioned to dominate both. In a one-term presidency, Polk completed the story of America's Manifest Destiny-extending its territory across the continent, from sea to sea, by threatening England and manufacturing a controversial and unpopular two-year war with Mexico that Abraham Lincoln, in Congress at the time, opposed as preemptive. Robert W. Merry tells this story through powerful debates and towering figures-the outgoing President John Tyler and Polk's great mentor, Andrew Jackson; his defeated Whig opponent, Henry Clay; two famous generals, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott; Secretary of State James Buchanan (who would precede Lincoln as president); Senate giants Thomas Hart Benton and Lewis Cass; Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun; and ex-president Martin Van Buren, like Polk a Jackson protege but now a Polk rival. This was a time of tremendous clashing forces. A surging antislavery sentiment was at the center of the territorial fight. The struggle between a slave-owning South and an opposing North was leading inexorably to Civil War. In a gripping narrative, Merry illuminates a crucial epoch in U.S. history.… (more)
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» See also 13 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 18 (next | show all)
Polk is the president admired by historians but ignored by the laity. This highly complimentary bio explains the first, and indirectly explains the latter -- our moral discomfort with expansion and aggressive war. We don't like how the sausage is made. ( )
  poirotketchup | Mar 18, 2021 |
Robert W. Merry’s book is a study of America’s 11th president within the context of the issue that dominated his presidency. Nominated based on his clear support for annexing Texas, by the time he left office he had added 600,000 square miles of territory to the nation’s boundaries. Merry provides a good narrative that describes the travails and triumphs involved in this. Yet periodically throughout the book Merry shifts his account to tangential matters, as though he wanted to broaden it into a more straightforward biographical account. This takes attention away from his ostensible focus, yet does not provide the complete treatment that Polk deserves. By trying to achieve both goals, Merry offers an interesting and readable study of Polk and American expansionism that nonetheless comes up a little bit short in satisfying readers desiring to know more about either topic. ( )
  MacDad | Mar 27, 2020 |
Nonfiction, a very commendable look at James K. Polk, 11th President of the United States (1845-1849). Polk was a protege of Andrew Jackson, member of the Democratic Party, and fully embraced Manifest Destiny. His four years as president were extremely active: Annexation of Texas, the Oregon Territory Treaty, and the Mexican-American War, occurred under his administration. Busy, busy.

The author’s style was informative and although it took me longer than expected to finish - my nonfiction reading usually does - I was glad to have read it, I learned a lot.

Recommended. ( )
  solitaryfossil | Aug 11, 2017 |
This work covers a controversial period in which a President's foreign policy included expansion of the US through high handed diplomacy up to threat of war to actual war. The author does a commendable job in presenting the brief rise & nomination of Polk as President & his victory in 1844 over Clay the Whig candidate; the bitter rancor between the Van Buren supporters & Polk supporters which left a division that would later divide the Democrat Party in 1860; the unfolding drama within Polk's administration as the nation challenged both Britain over Oregon & Mexico over Texas. The conduct of the War with Mexico & the slavery question became inexorably tied together as it is discussed with considerable detail & showed the sad state of politics of the time. The author demonstrates the good & not so good characteristics of Polk whose headlong pursuit to obtain more territory only opened the door to questions long dormant but increasingly thrusted out into the open in public. Polk's handling of military affairs is discussed here as well as coping with ego centric Scott & Taylor (the eventual 1848 winner of the Presidency) yet managed to allow them free rein in conducting the war with Mexico. In one chapter, the author suggests that Polk may have been deceived to Santa Anna's intention allowing him to reach Mexico through American lines believing that Santa Anna would overthrow the government & give Polk better terms. Overall the book is even handed in every respect & allows the reader to see the various back & forth elements that pressured the Polk administration from every side. ( )
  walterhistory | Jan 17, 2017 |
An excellent portrayal of the president who was responsible for the Mexican War and the addition of Texas, etc. and other states to the USA. ( )
  jerry-book | Jan 26, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 18 (next | show all)
To their shock, many American-history readers who loved biographies of Adams, Lincoln, or Jackson will find among their 2009 holiday gifts a biography of—there's no disguising it—James K. Polk. If this happens to you, do not panic. Robert Merry has done the impossible: he has made Polk's presidency fascinating.
added by Shortride | editNewsweek, Donald Graham (Nov 23, 2009)
 
A thorough, well-wrought political history of Polk’s presidency. The origins, conduct and results of the war with Mexico necessarily dominate the narrative, but Merry covers all of the other major issues and events, and many of the minor ones as well.
 
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To Susie, Who brightens my life like the dawn's first sunlight over the Cascades
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Introduction: Ritual of Democracy -- The Emergence of an Expansionist President -- Precisely at sunrise on the morning of March 4, 1845, the roar of cannon shattered the dawn's early quiet of Washington, D.C. -- twenty-eight big guns fired in rapid succession. Thus did the American military announce to the nation's capital that it was about to experience the nation's highest ritual of democracy, the inauguration of the nation's executive leader and premier military commander. James Knox Polk was about to become that leader and commander.
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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 California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and part of Colorado-belonged to Mexico. When Polk relinquished office four years later, the country had grown by more than a third as all these lands were added. The continental United States as we know it today was established-facing two oceans and positioned to dominate both. In a one-term presidency, Polk completed the story of America's Manifest Destiny-extending its territory across the continent, from sea to sea, by threatening England and manufacturing a controversial and unpopular two-year war with Mexico that Abraham Lincoln, in Congress at the time, opposed as preemptive. Robert W. Merry tells this story through powerful debates and towering figures-the outgoing President John Tyler and Polk's great mentor, Andrew Jackson; his defeated Whig opponent, Henry Clay; two famous generals, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott; Secretary of State James Buchanan (who would precede Lincoln as president); Senate giants Thomas Hart Benton and Lewis Cass; Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun; and ex-president Martin Van Buren, like Polk a Jackson protege but now a Polk rival. This was a time of tremendous clashing forces. A surging antislavery sentiment was at the center of the territorial fight. The struggle between a slave-owning South and an opposing North was leading inexorably to Civil War. In a gripping narrative, Merry illuminates a crucial epoch in U.S. history.

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