Saturday, February 04, 2012

Manifest Destiny

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

"Polk was our most underrrated President. He made the United States into a continental nation. Bob Merry captures the controversial and the visionary aspects of his presidency in a colorful narrative tale populated by great characters such as Jackson, Clay, and Van Buren." - Walter Isaacson

Robert Merry's biography of President Polk provides a good introduction to the era of "Manifest Destiny" and the controversies he faced including those surrounding the Mexican-American War. While the book provides a narrative of Polk's political life from Congress through the Presidency I was impressed with several specific aspects it presented and historical moments that were revelatory. 
 Merry is excellent in providing portraits of the important political figures in Polk's life, his mentor Andrew Jackson and other famous men like Van Buren, Henry Clay, John Calhoun, Thomas Hart Benton, and others. The author's ability to maintain a consistent level of detail about the events of Polk's life sometimes led to passages that I could have done without, perhaps those interested in the minutae of politics would find these more interesting. 
 However, a few historical moments stand out for me: including the depiction of the 1844 Democratic Presidential Convention in Baltimore where James K. Polk became the first political "dark horse" candidate; the congressional battle over funding the Mexican war where the Wilmot Proviso first appeared and provided one of the signals of the beginning of the end of the era of slavery (although war was averted for a decade and a half); and the amazing successes of Stephen Kearney, John C. Fremont, and Robert Stockton in the expansion of United States territories. These and a few other high points made the book a lively and entertaining work of historical biography, expanding my knowledge of the man and the era.

A Country of Vast Designs by Robert W. Merry. Simon & Schuster, 2010 (2009)

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