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 protégé, 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 this crucial epoch in U.S. history.
©2009 Robert Merry (P)2010 Tantor
“A compelling, perceptive portrait of one of the oddest men ever to occupy the White House.” (The Wall Street Journal)
"A crucial architect of modern America, James K. Polk deserves to be elevated out of the mists of history. In this engaging book, Robert Merry does just that, recapturing the passions and personalities of a forgotten era in American life." (Jon Meacham, author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House)
"Polk was our most underrated 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 populated by great characters such as Jackson, Clay, and Van Buren." (Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein: His Life and Universe)
I initially started this book expecting it to be Polk's biography, but the book focuses almost exclusively on the events surrounding and during Polk's presidency. This is not a problem as the book is still fascinating, but readers should be aware of this before they purchase the book.
I would have given this book 4 stars except that it focuses way too much on the insignificant politics of Polk's presidency to the point where it almost seems like a giant episode of the West Wing involving characters to whom you feel no particular connection.
Overall, A Country of Vast Designs is a book worth reading for anyone interested in Polk's presidency or the politics of the Mexican American War.
You can say Polk was a successful president for grabbing California (and the rest of the West) from a weak and disorganized Mexico. He also sorted out the Tariff issue, and the banking structures, something that had weighed on the country for several decades. Of course, there was the slavery issue, and Polk didn't feel that merited much discussion. Later on, well, there was a price to be paid for that. I associate the reader, Michael Prichard, with the Spenser series. He does so well with Spenser, I kept wondering if it would be possible for him to do serious history. In fact, he rarely sounds like Spenser, which suggests he is a really great reader. Polk set out to do what he wanted to do, and it basically killed him. We know huge problems could not be resolved, but we know California is a jewel. There are not many heroic people in this book, truth be told, and the level of ego is off the scale at every corner.
The Polk administration oversaw the expansion of the US from sea to shining sea. An emerging power which faced multiple wars for at least 3 of the 4 years of the administration accomplished much while trying to keep the country from splintering apart over the issue of slavery. This book provides insight into the unique personalities which fashion much of modern America. You can also discern recurring themes which play out in each generation to include party politics -whether it's the Whigs and the Democrats or the the Republicans and the Democrats this book provides a solid frame of reference for the American Experience.
It's a great read.
This book may be more apporoachable as a book read, but the narrator turned this into an indistinguishable list of people and actions. The lack of tone and emotion was all too pervasive.
Disappointment. I am trying to listen to an audiobook about every President of the United States. This is the first one I couldn't get through.
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