A Country of Vast Designs

James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent
Narrated by: Michael Prichard
Length: 18 hrs and 58 mins
4 out of 5 stars (402 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

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

Critic Reviews

“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)

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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History Repeats

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.

7 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars

A Decent Overview of Polk's Presidency

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.

23 people found this helpful

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Excellent

Absorbing from start to finish. Polk faced controversies still being dealt with today. New respect for our eleventh president

3 people found this helpful

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An antidote to the poisoning of Polk's presidency

If you could sum up A Country of Vast Designs in three words, what would they be?

Geopolitics writ large.

What did you like best about this story?

A balanced, well-documented account of the Polk presidency and the forces that shaped it. Drawn in substantial part from Polk's somewhat obsessive and often self-serving diary, contemporary news accounts, and voluminous public papers and private correspondence, it affords a better insight into the tugs and pulls of the controversies surrounding his presidency. Most historians have found it obligatory to revile the 11th President whose major policies all received Congressional approval, Including "Polk's War"with Mexico.Americans generally have never been bashful about accepting the advantages of this war that turned us into a 2 ocean nation The book makes it clear why we can't lay all that at the door of Polk alone.

Which scene was your favorite?

The one showing how The Treaty of 1848 was negotiated by an envoy who had been recalled and was presumably without full authority to do so.

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?

The strength of a weak man

Any additional comments?

A very good book to listen to if you are interested in the nuts and bolts of historical events rather than partisan interpretation

6 people found this helpful

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It's a Hard Time to Understand

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.

4 people found this helpful

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Overly Detailed Examination of Polk's Presiency

This book focuses almost exclusively on Polk's actions as President and the political maneuverings of those around him. Compared to other presidential biographies I've read, this book is exceedingly dry. Polk did not lead the type of life or presidency that merits this type of an examination. For example, American Lion clocks in at 100 fewer pages than this book, yet its subject (Andrew Jackson) is far more compelling. Without a doubt, this book is well researched and provides an in-depth look at Polk and his vision for America, but I think the average listener will find themself frequently bored and tuning out.

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I Was Surprised - It Was Really Good

I was prepared to be bored and unimpressed; after all it's President Polk and he really seems unremarkable. The truth be told, Polk was fairly unremarkable but was swept up into Andrew Jackson's vortex, back when Democrats were great and meaningful. Jackson's energy propelled Polk to the White House. Not withstanding that, everything happening in America at that time was so fascinating- Texas becoming a state, acquiring the entire west coast of the US as we know it now. We even took all of Mexico during the Mexican-American War and flew our flag over the Mexican capital. Probably our biggest mistake during this time period was giving half of Mexico back to Mexico; had we kept all of Mexico there wouldn't be an immigration problem today.

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A fair, balanced and well written story

I have long been an admirer of Polk. He is largely forgotten by the general public, including by people who live in the part of the country that he was responsible for adding to the U.S. This book bases its conclusions on the evidence, rather than the mass of biases that rules most Polk/Mexican War writers. Polk was an eminently successful president, and should be appreciated on the basis of his accomplishments, and should be viewed through the lens of his times.

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Good, not great

The book is a little dry at times and the reading leaves something to be desired, but this is a solid, fair biography of a neglected President.

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Great American History

I love history. This book explains many critical issues about this period of American growth. It is well written and very well narrated.