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A Country of Vast Designs

James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent
Narrated by: Michael Prichard
Length: 19 hrs and 6 mins
4 out of 5 stars (317 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)

What members say

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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.

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
  • James
  • Reno, NV, United States
  • 06-20-10

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.

20 of 23 people found this review 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

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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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

5 of 6 people found this review helpful

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  • George
  • United States
  • 04-01-13

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.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Great book! Good narrator and excellent history!

It started maybe a bit slow, but came together nicely. This book have a balanced look at an often overlooked president.

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Extremely detailed telling

Recommend only for people with a serious interest in presidents, the machinations of the federal government, and the history of manifest destiny. If that describes you, this book is fantastic

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  • Douglas
  • Atlanta, GA, United States
  • 03-03-18

Fantastic History of Important, Lesser Known Prez

I thought this book might be difficult to get through but it was exactly the opposite. I might have finished this book in just a few days, but at some point I decided to stop and read a book on the Texas revolution before continuing. Since I know almost nothing about that subject I felt like I might be missing some things, as Texas is such an important part of Polk's presidency.

The narrator is fine. You definitely won't forget that he's the narrator and not the author, but he is actually perfect for the author's style. Robert Merry has uses that old school political/historical language.

The book is very detailed. Merry does a fair job of keeping the narrative interesting during points where it might have become dry and repetitive.

One thing I will always remember about this book is the way that I found myself sympathizing not only with Polk, but also with Andrew Jackson, Polk's mentor, and an American historical figure that I had always found repellent. It is strange how one can begin to unconsciously side with the subject of a work, even if it isn't present from their viewpoint or with any tone of bias. Perhaps this is something that affects me as a reader more than other people, but I suspect it's universal.

The author shows almost no bias or personal judgment throughout the book. In the wrap up the author defends Polk a bit against critics. Polk--while often vilified by critics--is considered just below the great level by serious fair-minded historians.

Something I really appreciated about this book was that Merry did not describe the narrative through the lens of the modern western world. That is so common today and is totally useless. It's important to look at past events in the light of contemporary thought at that time.

An example I like to use is that of Abraham Lincoln. We know that Lincoln did as much as any American to end slavery. Is it important to recount that he felt whites were superior to blacks? Yes. Absolutely, and everyone should learn that. But does it make sense to judge Lincoln by the social standards of 2018? Of course not. We have to judge him compared to the other men of his age. Merry allows us to judge Polk in this way, and that is refreshing.


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The President I never knew.

What did you like best about this story?

Polk's diary

What does Michael Prichard bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

enthusiasm

Any additional comments?

This fills a blank in my knowledge of U.S. history and a President I knew only by name. The author convinced me that this was a truly heroic figure able to wend his way through the nasty politics of North vs. South, slaveholders and abolitionists and a lot of self-serving politicians. He stuck to his principles and succeeded amazingly. His goals seem imperialistic by today's standards and he implemented "manifest destiny." In the end you must ask yourself whether the result of a stronger country (the U.S.) taking advantage of a lesser (Mexico) justified the war that took place. Was Polk good or bad? I liked him; other readers may feel differently--that's why this is such a remarkable book.

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Interesting, but a little dry.

Polk accomplished a lot in four years. He was a workaholic, and seemed a bit short on charisma. Declining to run for reelection was interesting. It's a shame he died so soon after the end of his term. He literally gave his life for the job.