Jacki: James Polk

Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America, by Walter Borneman

Unlike several of the presidents in this little “between Jackson and Lincoln” clump, I had actually heard of Polk and knew a teeny bit about him. I knew that he was in some way involved in the Mexican American war (although I would have guessed that he fought in it) and that he only ran for office once. I was looking forward to reading this, especially after reading the subtitle. “The Man who Transformed the Presidency and America”…. wow. That’s a pretty big claim.

Turns out it’s only about half true. I think that Walter Borneman set out to write a book about how the country’s boundary lines were drawn and fell in love with Polk along the way and decided to make the book a biography of him. While the first few and last few chapters were about Polk as a person and about his rise to the presidency, nearly the whole thing was about “manifest destiny” and the Mexican War. I was fine with that and found it interesting, but if you are looking for a true-blue biography of Polk, I’d look elsewhere. The actual man only makes a handful of appearances.

So, he did, in fact, transform America- he literally decided where it’d start and stop. I’m not sure that I would say that in his one term in office that he actually transformed the presidency. The real lasting impact that he had on the presidency was shifting the rule of how war could be declared, but you can hardly say that that transformed the entire presidency.

Even though the sub-title was a bit of an exaggeration, I really did kind of fall for Polk myself. I loved his relationship with his wife Sarah. They never had children and Sarah was one of the first first ladies to really come along side her husband and make a huge impact not just on the decor in the White House but on government issues. They were a great match and when Polk died shortly after his term, Sarah wore her mourning for the next 43 years until she passed away. The political bit that I drew from Polk was this: when he took office, he stated four things he wanted to do while was president, outlined how he was going to get them done, then he just did it. He didn’t spread himself to thin. It doesn’t seem like he concerned himself too much with other stuff- he just took those four issues and ran with them the whole time he was in office. I really think that modern politicians could learn from this.

I do wonder, though, how a Polk biography would read by someone who wasn’t a bit obsessed with him. It’s no secret that the Polks had slaves, although it is not discussed much at all in this book. I also know that part of westward expansion and getting Texas and California on the map meant running Native Americans out and/or slaughtering them. That wasn’t discussed at all. I feel like these little unsavory details were glossed over or skipped entirely. I kind of get it because Polk seems like he was a good, nice, honest guy and Walter Borneman didn’t want to muddy the waters with these facts, but I think that it would have made for a more honest, contemplative book had they been included.

That being said, I would recommend this book to other people doing this challenge. It was well written, longer without being taxing, and detailed. It made me want to read a lot more about westward expansion as it applied to normal people, to families, as opposed to the military side. I have read a little bit about the Donner Party. Any other recommendations?

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Jennie: James Madison

James Madison, by Garry Wills

James Madison is the picture perfect Presidential flip-flopper, but in many ways this was because he grew as a person through his years in politics. He wasn’t the best President and many of his own actions were the cause of his lackluster Presidency. He had a few obsessions that he would not let go no matter how many times they failed or floundered. For example, a trade embargo that wasn’t influential in forcing the desired outcome yet he would not give it up. His cabinet was full of sparing politicians that despised one another for their opposite party viewpoints. This lead to a lot of conspiracy and drama, rather than any sort of team effort to run the country.

One of the aspects I was most interested in was how Madison was in office when the White House was set aflame. For a building (and now practically the entire DC area) that is so well protected and revered now to be set on fire is such a hard thing for me to grasp. Madison was a strong example (and Dolly too actually) after the fire – he went right back into Washington to lead once again, not allowing the attack to disrupt the government.

This book was a rather brief look at Madison and I kind of wish I would have picked a longer book with a deeper history of his life. This book was Madison in a nutshell where I think I would have liked Madison in detail. I still picked up new information about him, but it wasn’t a vast amount of information.

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Jessica: Franklin Pierce

The Expatriation of Franklin Pierce: The Story of a President and the Civil War, by Garry Baulard

I can’t believe that living in NH, how insanely hard it was to find biographies on Franklin Pierce! Grrrr.

I ended up ordering this one from Amazon. Unfortunately it is about Franklin Pierce’s life after leaving office and not about his presidency.

The book itself was short and an easy read. I did find many interesting tidbits while reading. I enjoyed reading about the unlikely friendship between Jefferson Davis and Franklin Pierce (weird, right??) Who would think that Davis (who became the president of the Confederacy) and Pierce (who was a stanch Unionist) would be fast friends. Even through the civil war they maintained their friendship.

Franklin Pierce seemed to be a “Love him” or “hate him” type of guy. There didn’t seem to be very much gray area where he was involved. A lot of people thought he was a drunk and one politician even compared Pierce to excrement (now that is hatred!). But even with all the hatred for the man, he was the only president whose cabinet remained intact throughout a presidential term in office. Go figure.

Apparently Franklin Pierce and Abraham Lincoln did not have many good things to say about each other, but Pierce did go out of his way when Lincoln lost his son to write him condolences (as Pierce’s son died right before he took office).

I will most likely pick up another Pierce biography to learn more about his early life and term in office, but this book seemed to be a good indication of what Franklin Pierce was like in his later life.

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