A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent. By Robert W. Merry. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009. 376 pp.
This is a book for aficionados of dramatically focused popular history. Merry, a former newspaperman and a nonfiction author of note, retells the story of the extraordinary accomplishments of the hardly dramatic President Polk, who did dramatic things during his busy single term in office in the 1840s, concentrating on the war with Mexico that followed the annexation of Texas. Rooted in the exuberant populism of the trans-Alleghany west, mentored by his fellow Tennessean, Andrew Jackson, Polk, an ambitious, seasoned and shrewd Democratic leader, was the youngest man to hold the presidency when he entered office. He was determined to carry out his party's agenda, in particular, extending America's boundaries across the continent to the Pacific Ocean.
Merry tells a straightforward, sprawling, occasionally overdetailed, story. In covering familiar ground he takes his material "largely from" one or another scholarly account (p. 154), relying on the standard historiography from Eugene McCormac's biography (James K. Polk: A Political Biography [University of California Press, 1922]) and Claude Bowers' populist interpretation of the era, published in the 1920s and 1930s (e.g., The Party Battles of the Jackson Period [Houghton Mifflin, 1922]), to many of the more sophisticated monographs and biographies appearing over the last generation. He also makes use of a limited number of the available printed primary source collections relying primarily on Polk's diaries and several newspapers, especially the administration's flagship organ, the Washington Union, as well as a short list of the correspondence of other leaders and some relevant web sites.
In addition to his description of events, Merry offers succinct and tart judgments about Polk's demeanor, attitudes, and behavior toward others, as well as how he sought to accomplish his aims. He pays a great deal of attention to the jealousies, fears, petty intrigues, and personal loathing endemic among those at the top in Washington, fueled by the demanding president's "impatience ... penchant for intrigue ... willingness to stir political animosity," as well as his "self-righteousness" and "bold--or reckless--political calculus," in carrying through his initiatives (p. 159). Determined to be the leader of his administration, he worked...