Review of A Country of Vast Designs

We have read several presidential biographies at table over the years (Lincoln, Jefferson, Adams, Eisenhower, Jackson, …) and they are usually quite successful. While this one on James K. Polk (Robert W. Merry) was good, it was not as narratively strong as some of the others, at least with regards to table reading. This is not because of any lack of interesting events taking place during the Polk presidency, as the country added California and New Mexico through success in the Mexican American war and the American section of the Oregon territory through successful negotiations with the British (the Canadians would get British Columbia, the land South of 54’40” down to the 49th parallel).

I think part of the problem lies with a general lack of familiarity with the era, and being able to situate the players easily into an overall historical context: Civil War generals appear as younger men, obscure presidents both precede and follow Polk, and keeping some of the various federal politicians clear in your mind can be difficult, though the portrait of Polk’s Secretary of State, James Buchanan (the future president) is both strong, entertaining, and negative.

To be fair, the week I was on for Table Reading, the material was much easier to grasp as I was reading the text itself and not hearing it. As a read text it was quite fascinating, but overall did not succeed as well as other presidential biographies at table.

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