Just finished reading – Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk, by William Dusinberre
America’s 11th president, James Knox Polk is not furnished with a biography from author William Dusinberre; rather, Polk receives a thorough examination of his dual roles as planter and politician. Dusinberre contends that Polk attempted to keep these responsibilities separate, but in the end they influenced each other to a large degree, and thus his decision making.
The first half of the book looks at Polk’s career as an absentee slave owner. Polk first started his planter career by purchasing property in West Tennessee in 1831 while he was a member of the U.S House of Representatives. Polk decided to move his plantation operations to new fertile lands in Mississippi in 1835, and as an absent owner he maintained his business there until his early death in 1849; just after leaving the White House.
Polk employed a number of overseers during these years to run his plantation since he was not there personally. A significant amount of correspondence survives between Polk and his overseers to provide a better view of what life was like on his cotton plantation. A number of Polk's slaves in Mississippi ran away, one as many as ten times, often back to Tennessee, and usually without ultimate success. Dusinberre relates many of these instances in great detail from the surviving primary sources. Slave infant mortality was a problem that most cotton plantations experienced, but it was especially high on Polk’s plantation. Polk preferred his agents to buy youthful slaves who he felt would provide more work for a longer period. Polk, through his purchasing agents, succeeded in adding numbers of slaves annually to his operations as it grew, eventually accumulating around 50 in total. Polk’s main interest in plantation owning was to provide he and his wife (they were childless) with a comfortable yearly return on his investment for their retirement years.
Polk’s political career included stints in the Tennessee House of Representatives, the U.S. House of Representatives (where he was Speaker of the House for a period,) and Governor of Tennessee from 1839-1841. He was elected president in 1844 as the nation’s first real “dark horse” candidate, and died of cholera soon after leaving office. Polk’s administration saw the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, the purchase of California, and the establishment of a permanent boundary between the U.S. and Great Britain in the Pacific Northwest. Dusinberre argues throughout the second half of the book that Polk’s role as a Jacksonian planter Democrat influenced his political decisions and plans for national expansion. Dusinberre points out that Polk went to great lengths to portray himself as a moderate on the slavery issue to advance his political career, especially his run for the presidency, all the while increasing his personal slave work force.
Slavemaster President provides a good examination of how planter politics influenced this one important man’s decisions and helped lead the nation ultimately closer to sectional conflict.