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New “Correspondence of James K. Polk” volume from University of Tennessee Press casts fresh light on Mexican War era

We are pleased to announce publication of the long-awaited Volume 12 (January–July 1847) in the Correspondence of James K. Polk series. This latest installment in the Polk series, published by the University of Tennessee Press, documents a critical seven months in one of America’s most transformational presidencies.

Polk, a former governor of and congressman from Tennessee, was the eleventh U.S. president (1845–49). Many of the new volume’s letters chronicle his prosecution of the Mexican War, a conflict that, along with his 1846 acquisition of what is today’s Pacific Northwest, increased by one-third the size of the United States. The letters—gathered from the Library of Congress and other repositories, most of them until now unpublished—also lift the veil on the personal life and business affairs of one of the most private men ever to occupy the presidency.

Volume 12 of the Polk letters was edited by Dr. Tom Chaffin and Dr. Michael David Cohen of the History Department of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Chaffin is author of Giant’s Causeway: Frederick Douglass’s Irish Odyssey and the Making of an American Visionary, forthcoming, October 2014, from the University of Virginia Press. Cohen is author of Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War, University of Virginia Press, 2012.

The Polk Project is sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences, the Howard H. Baker Center for Public Policy, the Office of the Chancellor, and the Department of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; the National Historical Publications and Records Commission; and the Tennessee Historical Commission.

Between January and July 1847, the Democratic president and his supporters celebrated American military triumphs at Buena Vista, Veracruz, and elsewhere. In July, the war’s final engagements lay months away. The lines of authority between Polk and his generals and diplomats in Mexico were almost as muddled as those among officials of the rivalry-ridden Mexican state. Yet the administration, as the letters attest, already was pondering the size of the war’s territorial spoils for the United States.

Other correspondence amid the 344 letters published in full in Volume 12 reveals other, often-overlooked foreign-policy interests under Polk, including Hawaii and Cuba, as well as the administration’s concern with European affairs. Polk took a personal interest in the famine ravaging Ireland and in March 1847 placed two naval ships into civilian hands to transport to Ireland foodstuffs donated by private charities.

The correspondence also documents Polk’s concerns with domestic politics. He came to the White House already having forsworn a second presidential term. Even so, he and his Democratic supporters kept a wary eye on the party’s fortunes—from the 1848 presidential race to elections for state houses and Congress. Political-patronage appointments also won his attention. The letters reveal a party leader determined to use the spoils of office to reward allies and deny political opponents berths in the federal bureaucracy.

Correspondence concerning business affairs of his Mississippi plantation documents Polk the businessman, intimately involved in the trading of slaves. Still other letters, to family members and old schoolmates, reveal the publicly hard-nosed president as a doting husband, son, uncle, and friend. Correspondents include politicians (among them James Buchanan, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Tyler), military officers (including Zachary Taylor, Jefferson Davis, and Gideon Pillow), relatives, and public-office seekers; they also include such unexpected interlocutors as inventor Charles Goodyear, activist Jessie Benton Frémont, and abolitionist Francis Jackson.

Volume 12 introduces several editorial changes to the series—including the inclusion of birth and death dates for all individuals identified in this volume’s notes. Another change concerns additional information on slaves referred to in the volume’s letters.

As Chaffin writes in his introduction to Volume 12, much of the correspondence in the Polk series—letters published in earlier volumes, those in the new volume, and those to appear in future volumes—deals with Polk’s purchases and sales of slaves. “Unto themselves these letters tend to yield few details regarding the identities of the slaves. Moreover, the extant Polk historiography, most of it focused on policy issues, also tends to shed scant light on the identities of these individuals.”

To bring more light to such matters, he and Cohen located and acquired photocopies of many primary-source documents—sales contracts, probate-court records, and the like, in addition to Polk’s letters themselves—related to Polk’s business affairs. “Those documents,” Chaffin writes, “allow us in this and future volumes, to a much greater extent than in earlier ones, to present in endnotes essential biographical information for many of the slaves—including, in many instances, birth and death years. Through such notes, we hope to enhance the value of this series to social historians and to historians of the African American experience.”

Chaffin’s introduction to the volume, drawing extensively on the papers of historian George Bancroft, successively Polk’s navy secretary and minister to the United Kingdom, questions longstanding depictions by historians of Polk as a champion of Manifest Destiny and as a president of firmly enunciated, and eventually attained, goals. Specifically, he presents evidence that raises questions concerning the provenance of a widely repeated anecdote, long enshrined in U.S. history textbooks, in which Polk, early in his presidency, enumerates what, he predicts, will be “four great measures” of his administration: the acquisition of all of part of the Oregon Country, the acquisition of California, a reduction in tariffs, and the establishment of an Independent Treasury, vaults designated by the federal government to receive government funds.

Volume 12 contains complete transcriptions of 344 letters; summarized versions of another ten letters appear as “briefs” within the main body; and 638 more letters are succinctly noted in the “Calendar” section at the book’s end. Of the letters published in full, one hundred are written by President Polk and 244 are incoming letters. Consistent with the Polk series’ practice, most of the extant letters composed by Polk during this volume’s coverage period, January–July 1847, appear in full—if only because of their relative scarcity compared to extant incoming letters. “Beyond that resolve,” Chaffin writes, “we eschew rigid selection criteria. Simply put, as in the past, we seek to publish in full those letters adjudged to be the most important, illuminating, or interesting—or, better yet, those that meet all three of those benchmarks.”

To highlight but one example of the fruits of that resolve, Chaffin notes, a previous volume in the series contained brief calendar summaries of letters from an individual who wrote to the president under the pseudonym “Amor Patriæ,” Latin for “love of one’s country.” Likewise, Chaffin continues, a letter appears from Amor Patriæ in Volume 12, and others will appear in future volumes. “But, thanks to dogged sleuthing by my colleague Michael Cohen, Amor Patriæ’s letter appears now—and the rest will appear in the future—under his real name, Andrew Lane.

“Thanks to Michael, we also now possess essential biographical facts concerning Lane: we know his birth and death dates and that he was a New England–born pamphleteer and lawyer who, over the years, resided on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line and helped to found a theological seminary in Ohio.”