Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk

Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk

Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk

Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk

Synopsis

James Polk was President of the United States from 1845 to 1849, a time when slavery began to dominate American politics. Polk's presidency coincided with the eruption of the territorial slavery issue, which within a few years would lead to the catastrophe of the Civil War. Polk himself owned substantial cotton plantations-- in Tennessee and later in Mississippi-- and some 50 slaves. Unlike many antebellum planters who portrayed their involvement with slavery as a historical burden bestowed onto them by their ancestors, Polk entered the slave business of his own volition, for reasons principally of financial self-interest. Drawing on previously unexplored records, Slavemaster President recreates the world of Polk's plantation and the personal histories of his slaves, in what is arguably the most careful and vivid account to date of how slavery functioned on a single cotton plantation. Life at the Polk estate was brutal and often short. Fewer than one in two slave children lived to the age of fifteen, a child mortality rate even higher than that on the average plantation. A steady stream of slaves temporarily fled the plantation throughout Polk's tenure as absentee slavemaster. Yet Polk was in some respects an enlightened owner, instituting an unusual incentive plan for his slaves and granting extensive privileges to his most favored slave. Startlingly, Dusinberre shows how Polk sought to hide from public knowledge the fact that, while he was president, he was secretly buying as many slaves as his plantation revenues permitted. Shortly before his sudden death from cholera, the president quietly drafted a new will, in which he expressed the hope that his slaves might be freed--but only after he and his wife were both dead. The very next day, he authorized the purchase, in strictest secrecy, of six more very young slaves. By contrast with Senator John C. Calhoun, President Polk has been seen as a moderate Southern Democratic leader. But Dusinberre suggests that the president's political stance toward slavery-- influenced as it was by his deep personal involvement in the plantation system-- may actually have helped precipitate the Civil War that Polk sought to avoid.

Excerpt

This book explores two aspects of President James Polk's career: his mastery of the slaves on his Mississippi cotton plantation and his stance on the slavery-related political issues of his day. When Polk unexpectedly died of cholera in 1849, only a few months after completing his four-year term as president, he left revealing records about his interaction with his Mississippi slaves. Having moved these slaves in 1835 from a previous plantation in West Tennessee, Polk had established on virgin soil in northern Mississippi a profitable enterprise, which paid him a good return during the years of his presidency and supplied his widow with an ample income after his death. From the Polk records emerges a clear picture of events at this plantation. And Polk's experiences in running his cotton-planting enterprise helped to shape the stand he took on contemporary political issues.

Polk was the product of the slave society of middle Tennessee—the belt of counties in central Tennessee that stretches from north of Nashville down to the Alabama border. His father, a successful land speculator, had emigrated there from North Carolina in 1806. Polk himself, a Democratic Party lawyer-politician, had been a long-time congressman, and he served as governor of Tennessee from 1839 to 1841. He was also a cotton planter. When he was president he looked to his substantial income from this enterprise as the means of his retiring in 1849 (at age 54) to Polk Place—a Nashville mansion that he bought, renamed, and refurbished during his presidential term. He hoped to enjoy there the comfortable life of a gentleman planter.

Because Polk's biographer Charles Sellers did not complete the third volume of his careful scrutiny of Polk's career before the outbreak of the Mexican War, a book is needed to examine the slavery-related elements of Polk's political career and to consider what relation these may have borne to his mastery of his own slaves. Although Polk wrote a four-volume diary, the secretive president kept his cards close to his chest. I think it is nevertheless possible to deduce many of the principles that guided his political policies. In so doing, I believe we can gain considerable insight, not only into the crises of 1845–50—the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, and the dispute over legalizing slavery in the Mexican Cession—but also into the origins of the American Civil War itself.

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