Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk

By William Dusinberre | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

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. 1 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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Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Contents ix
  • The Polk Family Tree xi
  • Some Polk Slaves xiii
  • Slavemaster President *
  • Introduction 3
  • I - Slavemaster 9
  • 1 - A Market for Labor Power 11
  • 2 - Tennessee 23
  • 3 - The Mississippi Plantation 33
  • 4 - Profit 49
  • 5 - The Nature of the Regime 55
  • 6 - The Spirit of Governance 71
  • 7 - Births and Deaths 90
  • 8 - Family and Community 100
  • 9 - Privileges 107
  • II - President 117
  • 10 - Polk's Early Response to the Antislavery Movement 119
  • 11 - Texas and the Mexican War 130
  • 12 - Slavery and Union 141
  • 13 - Alternatives 153
  • Epilogue - Slavery and the Civil War 167
  • Appendix A - Polk Plantation Demography, 1835–59 175
  • Appendix B - Capital Investment in the Polk Plantation, 1835–60 186
  • Appendix C - Profits from the Polk Plantation, 1835–57 191
  • Notes 201
  • Select Bibliography 245
  • Index 253
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