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Fans of the alternative group They Might Be Giants will know James K. Polk as the man who set four goals for his single term as President of the United States, and met every one of them. The story that Polk created this famous to-do list originates from an anecdote told by historian and Polk administration cabinet member George Bancroft. But in Met His Every Goal: James K. Polk and the Legends of Manifest Destiny, research professor Tom Chaffin, editor of the soon-to-be fourteen volume series "Correspondence of James K. Polk" turns myth-buster and makes the case that the story of Polk's goal-setting exercise is probably apocryphal.



The story according to Bancroft goes that at the time of his inauguration, President James K. Polk recited four goals that he intended to accomplish during his single term in the White House: 1) acquire the Oregon Territory from the British; 2) acquire California from the Mexicans; 3) lower tariffs; and 4) establish an independent treasury. The first recording of this was made by Bancroft forty years after Polk's death, when the historian was in his eighties. But as Chaffin points out, Bancroft told several different (and inconsistent) versions of the anecdote of Polk's pronouncement, that Polk was sometimes reported to have said before his inauguration, sometimes after, sometimes to certain unnamed persons, sometimes to Bancroft alone, and there are other variances in the versions. The story is also inconsistent with Chaffin's rather thorough review of Polk's correspondence. Chaffin's sleuthing as a history detective makes a convincing case that Bancroft's story, while conducive to catchy song lyrics, is probably an embellishment, albeit one with considerable staying power, and one that has formed the bedrock of many favorable assessments of Polk's presidency.

Chaffin reviews the accomplishments and the miscues of the Polk administration and convincingly points out that Bancroft's delineation of the Polk administration may have made Polk appear larger than life. But it may have also detracted from a proper assessment of Polk's presidency, both in achievements that he deserved credit for but never got, and for areas where he deserved greater scrutiny.

One caution about this book is that it is not very long. It is more like an essay than a book. It is 93 pages, of which about 20 or so are photographs. I read most of it while in a dentist's waiting room. Chaffin himself admits that the book is not intended as a thorough accounting of Polk's presidency, and yet in its brevity, it still manages to touch all of the bases of Polk's accomplishments as well as the times he fell short of his intended mark. Polkaholics may not appreciate how Chaffin takes some of the shine off of Polk's legacy, but Chaffin doesn't present as someone with an anti-Polk axe to grind. He is simply an intellectually honest historian who know his subject from having gone through the volumes of the man's writings. As the author points out, while Polk was guarded and kept his thoughts to himself for the most part, his untimely early death meant that his writings were not destroyed and therefore he left quite a body of writing, including a White House diary, from which scholars can discern what Polk really thought about most of the burning issues of his day. Chaffin has gone through these writings thoroughly.

It is hard to dispute his conclusions, and it is interesting to the reader for Chaffin to share his thoughts and assessments about the man who, for decades, was believed to have met his every goal. For those with an interest in antebellum American history, this is a worthwhile read.

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