Slavemaster President: The Double Career Of James Polk

Paperback | October 15, 2007

byWilliam Dusinberre

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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 ownedsubstantial 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 reasonsprincipally 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 cottonplantation. 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 absenteeslavemaster. 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, hewas 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, heauthorized 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 hisdeep personal involvement in the plantation system-- may actually have helped precipitate the Civil War that Polk sought to avoid.

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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 ownedsubstantial cotton plantations-- in Tenness...

William Dusinberre is author of the award-winning Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps.

other books by William Dusinberre

Format:PaperbackDimensions:272 pages, 9.25 × 6.13 × 0.68 inPublished:October 15, 2007Publisher:Oxford University PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0195326032

ISBN - 13:9780195326031

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"No other study that I can think of juxtaposes so revealingly the personal experiences of the enslaved with those of their enslaver, or the career of a slaveholder with the leadership of a president. By bringing to life the world of the enslaved people for whom James K. Polk was responsibleeven as Polk himself became responsible for slavery's westward expansion, Dusinberre presents a truly original synthesis of biography and social history that challenges us to reexamine the politics of the sectional conflict."--James Brewer Stewart, Macalester College