Book Review: Slavemaster President

Slavemaster President:  The Double Career Of James Polk, by William Dusinberre

I found this book deeply fascinating, but I hesitate about giving this book a warm recommendation for a few reasons.  Few can deny, in light of our contemporary politics, that the issue of slavery in the United States is a relevant topic, and James K. Polk, the subject of this particular short book of under 200 pages of core material, is deeply important with regards to slavery and its spread and to the crisis of the Civil War as a mainstream politician who represented the mainstream of the Democratic party of the South during his generation.  This book has some sobering conclusions about American politics to the present era, and the author’s perspective is one that would likely be judged as sympathetic to those contemporary revisionists who have sought to obliterate the regard that the American people have for political and military figures that are anything less than antislavery radicals from the period of the Civil War and before.  The author’s interest in statistics and data, demonstrated to a great degree in this book, is something that will likely please those readers who enjoy mountains of data about slaves and slavery and the value of slaveholding to the antebellum South [1]–at least as far as James K. Polk and his plantation(s) are concerned, but those readers who want a more narrative account and are turned off by data should probably look elsewhere.

This book is divided into two parts that support the author’s reasonable contention that James K. Polk’s private life and public life were structured in order to support the interests of mainstream slaveowning Democratic elites of the antebellum South, but that he was simultaneously aware that his political career required the support of Northerners whose commitment to slavery was less robust despite the widespread nature of racism.  The first part of the book, which takes up two thirds of the book’s text, deeply examines Polk’s behavior as a private slaveholder, which he sought to compartmentalize from his successful career as a mainstream politician.  The author notes an important fact that Polk’s slaveholding, and his intimate involvement with discipline and the internal slave trade, are known largely because he had no heirs who culled his papers of any potentially embarrassing episodes, so we have relatively uncensored, aside from Polk’s considerable self-censorship, about his activities and conduct as a slaveowner, which are discussed here in rather grim and unpleasant detail.  The second part of the book looks at how Polk’s political career served the interests of the slave power as best as he could make it, and contains some eloquent and rather gloomy reflections on how Polk and others like him could have better defended the long-term interests of slaveowners by rejecting secession and accepting a likely inevitable free state majority in the federal government that would eventually encroach upon and constrict and threaten the interests of Southern slaveowners.

It is both the extreme amount of data and the author’s views that are worthy of reflection of a painful nature.  The Civil War would have been unnecessary had the Southern slaveowning elites been more reasonable people–they were painfully aware of the fact that there was a large and politically motivated population of free soil voters and politicians in the North led by people like Abraham Lincoln and David Wilmot and others who found the spread of slavery into further territories content, but but were unwilling to demand an American political culture free of racism, as if such a society could ever exist anywhere with imperfect human beings.  Polk was one of the leaders who could have encouraged the South to accept a permanent minority status, but such a solution would require the South to have been less honor-bound than it was (and to some extent is).  A great deal of our own contemporary political trouble, after all, has resulted from the ways that contemporary political radicals have refused to account for the combustible nature of honor and history in our own history and culture and in the ways that appeals to professed ideals of justice offend many people who could be allies because they are done in a clumsy and hostile fashion.  This is a very good book and it has a lot of worthwhile content, but it is the sort of book that will likely cost me at least some sleep to reflect upon its implications, and my sleep is a precious and much put-upon resource for any book, no matter how good.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/06/05/book-review-lincoln-on-race-slavery/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/08/02/book-review-the-origins-of-american-slavery/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2015/12/21/book-review-capitalism-slavery-and-republican-values/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2015/10/22/book-review-honor-and-slavery/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/07/17/audiobook-review-a-slave-in-the-white-house/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/07/17/audiobook-review-12-years-a-slave/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/07/12/book-review-becoming-free-in-the-cotton-south/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/07/12/book-review-a-slave-no-more/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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