Slavemaster President

Slavemaster President : The Double Career of James Polk

3.31 (22 ratings by Goodreads)
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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 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.
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Product details

  • Paperback | 276 pages
  • 152.4 x 226.06 x 20.32mm | 362.87g
  • Oxford University Press Inc
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • 3 halftones & 2 maps
  • 0195326032
  • 9780195326031

Review quote

"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 responsible even 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 "Slavemaster President is a powerful combination of careful research, clear prose, and controlled passion. At the core of the book is a meticulous reconstruction of James Knox Polk's cotton plantation. But Dusinberre is after much bigger analytical fish than a single case study would suggest: he uses Polk as a launching pad for a full-scale reinterpretation of the antebellum South. In so doing, he reintegrates the social and political history of southern
slave society, bringing us closer than ever to understanding precisely how the politics of slavery led ultimately to Civil War."-James Oakes, The Graduate Center, City University of New York "This is a striking and important book. James K. Polk tried to keep his activities as a slaveowner and absentee planter separate from his public life as a politician and, eventually, president. William Dusinberre brings the two sides of Polk's career together again. He has done more than anyone else to examine the lives of Polk's slaves, and reveals often-disturbing evidence about the harshness of their conditions. He also shows how Polk's perspectives as a planter
shaped his administration's expansionist policies. This will be essential reading for all interested in the debate on slavery and the origins of the Civil War."-Christopher Clark, University of Warwick "A good look at the very hard, often harsh, conditions on a new plantation in a frontier area."-CHOICE
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About William Dusinberre

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

22 ratings
3.31 out of 5 stars
5 18% (4)
4 23% (5)
3 41% (9)
2 9% (2)
1 9% (2)
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