Cover image for Slavemaster president : the double career of James Polk
Slavemaster president : the double career of James Polk
Dusinberre, William, 1930-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Oxford University Press, [2003]

Physical Description:
xiv, 258 pages : illustrations, map ; 25 cm
Reading Level:
1560 Lexile.
Electronic Access:
Table of contents
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
E417 .D87 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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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.

Author Notes

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

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

In this excellent book, historian Dusinberre (Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps) combines first-rate scholarship and a wealth of data to create a compelling narrative on the dual roles of President Polk. The book is not a biography, instead focusing on Polk's management of his slaves and his public positions on slavery and related issues. The author suggests that Polk's policies were critical to the development of the secessionist movement in the South and that these policies derived from his personal financial interests. As the owner of a plantation in Mississippi, Polk needed to secure the persistence of slavery in territories where it already existed in order to insure that slavery on his plantation could continue, thus affording him a comfortable lifestyle upon retirement. As an expansionist, Polk supported annexing Texas and other Mexican territories, and here, too, personal interests caused him to press the states' rights/pro-slavery position. Dusinberre's research also expands our understanding of the management of plantations. Essential reading for anyone wanting greater insight into the factors that led to the Civil War, this work is highly recommended for all academic and larger public libraries.-Thomas J. Baldino, Wilkes Univ., Wilkes-Barre, PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Dusinberre's book on President James K. Polk can be divided into two parts. The first part describes slave life on the president's two plantations in Tennessee and Mississippi. Polk was an absentee owner and often distracted, particularly from management of his new plantation in Mississippi, due to his involvement in Tennessee and, later, national politics. He had a series of incompetent overseers come and go, which probably contributed to the high slave mortality rates and low crop yields and profitability. Regardless, Polk tried to improve life on his plantations. Although there was a steady stream of runaways, their flight was apparently often only temporary, as many returned once Polk had addressed their grievances. He granted privileges to favored slaves, the most innovative being an incentive plan in which slaves grew cotton in their free time for themselves. This part is a good look at the very hard, often harsh, conditions on a new plantation in a frontier area. In the second part, Dusinberre (Univ. of Warwick) makes the old argument that President Polk's political stance toward expansionism was influenced by his involvement in the plantation system; his argument is not persuasive. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. Graduate libraries and faculty. E. M. Thomas Gordon College

Table of Contents

The Polk Family Treep. xi
Some Polk Slavesp. xiii
Introductionp. 3
I Slavemaster
1 A Market for Labor Powerp. 11
2 Flight (I) Tennesseep. 23
3 Flight (II) The Mississippi Plantationp. 33
4 Profitp. 49
5 The Nature of the Regimep. 55
6 The Spirit of Governancep. 71
7 Births and Deathsp. 90
8 Family and Communityp. 100
9 Privilegesp. 107
II President
10 Polk's Early Response to the Antislavery Movementp. 119
11 Texas and the Mexican Warp. 130
12 Slavery and Unionp. 141
13 Alternativesp. 153
Epilogue: Slavery and the Civil Warp. 167
Appendixesp. 175
Notesp. 201
Select Bibliographyp. 245
Indexp. 253