06 August 2009

Polk: The Diary of a President

As is true for perhaps ten percent of my books, I know neither when nor how I acquired Polk: The Diary of a President, 1845-1849 (1968 [1929]), edited by Allan Nevins. It has been on my shelf for quite a few years, perhaps since graduate school. Aside from providing an index that I glanced at once or twice to confirm some fact, its purpose on my shelf has served principally as an abode for the congregation of dust.

Earlier this week I pulled it down with intent of reading it through. It begins with a report of a meeting that took place 26 August 1845.
The President again called up the Oregon question. He remarked that he had at different times communicated to the several members of the Cabinet, the settled decision to which his mind had come. He proceeded briefly to repeat his decision, in substance as follows, viz., that Mr. Bucanan's note in reply to Mr. Pakenham should assert and enforce our right to the whole Oregon territory from 42° to 54° 40’ North Latitude; that he should distinctly state that the proposition which had been made to compromise on the 49th paralel of North Latitude had been made, first in deference to what had been done by our predecessors, and second with anxious desire to preserve peace between the two countries.
Polk, 1-2
Before I get to the questions that drew me towards this diary--questions concerned, in part, with Pacific Northwest history, including the oft-repeated error that "Fifty-four Forty or Fight" was Polk's campaign slogan,*--I stumble upon the voice. Why is Polk writing in the third person? Did he write the meeting summary, or did he have a secretary keep notes of the meeting that he later transcribed into his diary?

Allan Nevins' notes to the text do not address these questions.

This text was published in 1929 as an abridgment of the four volume edition edited by Milo Milton Quaife (1910). My copy is a 1968 paperback reprint. Google has digitized Stanford University library's copy of volume I of Quaife's edition. The editor's preface offers some help in the first sentence: "The considerations which induced Polk to keep a diary are sufficiently set forth by the President himself in the entry for August 26, 1846" (vii). The entry for that date is in volume II, but Nevins reproduced it.
Twelve months ago this day, a very important conversation took place in Cabinet between myself and Mr. Buchanan on the Oregon question. This conversation was of so important a character, that I deemed it proper on the same evening to reduce the substance of it to writing for the purpose of retaining it more distinctly in my memory. This I did on separate sheets. It was this circumstance which first suggested to me the idea, if not the necessity, of keeping a journal or diary of events and transactions which might occur during my Presidency.
Polk, 141.
Polk at least claims to have done the writing.


Nevins, Allan, ed. Polk: The Diary of a President, 1845-1849. New York: Capricorn Books, 1968 [1929]. Cited as Polk.

Quaife, Milo Milton, ed. The Diary of James K. Polk During his Presidency, 1845 to 1849, Volume I. Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co, 1910.


*The phrase, "Fifty-four Forty or Fight," originated with Senator William Allen (Ohio), who later served as that state's governor. I have yet to see primary evidence indicating that the slogan was deployed in the campaign of 1844, although it clearly was prominent in the newspapers by 1846. In the mid-1980s, when I taught Washington State History in my student teaching, I checked several secondary sources to contest the claim in the students' textbook that the phrase was Polk's campaign slogan. I observed then that secondary sources more closely grounded in primary sources did not put forth this notion, but that tertiary sources rooted in secondary works often did. Thirty years of occasional examination of the issue has not altered that initial assessment. The most trustworthy secondary sources claim that Polk's campaign slogan was "reoccupation of Oregon and re-annexation of Texas," which is the language found in the Democratic Party Platform of 1844.
Resolved, That our title to the whole of the Territory of Oregon is clear and unquestionable; that no portion of the same ought to be ceded to England or any other power, and that the reoccupation of Oregon and the re-annexation of Texas at the earliest practicable period are great American measures, which this Convention recommends to the cordial support of the Democracy of the Union.
Democratic Party Platform of 1844
, The American Presidency Project

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