Newly published letters of President James K. Polk shed light on slavery, race riots, and a cholera pandemic that killed thousands of Americans, including Polk himself.
Volume 14 of the Correspondence of James K. Polk comprises letters from April 1848 to June 1849. They cover the last year of Polk’s administration and his brief retirement. Edited by Michael David Cohen at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the volume is published by the University of Tennessee Press.
Gathered from the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and other repositories, the letters—most previously unpublished—illuminate the personal life and business affairs of one of the most private men ever to occupy the presidency.
Organized chronologically, the completed series spans Polk’s entire public and private life: his student years at the University of North Carolina; his careers as a slave owner, planter, and lawyer; his political life in Tennessee state politics and the US House of Representatives; his ascent to the White House; the four years of his presidency; and the brief retirement that preceded his death.
“The series enables all to read the words of a broad swath of social and cultural groups and to assess Polk, his age, and his legacy for themselves,” Cohen said.
Polk served as Tennessee governor, Speaker of the US House, and the 11th president (1845–49). During his term the United States, by winning the Mexican–American War and settling the northwestern boundary with Canada, increased in size by one-third. Mexico lost half its territory.
The Correspondence of James K. Polk publishes the full text of more than 6,000 letters Polk wrote or received. Footnotes identify people and events. All other known letters are summarized. The volumes are crucial resources for scholars and students researching America before the Civil War.
Volume 14 includes 376 full-text letters, 5,616 letter summaries, and more than 2,000 footnotes. Polk’s correspondents include Queen Victoria, Daniel Webster, India’s poet laureate, and participants in the California gold rush.
The 13 previous volumes are available in print from the University of Tennessee Press and online, at no charge, from Newfound Press through the project’s website. The University of Virginia Press will have the volumes available for free in its online, searchable American History Collection until April 15.
The project was supported by grants from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Tennessee Historical Commission.
Cohen, having spent 10 years on the Polk project at UT, is now a research professor in the Department of Government at American University. The author of Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War and an editor of volumes 12–14 of the Polk series, he now edits the correspondence of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore.
Amanda Womac (865-974-2992, firstname.lastname@example.org)