A Family Affair

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A Family Affair

Book review

By: David Herbert Donald

Date: January 16, 2000

Source: TheNew York Times, June 16, 2000. 〈http://query.nytimes.com/gst/〉 (accessed June 6, 2006).

About the Author: Two-time Pulizer-Prize winner David Herbert Donald (b. 1920) is one of the nation's most respected presidential scholars and a leading historian. In addition to several books on Abraham Lincoln, he has written extensively on the Civil War and Recon-struction, along with books about Thomas Wolfe, Charles Sumner, and Andrew Johnson. He reviewed Polk's Folly, for The New York Times.


In addition to a remarkable heritage, whose lineage is depicted in his book Polk's Folly, William R. Polk (b. 1929) is an accomplished historian and foreign policy expert. A sought-after lecturer, he has spoken on topics such as the Iraq war, terrorism and guerilla warfare. He has written a number of books on the Middle East.

Polk grew up in Fort Worth, Texas. During World War II, he attended the New Mexico Military Institute and was involved in cavalry training. Prior to attending college, he studied in Latin America and worked for a newspaper in Rome. Then he went on to attend Harvard University and Oxford University. In addition, he studied at Universities in Mexico, Chile, and Cairo. While teaching at Harvard from 1958 to 1961, President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) appointed Polk as a member of the Policy Council of the U.S. Department of State.

After retiring from the government in 1965, Polk became the Professor of History at the University of Chicago. He founded the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and in 1967 became the president of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. In addition to planning the United Nations Environmental Program and other accomplishments, the Institute contributed to events that set the foundation for the European Union.

Polk is well traveled and has visited Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America. He currently resides in France. His most recent book is Birth of America.


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America's eleventh president, John Knox Polk, is a controversial figure. According to many historians, he is a great president—one of the most successful since Washington in accomplishing his goals. Polk succeeded in acquiring Oregon, California, and New Mexico; settled the border dispute between Texas and Mexico; created a new federal depository process; reduced tariffs; and gave the executive office more power and influence. However, critics assert that Polk missed the mark by failing to address key issues of the time. He chose to focus on expanding U.S. territories and waging war and did not use his considerable influence to address the issue of slavery and its social and political ramifications. In any event, at the end of his term, Polk was a celebrated figure. Keeping his word to serve only one term, and aided by a quick American victory in the war, his reputation remained unscathed.

Stories of important families in U.S. history are an influential part of American cultural mythology. From immigration to the American colonies to participation in the American Revolution, frontiersmen to President of the United States, the story of the Polk family—like many others—is a personal account of the history of the United States. Thus, the story of the Polk family captures the public imagination as the story of an American dynasty.



McCormac, Eugene I. James K. Polk: A Political Biography. New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1965.


Wilentz, Sean. "The Worst President in History?: One of America's Leading Historians Assesses George W. Bush." Rolling Stone. May 4, 2006.

Web sites

American President. "President James Knox Polk." 〈http://www.americanpresident.org/history/jamespolk/biography〉 (accessed June 19, 2006).