UT’s Newest Volume of Polk Letters Casts Light on Mexican War Era

 

A critical seven-month period in one of America’s most transformational presidencies is revealed in the latest installment in the Correspondence of James K. Polk series.

Volume 12 of the Polk series, encompassing letters from January to July 1847, was edited by Tom Chaffin and Michael David Cohen of UT’s history department. It was published by UT Press.

Polk, a former Tennessee governor and congressman, was the eleventh US president (1845 to 49). Many of the new volume’s letters chronicle his prosecution of the Mexican War. This war, along with Polk’s 1846 acquisition of the Pacific Northwest, increased the size of the United States by one-third.

The Correspondence of James K. Polk project devotes itself to publishing Polk’s letters.

The project’s editors select, transcribe, and annotate the letters. The series’ latest volume includes nearly 2,000 footnotes, many of them containing fresh information on individuals and events. The most important or interesting letters are published in full; the rest are summarized in detailed briefs or shorter calendar entries. These volumes are crucial resources for scholars and students researching America before the Civil War.

The letters, gathered from the Library of Congress and other repositories—mostly until now unpublished—shed light on the personal life and business affairs of one of the most private men ever to occupy the presidency.

Among the 344 letters published in Volume 12, many document the Mexican War. Other letters chronicle foreign policy issues, such as the administration’s concern with European affairs.

Letters published in this and other volumes deal with Polk’s purchases and sales of slaves.

“Unto themselves these letters tend to yield few details regarding the identities of the slaves,” wrote Chaffin, research professor of history and director and editor of the project, in the volume’s introduction.

Chaffin and Cohen, research assistant professor of history, wanted to delve deeper into this side of Polk’s life. Toward that end, they located and acquired photocopies of primary source documents—sales contracts, probate court records, and the like—related to Polk’s business affairs.

Notes in the latest volume, drawing on those documents, provide essential biographical information, including birth and death years, for many of the slaves.

“Through such notes, we hope to enhance the value of this series to social historians and to historians of the African-American experience,” the volume’s introduction notes.

Two more volumes are planned to complete the Polk series. A search for more Polk letters, through the Internet and contacts with archivists and dealers, has uncovered materials not located during the project’s original search, begun in the late 1950s.

Volume 12 and future volumes will contain the latest discoveries.

Chaffin, a 2012 Fulbright Fellow, is author, most recently, of Giant’s Causeway: Frederick Douglass’s Irish Odyssey and the Making of an American Visionary, to be published in October 2014. He is also author of Sea of Gray: The Around-the-World Odyssey of the Confederate Raider Shenandoah and other books. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Harper’s, Time, and other publications. Cohen is author of Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War.

His work has appeared in New England Quarterly, the New York Times Disunion blog, and elsewhere.

C O N T A C T :

Amy Blakely (865-974-5034, ablakely@utk.edu)

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