UT’s New Volume of Polk Letters Sheds Light on Origin of US–Mexico Border

Newly published letters of President James K. Polk shed light on the end of the Mexican War and the origin of the current US–Mexico border.

Volume 13 of The Correspondence of James K. Polk, which comprises letters from August 1847 to March 1848, was published today by the University of Tennessee Press. The letters illuminate the war’s final battles and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ceded California and the Southwest from Mexico to the United States.

Michael David Cohen, UT research associate professor of history, is the Polk project editor.

Polk, a former Tennessee governor and congressman, was the 11th US president and served from 1845 to 1849. During his term, the United States, by winning the Mexican War and setting the northwestern boundary with Canada, increased in size by one third. Mexico lost half its territory.

The new volume also features letters on persecuted Mormons’ journey from Illinois to Utah, US interest in annexing Cuba, and Americans’ reactions to the revolutions that shook Europe in 1848.

The 12 previous volumes are available in print from the UT Press and online, at no charge, from Newfound Press through the project’s website.

The Correspondence of James K. Polk publishes the thousands of letters that Polk wrote and received. The most important and interesting letters are printed in full, with footnotes identifying all people and events. The rest are summarized.

“The volumes are crucial resources for scholars and students researching America before the Civil War,” Cohen said. “They offer a glimpse into war, politics, diplomacy, economics, society, and culture in antebellum America.”

Volume 13 includes 224 full-text letters, 450 letter summaries, and more than 1,500 footnotes. The full-text letter writers include Polk, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The volume highlights other notable moments during that era: lawyer Aaron Palmer advocating enhanced trade with Russia and China; medical student William Gamble expounding on the evils of slavery; federal worker Barbara Hume, writing when few women worked for pay, stressing the need for employment to support her children; and Dakota Indians warning of the suffering and starvation caused by the government’s withholding food and money promised in a treaty.

The Polk letters, gathered from the Library of Congress and other repositories, illuminate the personal life and business affairs of one of the most private men ever to occupy the presidency. Some deal with Polk’s purchases and sales of slaves and the attempt by one enslaved man to escape from the president’s cotton plantation.

One volume remains to complete the series. The project is supported by grants from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Tennessee Historical Commission.

Cohen is the author of Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War. His work has appeared in several outlets including the New England Quarterly and the New York Times “Disunion” blog.

CONTACT:

Lola Alapo (865-974-3993, lalapo@utk.edu)

Michael Cohen (mdcohen@utk.edu)