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polk project toast

Department Completes James K. Polk Project

Polk Project

Few individuals have impacted the history of North America as visibly as James K. Polk. As president (1845–49), this Tennessean oversaw the Mexican War and the US acquisition of California and the Southwest. His letters comprise a crucial collection of primary sources. For more than a century, using them required travel to numerous archives and scrutiny of barely legible handwriting. In 1958, Herbert Weaver began a project at Vanderbilt to locate and publish the letters. In 1987, the Polk Project moved to the UT Department of History, where it has been led consecutively by Wayne Cutler, Tom Chaffin, and Michael Cohen.

This fall, Cohen completed work on the 14th and final volume of the Correspondence of James K. Polk. Published by the University of Tennessee Press, the series features annotated transcriptions of more than 5,000 letters written by or to Polk between 1817 and 1849. Forty-three faculty, staff, and student editors have worked on the project. Contributors to volume 14 include our department’s alumni Bradley Nichols and Phillip Gaul and current graduate students Ryan Gesme and Alex Spanjer.

Now easily accessible, the letters serve scholars and students in diverse areas of US history. Polk’s correspondents range from Andrew Jackson to Brigham Young to a female textile worker in Lowell, Massachusetts, to a free African American who feared being sold into slavery. Topics range from Texas annexation and the Mexican War to technological innovation and Indian removal to the expansion of slavery and the rights of religious minorities. Letters include those from an enslaved blacksmith, owned by Polk, who had bet on his master’s election; from a teacher whose parents had “brought us up Politicians” in a society that largely excluded women from government; and from “The Devil”—clearly a detractor—who proclaimed Polk a “bloody hound of hell” and a “scorpion of the regions of the damned.”

On April 12–13 the department celebrated the project’s completion. Ninety scholars, students, and enthusiasts gathered at the East Tennessee Historical Society for James K. Polk and His Time: A Conference Finale to the Polk Project. Speakers and session chairs included our own Thomas Coens, Aaron Crawford, Daniel Feller, Lorraine Dias Herbon, and Laura-Eve Moss. They also included Oxford and UCLA’s Daniel Walker Howe, as well as Penn State’s Amy S. Greenberg, who delivered the keynote address on first lady Sarah Childress Polk. Charles Sellers, author of The Market Revolution and a Polk biography, sent enthusiastic remarks to be read. Cohen is editing a volume of selected conference papers. Broadcast on C-SPAN 3, conference sessions can be viewed at c-span.org.

Volume 14 covers the last year of Polk’s presidency and his brief retirement. One of few presidents who chose to serve only one term, he died of cholera three months after leaving the White House. UT Press will publish the volume in fall 2020. In the meantime, all earlier volumes are available both in print and, thanks to Newfound Press, online. You can find them, plus an early edition of volume 14—with most of the letters but without the annotation—through the Polk Project’s website, polkproject.utk.edu.