A Country of Vast Designs by Robert W. Merry
James K. Polk, The Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent
Merry is a lively writer with a penetrating eye and a talent for animating long ago events, passions and personalities. He uses his considerable skills as writer and historian to illuminate the presidency of James K. Polk. Merrry Writes, “Probably no other president presents such a chasm between actual accomplishment and popular recognition.”
As he unfolds the story of the man he describes as the nation’s most underrated president, he reveals familiar historical figures in unfamiliar ways. This reviewer, for example, gained a new respect for Andrew Jackson who was Polk’s mentor and whose influence and counsel shaped Polk’s political career and his presidency.
The emergence of Polk as a political force is framed by the contesting political philosophies of Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson. Both viewed themselves as patriots and defenders of the Founders’ vision of America.
“Clay wanted the power of federal Washington brought to bear boldly in behalf of domestic prosperity. Almost singlehandedly he crafted a philosophy of governmental activism and devised a collection of federal programs and policies he considered essential to American prosperity.” It became the basis of the Whig Party platform.
“Jackson abhorred the very thought of concentrated power in Washington, which he believed would lead inevitably to corruption and invidious governmental actions favoring the connected and powerful at the expense of ordinary citizens. He wanted political power to remain diffuse and as close to the people as possible.” That view described the Democrat Party of that era, although not of this one.
Exemplifying that divergence was President Jackson’s veto of a bill that Clay supported as the kind of public works project necessary to advance prosperity. The legislation would have appropriated federal money to extend the so-called National Road from Maysville to Lexington, Kentucky.
Jackson had always opposed using federal money for local projects. In his veto message he said the people had a right to expect “a prudent system of expenditure” in which h the government would “pay the debts of the union and authorize the reduction of every tax to as low a point as … national safety and independence would allow.” Direct expenditures beyond purposes of defense and national benefit struck Jackson as “constitutionally suspect.” He feared that such power in the hands of federal officials would inevitably lead to “a corrupting influence upon the elections.” He feared giving people a sense that their votes could purchase beneficial government actions would “prove fatal to just legislation” and “the purity of public men.” Thus did Jackson predict the corruption that sullies government today.
The author chronicles Polk’s career from state legislator to member of Congress to Speaker of the House of Representatives. In the latter two positions Polk defended and promoted Jackson’s policies. After Jackson’s presidency, Polk left Congress, ran for and was elected governor of Tennessee before being defeated for a second term and then defeated again two years later. It appeared Polk’s political career was over.
Polk, however, didn’t agree. When Martin Van Buren became the presumptive Democratic Party candidate for president, Polk, with the ailing Jackson’s support, maneuvered to become the vice presidential choice. When Van Buren lost the nomination Polk, through surrogates, took advantage of a divided party to become the first dark horse presidential nominee. The author’s description of the political machinations that secured Polk’s nomination reveal him as a consummate politician skilled at maneuvering others into doing his bidding. He narrowly defeated the Whig party’s Henry Clay to become president in the election of 1844.
Dark horse he may have been, but the size of his ambition was not limited by the meagerness of his plurality. Polk personified the popular desire to expand the nation’s western borders. In his single-minded pursuit of that goal he ignored the growing intensity of the slavery issue unleashed by territorial expansion. Pushing beyond the boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 reopened the arguments over slavery in the territories that had been deferred by the Missouri Compromise of 1820-21. Northern Whigs were coalescing behind the issue of abolition and southern Democrats were under increasing pressure over the threat to their economy and way of life.
Polk seems to have taken little notice of these developments. Like most Democrats of the day, he thought slavery was a side issue, annoying because it got in the way of more important political objectives.
The story of how Polk accomplished those objectives is told by Merry in fascinating detail. The author reveals how Polk audaciously risked hostilities with Great Britain to secure Oregon while at the same time insisting that the war that won Texas gave it the right to determine its borders. The annexation of Texas begun by John Tyler and finalized by Polk set in motion events that would culminate in a two-year war with Mexico and an American victory.
Merry describes how politically risky Polk’s path to victory was, and how much luck had to do with the favorable outcome. Merry disputes the conventional view that Polk manufactured the war with Mexico in order to steal Mexican territory. Merry shows that the Texas-Mexico boundary dispute that provoked the war was more debatable than commonly thought. Texas had repeatedly claimed the Rio Grande line and patrolled the land between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers since it’s independence in the 1830s. Mexico, although claiming the Nueces border, did not enforce it. When Texas was admitted to the Union, Polk claimed he was duty bound to defend the new state’s disputed border and sent General Zachary Taylor to protect it. A fatal clash between a detachment of Taylor’s troops and Mexican forces that had crossed into Texas gave Polk the excuse he needed to ask Congress for a declaration of war.
Merry presents the Mexican defeat as a product of Mexican folly as much as of American territorial designs. Mexico was ruled by a shifting succession of corrupt governments and military tyrants with little regard for its unfortunate citizens, the rule of law, or military discipline. In fact, America was fortunate that Mexico’s military leaders were incompetent. The clash of egos between American Generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, the dislike of both men for Polk and their subsequent insubordination could have been disastrous for the American cause.
Merry describes the intrigues and the poisonous personal and political conflicts that divided Polk’s own party, and the relentless assault on Polk and his policies by the Whigs who were motivated by their desire to win the presidency as well as political division. The closer the election of 1844, the harsher were the attacks. They had no shortage of issues. The enmity between General Stephen Kearny and John C. Fremont that ended in Fremont’s court martial and Polk’s dismissal of punishment is one case in point. The negotiation of the treaty with Mexico by recalled and ostensibly disgraced American agent Nicholas Trist was another. The story of Polk’s presidency is replete with strange characters and questionable motives.
Although the war with Mexico consumes much of the book, Merry does not neglect other issues and events. The author is sympathetic but not uncritical of Polk and his presidency. He reveals Polk as impatient, pessimistic, and sly. He was also disciplined, possessed of a formidable work ethic and relentless determination. Merry argues that Polk lacked charisma, personal leadership ability, and the fortitude for face-to-face confrontation. This reviewer, for example, found it difficult to understand why Polk did not fire Secretary of State James Buchanan whose repeated disloyalty bordered on the treasonous. Unfortunately for Polk, his forbearance was taken as weakness by his enemies who, thus encouraged, intensified their attacks.
Yet despite his lack of personal charm, his secretiveness, and his inability to form political alliances or engender loyalty, Polk accomplished what he set out to do. In a single four-year term, (he kept his word to retire after one term) he lowered tariffs, (and did so with an argument that resonates today), created an independent treasury, wrested Oregon from the British, and concluded the Mexican-American War with the signing and ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. In all, he added some 600,000 square miles of continental expanse, a Pacific coastline with some of the best harbors in the world and established a content-spanning nation “from sea to shining sea.” The future states of Texas, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Washington, and Oregon, as well as portions of what would later become Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming, and Montana were the result.
He had embraced an American aspiration that many articulated but few could fashion into a concrete plan with serious prospects of fulfillment. And, through grit, persistence and flexibility of action, he had turned that aspiration into a reality and transformed a nation…
Merry makes the case that Polk belongs in the pantheon of America’s most important presidents. It is a long delayed but deserved distinction.