Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent

Genre: History
Author:Robert W. Merry
James Knox Polk was a protege of the better-known American general and President Andrew Jackson. He was the eleventh president and, though despised and reviled by many of his rival Whig Party enemies (including a young Congressman, Abraham Lincoln) , the United States had a territory 500,000 square miles larger than it had been four years earlier when Polk first took the Oath of Office on a rainy day in Washington City in March of 1845.

The better-known Jackson served two four-year terms (1828-1836) and ignited a new democratic spirit in the nation--a spirit that because of the times was confined to working white men and small farmers, and not include women, blacks, or Native-Americans.

Jackson, "Old Hickory" he was called, was a hard-bitten rawhide figure who managed to gain great success during the War of 1812 by defeating a British force at the Battle of New Orleans and later driving Native-American fighters like the Seminoles off their lands.

He was the first President from the then-frontier state of Tennessee, and the neo-Jeffersonian champion against the forces that wanted a National Bank. (Which he felt put too much power in the hands of New York speculators, among other things.) Jackson is immortalized still on the $20 bill and remained an immensely popular Chief Executive until the beginnings of the modern Civil Rights Movement.

And yet, you could make the argument that James K. Polk, the man known as "Young Hickory" , did more in the four years he was President (1844-1848) than his mentor did in eight.

Polk was an accidental President in many ways. A former shining light in the Jacksonian Democratic Party, stalwart Polk (1798-1849) had gone from point-man for Jackson to Speaker of the House in Congress in the mid-1830's. He was from the same state as the shrewd and imperious Jackson and basically didn't go to the bathroom without consulting the older man.

A few years later, however, the rival Whig Party started to gain ground thanks to the leadership of Henry Clay, a Congressman who popularized an "American System" of internal improvements (canals, roads, port facilities) into the growing nation. The Whig Party was a national movement that favored high tariffs to develop the nation. This was seen as favoring the industrializing centers of New England and the Mid-Atlantic and Upper Midwest where slavery had been pushed out of existence. Low tariffs, favored generally by the Democrats, helped promote trade with Britain, France and Europe--especially agricultural crops like cotton, which were slave-labor dependant.

Polk was a defeated candidate for governor of Tennessee in 1843. The political career of this Tennessee plantation (and slave) holder seemed to have peaked and he went back to the town of Columbia, south of the state capital, Nashville, to lick his wounds.

But one year later Polk was back in the ascendancy. He had his name placed in nomination for the Vice-Presidency. With a new "two-thirds" approval rule in the Nomination Convention in Baltimore, Maryland, however, none of the favorite candidates could pull off a super-majority of the delegates. A compromise candidate was needed, someone who was from a border state (like Tennessee) who could draw both Northern and Southern support. And Polk--after multiple ballots--got a bigger prize than he had hoped for.

It was a hard-fought national campaign for the Presidency, however. Polk's opponent was the great Henry Clay himself. Clay has served in Congress longer than Polk and had a national reputation as "The Great Compromiser" who had staved off clashes between free and slave states in the young Republic. Along with Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, he was one of the three greatest political leaders of the Jackson Era and remained so until his death. Yet Polk beat him--narrowly, in part, the author states, because Clay underestimated how important the expansion of the nation was to many voters, particularly those who wanted to see the new republic of Texas (which had gained independence from Mexico in an Anglo-American inspired uprising a decade earlier) admitted to the Union.

Clay was lukewarm on the Texas issue, knowing that it would lead to problems with the balance of power between slave and free states. (Texas was a slave republic, which was one of the reasons white men fought to be free of this part of Mexico's northern frontier. Mexico has abolished slavery when she won independence from Spain.) "Young Hickory", however, was pro-Texas, and he also articulated in his letters to his followers--it was considered unseemly to openly campaign in those days--- that he wanted as much of the Oregon Territory as well, which was then jointly administered by the USA and the British through their Hudson Bay Company.

He was also not shy about being prepared to go to war with Mexico to secure Texas and also take New Mexico and California as well, either by purchasing them from the cash-strapped Mexican government or by conquest.

A "war of choice" you might say.

There is enough political intrigue in "A Country of Vast Designs" to keep any history nerd like me enthralled. Polk himself is not a very intriguing figure, but he was focused and stubborn and, whatever can be said for the immorality of the Mexican War--which cost 11,000 American lives and many more Mexican ones--he changed the map of America forever and made it a transoceanic power. The careful negotiations with Great Britain over Oregon, where Polk was at odds with his own more-cautious Secretary of State, James Buchanan, also make for interesting reading. If Britain and Mexico had formed an alliance against American western expansion, as Buchanan feared, it would have been a disaster.
That was another thing about Polk, he was not a great leader, but he was damn lucky.

Well, except for the fact that he died four months after he left office from disease author Merry says says was brought about by stress and exhaustion battling with Congress and his own cabinet over the shape of the nation and its fiscal structure.
It is likely his early death that prevented James K. Polk--The Napoleon of the Stump-- from getting his rightful share of both Machiavellian credit and moral blame for the "vast designs" of America in modern America. He personified the Age of Manifest Destiny.

Here's a song about the 11th President, courtesy of the off-beat 80's rock band They Might Be Giants


  1. Thank you, Doug. That was an interesting write-up. I can't say I have read up much on this subject, only in its links with the slave trade and one or two other points. Maybe the book would be a good starting point.


  2. I understand that well, Cassandra. A lot of what I'm familiar with on British history at this time concerns how the policies of Robert Peel or Palmerston effected the influx of Irish emigration to America, for instance.

    I think this would a good book to peruse for understanding how the USA got, through war and negotiation, to be a Pacific-based power, poised to take advantage of the gold rushes, land booms that the emerging power of the railroads that settled the West.

    "Vast Designs" is also an excellent curtain-raiser to the calamity of the American Civil War--all that new territory became as much a curse as a blessing as forces in the slave-holding Southern states realized that, with the Pacific Coast territories closed to slavery, their national power was on the wane and they desperately sought new means to prevent northern industrial power and "free-soil" and "free-labor" forces from ending the "peculiar institution" of chattel slavery.

    Thank you.

  3. That is a great moniker, isn't it? Something very folksy and yet scary about that one.

    A friend mentioned Polk's nickname to me just as I started the book, and I couldn't help chuckling because it is also funny being that Napoleon is such a giant oak and Polk such a sprig.

    Polk usually falls somewhere down below the top ten of of American leaders overall, and "first in his class" of the lusterless politicians and over hyped ex-generals who held the White House between 1840-1860.

    There were a lot of forgettable Presidents between Jackson and Lincoln--Millard Fillmore being our most "famous" obscure President. This period is passed over quickly in popular histories and documentaries to get to the Civil War. The truth is, this 1840's era has as much intrigue and political and international backroom dealing as any in our history.

    That a book about Polk could be a even a modest best seller over here indicates further evidence of a renewed and direct interest in this chapter of pre-Civil War American history, brought off in part I think by the issue of emigration from Mexico and Central America. The fears and conflicts this has engendered in border states like Arizona and places in the Middle West has been, along with the economy, a front-burner issue over here.

  4. I don't know how this post passed me by Doug, it was probably being away camping at the end of last week, but anyway I have caught up with this excellent review now.

    Thanks for reviewing this very interesting book that looks at the evolution of the modern United States and the seminal role of James K Polk in that process. It is a book I'd be interested in reading myself as I too am interested in the way history seems to fit together.

    Over and above the consolidation of America and the fracture's caused by slavery in the early seismic upheavals in shaping the New World and the continental political shifts in the shaping of North America.

    The ideological impact of Manifest Destiny is an issue that as you know Doug, I am also very interested in and this book covers a fascinating era in both American and world history.

    The 1840s were an amazing decade with many remote events having an impact on emergent America, from the start of Polk's presidency there was upheavals in Europe; the establishment of a unified Germany; the French Second Republic ratifies its new Constitution; in 1846 the British Government repeals the Corn Laws, replacing the old Colonial mercantile trade system with Free Trade..... and Ireland is beset by the Great Famine....truly 'interesting times' in the way that term is meant by the Chinese curse I think Doug.

    The overwhelming impression for me though is if has only been about 160 years since the United States in its more or less present form arose, who is to say that it needs to maintain that shape?

    America is politically what Iceland is geologically, a new still forming, newly born entity.

    The results of Polk's experiment has now failed entirely I think, as all historical experiments must, it seems to me that it is now a time to go back to basics and seriously address the question what .......does America mean in the 21st century?

    Personally I think this is one of the most pressing questions of our Age Doug, thanks for rooting the discourse in the failing Vast Designs that is in the title of this must read book. A great review.

  5. Thanks (belateedly) for your feedback,AA, and for putting into modern international context the events I talk about from this book.