For most people, when asked to name a historically significant US president, the name “James K. Polk” is not the first to come to mind. Sandwiched between the revolutionary trio of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson at one end and the giant presence of Abraham Lincoln at the other, his historical memory overshadowed by his larger-than-life mentor, Andrew Jackson, Polk seems to fade into the background of obscurity, lost among truly forgettable men such as Tyler or Pierce.
Journalist Robert W. Merry thinks this is odd and, when you consider Polk’s accomplishments over the course of his single term, one has to concede Merry has a point. In just four years, Polk succeeded in lowering tariffs to promote free trade, fostered the creation of an independent treasury for the holding of federal money, settled a lingering territorial dispute with Britain that avoided war and gave us our Pacific Northwest, and fought a war with Mexico that ended with the occupation of Mexico City and the acquisition of the American Southwest and California. In all, Polk added between 500,000-600,000 unimaginably valuable square miles to a nation that now extended from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
And yet we hardly know the man’s name.
Robert Merry sets out to rectify this in his “A Country Of Vast Designs,” which is a political history of Polk and his administration, and of the Mexican War.
The book covers quickly his early life, from his birth in North Carolina to his political career as a rising member of the House under President Jackson, whom Polk served so well and faithfully that Jackson almost regarded him as a son. Merry recounts how Polk’s political career seemed stalled or even at an end after he lost reelection as governor of Tennessee. But, a believer in his own destiny for greatness, Polk set his eyes higher, aiming for the nomination as vice-president at the Democratic Party’s 1844 convention in Baltimore.
Merry covers the machinations of the convention well, how a split between pro- and anti- tariff forces and another, more serious dispute over the question of whether to annex Texas crippled the candidacy of former president Martin van Buren (another Jackson protege) and left room for Polk to emerge as the original “dark horse” candidate. Polk went on to win, defeating the Whig Party’s perennial candidate, Henry Clay. (Who, convinced of his own intellectual superiority, couldn’t believe people were voting for Polk instead of him. Shades of John Kerry.)
While the domestic issues of Polk’s administration were significant, it is the twin issues of foreign affairs and war that take up the lion’s share of the book. Readers may be surprised to see how close we came to war with Britain over the Oregon territory (jointly occupied by the two powers, and which then included Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and portions of what is now Canada), thanks to recalcitrant maximalists in Polk’s own party and a freelancing British ambassador who left his government with the impression that the Americans would never compromise on their maximum demands. In the end, compromise was reached and the current boundary with Canada set.
Regarding the Mexican War, Polk has been perhaps unfairly charged with starting a war on false pretenses in order to steal Mexican territory. Merry shows that the boundary dispute that was the immediate trigger for war, whether the Texas-Mexico boundary was on the Nueces river or further south along the Rio Grande, was much more debatable than commonly accepted nowadays. Since it’s independence in the 1830s, Texas had repeatedly claimed the Rio Grande line and patrolled the land between the two rivers. Mexico, on the other hand, while claiming the Nueces line, made no move to enforce it, thus weakening its claim under international law. When Texas was admitted to the Union, Polk felt obliged to defend what the new state saw as its proper border, and so sent an army under General Zachary Taylor to protect it. A fatal clash between a detachment of Taylor’s troops and a Mexican force that had crossed the river lead Polk to ask for a declaration of war, his war message to Congress including the famous words “American blood has been shed on American soil.”
(It is worth noting that the opposition Whigs largely voted in favor of the war, then savagely criticized Polk after it dragged on, accusing him of starting an illegal war, violating the Constitution, and of usurpation. Sound familiar? And the irony of a Democrat suffering such abuse should not be lost on the perceptive reader.)
Without rehearsing the course of the war, itself, Merry’s telling of the tale may lead one to the conclusion that America was lucky to find itself in a fight with an opponent whose military leadership was genuinely incompetent and even more fractious than our own. While General Taylor was competent and General Winfield Scott was borderline brilliant, the clash of egos between these commanders and their subordinates, and the rank insubordination and disrespect shown by both men toward their commander in chief should leave modern readers appalled. (Not to mention the clash of egos among commanders in the Far West that nearly cost us California.) Indeed, the nation was “treated” to the sight of several courts martial and lesser disciplinary hearings — all against successful battlefield commanders who couldn’t keep their pride in check.
In the end, though, and even after the insubordination and firing of our chief negotiator, Nicholas Trist (who continued negotiating with the Mexicans, anyway, even after he’d been fired), Polk had his treaty gaining vast new territories in return for relieving Mexico of the large monetary claims American citizens had made against that nation after suffering decades of corruption and abuse. Approval of the treaty itself was a near-run thing, as opposition Whigs wanted to abandon the conquered lands as wrongfully gained, while the ugly question of slavery in the new territories threatened to tear Polk’s coalition apart.
Those were the events of Polk’s administration, but what does Merry tell us of the man, himself? While he was not a large, imposing man (in fact, Merry says several times that James Polk was quite unprepossessing), he was nevertheless convinced of both his and his country’s destiny for greatness. Entering office with just four goals –lower tariffs, an independent treasury, the settling of the Oregon question and the acquisition of Mexican territory to the Pacific– Polk set about them with a phenomenal single-mindedness and steadiness of purpose that belied his small stature.
But, like all men, he had his weaknesses. He loathed personal confrontation, thus never fired his Secretary of State, the future president James Buchanan, who richly deserved it. And Polk made excuses not to confront his Treasury Secretary, Mississippi’s Robert Walker, who may well have been embezzling funds or getting kickbacks on quartermaster contracts meant to supply the army in the field.
Polk also had an inability to separate normal, petty politics from the personal, so often took offense at things said in the normal course of the vicious political dialog of the day. (You think things are bad now…) His determination to achieve his goals also lead him to a sanctimony and self-righteousness that lead him to think only he truly had the nation’s interests at heart, a virtue he was rarely willing to ascribe to others.
And he was what we would call these days a micro-manager, delving into the details of the operations of government departments at a level far beneath what a president should concern himself with. While Polk had a tremendous capacity for work and a strong sense of duty to his job, he would also work himself to exhaustion. His later days in office were often marked by illnesses one suspects were brought on by overwork. Indeed, Polk died just a few months after leaving office in 1849.
In the end, Merry has done a creditable job reintroducing Americans to a significant period of our history and a significant president, both mostly and unjustly forgotten. If the book has a serious weakness, it may be that too much of the present informs Merry’s view of the past; at times, while reading “A Country of Vast Designs,” I felt as if I were reading a thinly disguised story of US politics in the years after the invasion of Iraq, with a self-serving opposition, charges of disloyalty, and vicious, uncalled for attacks against the president. Then again, it may be that rancor of that kind is simply a feature of democracies when they embark on controversial wars, whether in Mexico or in Iraq, and that Merry sees strong resemblances because they really are there.
Regardless, this is a tale entertainingly told, not with the depth of an academic work (and I hate the style of end-noting used), but with a journalist’s eye for personalities and color.
Fair disclosure: I get a few pennies from Amazon for clicking through the book links, and a few pennies more should anyone buy a copy.
(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)