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Extended Audio Sample A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent Audiobook, by Robert W. Merry Click for printable size audiobook cover
3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 3.00 (770 ratings) (rate this audio book) Author: Robert W. Merry Narrator: Michael Prichard Publisher: Tantor Format: Unabridged Audiobook Delivery: Instant Download Audio Length: Release Date: March 2010 ISBN: 9781400184958
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When James K. Polk was elected president in 1844, the United States was locked in a bitter diplomatic struggle with Britain over the rich lands of the Oregon Territory, which included what is now Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Texas, not yet part of the Union, was threatened by a more powerful Mexico. And the territories north and west of Texas-what would become California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and part of Colorado-belonged to Mexico. When Polk relinquished office four years later, the country had grown by more than a third as all these lands were added. The continental United States as we know it today was established-facing two oceans and positioned to dominate both. In a one-term presidency, Polk completed the story of America's Manifest Destiny-extending its territory across the continent, from sea to sea, by threatening England and manufacturing a controversial and unpopular two-year war with Mexico that Abraham Lincoln, in Congress at the time, opposed as preemptive. Robert W. Merry tells this story through powerful debates and towering figures-the outgoing President John Tyler and Polk's great mentor, Andrew Jackson; his defeated Whig opponent, Henry Clay; two famous generals, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott; Secretary of State James Buchanan (who would precede Lincoln as president); Senate giants Thomas Hart Benton and Lewis Cass; Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun; and ex-president Martin Van Buren, like Polk a Jackson protege but now a Polk rival. This was a time of tremendous clashing forces. A surging antislavery sentiment was at the center of the territorial fight. The struggle between a slave-owning South and an opposing North was leading inexorably to Civil War. In a gripping narrative, Merry illuminates a crucial epoch in U.S. history. Download and start listening now!


Quotes & Awards

  • A compelling, perceptive portrait of one of the oddest men ever to occupy the White House. The Wall Street Journal

Listener Opinions

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Patricrk patrick | 2/19/2014

    " Manifest destiny was not a sure thing, read about the politics that went into the war with mexico "

  • 2 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 5 Steve | 2/15/2014

    " An OK read, The first part was slow. However, during the presidency of James K. Polk the Mexican War was fought and the United States defeated Mexico. Therefore, the states of California, Arizona, and Texas was acquired. "

  • 2 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 5 Robert Melnyk | 2/3/2014

    " Not one of my favorites. While there was a lot of interesting insights into Polk, the men around him, and the era in general, I think it got way too bogged down in details. It could have easily been done in 350 pages instead of 477 and, I think, would have made a much better book. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Richard | 1/21/2014

    " The crowning achievements of James K. Polk's Presidency are like historical sausage. Everybody appreciates the end result of a country which emerged after 1848 in the aftermath of our Mexican War; a country which for the first time spanned from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, foreshadowing a world superpower based on a great contiguous amount of territory unencumbered, for the first time in its history, with the need to defend against the land claims of foreign governments. As with sausage making, however, the political, diplomatic and military processes of getting to this point were not pretty. This is why Polk is described as one of the most effective presidents of all time, accomplishing in four years an ambitious plan to overhaul the nation's economic system, obtaining America's claims on the Oregon territory in dispute with Great Britain, and adding Texas and California (and the territory comprising contiguous Western states) to the national domain; and as one of the most despicable presidents, for starting a war to get vast tracts of land which would be made into slave states. One of the greatest accomplishments of Merry's book is its debunking of simplistic historical finger-pointing. "A Country of Vast Designs" contains one of the best descriptions of the turbulent American political scene of the 1840's, a time which the casual observer may gloss over as just one of the intervening decades between our nation-defining two wars with Great Britain and our Civil War. One of the factors propelling events along was the subject of Texas. Since its independence from Mexico and establishment of a Republic ten years earlier, the question of its annexation as a State was continuously debated. Opinion was divided, inside and outside Washington D.C. The Southern, slave-owning constituency of the Democratic Party would most benefit from a new, vast slave state but even some powerful Democrats opposed the idea, including the former and presumed future Presidential contender, Martin Van Buren. His opposition to annexation was based on the quite rational ground that incorporating this Republic into the Union would lead to irreparable relations with Mexico. This represented one of the first great rifts within the prevalent political parties, and was likely a key reason why he couldn't secure enough votes to win the nomination at the Democratic Party Convention. This is how the former Tennessee governor, Polk, rose from a possible Van Buren Vice-Presidential candidate to the head of the Democratic ticket. The opposition Whigs opposed annexation of Texas until, at least, this goal could be achieved through diplomacy. Their party's ideology became more muddled by the announcement of its incumbent, John Tyler, that he favored immediate annexation. And so the established order of politics in the country began to take on new forms. Polk was elected and wrangled the acceptance of Texas into the Union. In this and subsequent political battles and deals, as Merry shows, Polk followed his vision of a grand design for the country rather than a parochial need to extend slavery or any other special interest. He was an introverted, workaholic individual who worked tenaciously to get what he wanted; when he adopted a position, he never allowed any thought of possible negative outcomes to stall his plan of action. His goal was to see the United States enlarged and its territories consolidated into a transcontinental nation. He believed the accomplishment of this goal would be a source of national pride and not of divisiveness. His political theology was firmly grounded on the spreading concept of Manifest Destiny, (reviewer's note: originally named by a journalist named John O'Sullivan, as a refinement of his earlier "Divine Destiny"; it was a romanticized justification of national expansionism based on a claimed concept of a divinely favored America). Polk was able to wrangle New Mexico and California from the clutches of Mexico in relatively bloodless fashion, using, in the latter case, a pair of military officers, John C. Fremont and Robert Stockton, who were guided by the White House's secret dispatches and their own overblown ego's into fomenting intrigue on the ground in a far-off Mexican territory that the mother country couldn't effectively police. This constituted dubious legal possession, however. What was needed was something more definitive to force the Mexican government to cede the territories to the United States. Polk, the master manipulator, delivered the vainglorious but disfunctional Mexicans into his hands by ordering General Zachary Taylor and his army units to occupy the ground between the Rio Grande and Neuces Rivers, an area that had been claimed by the Texas Republic and Mexico and never formally resolved. A Mexican armed force sent to the area fired the first shots at the alleged American interlopers and a Mr. Polk had his war. Polk also got what he did not want from this development: A new round of tensions centered on the introduction of slavery into newly acquired territories. The issue now was California. David Wilmot of Pennsylvania opened the scab of contention in the House with the introduction of a proviso recommending that no slaves be allowed in any states formed from any territories won from Mexico. It became the rallying cry for the Congressional abolutionists, and tangible proof to the Southern House members that their way of life was under siege. Merry does not provide a blow-by-blow description of the two years of war which ensued, since this is not a battle-field history. He does show, however, that even though the President, and many Americans got what they wanted in the remarkable series of victories which defeated Mexico, the war and the political infighting taking place in the country took a serious toll on Polk. The peace treaty ending the war ceded enough land to enlarge the domain of the United States by over one-third, including, based on my internet search, much or all of the present states of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming. Polk could be proud of his part in adding 600,000 square miles to the national domain, counting Oregon, Texas and the success of the Mexican struggle, resulting in dominance of the Pacific coastline in North America with its great harbors (p. 449). So why isn't Polk on Mount Rushmore? Merry goes on to explain how Polk's legacy has always had to carry burdens first placed on it by the opposition Whigs, that he manufactured an unnecessary war, that he lied publicly about the initial nature of the initial conflict with the Mexican army, that he engaged in theft of territory from a weaker nation, that he caused the United States to become an international aggressor (p 474). In Polk's defense, Merry reminds us of the hypocrisy and presidential deceit surrounding every American war; Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush cannot escape these charges (Ibid.). He also raises the fact that Texas was an independent country prior to 1846, legally able to define and argue for its own boundaries; and that Mexico's decision to cut off diplomatic relations with the United States after nine years of remaining passive to the Texas Republic's claims to the same lands was highly provocative. Merry goes on a little more shaky ground, I think, when he describes a "fundamental reality of history" as a rationale behind the engaging of war by the United States at this time. As he explains it, history proceeds with a "crushing force" much stronger than moral guidelines. It is true, as Merry writes, that Mexico's government was highly unstable and weak, and the country didn't contain a population sufficient to populate the Texas/New Mexico/California Mexican states sufficient to dispel the force of a nation poised to span the entire continent, ready to dominate the commerce of everything between the two oceans. (p. 476). These facts are true historically, but Merry seems to use them as justifications for the actions of Polk and the American Congress which led to war. One man's Manifest Destiny is another man's Imperialism. The book's essential point, however, is that Polk shouldn't be blamed for what was going to happen in one form or another anyway. Merry describes him as a product of his times, ready and willing to fulfill prevailing public opinion (p. 476). His contribution to the process was to provide the grand vision needed to focus the country's efforts on what was needed, to articulate concrete plans for its execution, and to supply the political sweat and muscle, as well as the dwindling supply of his own physical strength, to the geopolitical cause. The physical and mental strains on this president who spent himself through an inability to delegate the minutae of governing through effective managerial teamwork, and a refusal to take the time to relax between major legislative struggles, were real. Polk steadfastly refused to run for a second term and died three months after leaving office, at the age of 53. He may continue to have his detractors, but Merry emphasizes that what matters is that America, the country of "vast designs", has been united in its embrace of his "heady vision of national destiny "(p. 476) which is tangibly evident in the physical outline of the United States, his greatest legacy. The detritus left on the shop floor after this nation-building was ugly. As Merry notes, the country's treasury was depleted and many young American men, and Mexicans, had lost their lives. Much more lasting, it let loose civic-destroying forces which had not been foreseen (p. 477). The United States would celebrate the election of one of the war's most illustrious generals, Zachary Taylor, ironically a Whig, in 1848 but in less than the expanse of his term of office, the sectional conflicts exacerbated by the Mexican War and its aftermath would take on a head of steam. Over the next decade or so, the country would experience such depressing sights as the Dred Scott decision, Fugitive Slave Laws, widespread bloodshed in Kansas, John Brown's murderous theocratic militancy, open animosity accompanied at times by violence in the halls of Congress among individuals representing different parts of the country, and the secession of states. While James K. Polk cannot be blamed for these developments, it is accurate to describe his term of office as occurring during a hinge-point when the momentum of political forces leading to the future Civil War became unstoppable. "

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 Gary Smith | 1/5/2014

    " My son Stuart told me that James Polk was one of his favorite presidents. After reading this book I agree with Stuart. Polk had an amazing 4 years in the White House and in these years (more or less) defined the current borders of US, including the Canadian Border (all the way to Vancouver Island) and the full Mexican border. He accomplished this by playing "chicken" with England and attempting to buy the South Western (CA, NM, NV, AZ) parts of the current US from Mexico but ultimately fighting a war with them (and then finally buying the land for less than he originally offered). "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Mike Mccormick | 12/14/2013

    " Polk was a more important president than I thought "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Steve H | 11/28/2013

    " enjoyed book; was what I was looking for. Style and content easy to follow and he explains himself well; "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Pat | 11/24/2013

    " This is a thorough, detailed book. I learned a lot about the era of expansionism and our government's role in adding territory to our country. "

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 Daryl Thompson | 11/11/2013

    " Enjoyed reading - a great history of the growth of the US "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Kitty | 8/9/2013

    " A pretty good read-this is a part of my country's history that I was unaware of. It certainly puts the lie to the notion that political in-fighting is a 20th century situation. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Elyse | 1/16/2013

    " James Polk knew how to get a job done. He said if he was elected he would serve only one term and he kept his word. And he got done what he wanted to accomplish. Can't help but admire such doggedness even though some of his policies were underhanded. Lincoln didn't like him. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Jb | 8/31/2012

    " Current political posturing, intrigue & shenanigans in Washington about the same as in the 1840s except that back then communications were slow. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 John Hively | 8/12/2012

    " The book is a good biography of the life of James Polk, the eleventh president of the United States. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Ben | 5/15/2012

    " Started out slow, but really picked up. A great look at Polk's presidency. I would recommend it to anyone. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Allan Chen | 12/18/2011

    " Polk should be considered among the most accomplished presidents in history, but really does not get a fair shake, it seems. The book itself gets a bit dry in the middle, with a lot of him being stressed out over and over. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Jack | 10/2/2011

    " A great read about an unfortunately forgotten president legislating in an unfortunately forgotten time over a volatile war. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Paulie | 9/5/2011

    " Great book on the Jacksonian legacy in American politics. "

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 Greg | 8/24/2011

    " A great biography on our 11th president. I had no in-depth knowledge of Polk, and this book filled in the blanks. Such a controversial president so well discussed. A great biography starring a cast of intriguing persona, such as Zachary Taylor, Winfield Scott, Santa Anna, and many more. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Chris Terrell | 6/4/2011

    " Yeoman's job on an under-appreciated presidency. Merry's writing, however, could have been more engaging. I felt like I never really got to know Polk like I did Lincoln in Goodwin's " Team of Rivals." "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Adam | 4/9/2011

    " Polk is the president admired by historians but ignored by the laity. This highly complimentary bio explains the first, and indirectly explains the latter -- our moral discomfort with expansion and aggressive war. We don't like how the sausage is made. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Colleen | 4/4/2011

    " Enjoyed it. Dealt with all the major decisions but also included some glimpses of the man and his life, which is what I look for in presidential biographies "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Daniel | 4/4/2011

    " Good book on the politics of expansionism and early American politics.

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Matt | 3/1/2011

    " Filled in nicely the forgotten history of the United States between Jackson and Lincoln. Who knew that Polk should be considered in the top ten greatest American presidents? "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Do10271 | 2/1/2011

    " Good book about a little known president. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Dennis | 10/16/2010

    " Manifest Destiny was the cry and here is what it was all about. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Mike | 10/16/2010

    " Polk was a more important president than I thought "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Alex | 9/14/2010

    " Too much legislative bickering for my tastes, but I guess that is why the Mexican War is understudied. Not a bad book, but not worth going out of your way for. "

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 Salvatore | 5/20/2010

    " Well written, and all of the info you'll ever need to know about Polk, who had a much more interesting life than I had imagined. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Paul | 5/15/2010

    " Meh. . . Good information but it was spread out between too much information I didn't care about. Like driving though Nebraska. "

  • 1 out of 51 out of 51 out of 51 out of 51 out of 5 Forgottendreamr | 4/27/2010

    " While full of valuable information, this book became a painful chore to finish. "

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About the Author

Robert W. Merry is president and publisher of Congressional Quarterly, Inc. Formerly a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, where he covered national politics, Congress, and the White House, he is the author of the award-winning Taking on the World: Joseph and Stewart Alsop—Guardians of the American Century. He lives in McLean, Virginia.

About the Narrator

Michael Prichard is a Los Angeles-based actor who has played several thousand characters during his career, over one hundred of them in theater and film. He is primarily heard as an audiobook narrator, having recorded well over five hundred full-length books. His numerous awards and accolades include an Audie Award for Tears in the Darkness by Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman and six AudioFile Earphones Awards. He was named a Top Ten Golden Voice by SmartMoney magazine. He holds an MFA in theater from the University of Southern California.