by 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. "