A Country of Vast Designs, by Robert W. Merry
A Country of Vast Designs:
James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent
By Robert W. Merry
Simon & Schuster, 576 pages
Life isn’t fair, and neither, for sure, is history. One might think that being president of the United States would, ipso facto, assure a measure of immortality. But except for those of a certain age who were required to memorize the list of presidents in school, who today remembers the eight presidents who came between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln? Even those who had to memorize the list are usually hard-pressed to say anything about Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan beyond their names.
And most of these men, frankly, deserve their historical obscurity. William Henry Harrison was president for only a month before dying of pneumonia. Many scholars reckon James Buchanan as the worst president this country has ever had. But James K. Polk belongs only chronologically among these presidential nobodies. At the beginning of his presidency, on March 4, 1845, the United States encompassed 1.7 million square miles and barely reached the Rocky Mountains. Four years later, the United States had a long coastline on the Pacific as well as the Atlantic and would soon come to dominate both oceans, a fact that has had ever greater geopolitical consequences. The national territory increased by 70 percent under Polk, as Texas, Oregon, and the Southwest were acquired.
Indeed, much of iconic America today—Hollywood, Las Vegas, the Alamo, the Grand Canyon, the redwood trees—became part of this country not only while James K. Polk was president but also because he was president. Polk was, unabashedly, the president of Manifest Destiny and overcame considerable political opposition to achieve his vision of the country. To be sure, this vast new territory was not acquired painlessly. It involved a major war with Mexico, one that was not guaranteed of victory by any means. The fight over the extension of slavery to the new territories would be a major cause of the deepening divide between North and South that led to the Civil War a decade later. Indeed, the opposition to the extension of slavery was why so many major political figures of the time, including Henry Clay—Polk’s opponent in the 1844 election—and former President Martin Van Buren—his main opponent for the Democratic nomination—-opposed the annexation of Texas.
Polk was a slave owner and, indeed, bought more while he was president, but in his will he specified that they should be manumitted after the death of his wife. Extending slavery, however, was not the motivating force, or even a minor one, behind Polk’s determination to take Texas. Polk envisioned a country that extended to the Pacific, and he was going to achieve that vision, regardless of the cost.
Robert W. Merry, until recently the long-serving editor of Congressional Quarterly, has done a masterful job of bringing these pivotal four years of American political history to life. When the reader has finished Merry’s highly readable book, A Country of Vast Designs, he will understand fully why historians, if not the general public, rank Polk up with his mentor and hero, Andrew Jackson, not down with Tyler and Pierce.
This book is not, it must be said, a biography. The first 30 years of Polk’s life are covered in fewer than 10 pages. Much of that is devoted to what must have been a now unimaginable horror for a 17-year-old boy. For Polk had to endure a psychologically and physically agonizing operation—performed without an anesthetic, which wouldn’t be invented for another three decades—to remove bladder stones. In all likelihood the operation left him sterile and perhaps even impotent. Although Polk had a very happy marriage (his last words were “I love you, Sarah, for all eternity, I love you”), he and his wife had no children.
Even Polk’s pre-presidential political career is covered only very briefly. Although he was Speaker of the House for three years and governor of Tennessee for two, his occupancy of these high offices is covered in only five pages. It is his career as presidential candidate and president that is the book’s focus: from the political maneuvering that led to Polk’s nomination in 1844 until he left office in March 1849, three months before his death, at age 53.
The most momentous issue to capture Polk’s attention was the annexation of Texas. American settlers had poured into Texas, largely uninhabited by Europeans up to that point, and threw off Mexican political control. But Mexico never recognized Texas’s independence and threatened war if it joined the Union. The South was all for annexation. Texas had been largely settled by Southerners, and the South saw it as a natural area for expansion. But many in the North, fearing the entrance into the Union of more slave states, were opposed.
Polk wanted Texas and was perfectly willing to take big political risks to get it. It is a measure of his political skill that he was able to achieve it, balancing the varying interests of the Texan people (overwhelmingly for annexation), the president of Texas (who hankered for independence), and Britain and France (both opposed to annexation, hoping to limit America’s growing power). Given the ever hotter political hot potato of slavery, Polk was lucky to pull it off, but pull it off he did. Merry explains the machinations and maneuvers with great clarity, avoiding the inside baseball that so often makes the politics of a bygone era difficult to follow.
Polk soon sent troops led by General Zachary Taylor to Texas, and Taylor advanced to the Rio Grande. When a Mexican general demanded that he withdraw beyond the Nueces River, which Mexico regarded as the southern boundary of Texas, Taylor blockaded the river, preventing supplies from reaching Mexican forces at Matamoros. North of the Rio Grande there quickly ensued a skirmish in which six American soldiers were killed.
When the news reached Polk, he seized upon the incident to further his agenda and asked Congress to recognize a state of war with Mexico, claiming (dubiously at best) that Mexico had “shed American blood upon American soil.”
Two years later, thanks to some excellent generalship by Taylor and Winfield Scott (the Duke of Wellington called Scott’s campaign to take Mexico City “unsurpassed in military annals”), the American army was in occupation of Mexico City. By then negotiations were already underway to determine just how much of Mexico’s largely uninhabited (at least by Mexicans) northern territories would be ceded to the United States. Polk was determined to have California and the territory lying between California and Texas. He also wanted Lower (Baja) California and transit rights across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico. Many, especially in the South, wanted to take all of Mexico, but Polk knew that would be a disaster that would turn Mexico into an American Ireland.
When Polk thought that his chief negotiator, Nicholas Trist, was failing to get what Polk had wanted, he recalled Trist. But Trist did Polk a favor by ignoring his recall (at the urging of Scott) and completed a treaty that gave Polk all that he had demanded if not quite all he had hoped for.
The other major matter that occupied Polk’s attention was the Pacific Northwest. The United States claimed the Oregon territory, which had been jointly administered (to the extent it had been administered at all) by the United States and Great Britain since 1818, all the way to the border with Russian Alaska. The British claimed as far south as the Columbia River. Polk, who had quite enough on his plate farther south, was from the first willing to compromise, and the British were hardly anxious for another war with the United States. They agreed to extend the line that divided Canada from the Louisiana Purchase at the 49th parallel all the way to the Pacific, creating what has long been the longest undefended international boundary on earth.
Merry takes us deep inside those four momentous years, bringing to vivid life not only a president who deserves better from history but also such characters as John C. Calhoun, Thomas Hart Benton, Henry Clay, and even James Buchanan, who served Polk (badly) as secretary of state. This is a book well worth reading, both for pleasure and for enlightenment regarding a crucial period in American history. Far from being a nobody, Polk administered the most consequential single-term presidency in American history. With this diverting effort to make the case for Polk’s importance, Robert Merry has performed a national service.