Thursday, June 09, 2011

James Polk: President 1845-1849

My history book club met last night to discuss A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent by Robert W. Merry. The consensus, with which I agreed, was that it was a pretty good book, well organized and relatively easy to read.

During Polk's single term of office, "the United States grew by more than a million square miles, adding territory that now composes the states of Arizona, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, Idaho, Washington, much of New Mexico, and portions of Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado." There were also important financial reforms passed by the Congress and signed into law. For some reason Polk's presidency seems to garner little attention in American schools, but it was an important period in American history nonetheless.

Source of map
The population of the United States was growing quickly in the early 19th century, and especially quickly in the 1840s with large scale immigration from Ireland and Germany. In the lives of senior political figures railroads had been introduced as had steamships and travel was becoming more convenient. The postal service had been instituted and the telegraph was beginning to be influential by the end of Polk's term in office. The American System of Manufacturing had been successfully institutionalized and rifles with interchangeable parts were being manufactured in U.S. armories. The cotton gin and McCormick's reaper had been invented and were transforming agriculture in the nation. I suspect that leading thinkers could see how a nation ruled from Washington could come to rule a huge territory effectively, spanning the continent from sea to sea.

Not mentioned in the book was the fact that West Point had been established, leading to the creation of an exceptional young officer corps that included people like Lee, Grant and Sherman who served in junior roles in the Mexican campaigns. (The naval academy was established in 1845.) The regular U.S. army was strong enough to accept and train large numbers of volunteers for service in Mexico, and the U.S. navy was strong enough to dominate Mexican waters and blockade its ports.

1848 was a year of European upheaval that has been compared with this year's Arab Spring. France, Germany, the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Italy were in turmoil. The Irish potato famine had begun in 1845 and increased in the following years leading to a million deaths and mass migration. Mexico, which had gained independence earlier in the century was undergoing major political upheavals; the north of Mexico was suffering from major Indian insurgencies and Mexico city could not effectively govern the northern states including New Mexico and California.

Polk lead an effective reform of the federal tariffs, leading to increased trade and indeed to increased revenues for the government. He also led return to a strong U.S. Treasury that would hold federal funds and manage the gold and silver reserves that backed U.S. currency. While the annexation of Texas had been carried by his predecessor, President Tyler, it was completed early in Polk's presidency. The agreement on joint administration of the Oregon Territory and western Canada by Britain and the United States was abrogated by Polk, and a new treaty was negotiated giving the United States control of the lands south of the 49th parallel. In the treaty ending the war with Mexico, the United States not only established the boundaries of Texas but obtained New Mexico and California. (Not mentioned in the book) Polk's administration also negotiated a treaty with what is now Colombia which granted rights to a canal across the Isthmus of Panama that eventually led to the creation of the Panama Canal.

How do we rank Polk as a president? 

The book makes clear that he had great difficulties managing his administration, from the conflict within his cabinet and his party to the way in which he appointed men he did not trust to manage the war and then undercut them. On the other hand, his long service in the Congress including as Speaker of the House under Jackson seems to have made him a master at getting what his administration needed from the legislature. Historians seem to have a more positive view of Polk than does the general public, ranking him as a good president, but not among the greatest. There is no doubt that he set clear goals for his administration and was very consistent in seeking them. It seems that he was intellectually gifted.

Counting against Polk are the facts that he was a slave owner, racially prejudiced against blacks and Indians, prejudiced against Mexicans (as of mixed race), and probably held religious prejudices against Catholics. Still, it seems more fair to judge Polk as a man of his time, rather than against the cultural beliefs of our own. The difficulty is that the 1840s marked a watershed in American life.

I think there was a marked clash between the idea of American Exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny. The exceptionalist doctrine held that the United States was exceptionally virtuous, and that our democratic republican government with its respect for human rights and rule of law set the nation above others -- less likely to exploit other peoples and more likely to seek to set a good example among nations. Manifest Destiny, a term first appearing in 1846, held that divine providence would assure that the Anglo-Saxon, Protestant peoples of the United States would invariably come to rule the continent "from sea to sea". While the belief in American Exceptionalism may have been credited as the reason for divine support of territorial expansion, the methods that were used to achieve that expansion appeared to many (including Lincoln and Grant) to undermine the virtues claimed. Polk clearly was willing to go to war with Mexico (and England) to obtain the lands he wanted for the country.

There was also a clash between pro slavery and anti slavery factions. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had divided the country evenly between slave holding states and states in which slavery was not permitted. By 1844, there were equal numbers of slave and non-slave states. Texas was brought into the union as a slave state, but Mexico had outlawed slavery and New Mexico and California raised the issue of slavery again. Southerners (correctly) perceived that if the majority of the nation became anti-slavery, then they would eventually lose their slaves. Thus slavery again became a major issue in the context of the Mexican war and its resolution. This was over the objection of Polk who did not want the issue raised to complicate the annexation of huge tracts of land.

Ultimately, it seems clear that the vast majority of the country wanted the United States to acquire the lands of Oregon, New Mexico and California. (Perhaps both the pro slavery and the free land factions thought that they would personally benefit from the sparely populated lands that could be acquired and made productive.) Polk clearly played a major role in acquiring those lands so desired by the nation, and thus should be seen as successful in the aspirations of his time and place.

Merry, president and editor-in-chief of the Congressional Quarterly, provides a great view of the processes of deliberation and decision making within the administration. I think that the lessons from the study of those processes still apply today, albeit in a much more complicated government. (I suppose the processes among Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell were as Byzantine as those among Polk and his cabinet.) The book is even better on the complex maneuvering to obtain desired legislation from the Congress and to hold the President's party together and to keep it an effective political force. There is only so much an author can do with a book and still have it readable. While I might have liked to see more about Mexico, more about the Indians and their impact, and more about the geo-political setting, I appreciate the good job that the author did on the material he chose to emphasize!

James Knox Polk

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