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A Fire Bell in the Night

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A Country of Vast Designs

By Robert W. Merry
Simon & Schuster, 2009

There was nothing outwardly presidential about James K. Polk. He was an effective partisan and a sycophant whose greatest talent was in knowing which way the wind blew. He was an intellectually uncurious mediocrity, obstinate, uncharismatic and fearful of personal confrontations. Yet Polk was responsible for creating a continental nation, roughly doubling the size of the United States by adding 1.2 million square miles of territory (that would become the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, and parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming), and he was thus the last President of any consequence before Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. It is this figure, whose character and talents are so wildly outstripped by his achievements, who is the focus for Robert W. Merry’s new book A Country of Vast Designs.

James Polk was elected to the House of Representatives for Tennessee in 1826 after serving several terms in the state legislature. He had also served in the Tennessee state militia where he achieved the rank of colonel and was, as one might expect from a militia officer, a staunch supporter the state’s favorite son, Andrew Jackson. In the House he railed against John Quincy Adams’ administration and the perceived injustice of the “corrupt bargain” that put it in office, much to the gratification of Jackson, who kept abreast of events back in the Hermitage while biding his time.

Jackson would soon join Polk in Washington after being swept into the presidential mansion in the election of 1828. As Merry observes:

Polk would be well positioned to help his mentor – and reap plenty of benefit in the process. Jackson long had demonstrated shrewdness in finding bright and effective men who would rally to his cause. Now as president he needed many such followers, and he could not find a better man than Polk to serve his interests in the House.

In 1832, as Jackson was beginning his war on the Bank of the United States, he demanded a congressional inquiry into that beleaguered institution. This was undertaken by the House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Gulian Verplanck. When the inquiry committee did not return a satisfactorily condemnatory report of Jackson’s nemesis, the loyal foot soldier Polk (acting as a John Yoo of yesteryear) took to the floor of the House and argued that only the president had jurisdiction on questions of the bank’s charter or alleged mismanagement, and that any action of Congress on the subject was invalid. “Jackson,” Merry writes, “incorporated many of Polk’s arguments into his bank speeches.”

In quid pro quo for his support Jackson twisted arms in order to make Polk Speaker of the House in 1834. Here Polk stayed until 1838 when he returned to Tennessee to run for governor. He won a single term there. Unable to unite his own party, he was unsuccessful in his bid for reelection. He lost again in1843 to the same rival. Merry tells us:

Never before had Polk experienced such a defeat. Throughout his career he had been buoyed by the Jacksonian wave, that great political force that had dominated Tennessee and the nation for nearly two decades. This potent wave had shaped him and guided him through countless political struggles during a particularly intense time of civic combat. It had incubated his congressional career and sustained it through seven terms in the House. It had propelled him to positions of influence in the chamber, then to its highest station. It had swept him into his state’s premiere political office. And throughout his adulthood it had instilled in his consciousness a sense that his career was moving always in tandem with history. Now it failed him.

This raises the paradoxical question that often plagues the historian (and that’s never far from any study of someone like Polk): do men make the times or do the times make the men? Jackson, for good or ill, was a man who made the times. Through his fame, stubbornness, fanaticism and utter disregard for those who did not share his opinion, he created a new political consensus that would reign for nearly thirty years. In tacit recognition of this fact, he’s the only individual whose name is used to describe a historical era in America: the Age of Jackson.

Polk was decidedly the other type, a man who was made by the times. Reading A Country of Vast Design one gets the distinct feeling of historical undercurrents at work, events gaining momentum and moving precipitously towards a predetermined though unseen fate, steamrolling those, like John Quincy Adams or Henry Clay, who tried to resist. Such a feeling of inevitability percolates in the 1840’s.

Merry seems to relish the idea of the wagons rolling west, transporting a self-declared chosen people – spreading themselves across a continent with the smug entitlement of those who are sure their actions are ordained by Providence. You can sense his excitement that America, in a thrilling instant, leapt to grab hold of its destiny; he seems to want to jump to his feet alongside the young nation and shout, “Pioneer! O pioneers!” His tendency towards American triumphalism persists throughout the book, as he describes the epoch:

James Polk … stood before a nation in transformation…. There still would be tensions over the definition of America in economic terms: whether the country should be guided by those who sought to generate progress through governmental projects and good works, through protective tariffs and the concentration of economic power in a federal bank; or whether the country should avoid concentrations of power, either economic or political, and distribute it as widely through the polity as possible. But these frictions were less intense now. They had been superseded by a new political development – the explosive emergence of the expansionist impulse. Soon a New York editor … would codify this powerful sentiment in a powerful catch phrase … Manifest Destiny. In doing so he would bring a powerful sense of justification to the country’s territorial aims and implant the new impulse into the framework of the Democratic Party. A new dream had taken hold, of a vast and bountiful nation stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, with ports and commerce and naval fleets on both oceans and a burgeoning and productive population in between.

And he goes on in other passages, weaving excuses for later violence and casting himself in the role of imperial apologist:

…this was a time of abundant American adventurism and unbridled adventures. In most instances these adventurers were driven by an overarching sentiment that animated the national consciousness of the day – the dream of expanding America’s territorial reach to the Pacific, then as far north and south as possible along that coastline. Texas represented a large chunk of that dream.

Texas was a large part of reality as well. For Polk, the year 1843 began with his second failed bid for governor, continued with an all-out blitz for the Democratic vice presidential nomination, and ended by winning his party’s nomination for president. But the road was not easy, and nobody could have foreseen such an outcome. Former President Van Buren was the presumptive nominee, and just getting to be number two on the ticket should have been an uphill battle for Polk, because Tennessee’s delegates refused to endorse ‘The Magician’ (as Van Buren was known), settling instead on a westerner, Lewis Cass.

However, a major shakeup occurred when the news broke that President Tyler was (not so) secretly negotiating a treaty of annexation with the then independent Republic of Texas. What followed would, in Merry’s words, “create new political fault lines in the [Democratic] party and introduce powerful new emotions. It could give new impetus and force to the anti-Van Buren elements.”

Both Van Buren and the presumptive Whig nominee, the indomitable Henry Clay, came out against annexation. Both men agreed that annexation would certainly lead to war with Mexico, but Clay presciently pointed out the other inherent structural troubles the acquisition would create for the United States:

Clay then introduced the fearsome implications of the slavery question without putting to paper the politically charged word. There were those, he said, who favored annexation and those who opposed it “on the ground of the influence which it would exert in the balance of political power between two great sections of the Union.” This was ominous, he argued, for “such a principle, put into practical operation, would menace the existence … of the Union. It would proclaim to the world an insatiable and unquenchable thirst for foreign conquest or acquisition of territory.” That’s because if Texas were acquired to further the internal ambitions of one region, then the opposing region could just as appropriately argue for the acquisition of, say, Canada to redress the imbalance. The logic leads inexorably to an ideology of conquest and hence to the destruction of fundamental principles underlying the republic.

There were fateful consequences for Clay and Van Buren towing roughly the same line on this issue. Henry Clay could claim undivided leadership of the Whig Party, his position on annexation became his party’s platform plank, so the stance he took on the question was of little consequence to his prospects for his party’s nomination. However, as Merry points out, Van Buren was on shakier ground. With regional fissures already bubbling up to disrupt Democratic unity, his coming out against annexation undid Van Buren’s hopes of a return to national preeminence:

Already he had faced considerable opposition within his party, particularly from southern slaveholders and western entrepreneurs. In the best of circumstances it would not have been easy getting the nomination while avoiding a party rupture. Now that rupture was unavoidable.

As the 1843 Democratic Convention started to tear itself apart, with Southern delegates threatening to bolt should Van Buren receive the nomination, Polk, who had painstakingly managed to cobble together a consensus for his vice presidential nomination, rather rapidly emerged as the compromise candidate. He was, as Pennsylvania delegate Reah Frazer put it,

the bosom friend of Old Hickory … the man who stood up in defense of the old general during the panic session … the man who fought so bravely and so undauntingly the Whigs of Tennessee, the pure, whole hog, locofoco democrat, who goes against … the ring-streaked and speckled Whig party, with all its odious, abominable measures.

Despite Polk carrying 15 states to Clay’s 11 in the Presidential Election of 1844, and delivering an Electoral smack down of 170 votes to Clay’s 105, Polk only gathered 39,000 more votes than his opponent nationally – hardly a popular mandate. Some victors would have been made tentative by this but not Polk; during his term as president he pursued an audacious foreign policy of expansionism. In a conversation with his Naval Secretary, George Bancroft, Polk declared his presidential agenda which included, “First,” [Bancroft reported], “he planned to settle the Oregon question with Great Britain and extend America to the Pacific Ocean. Second, he would acquire California from Mexico and secure for his country an additional broad expanse of coastal territory.”

James K. Polk

Carrying out these goals meant treating with sovereign nations. The question of acquiring California was complicated by Mexican irritation over the annexation of Texas, but otherwise both Oregon and Texas were similar in that they were both the site of border disputes. This is an interesting point at which to stop and question the different attitudes the United States brought to these separate negotiations, something Merry does not dwell on although there are critical historical motivations at work here.

Throughout its dealings with Great Britain, the United States maintained an underlying, palpable respect. Yes, Polk was often blustery and petulant; in his inaugural address he claimed the United States’ “title to the country of Oregon was clear and unquestionable.” Later, he nearly cut off negotiations after the rejection of a compromise offer for the 49th parallel, and he refused to proffer another. Merry reports on a conversation with Secretary of State James Buchanan:

Polk expressed satisfaction with his country’s position and digressed at length on why he had never wished to pose the 49th parallel in the first place and why he was pleased it had been rejected. Now he was free to spurn that compromise line altogether and hold out for more.

But warnings of a growing war fever in Britain and the looming threat of fighting a two-front war (tensions with Mexico were simultaneously escalating) ultimately brought Polk back to 49th Parallel compromise he detested. At the end of the day, his reckless game of brinkmanship would only yield “about three degrees of seacoast on the Pacific, with the eventual exclusive navigation of the chief river on the western slope of our continent.”

Negotiations with Mexico were not so grounded in gentlemanly realpolitik. As Merry succinctly puts it, “while Polk was willing to risk war to fulfill his designs on Oregon, it appeared he might actually need war to get what he wanted from Mexico.” The annexation of Texas and the inherited dispute over whether the Nueces or Rio Grande rivers was the state’s true border provided the perfect opportunity to get what he wanted. A decade earlier, Mexican leader Santa Anna (under duress while imprisoned by Texan forces at the end of their war for independence) had agreed that the Rio Grande was the southern border of Texas. However, by the time of American annexation agreed upon by both countries, this was again an open question. Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to proceed with a force 3,500 troops to the Rio Grande. There standing directly across from them on the far bank, in undisputed Mexican territory, sat a Mexican force in opposition.

An eruption of violence at this point was inevitable. There’s no question that the Mexican forces were the ones who physically attacked Taylor’s army, but the real question is: did Polk realistically think an alternative outcome was possible? Howard Zinn, in his classic A People’s History of the United States, in a chapter given the tongue-in-cheek title “We Take Nothing By Conquest … Thank God,” includes the voice of Colonel Ethan Allen Hitchcock (aide to General Taylor) who was present at the Rio Grande and writes in his diary:

I have said from the first that the United States are the aggressors…. We have not one particle of right to be here…. It looks as if the government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have a pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses, for, whatever becomes of this army, there is no doubt of a war between the United States and Mexico….

Merry insists that Polk “felt justified in securing the sparsely populated lands, claimed by Texas from the beginning, until the matter could be resolved through negotiations” but can’t seem to recognize the position of the Mexican commander when he demanded Taylor’s forces to fall back to the Nueces River “while our Governments are regulating the pending question in relation to Texas.” It’s that triumphalist tic of his.

Illustration from The Mexican War and its Warriors, by John Frost, 1948

Merry doesn’t explore Polk’s motivation, so the question remains: what was it in the fundamental American attitude toward the two nations that allowed the president feel he could march troops to the Rio Grande with impunity when dealing with Mexico but stopped him from even considering doing the same thing when it came to the 54th Parallel and dealing with Great Britain? Into Merry’s silence on this point, Zinn speaks again:

Accompanying all this aggressiveness was the idea that the United States would be giving the blessings of liberty and democracy to more people. This was intermingled with ideas of racial superiority, longings for the beautiful lands of New Mexico and California, and thoughts of commercial enterprise across the Pacific.…

The Illinois State Register asked: Shall this garden of beauty be suffered to lie dormant in its wild and useless luxuriance? … myriads of enterprising Americans would flock to its rich and inviting prairies; the hum of Anglo-American industry would be heard in its valleys; … the American Review talked of Mexicans yielding to “a superior population, insensibly oozing into her territories, changing her customs, and out-living, out-trading, exterminating her weaker blood….” the New York Herald was saying, by 1847: “the universal Yankee nation can regenerate and disenthrall the people of Mexico in a few years; and we believe it is a part of our destiny to civilize that beautiful country.”

Such as it was, the fighting in the Mexican-American War was decisive; the war dragged on for the most part because it was not entirely clear how much of a government remained in Mexico to make a peace. When peace finally came, however, it had dire and far reaching consequences for the future of the United States.

The vast new territories the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo “awarded” to the United States brought with them incredible tensions surrounding slavery – as Clay and others (but not Polk) had foreseen. According to Merry:

Polk … thoroughly embraced the new expansionist impulse that was capturing the national consciousness. With his limited imagination tied to a propulsive ambition and an unceasing tenacity, he embraced this new outlook without thought of nuance or ramification.

But this simplicity of outlook shrouded from his thinking an ominous new political reality unleashed by the expansionist impulse – the growing intensity of the slavery issue. The force and danger of that sectional fissure had struck many Americans over the years. Thomas Jefferson had recalled famously that the perils of the issue had hit him “like a fire bell in the night.”

The stresses these new lands brought to the precarious balance between slave and free states, combined with the abolitionist zeal then taking root in the North, led to what New York Senator William H. Seward called the “irrepressible conflict.” Regional tensions exacerbated sectionalism:

Northern Whigs, outraged by [South Carolina Senator John C.] Calhoun’s insistence on tying Texas annexation to slavery and the prospect of five new slave states along the Rio Grande, increasingly coalesced behind the politics of abolitionism. This put immense pressure on northern Democrats, who couldn’t ignore this growing voter sentiment without risking the loss of political standing.

Over the next decade, this pressure fractured Polk’s beloved Democratic Party. As delightfully detailed in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, the fragments of this party in the North would comingle with the sputtering Whigs and be reborn as the Republican Party.

Meanwhile, in the face of such political realignment the actors of the day faced a total systems failure in the gradual unraveling of the Missouri Compromise, a codified agreement which had smoothed over relations between North and South for nearly thirty years. Dating back to 1820, it had forbidden slavery in the territory of Louisiana above the 36th Parallel and introduced the informal notion of regional balance: for every slave state added to the Union, so too must a free state be added, so as not to tip the scales of power in the Senate.

Though Polk endorsed the principles of the Missouri Compromise by assenting to the exclusion of slavery in a bill that established a territorial government in Oregon, Congress was unable to formalize an agreement that would extend the 36th Parallel to the Pacific Ocean. These problems would drag on past Polk’s time in office, and crisis would only be averted by the Compromise of 1850 – which dissatisfied nearly everybody. In it, all of California would be admitted as a free state, in exchange for a more stringent Fugitive Slave Act. Additionally, so-called ‘popular sovereignty’ would be used to decide the nature of future states in relation to the question of slavery. The Compromise of 1850 was a last, desperate attempt to hold the Union together – an attempt made by two ancient Senatorial titans, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, who (with the help of Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas) were able to override the objections of another long-serving Senatorial institution, John C. Calhoun. But soon Clay, Webster, and Calhoun would be dead, and Douglas’ attempt to extend the principle of popular sovereignty in the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act proved disastrous. The flame that had been lit long ago by the peculiar institution and was fanned by James K. Polk’s Manifest Destiny continued to burn towards its terminus, the powder keg of civil war.

Merry is proud and unapologetic about what he sees as his country’s glorious achievements. Despite being peppered with soft admonishments of the President, his account makes it clear that he agrees with the means and ends of James K. Polk’s territorial ambitions and he’s an unabashed admirer of the man’s policies and character. These traits prevent A Country of Vast Designs from being an authoritative account of the Mexican-American War, the Polk Presidency, or Manifest Destiny, but they don’t stop the book from being well written and interesting. The story is full of vibrant, larger than life characters, twists and turns, international and parliamentary intrigues, buffoonish rivalries, and unbridled ambitions, all of which Merry relates very well. And at least he’s honest:

The moralistic impulse, when applied to the Mexican War, misses a fundamental reality of history: It doesn’t turn on moral pivots but on differentials of power, will, organization, and population. History moves forward with a crushing force and does not stop for niceties of moral suasion or concepts of political virtue. Mexico was a dysfunctional, unstable, weak nation whose population wasn’t sufficient to control all the lands within its domain. The United States by contrast was a vibrant, expanding, exuberant experiment in democracy whose burgeoning population thrilled to the notion that it was engaging in something big and historically momentous. The resulting energy – demographic, military, philosophical – generated a political compulsion toward expansion into largely unpopulated lands that seemed to beckon with irresistible enticement.

Merry is right, to an extent. History as a force is heartless and unforgiving and stops for no one. The scourge of slavery cannot be undone nor can the genocide against the indigenous tribes of North American be retracted, but it’s a priori that both were unjust. It is not an act of courage for a historian to defend the indefensible, and there is no shame in denouncing the Mexican War as an act of aggression by the United States, fought solely for territorial aggrandizement. Given Mexico’s inability to govern the extent of their lands, the United State probably would have been able to acquire much of the territory it sought through peaceable means, especially if it had been willing to sustain its efforts over twenty years as it had with Britain in the Oregon. Instead this incident showcases all the worst attributes of the American character, exposing the nation as a greedy bully and a predatory opportunist. Anyone retelling this history is duty bound not to dress the motives for the war in false glory. History may be inhumane, but historians are human – endowed not just with critical thought but also moral responsibility. The lessons they extract from the times they study, however objectively derived, must also deal in right and wrong so that only the best of our past will provide guidance for tomorrow.

Thomas J. Daly is a frequent Open Letters contributor living in Boston. He’d like to dedicate this review to the memory of Joan M. Daly, whose patience, encouragement and love has and always shall guide her boys.

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