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.
daring to fight a much stronger and more aggressive country. Still, one does not know where the truth lies, except that this was a good president who sought to preserve the union against all its foes, north and south, even though he favored slavery.
Still, such a narrative implies the importance of three presidents: Thomas Jefferson, due to the Louisiana Purchase; Andrew Jackson, with his policy of Indian removal in large territories; and James K. Polk, during whose presidency the Oregon territory and the bulk of the American Southwest were added to the United States. While Jefferson and Jackson have received sufficient attention through the years to be remembered by most Americans, Polk is largely forgotten.
Robert Merry, longtime journalist and author, and once editor-in-chief of Congressional Quarterly, attempts to remedy this with his recent book, "A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent." Focusing largely on the Polk Administration, and the political context leading up to it, Merry suggests that the first dark horse president was the true heir of Jackson's political philosophy — something recognized even in Polk's nickname, "Young Hickory" (Jackson was known as Old Hickory).
The comparison certainly has limitations. Although Jackson and Polk both hailed from the state of Tennessee, and although Polk owed much of his career to his association with Jackson, Polk was clearly a different political animal than Jackson. While both men had tempers, particularly when crossed or opposed, Jackson was the consummate party builder. Polk, on the other hand, more introverted and perhaps more intellectual than Jackson, had less patience or interest in dealing with other politicians. In the end, where the presidency seemed to magnify Jackson's lion-sized personality, it practically consumed Polk, leaving him a physically broken man who died within months of leaving office.
Polk's determined and aggressive response to the era's Manifest Destiny makes him a seminal figure in American history, though. His strong, even bellicose, rhetoric led to the annexation of Texas on the eve of his inauguration and guided his approach to securing the Oregon Territory from Britain and large parts of the Southwest from Mexico. Despite the election warcry of "54' 40° or Fight!", Polk oversaw negotiations which divided Oregon with England. Instead, Polk's expansionism would foment war with Mexico, whose anti-American feelings had significantly increased with the annexation of Texas.
War highlighted Polk's key strengths and weaknesses. In creating the climate for war and in envisioning the American terms for peace, Polk demonstrated tenacity, a penchant for hard work, and inflexible purpose. However, Polk clashed with many people in prosecuting the war, including key generals, key cabinet officials, and the Whig opposition in Congress. Unlike Jackson, Polk had difficulty enforcing allegiance, especially with James Buchanan, his Secretary of State who consistently undermined his directives for his own political gain.
In a clear and exciting narrative, Merry presents the key compelling personalities and the drama of the brief period in the 1840s when the United States laid claim to territory and stretched, for the first time, from sea to shining sea. If perhaps he focuses less on slavery, economic issues, and the splintering of the American politic, he admirably achieves a well-written and compelling account of the period's territorial expansion, whose forgone conclusion emerges as a far dicier enterprise than historical certitude implies.
The author does a great job explaining the minutiae of these issues in a clear and concise way, and he did a great job of bringing the personalities of the major players to life including Polk, Thomas Hart Benton, James Buchanan, Winfield Scott, Zachary Taylor and others. My only issue was a slight hagiographic tinge that planted doubts in my mind about its objectivity.
James K. Polk is one of those forgotten Presidents, often lumped together as President PolkFIllmorePierceHayesGarfieldArthur. He should not be. His administration should be remembered as one of the most successful in American history, at least when measured against the goals it set out for itself.
America in the 1840s was land-mad. It was a time when manifest destiny was more than a slogan but an ethos that percolated through all segments of American society. The notion that the United States had a God-given right to expand its territory west to the Pacific Ocean, south to the Rio Grande River and North to the 49th parallel dominated political discourse through the 1840s, though there was significant disagreement on the best way to achieve it as Polk found out.
Polk became the embodiment of those goals. Under his administration the United States gained title to more territory – through war, treaty and purchase – than at any time since the Louisiana Purchase. It completed the annexation of Texas, started a war with Mexico to solidify those gains, used it wartime victory to force Mexico to agree to part with California and New Mexico, and completed treaty negotiations with Great Britain to resolve disputes over the Oregon territory. In other words a very notable run of success, successes however, that were gained in what many believe were morally dubious ways.
The Mexican War was highly controversial even as it was occurring. While Polk’s own Democratic Party supported it, the opposition Whigs grew more and more disaffected with it as it progressed and as treaty negotiations to end it dragged on. Many called it a war of aggression. Abraham Lincoln, a freshman Congressman during the war denounced it in uncharacteristically harsh terms, and Ulysses S. Grant, who during this war began his career as the most successful military figure in American History called it “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.” Many believed Southerner Polk was trying to acquire as much land as possible in which to expand slavery thus strengthening the slave power in Congress. This view of the war is not unusual now among historians, nor as we see among many at the time. The author however disagrees with this somewhat.
In what I consider to be a bit of hagiographic flightiness, Merry asserts that Polk’s legacy should be reevaluated as it has been tainted by the opinions of those who opposed him at the time. This is unusual as historians are always imploring us to try and view history in the context in which it happened and not to apply modern standards to historical conduct. At the time the Mexican War was at the very least controversial, and more likely a morally corrupt enterprise.
In the end Polk has been largely forgotten by most as his administration took place just as sectional differences over slavery were beginning to dominate political debate resulting in the era dominating Civil War. Arguments over slavery I believe tainted his Presidency in retrospect. This is unfortunate. Although Polk was pro-slavery, his focus was not expansion of the slave power as some of his opponents asserted, but expansion of the United States.
Despite the criticisms noted above I really did enjoy this book as it very competently explores a period of American History that does not receive a lot of the attention that it should. It was this period that largely defined us as a nation – both for good and evil.
Robert Merry brings the enigmatic Polk to life with his detailed biography, A Country of Vast Designs. In it, we meet other colorful politicians like the great spokesman for the institution of slavery, South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun; the great compromiser, Kentucky’s Henry Clay; former president Martin Van Buren; and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. In addition, we learn that Polk’s scheming, ambitious, inconsistent, and somewhat disloyal secretary of state, James Buchanan, often worked to thwart Polk’s policies in order to foster his own presidential aspirations. And in the background, exercising a significant influence on political discourse and Democratic Party politics even a decade after his own presidency, was Polk’s mentor Andrew Jackson.
Polk’s first major accomplishment after his presidential victory over Henry Clay was the settlement of the dispute over the Oregon Territory with Great Britain, with whom the United States had jointly administered the area since 1818. Through tough negotiation and the threat to go to war over the issue, Polk was able to settle on a boundary of 49 degrees north, ceding to Britain what is now British Columbia, but getting for the U.S. all of what is now Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming.
Polk also spearheaded the annexation of Texas, which greatly angered Mexico and triggered the Mexican War in 1846. The war continued until 1848, and became very unpopular. Nevertheless, it resulted in the conquest and incorporation into the U.S. of California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and New Mexico. One of the military heroes of the war, Zachary Taylor, went on to become president.
A key issue complicating the annexation of western land was the expansion of Negro slavery into the new territories. Polk’s position appears to have been much like Lincoln’s early opinion: he wanted first to preserve the Union at all cost.
Evaluation: Merry paints a sympathetic portrait of a remarkable president. Although well written, the book contains a great amount of detail on the maneuverings of politicians and cabinet members, which makes for thorough history but somewhat sluggish reading or listening. It is a comprehensive work for serious students of history, but may be a bit much for the casual reader.
One thing that struck me was the similarities between "Polk's war" (Mexican war) and the present "Global War on Terror" (GWB's war). Not the combatants, but the opposition to both wars, along mostly party lines. History doth seem to repeat itself.
Enjoyable read about a period of American history usually glossed over.
The author’s style was informative and although it took me longer than expected to finish - my nonfiction reading usually does - I was glad to have read it, I learned a lot.
Merry is excellent in providing portraits of the important political figures in Polk's life, his mentor Andrew Jackson and other famous men like Van Buren, Henry Clay, John Calhoun, Thomas Hart Benton, and others. The author's ability to maintain a consistent level of detail about the events of Polk's life sometimes led to passages that I could have done without, perhaps those interested in the minutae of politics would find these more interesting.
However, a few historical moments stand out for me: including the depiction of the 1844 Democratic Presidential Convention in Baltimore where James K. Polk became the first political "dark horse" candidate; the congressional battle over funding the Mexican war where the Wilmot Proviso first appeared and provided one of the signals of the beginning of the end of the era of slavery (although war was averted for a decade and a half); and the amazing successes of Stephen Kearney, John C. Fremont, and Robert Stockton in the expansion of United States territories. These and a few other high points made the book a lively and entertaining work of historical biography, expanding my knowledge of the man and the era.