Saturday, July 07, 2012

a polk in the eye

I always regret finishing a book.  Especially, a biography.

It it is well-written, you feel as if you have just spent a couple of days with a very interesting person -- who you will never see again.  You know the tales of his life.  Not particularly why he lived his life, but how he lived his life.

You also know that if you run into him in the context of another work, it will not be quite the same person you just met. 

I suppose that is how life works, as well.  The person you get to know on a two-week cruise is probably not the same personality you will meet at an opening night party.

That is how I feel having just completed Robert Merry's A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent.

James Polk has never been one of my favorite presidents.  I suppose part of the reason is I have long accepted the Whig-Republican take on his presidency.  That he misled the American people into a war with defenseless Mexico for the purpose of gaining new territory to protect slavery from the boundaries of the Missouri Compromise.

In my household he was almost as vile as his mentor, Andrew Jackson.

As a student of history, I knew the cartoonish caricature was not quite accurate.  Certainly, there was more to the man than that.

Now that I have finished Merry's biography, I know there is more.

Polk is one of those odd presidents.  Most people would have trouble placing him in any historical context.

Part of that is due to the fact that he was a bit eclipsed by Jackson, the man he admired more than any other.  But he brought part of it on himself.  When he ran for president in 1844, he received the Democrat nomination as a "dark horse" (in fact, the term was first used for his candidacy).  Even though he had been a governor of Tennessee and speaker of the house of representatives, he did not have the type of reputation of the giants of the era.  Clay.  Webster.  Calhoun.

He also restricted himself to one term.  But what a term it was.

He came to office with only four goals in mind:
  • Annex Texas
  • Acquire the full Oregon Territory
  • Reform tariffs
  • Establish an independent treasury free of any banks
And he accomplished all of them.  To a degree. 

He had to settle on a compromise with Britain on the boundary of the Oregon Territory.  But, when the treaty was signed, for the first time, American soil extended from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  And the United States was positioned to become a Pacific, as well as an Atlantic, power.

It was the first goal, though, that has sullied Polk's name.  And it is why Mexicans, who know their history, despise him.

Texas won its effective independence from Mexico as a separate republic in 1836.  Texas had sought admission to the United States as a slave state.  Polk's predecessor, Tyler, had negotiated terms of admission that Polk and Congress eventually approved.

But along with Texas came a border dispute.  Mexico had never legally recognized Texas independence.  And if it was independent, Texas's border was the Nueces River, not the Rio Bravo.

When the United States annexed Texas, Mexico broke off diplomatic relations with the United States and fortified the Rio Bravo.  President Polk sent an army under Zachary Taylor (who would succeed Polk in the presidency) to defend against any Mexican incursion.

What happened next is in dispute.  But it appears that Taylor's presence in the disputed zone prompted the Mexicans to defend their pride by sending troops across the river.  Blood was spilled.  And President Polk had his war.

Did Polk want war?  Probably.  He saw it as a way to settle the Texas border.  But he also saw an opportunity to win the swath of land between Texas and the Pacific.  Giving the United States the basic contours we know today.

Did he want to extend slavery to the new territories?  The record would support a verdict that he could not see slavery having any application in the new territories.  But he also ducked the moral question when some members of Congress attempted to block slavery in any lands conquered from Mexico.

And it was a gamble -- a war that the United States could have lost easily.  In most battles the Americans were outnumbered against battle-hardened Mexican troops and officers.  After all, Mexicans had been fighting one another (including the citizens of its Texas province) for some time.

The Mexican-American War is a fascinating topic.  And it appears to be almost as controversial as it was in the 1840s.  Interestingly, when the Whigs came to power, they did nothing to reverse the gains.  Expansionism was popular.

Merry writes a good story of complex personalities. 

A president with a limited agenda and no military training who succeeded in expanding the nation by one-third.  The president's diplomat who was fired, but still negotiated a treaty ending the war.  A Mexican general and former president who euchred the American president into believing the general would bring peace to Mexico, but ended up leading the Mexican forces against the invaders.  An American secretary of state, whose presidential ambitions, nearly derailed peace with Britain and made matters worse with Mexico.

And hanging in the background, the moral blotch of slavery.  During Polk's presidency, the regional rifts became so bad that both political parties would soon fracture, one would disappear, a new one would be created, and civil war would break out.

But that path would be trod by other presidents.  Polk turned the presidency over to the "Whig general" Taylor in 1849 and went home to die three months later.

Having read this biography, I understand Polk better.  He was as flawed as any politician.  Any person, for that matter.

But Merry may have said it best in conclusion, especially for a man like Polk, who lived by Jacksonian principles: "[I]n the end he succeeded and fulfilled the vision and dream of his constituency.  In a democratic system that is the ultimate measure of political success."

Pick up a copy.  You may even like the Polk you meet.


norm said...

The difference in the Mexican war was the quality of the war making material. The Mexican army was used to going up against farmers with whatever sharp stick they could put their hands on, whereas the US was fielding men with real guns and men who were sent to school to direct those guns. The same factors tend to come to play in our time. 
As to Polk: His plan was to take all of Mexico but US politics got in his way. And that is a real loss to us all. 

John Calypso said...

"A Polk in the Eye"  Oh boy! Where are those "Green Acres" writers when you need them ;-)

NWsumpin said...

He had quite the influence even in Mexico's music; the original omm pah man. Bah-rum-bum...

Steve Cotton said...

The Americans had a slight edge in technology -- especially artillery.  But it was not a vast difference.  The war turned more on generalship.  Taylor was not strategically imaginative, but he was a good tactician.  Scott was adequate.  But he was blessed with some brilliant subordinates.  They were lucky to go up against a series of Mexican generals who made some amazing blunders.

The record indicates Polk was never interested in all of Mexico.  But there were at least two members of his cabinet and several Democrats in Congress who were.  Amazingly, the biggest opponent of full incorporation (and the war itself) was Calhoun.

Steve Cotton said...

 Maybe they are reincarnated in Melaque.

Steve Cotton said...

Ah, yes.  The famous James K. Polk-a.

Mcotton said...

I read a book on Polk last year.  I can assure you, he is not a favorite president of mine.

Steve Cotton said...

I suspect my impression of him may very well come from our Whig dinner table.

NDubya said...

And dont forget sister Dorothy.

Steve Cotton said...

Ah, yes.  Witty little Polk-a Dot.

Why do I feel as if I am at the Algonquin Round Table?

richardgrabman said...

 More than a slight edge, according to John Eisenhower.  The Mexican Army's standard issue muskets were British Army surplus, left over from the Napoleonic War.  Eisenhower particularly stresses the "flying battery" ... not exactly flying (the Wright Brothers weren't even born yet), but more mobile artillery units that could be pulled by mules, rather than oxen.   

Nw said...

Actually that would be Dorothy Parker.

Nitpicker said...

I think you meant "Polk's predecessor, Tyler"

Steve Cotton said...

 Ooh.  A double whammy.  I am paying my tab before Benchley, Kaufman, and Broun show up.

Steve Cotton said...

There is a split on the effect technology played in the Mexican war.  There is no doubt it was a factor.  But like most wars, using what you have wisely will often make the difference. 

Merry does not deal much with the technology issue.  After all, he wrote a Polk biography rather than a Taylor piece.  But he correctly points out that Buena Vista was a pivotal battle.  Ampudia had the advantage in men and being in the defensive position.  He also had the expertise of the flying battery thanks to the services of the deserters of the St. Patrick's battalion.  But he wasted those advantages by placing his units in fortifications where they could not assist one another.  Taylor merely sliced them into digestible pieces.

Peter Stevens takes a rather different view from Eisenhower in The Rogue's March -- a good read not only for its military expertise but also to fill in some of the missing military history of the St. Patrick's Brigade from a rather sympathetic author. 

Steve Cotton said...

I did, indeed.  I was s concerned about keeping Tyler and Taylor straight that I overlooked predecessor and successor.  I often wondered if voters in the 1840s thought to themselves: This will really confuse them in a century or two.

Mommy with Commuter Husband said...

Adding to my reading list ... love this kind of book - great write up!

Steve Cotton said...

Thanks.  If there is anything I enjoy more than reading, it is writing about reading.