, March 02, 2011
(view all comments by OneMansView)
Expansion at any cost (3.6 *s)
This book is a very detailed look at the machinations both within and surrounding the James K. Polk presidency, especially focusing on the Texas annexation in 1845 and the forthcoming Mexican War of 1846, and, somewhat secondarily, the negotiations and agreement with England to partition the Oregon Territory along the 49th parallel, also in 1846. The author for the most part commends Polk’s accomplishments while in office, while noting his personal shortcomings. However, beyond the narration of details, there is the question of whether Polk was a “near great” president that floats throughout the book, on which the author is not necessarily the most reliable guide.
The author makes clear that Polk was an acolyte of the larger than life Andrew Jackson. As Speaker of the House in the mid-1830s he unquestioningly backed Jacksonian positions that opposed a privately-held national bank and internal improvements and favored Indian removal. Having returned to Tennessee, it was Polk’s unmitigated expansionistic leanings, also in accord with Jackson’s, that rescued him from a moribund political career as a twice-defeated governor of Tennessee, with only an outside chance of being the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, into the presidency in 1844. However, as this book demonstrably shows, the politics and actions taken to effect geographical expansion were far more turbulent, controversial, and consequential than anticipated, virtually consuming his entire presidency.
The author relies on an extensive diary that Polk maintained to provide not only a window into Polk’s thinking, but also details of his dealings with many political and military personalities, some hostile, some not. It is interesting, given that he was a bit of a loner, that Polk met with his entire cabinet, which remained largely intact over his term, twice or more a week throughout his presidency, if not relying on their counsel, using them at least as a sounding board. One of the strangest aspects of his presidency was his tolerance for the repeated disloyalty and erratic advice given by James Buchanan, his Secretary of State and a decade later perhaps the worst US president ever. The author notes that Polk was politically astute – he could count the votes on his issues – and was never outworked, but was not a leader of men and could not bring himself to confront those who scarcely gave a second thought to undermining him. Polk’s exculpations of their misdeeds were tortuous, indicating an inability to fully deal with realities.
Instead of the Polk administration being a well-oiled machine, the author shows that their dealings with England and, especially, Mexico were riff with contentiousness, even belligerence, misunderstandings, intrigues, and not a small measure of incompetence. Part of that was due simply to the slow communications of that era, though immensely improved over previous decades, but more so due to numerous intransigent personalities, including Polk’s. The Oregon situation is a case in point: the compromise finally reached was essentially the same proposed years before in the Tyler administration, but threats of war apparently had to be injected before cooler thoughts could prevail.
The Mexican situation was even worse in terms of the sheer dysfunctionality and willful equivocation at every turn. It is nonsense to even suggest that a corrupt regime, in constant turmoil, of an impoverished state could have been more than a minor nuisance to the US. It can hardly be doubted that the assault on a contingent of Zachery Taylor’s troops on the Texas side of the Rio Grande River was welcomed by the US to justify declaring war on Mexico, making the seizure of California, New Mexico, and adjacent present day areas defensible. The two years that it took to end military operations against Mexico is not a testament to the difficulty of the campaign, but speaks to repeated military and diplomatic ineptitude. The Polk administration ignored the view that Mexico had no capability of settling those regions; within a generation they would have become part of the US by default.
The author only lightly touches on the tremendous ramifications to the US polity in acquiring these western lands. The Wilmot Proviso, introduced as an amendment to Mexican legislation, which barred slavery from any territory acquired from Mexico, should have been seen as far more than an unpleasant obstacle to the Polk administration. The author scarcely acknowledges that a vigorous abolition movement even existed at the time Polk became president, which also reflects the thinking of Polk, a slave owner. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had achieved a delicate balance among slaveholding states, but the Mexican War essentially stirred up the proverbial hornet’s nest. The Compromise of 1850 could not right matters. The horrific Civil War soon followed.
The book reads easily and is fairly good, though not without a certain amount of tedium, in its coverage of the intricacies of the Polk administration in its efforts to carry out an expansionist agenda, but at the cost of truly appreciating other political currents. Opposition to Polk was not just “politics.” It was a key time in American history where far greater efforts to resolve fundamental social divides should have been undertaken. Instead, Polk allowed his determination to swerve into single-mindedness and obstinacy. At a time when American needed original political thinking in the presidency, Polk was swept along in the American expansionistic ethos. The author touches on some of Polk’s limitations, but prefers to emphasize the tremendous geographical expansion of the US that occurred during his presidency.
Greatness among presidents is a relative notion. Considering American capability, what is remarkable is how few men have been great presidents. Beyond the Roosevelt’s, Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, and, perhaps, Jackson, the US has not had particularly good presidents. Outside of those six, only a few should even be mentioned as possibly near-great. The case that the author makes for Polk being near great is his association with American triumphalism, a philosophy that celebrates American greatness regardless of costs. The fact that Polk so readily acceded to the American mania for expansion actually undermines any such claims. The book is rated at four stars for its detail, not necessarily its sentiments.