Historians still fiercely debate whether James K. Polk is our most underappreciated president, but I'll say this: He sure seems to be our most politically incorrect one. Polk's brilliant success in vastly expanding the size and power of the United States during his fleeting four years in office (1845-49), conquering Mexico along the way, has earned him the eternal enmity of much of academia. And his drab and crabby nature has kept him from holding a place in the hearts of his countrymen commensurate with his achievements.
In many ways, Polk's Mexican War has come to be treated as a defining American sin, the work of a leader who exploited the theme of national honor to justify a power grab, battering a weaker country into submission. The sainted Henry David Thoreau, I was taught from an early age, bravely went to jail for declining to pay his poll tax in protest of America's schemes against Mexico (though he had also failed to pay it well before then). America got its comeuppance, we are told, when its territorial expansion fanned the flames over slavery, bringing on the blood-soaked calamity of the Civil War.
Ulysses S. Grant, who fought in both conflicts, called the Mexican War "the most unjust war ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation." Gore Vidal noted that the Polk era "is where we turned brutally imperial. Never looked back." The ponderous Al Gore, a distant relative of the conspiracy-minded novelist, has declared that Polk's war has been "condemned by history."
But it may be a little more complicated than that, Robert W. Merry suggests in this expansive new book. Polk did not act in a vacuum. He represented an extraordinarily dynamic young country, whose innovative people, raised in freedom, were willing to take bold risks to get ahead in life. No matter how much Polk's political enemies in the Whig party thundered against expansion, it seems clear that most Americans shared and cheered the president's sense of manifest destiny, and planned to make better use of the continent than did their predecessors.
Corrupt, enervated Mexico, feebly administering its sparsely populated territory, simply lacked the enterprise, resolution, and rule of law to keep its far-flung borders intact. Whatever academics might think of the matter, such weakness inevitably creates a power vacuum, and it seems clear that European powers (notably Great Britain) would have been tempted to fill the void if Americans had not.
History moves forward with a crushing force, Merry argues, "and does not stop for niceties of moral suasion or concepts of political virtue."
Instead of dodging the most compelling national issue of his time, Polk worked hard to increase the size of the United States by more than a third, adding to it what is now Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Texas, California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and part of Colorado. Through his agency, America became a Pacific power, and ultimately the strongest nation on earth.
It is ironic, to say the least, to read of illegal American immigrants flooding into Mexican California, and the latter being too weak or indifferent to do much to stem the Anglo-Saxon tide. Mexico surely did not help its cause when it assumed a posture of mindless, or at least foolish, belligerence against its more powerful and resourceful neighbor, "clearly tempting fate by any reckoning," as Merry writes.
Mexico abused American citizens and refused to make up for it, haughtily rejected diplomatic gestures, and fired the first shots, bringing on war after America placed an army in position to defend the territory of newly annexed Texas, which for ten years had claimed the Rio Grande as its western border. That Polk was only too willing to see such a war commence does not make him solely responsible.
I don't mean to suggest that Robert W. Merry makes some sort of god out of his hero. One of the charms of this book is that the author readily explores Polk's failings, as a politician and man. Hailing from North Carolina and Tennessee, a protege of the boisterous Andrew Jackson, Polk was "small of stature and drab of temperament," Merry writes, and "lacked the skills and traits of the natural leader."
Afraid of confronting adversaries head-on, preferring to disparage them in the pages of his diary, he misled some powerful officials into believing they could dominate him--among them his appallingly self-serving secretary of state, James Buchanan, later one of America s worst presidents. Gideon Welles, then a civilian naval officer, said of Polk: "He possessed a trait of sly cunning which he thought shrewdness, but which was really disingenuousness and duplicity."
Polk comes across as a very cold fish--dour, humorless, sanctimonious, publicly oblivious to the horrors of slavery, obsessed with detail, and altogether incapable of relating to the common man. In one telling incident, a juggling act visited the White House, astonishing and delighting 50 assembled guests. Polk later grumbled that the display contributed little to the audience's "edification or profit," adding that he considered his own time in attendance "unprofitably spent."
After losing two straight bids for governor of Tennessee, Polk seemed highly unlikely to capture the 1844 Democratic presidential nomination. Yet even after he pulled it off, Merry notes, "at no time did he allow his correspondence to betray any hint of excitement or even surprise."
We can only speculate over how much his personality was stunted by a horrifying incident in his teen years, when he underwent an operation for agonizing urinary stones, with only brandy for a sedative. The doctor cut through the prostate into the bladder, and "knowing what we know now about the nerves that line the prostate and control much of the sexual function, it would seem likely the operation left the young man impotent or sterile, perhaps both."
If so, the impotent man proved a very potent president. Polk set out to accomplish four aims: settling the Oregon question, thus scuttling the risk of a war with England; acquiring California, one way or another, from Mexico; creating an independent treasury system; and lowering tariffs. Through an act of extraordinary will, he achieved all four--and died, a spent man, four months after leaving office.
Some of Merry's diversions into the more arcane corners of the politics of Polk's time can be tedious, leaving me wishing for a straighter path; and I could have used more maps, especially when the subject was the Oregon territorial disputes and America's battles in Mexico. But A Country of Vast Designs is a welcome exploration of a president who, whatever we might think of his personality, used his time in office to vastly expand the power and influence of the freest and greatest country in history.
That may make James K. Polk a pariah in certain circles, but it also makes him unquestionably great. Edward Achorn, deputy editorial pages editor of the Providence Journal, is the author of the forthcoming Fifty-nine in '84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had (Smithsonian/HarperCollins).