Tuesday, August 28, 2018

A Country of Vast Designs, by Robert W. Merry

Today I'm looking at a biography of the eleventh president of the United States, James K. Polk. For many people, Polk is among many of those nineteenth century presidents that are largely forgotten. Polk may not have been a caretaker president but with the general population he usually gets lumped in with them. As Merry points out, this is somewhat odd because Polk was president during the third-largest expansion of U.S. territory during his administration, surpassed only by the Louisiana Purchase and the Alaska Purchase. Furthermore Polk managed to achieve all four of his major policy objectives within one term: reduction of tariffs, the creation of an independent treasury, negotiation of the Oregon territory, and annexation of Mexican territory. However, the fact that Polk achieved his major objective through an aggressive and blatantly imperialist war against Mexico has significantly tarnished his reputation and left his political legacy in considerable doubt. I will say that Merry is a pretty strong Polk apologist and that leaves me in some doubt.

I will give Polk some credit by managing to achieve his objectives of tariff reduction and the independent treasury. Polk faced stiff opposition from the Whigs as well as members of his own Democratic Party, revealing the deep sectional divisions hiding within the national parties. It was only through using political capital to get his legislative program accomplished. Furthermore he had to spend considerable effort quelling rebellion and insubordination within his own administration, a process that could have been simplified by removal of James Buchanan as Secretary of State. It does reveal that Polk had considerable skill as a negotiator and coordinator which certainly makes him equal with other presidents who faced equal challenges with an opposed Congress.

If Polk has a biggest flaw, it's his refusal to engage in confrontation and deal with subordinates who undermine or actively act against him. The best example of this is the aforementioned James Buchanan. This really comes to the fore with the negotiations over the boundary for Oregon. Polk was elected on a platform of ''54-40 or Fight'', the extreme boundary of the territory. Merry argues, probably correctly, that Polk adopted this extreme measure to force Britain to negotiate over the boundary, especially since previous attempts to negotiate at the 49th parallel had been rejected by the British. Although there was legitimate concern that Polk's stance would provoke war with Great Britain, Buchanan repeatedly undermined Polk's attempts by providing conflicting information to British diplomats. And when Polk managed to finally negotiate a boundary at the 49th parallel Buchanan immediately reversed course and demanded that Polk accept nothing less than 54-40.  Buchanan also opposed the treaty ending the Mexican War, even after it accomplished all the goals Polk proposed. It seemed that Buchanan adopted any contrary position just to cover his own ass for his future presidential prospects.

The biggest issue around Polk is of course the Mexican-American War which was provoked through a variety of diplomatic incidents between Mexico and the United States and started Zachary Taylor and a detachment of dragoons were sent into the disputed boundary between the Rio Grande and Nueces Rivers in Texas. Taylor was attacked by Mexican troops which prompted Congress to grant Polk's request of a declaration of war. However even as the war began, Polk's Whig opponents criticized him for starting what they saw as an illegal, unconstitutional, and imperialist war and those criticisms have remained. This is the point where Merry gets most apologist for Polk, arguing in essence that while the United States provoked the war, it was in some ways justified because of Mexico's inability to meet legal reparations, their mishandling of the diplomatic overtures, and their decision to adopt a hostile stance with a larger and more powerful neighbor. I feel like this is almost a case of victim-blaming that Merry adopts, ignoring any notions Mexicans may have had of national honor offended by American treatment of their nation as inferior, just as strong as American indignation at Mexican offense of American honor. While it may have been rational for Mexico to negotiate with the United States and perhaps end up losing less territory than they did after the war, it may not have been the rational choice for a proud, nineteenth century Mexican nationalist who would rather fight than surrender unilaterally.

And if there's one topic Merry definitely avoids as it pertains to Polk it's the issue of slavery. Polk owned twenty-five slaves and was selected as a candidate for the Democratic party because of his willingness to tolerate slavery. While Polk did not take an adamant stance in favor of slavery, such as contemporary John C. Calhoun famously did, he was no abolitionist or even apologist such as Henry Clay who at least went through the motions of saying it was bad and should be removed even if Henry Clay's scheme of colonization never really worked. Merry makes absolutely no mention of Polk's slaves or his relationship with them, and Polk does not seem to have been bothered by the institution in his personal writings. At most Polk's desperate opposition of the slavery debate seems to have been an effort to keep the country united as the regional  fault lines between slave and free became more obvious in the 1840s and 1850s. Furthermore, Polk's acquisition of new territory was responsible for the opening of the slavery debate because those territories had not been covered under the Missouri Compromise legislations. While some people, including Polk, supported extending the compromise legislation to the new territories, a growing abolitionist faction made a simple solution to the slavery question impossible and concerns over the status of new territories added further fuel to the flame of sectional strife.

So while I can understand and appreciate the significance of Polk's achievements as a politician and president, I still think that there's quite a lot to critique as well. Regardless of what Merry thinks, I am still of the opinion that the Mexican-American War was a war of imperialist expansion in keeping with the U.S.'s other (undeclared) wars of expansion against Native American Indian tribes. While there are parts of this book that are highly informative, I think it goes to being a little too laudatory for Polk for me to truly appreciate it.

- Kalpar

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