Thursday, March 25, 2010

Book Review: A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent by Robert W. Merry

James Polk is often regarded as the most successful one-term President in American History. He finalized the annexation of Texas, he settled the Oregon Territory border dispute, he (started?), fought and won the Mexican War, and in doing so, turned Northwestern Mexico into the Southwestern United States. In doing so, Polk aroused passions that culminated in the American Civil War.

During the Campaign of 1844, Polk said he would only serve one term, and he stuck to his pledge even when it appeared that the Democratic Party wanted him to run in 1848. Polk must have known. Leaving the Presidency in March, he was dead by July. Polk was 53.

Polk was from Tennessee and a protégé of Andrew Jackson. He was the Speaker of the House when Jackson was President, and showed himself to be a skilled in-player. He was later Governor of Tennessee, but lost two separate bids for re-election. In 1843, Polk seemed to be politically dead in the water.

Polk angled for the Democratic Party Vice-Presidential nomination in 1844, presumably as the running mate of former President Martin Van Buren. However, when New York politics forced Van Buren to take a stand against the annexation of Texas, Polk became a “Dark Horse” Presidential candidate. He narrowly beat Henry Clay in the general election, again based on Polk’s more aggressive stance towards Texas.

Mr. Merry’s book gives us a parade of larger-than-life characters, except that they really lived: Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston, General Santa Anna, Zachary Taylor, Winfield Scott, Nicholas Trist, who negotiated the peace treaty with Mexico after he was fired from the job, Stephen Kearney, John Fremont, his father-in-law Senator Thomas Hart Benton, the charming and witty Sarah Polk, and perhaps most notably Secretary of State James Buchanan, who had so many more than two faces, and an extremely enigmatic John C. Calhoun, who was playing a game so deep that, until the very end, it is beyond the depth of this book.

As a result, James K. Polk often disappears from his own biography for pages on end. Merry, who is so good at giving capsule biographies of so many of the characters in this book, is often forced to pop in conclusive statements about Polk. Merry tells us that Polk was single-minded and always overly suspicious and controlling. It is surprising to see Mr. Merry’s comments on Polk in a biography that is basically supportive of Polk’s policy decisions. A more generous description of the Polk that emerges from this book is that he is a master puppeteer, or perhaps a little like Mack the Knife. (never a trace of red).

Mr. Merry must realize that the politics of the Mexican War has a lot in common with the politics of the Iraq War, although he never expressly says so. While there were real reasons to go to war with Mexico, the United States most likely manufactured the actual causus belli. After the initial patriotic charge (even Walt Whitman supported the Mexican War at first), the war became incredibly popular in certain parts of the country, and incredibly unpopular in other parts of the country. Both Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant strongly condemned the Mexican War and their judgments color the historical argument.

Mr. Merry is at his most persuasive in defending the decision to go to war with Mexico. He shows that there was a legitimate American fear that Mexico was so weak that it was creating a power vacuum that the British longed to fill. Merry also shows that the Mexicans, perhaps like Saddam Hussein later on, saw only the chaos in American policy making, and not the fist behind it.

The American war power frightened the Americans as well. They were conquering Mexico without being quite sure if they wanted it, or if it was even constitutional for the Federal goverhment to wage a war of conquest. I found these parts of the book the most interesting.

Although the book was written and published long before this year’s events, it has a lot to say about President Obama as well. Both Polk and Obama were operating with Democratic majorities that seemed huge, but were actually a coalition of many disparate elements that were out of the President’s control. There are several times during the book when it appears that the President’s own party is going to pull financing from the war. Moreover, the controversy about how slavery was going to be handled in the new Southwestern territories came from a faction in Mr. Polk’s own Democratic Party. Although Polk was pretty clear during the campaign about what his goals were, and was accomplishing only what he said he would accomplish, his party lost control of the House of Representatives during the midterm elections of 1846.