[This book review appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 266-273.] 


Book Review 

A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent

Robert W. Merry

Simon & Schuster, 2009 


          Robert Merry’s lucid new biography of  James K. Polk, the eleventh president of the United States who served from 1845 to 1849, combines the virtues of an experienced journalist and perceptive historian.  His 35 years as a journalist and publishing executive included several years as a Wall Street Journal correspondent and a long stint as the president and editor-in-chief of Congressional Quarterly.  This is his third book that relates to America’s place in the world (which, as we will see, is something that a biography of Polk inevitably does).

          Historians have given Polk a high place among American presidents, but, as Merry notes, he hardly exists today in the American public’s memory.  We can well surmise that the reason for his obscurity lies in the course American history took after his presidency.  Just twelve years after he left the White House, the country was torn by a civil war that arose out of a cauldron of passions and that established, for at least this past century and half, the perception of heroes and villains.  Andrew Jackson, James Polk and Millard Fillmore were among the presidents who sought to tame those passions (especially over the burgeoning slavery issue), consciously giving priority to the preservation of American unity as the more important value.  Neither pole before the Civil War would honor these peace-keepers’ seeming passivity; and after that war the praise inevitably went to the victors and to the cause they had championed.

          Polk went into office with a commitment to serve only a single four-year term, but during that brief period was able to accomplish each of his four objectives: to settle the dispute with Britain about the gigantic “Oregon” territory (which included not only what is today the state of Oregon but also lands far to the north), to acquire California from Mexico, to institute a “tariff for-revenue-only” (as distinguished from a protective tariff), and to create an “independent treasury” not tied to the banking system.  Although it was not within his original aspirations, Polk’s tenure also saw the acquisition from Mexico of the immense “New Mexico” province, resulting in a total extension of the United States to include not just Oregon, Washington, Texas and California, but also the present-day states of “New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada…, as well as parts of… Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Wyoming.”  The term “Manifest Destiny,” coined by New York editor John O’Sullivan in 1845, fittingly described this extension of the United States to become a continental power reaching from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

          The nomination of Polk by the Democratic Party in 1844 resulted from a compromise among the competing factions that had supported former-president Martin Van Buren and Senator Lewis Cass.  In the ensuing election, Polk narrowly defeated the Whig Party nominee, Senator Henry Clay.  Before winning the presidency, Polk had served in the Tennessee legislature, as governor of Tennessee, and fourteen years in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he rose to the top position of Speaker.  He was a protégé and leading supporter of Andrew Jackson, the two-term president who had towered over the late 1820s and ’30s.

          Polk’s extraordinary success as president will gladden the hearts of those commendable souls who value substance over glitter or glibness.  Merry describes him as “lacking natural leadership ability,” who “inspired neither loyalty nor fear” and could not “manipulate men to his will.”  He “lacked the easy manner and demeanor that bespoke friendship and camaraderie.”  What he did have was “analytic skills and zest for bold action,” combined with “iron-willed political perseverance” and a conviction that he was a “man of destiny.”    

          It would be a mistake to entertain the impression that the early years of the American Republic were an idyllic celebration of the new country’s existence.  Instead, the years between the formation of the government in 1789 and the Civil War in 1861 were tumultuous in the extreme.  They were marked by a series of highly divisive issues, powerful and strident personalities, surprisingly little desire to give paramount importance to the continuity of national existence, and enough mutual distrust among the leaders to amount to a virtual paranoia about the perils that each thought the others posed.

          Merry shows a commendable empathy toward those who grappled with these difficulties.  In the context of the vast territorial expansion, he says that “it wasn’t surprising that no consensus could easily emerge as to how to proceed while preserving the sacred precepts of the Constitution.”  The Constitution, though much revered, left a lot unanswered (and would have needed the benefit of a superhuman prescience to have done otherwise).  The country, after all, produced a sectionalism born out of the widely diverse cultures of the commercial North, the agrarian and slave-holding South, and the adventurous exuberance of the frontier West.  This sectionalism was magnified several times over when the westward expansion called for decisions about how slavery was to be treated in the new territories.  We can’t be surprised that there was much paranoia and eventual civil war.

          Even though most Americans enthusiastically supported the annexation of Texas and the nation’s extension to the Pacific, this expansion was by no means welcomed by the Whig Party and significant leaders in New England.  The principal Whig, Henry Clay, “argued for confining American settlement to lands east of the Rocky Mountains and postponing ‘the occupation of Oregon some thirty or forty years.’”  In 1848, “the Whigs seemed increasingly united on one fundamental political principle – the United States should acquire no Mexican territory from the war.”

          Though it was only one of the issues that divided the country, slavery, and especially whether it could be carried into the newly forming states west of the South, loomed large as early as 1820-1, when the “Missouri Compromise,” crafted by Clay, drew a line between North and South, barring slavery above the line and allowing it south of that line “if the citizens there chose to embrace it.”  (Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to ignore the opposing sectional interests regarding the tariff by focusing exclusively on the slavery issue.  The commercial North wanted its industries protected; the agrarian South needed inexpensive imports for consumption and free trade to sell its cotton to overseas markets.)

          Needless to say, the ideals of the Enlightenment that had so moved Americans in the Founding Fathers’ generation in the late eighteenth century resonated strongly with the anti-slavery movement that had caught on in England under the leadership of William Wilberforce.  Accordingly, the activist spirit toward slavery could hardly be brought to rest, and the issue came very much to life when Texas, which had declared itself independent of Mexico, entered the union as a state.  Anti-slavery forces abhorred the addition of a new slave state, while ardent Southerners such as Senator John Calhoun feared that a later addition of non-slave states would put the South in a political minority that might even lead to the abolition of slavery altogether through a Constitutional amendment.  Merry is of the view that there was very little practical chance that the economic circumstances of the newly acquired territories from Mexico and from the Oregon compromise would have lent themselves to the presence of slavery, but the mootness of the issue nevertheless didn’t prevent super-heated controversy over whether Southerners would have a right to take their slaves there.  Pennsylvania congressman David Wilmot repeatedly presented “the Wilmot Proviso” barring slaves from any lands acquired from Mexico.  Passions rose to a high pitch that led into the 1850s, the eventual “bloody Kansas” episode, and the Civil War.  We have already noted how several American leaders, including Polk, sought to calm the extremes; but we know with hindsight that events overtook them.

          There has been a long-standing disagreement within the United States over the merits of the Mexican War and about the morality of the vast land acquisition.  In part, this reflects differences in attitudes that persist to this day.  Through much of American history, the “intelligentsia” has been centered in New England and has been critical of a great deal of what the “acting man” has done and thought in the country as a whole.  It was in New England, not on the frontier west, that the “American Indian” came to be romanticized, so that even now a part of the alienated perception of American history is that Americans were wrong to have dispossessed the indians of the continent.[1]  In like manner, it was largely the intelligentsia of New England that blamed the United States in the war with Mexico and found the acquisition of what is now the western United States to be immoral.  Merry points out that “this view is widespread today.  Former Democratic vice president Al Gore stated flatly in 2008… that Polk’s war had been ‘condemned by history.’”

          Merry reports fairly the views on all sides of several issues throughout the book, and he does so, also, on this particular issue.  This doesn’t prevent him from expressing his own conclusions, which come down on the side of Polk, not the critics.  For a complete comprehension, readers will need to study carefully the book’s detailed account of the lead-up to war, its conduct, and the outcomes; but for this review it will suffice to quote the summary of his conclusions from page 475: “Texas, after all, had won its independence honorably from a dictatorship… In winning their independence, the Texans arguably also won the right to define their own boundaries… For nine years the Republic of Texas had claimed the Rio Grande [river] as its western border, and Mexico had made no effort throughout that time to take back that disputed land… Surely the United States possessed a right, according to international law, to treat with this new nation, widely recognized by countries throughout the world… But Mexico said no, withdrew its ambassador, cut off relations with the United States, and declared Texas annexation an act of war… Then Mexico fired the first shots, inflicted the first casualties….”  He adds there had long been another issue – relating to reparations due from Mexico for a number of depredations against American citizens by Mexican citizens – about which Mexico was “truculent” and that should not be overlooked.     

          Such matters as these bear directly on an assessment of the war and its consequences under international law and morality, but it is noteworthy that Merry expresses an additional rationale.  It is one that calls for much more profound thinking than is given in the extraordinarily fatuous moralizing that has been fashionable in the United States and Europe since, say, the First World War.  (The Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 is a leading example of this simplistic idealism.  It sought to outlaw war.  This required an implicit assumption that all national boundaries were presumptively sacrosanct.  The status quo was to be altered, if at all, by what we can easily recognize as the presumptuous judgments of outsiders similar to what was done in recent years by the “international community” with regard to the respective claims of Serbia and Albanians to  Kosovo.)

          What Merry says is this: “The moralistic impulse, when applied to the Mexican War, misses a fundamental reality of history: It doesn’t turn on moral pivots but on differentials of power, will, organization, and population.  History moves forward with a crushing force and does not stop for niceties of moral suasion or concepts of political virtue.  Mexico was a dysfunctional, unstable, weak nation whose population wasn’t sufficient to control all the lands within its domain.  The United States by contrast was a vibrant, expanding, exuberant experiment in democracy… [that] generated a political compulsion toward expansion into largely unpopulated lands that seemed to beckon with irresistible enticement.”  Within our egalitarian mindset today, in which all cultures are said to be on an equal level, this thought is shockingly “politically incorrect” – and refreshing.[2]

           Before we conclude, it is worth noting how much Merry’s history provides harbingers of today’s socio-political conundrums in the United States.

          .  Andrew Jackson is said to have “abhorred the very thought of concentrated power in Washington.”  Why?  Because “he believed [it] would lead inevitably to corruption and invidious governmental actions favoring the connected and powerful” and that it would give “people a sense that their votes could purchase beneficial governmental actions.”  In today’s context, we can see precisely such a corruption of the political process to favor, at one end, a moneyed elite and, at the other, an underclass of dependents spawned over several decades by a combination of opportunism and ideology.[3]  

          .  This relates closely to Calhoun’s warning that, as Merry paraphrases him, “it wasn’t possible for America to be an empire and a republic at the same time.”  Again, why?  Because “such imperial ambitions would lead inevitably to ever greater concentrations of power in the federal government.”  It is not to be supposed that the United States can for long presume to be the world’s policeman and social worker, in an indeterminately large quest to seek out every abuse and misfortune, without such a concentration being one of the many consequences.  The “empire” today is one of “benevolent interventionism,” and goes far beyond anything Calhoun had in mind.

          .  Andrew Jackson saw his own election to the presidency as a repudiation of John Quincy Adams/Henry Clay “elitism,” and saw Providence as having “pronounced… that the people are virtuous and capable of self-government.”  He saw this as essential, but in political discourse today Americans rarely speak of “virtue,” and have little sense of what a culture of honor requires.  In almost every area, one prominent figure after another shows himself to have embraced a self-perception that he is somehow too good for the ordinary rules of morality. 

          .  One of the vital ingredients of the financial crisis that has loomed so large since 2007 has been that the business and financial culture has become devoid of any sense of the need for integrity and fiduciary responsibility.  We see a counterpart of this in the early experience of the United States with the Second Bank of the United States, the rechartering of which Andrew Jackson vetoed.  The Second Bank was created in 1816, and Merry says “it immediately slipped into corruption as its first president, William Jones, promiscuously violated terms of the charter, speculated in the bank’s stock, and exploited the venal practices of the bank’s branch members.”  The Panic of 1819 resulted as Jones’ successor “sought to clean up the mess by calling in unsound loans….”

          .  Finally, it is important to notice what the history of Polk’s time tells about the effect of demographic change as one people come to occupy territory claimed by another.  Merry explains that Spain had not sought to populate its New World conquests, but had preferred for Spaniards to “establish themselves as a societal elite.”  In sparsely populated Texas, Spain was faced with “a brutal threat” from Apache and Comanche Indians, and sought to counter it by “grant[ing] large tracts of land to an American group headed by Moses Austin.”  As intended, this land was sold to American settlers.  “In 1830, Mexico outlawed this immigration wave, but it proved inexorable.”  As a consequence, the American influx grew to a population of 150,000 by 1845.  The erstwhile Americans declared Texas independence and soon thereafter joined the United States.  In the claim to land within the Oregon territory, “the key was immigration.  The Oregon settlement ratio between the two nations [the United States and Britain] was nine or ten Americans to one Englishman.”

          There have been a good many warnings voiced in recent years about the threat to the continued existence of Western civilization posed by the vast and ongoing demographic invasions that combine with the non-replicating birthrates of the traditional population.[4]  The United States benefited from such demographics in Polk’s day.  “The shoe,” as the saying goes, “is now on the other foot.”  Over the protests of many, an unresponsive political system has found it desirable to fly in the face of the lessons of the past.                                                                                                                                                                                     Dwight D. Murphey 



[1]   The issue of the displacement of the American Indian is analyzed at length in this reviewer’s essay on that subject in his book The Dispossession of the American Indian – And Other Issues in American History (Washington, D.C.: Scott-Townsend Publishers, 1995).  This book may be accessed and downloaded free of charge from www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info, where it is Book 7.

[2]   This insight has a direct bearing on the American Indian displacement issue.  It is commonplace for Americans today to recite that “we wronged the indians over a period of centuries and had no right to take their lands from them.”  It is interesting that an account such as Merry’s, and a reader’s propensity as he reads that history, is absorbed in the course of American development.  With their eyes focused on that, readers will hardly pause to ask themselves, “what about the American Indian?”  If that is true of us today as readers, it was even more true of the people of past centuries, who ventured over the Appalachians or up the Oregon Trail on the supposition that North America was primarily an empty continent, calling out for settlement.  It requires a detached and self-abnegating view to see it otherwise.

[3]  This reviewer has expressed the view elsewhere that this “dependent class” is bound, because of employment outsourcing and the onrush of non-labor-intensive technology, to grow to include a great many people who will not deserve to be included in the “ne’er-do-well” category.  That expansion of dependency will pose (as to some extent it does already) unique economic, social and political issues.

[4]   We have reviewed several of the books that have sounded this warning.  See our reviews of: Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West, in the Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies (JSPES), Spring 2010; Walter Laqueur’s The Last Days of Europe, JSPES, Winter 2007, pp. 519-522; Congressman Tom Tancredo’s In Mortal Danger: The Battle for America’s Border and Security, JSPES, Winter 2006, pp. 489-493; Tony Blankley’s The West’s Last Chance, JSPES, Winter 2005, pp. 524-531; Patrick Buchanan’s The Death of the West, JSPES, Spring 2002, pp. 126-130; and Wayne Lutton and John Tanton’s The Immigration Invasion, in Conservative Review, July/Aug 1995, pp. 34-35.   These can all be accessed and downloaded free of charge at www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info