Soon after his election in 1844, James K. Polk sat down with the historian George Bancroft and, before offering him the Cabinet post of secretary of the Navy, sketched the four objectives of his presidency.  They were to lower the tariff, restore the independent treasury system, extend American sovereignty over the vast Oregon Country (claimed also by the British), and acquire the Mexican province of California.  He achieved all four.  He also got New Mexico.  By his Oregon Treaty and Mexican Cession, Polk added 943,097 square miles to the national domain (the Louisiana Purchase had added 827,987), extended American rule from the crest of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific shore, and made the United States a continental confederation.  No president has ever done more of lasting benefit for his country.

It is worth recalling all that was gained.  The new territory on the western ocean extended from the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the north to San Diego in the south, boasted three magnificent natural harbors, featured the lush and temperate valley of the Willamette (at the terminus of the Oregon Trail), and was blessed with a paradisiacal climate and spectacular natural beauty.  This much was known.  What was not known (but soon would be) were the rich gold fields along the rivers flowing out of the High Sierras, as well as the abundant silver veins on the eastern side of the range.  Nor was it known, or even suspected, that the Central Valley of California would become, once irrigated, one of the most productive vegetable- and fruit-growing regions in the world.  Americans then thought of California only as ranch country.

So how has Polk fared in the 21st century?  Most Americans have never heard of him.  Presidential historians rank him among the “near great” of our chief executives, but pundits and politicos accuse him of military aggression against unoffending Mexico and blame him in part for the Civil War.  Such opinions are not really new.  The Whig-controlled Massachusetts legislature alleged, during the conflict, that the Mexican War was a conspiracy to extend slavery.  Ulysses Grant, who fought in it, called it “the most unjust war ever waged.”  But what were then minority opinions (the war was popular in every region of the country except parts of New England) are now all the fashion.  The Mexican War is condemned as if it were the German invasion of Poland or the Roman conquest of Gaul.  Ron Tyler, former director of the Texas State Historical Association, calls it “the War of Yankee aggression, and to call it anything else is wrong.”  Former Vice President Al Gore has said that it is “condemned by history.”  (Mr. Gore evidently does not know that history has no agency and renders no judgments.)  Meanwhile, the Mexicans cite the war as justification for their own reconquista of the American Southwest.

All that is why Robert Merry’s study of Polk’s expansionism is so surprising.  He dismisses the slaveholder-conspiracy allegation as “without foundation” and defends the policy and justice of the war.  His prose is free of the strident moralism and p.c. devil-terms (e.g., racism, white supremacy, slave power) that poison the textbooks and monographs issued by our institutes of higher indoctrination.  Merry is not an academic but a journalist, and his book is meant for the general reader.

Several factors account for Polk’s forgotten-man status, according to Merry.  Unlike his mentor and fellow Tennessean Andrew Jackson, Polk was never a popular icon or symbol, and his presidency has been overshadowed by the wrenching civil conflict that followed just 12 years later.  But the biggest reason is that he offends a “foreign policy liberalism . . . that deprecates wars fought for national interest and glorifies those fought for humanitarian ideals.”  In other words, he does not reflect the flattering image of ourselves as sacrificial do-gooders progressively ridding the world of evil.  International politics, Merry observes, “doesn’t turn on moral pivots but on differentials of power, will, organization, and population.”  He is right, but the statement suggests a question: In whose interest, then, are American wars being fought?  They are certainly intended to be in someone’s interest.  Alas, that is a subject for another book.  Nevertheless, I cannot help observing that, beginning with the Spanish-American War (1898-99), few of our wars have been in the nation’s interest.

Here is the geopolitical reality that Polk grasped.  In the 1840’s, the western third of the North American continent was in play.  The players were the United States, Great Britain, Russia, and Mexico.  Each claimed some portion of that vast territory.  Polk understood that the question was not which of those claims was most legitimate (who, after all, would decide that?), but which of the four powers had the means and will to enforce their own.  Mexico did not.  She “was a dysfunctional, unstable, weak nation whose population wasn’t sufficient to control all the lands within its domain.”  Bernard DeVoto made the same point two generations ago:

[I]t is a fundamental mistake to think of Mexico, in this period, or for many years before, as a republic, or even as a government.  It must be understood as a late stage in the breakdown of the Spanish Empire.

There was no stability or institutional legitimacy in Mexico.  Revolution followed revolution, coup succeeded coup.  Mexican governments could neither govern, protect, nor populate the country’s far northern provinces.  That incapacity was most obvious in New Mexico, where the people were oppressed by taxes and terrorized by Indian raids, and consequently not inclined to fight in its defense.  Thus did Gen. Manuel Armijo’s army of conscripts flee at the approach of the Americans.  Col. Stephen Watts Kearny’s army of frontier dragoons and Missouri volunteer cavalry took Sante Fe without a fight.

Even in California, where conditions were better, there was little popular will to resist an American invasion.  In the South, the sons of privilege with their fine horses and sharp lances put up a spirited fight, but they were too few.  Even without a war, three or four more years of transcontinental migration would have put Americans in control of the province.  (In 1842, there were a mere 4,000 Californios—whites of Spanish descent—400 Americans, and a few hundred Europeans.)  The Mexican government had tried to prevent the inevitable by ordering Americans out of California and forbidding any more from coming into the province.  (Curiously, this example of Mexican nativism and xenophobia goes unremarked by our academic Pharisees.)

DeVoto believed that an American conquest had “the logic of the map behind it.”  Merry believes that the Americans had a casus belli, too.  First, the Mexican government had stopped making payments owed in compensation for spoliations of American property since the Mexican Revolution.  (An independent arbitrator had certified two million dollars in claims.  The Mexicans had paid only $300,000.)  Second, the Mexican government refused to recognize the independence and sovereignty of the Texas Republic and declared American annexation of it (in 1845) to be an act of war.  Third, Mexico broke off diplomatic relations with the United States and refused to receive the American envoy (John Slidell) sent to negotiate a diplomatic settlement of all outstanding issues.  Fourth, the British government had designs on California, and there was a real possibility that a Mexican junta, needing funds to pay the troops, might sell the province to the British, in preference to the hated Americanos.  If the British could also make good their claim to all the land north of the Columbia River (what is now Washington State), they could have shut out their American cousins from every natural harbor on the Pacific Coast and most of the coastline.  Finally, it was the Mexicans who drew first blood by firing on and killing American cavalrymen in the disputed border region between the Rio del Norte and the Nue­ces.  True enough, Polk had sent them there hoping to provoke an armed incident that would give him the wider war he needed.  But the Mexicans would not negotiate and refused to sell land to satisfy the indemnity they owed the Americans.  Had Polk sat back and twiddled his thumbs like a good Whig, scrupulous in his sensitivity to Mexican sensibilities and British hypocrisy, he could have lost it all, and today we would be building a wall along the southern border of Oregon, Idaho, and Wyoming, and the western line of Kansas.

Do we really need to apologize for this war?  Or make a hero of the president who, as an Illinois congressman, thought it wrong, only to inaugurate, 12 years later, a fratricidal bloodbath that took the lives of 618,000 Americans?  (Only 12,876 soldiers died in the Mexican War.)  It was Mr. Lincoln’s war, after all, that shredded the Constitution and laid the foundations of the imperial state of the 20th century.


[A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, The Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent, by Robert W. Merry (New York: Simon & Schuster) 592 pp., $30.00]