BOOKS: ‘A Country of Vast Designs’

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A COUNTRY OF VAST DESIGNS: JAMES K. POLK, THE MEXICAN WAR AND THE CONQUEST OF THE AMERICAN CONTINENT
By Robert W. Merry
Simon & Schuster, $30, 576 pages
REVIEWED BY JOHN R. COYNE JR.

To indifferent students of American history who find it difficult to distinguish among, say, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce or Rutherford Birchard Hayes, our 11th president, James Knox Polk, may seem to be just another of those semiobscure White House occupants of no particular distinction.

However, as Robert W. Merry shows us, he deserves much more than that. “Probably no other president presents such a chasm between actual accomplishments and popular recognition.”

When Polk took office in 1845, Texas was a republic, everything west of Texas belonged to Mexico and the Oregon Territory of the Pacific Northwest was administered jointly by Britain and the United States. Four years later, when his single term ended, he had taken on Mexico and won, faced down the British and enlarged the United States to its present continental boundaries (and conceivably could have added much of British Columbia, up to Russian America, now Alaska).

In short, in one term, he fulfilled the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, realizing, as Mr. Merry puts it, “that heady vision that had animated American politics so forcefully — conquest of the full midsection of North America from sea to sea.”

Mr. Merry, a publishing executive and political reporter in Washington for three decades (much of that time a friend of this reviewer) and an author of two highly regarded books, brings a historian’s perspective, a journalist’s nose for the story and a novelist’s eye to one of our country’s most dramatic and defining moments. In strong, precise and elegant prose, Mr. Merry brings the key players of the day to life in terms of both personal characteristics and the causes they personified:

Andrew Jackson, Polk’s mentor and hero; Martin Van Buren, Polk’s Democratic opponent, who opposed Texas annexation; South Carolina Sen. John C. Calhoun, the great orator who eloquently made the case for the right of states to “nullify” federal laws, and his bombastic opponent from Missouri, Sen. Thomas Hart Benton; and Henry Clay, the last great Whig, at 71 still a giant of American politics and still with presidential ambitions.

The year 1848 was just beginning, Mr. Merry writes, “and already it was reaching a white-hot intensity — kindled in part by that dynamic dynast of American politics, Henry Clay, whose magnified presence shone over the nation like a late afternoon sun over the sea.”

As for Polk’s military commanders, Mr. Merry describes the “typical tactical brilliance” of Gen. Zachary Taylor, whose “sober, solid, and dependable” image compared favorably to the public perception of his chief rival, Gen. Winfield Scott, as “egotistical, erratic and explosive.” Nor, he points out, was Scotts nickname, “Old Fuss and Feathers,” as reassuring as Taylor’s, “Old Rough and Ready.”

Polk himself, as Mr. Merry shows him to us, is a small, plain man, at times petty and self-pitying, not gifted with the qualities associated with successful politicians. In fact, it sometimes seems he had picked the wrong line of work, twice running unsuccessfully for Tennessee governor. (There’s more than a passing resemblance to Richard Nixon here.) But he fought his way to the presidency, with Jackson’s considerable help, and through it all held to his vision of a great unified nation. By and large, the American people shared his belief in westward expansion, one of the central metaphors of our national experience.

Throughout his administration, the smoldering issues of slavery and states’ rights increasingly poisoned the national debate. “The truth is,” Polk wrote, “there is no patriotism in either faction … both desire to mount slavery as a hobby and secure the election of their favourite upon it.”

Perhaps Polk should have paid more attention to this and other issues of his day. But his was an overriding vision, and Polk “proceeded doggedly with his agenda, worked tirelessly into the night, brushed aside all diversions … He wasn’t enjoying the job at all now, but he did derive a measure of satisfaction in devoting his waking hours to what had captured his inner self — the martyrdom of duty.”

Through much of the past century, historians rated Polk in the top tier of presidents. But as the teaching of history increasingly became mired in odd and exotic specializations, his reputation suffered. Some academics see westward expansion as an attempt to expand slavery. Others, echoing Whig critics of the day, say his war with Mexico was a war of imperialist aggression. In 2008, obviously not talking to Texans, Al Gore chimed in, charging the Mexican war had been “condemned by history.”

Writes Mr. Merry: “This lingering sentiment is not surprising in a nation with a powerful strain of foreign policy liberalism … But the critics of Polk’s war consistently ignore the role of Mexico in those momentous events … Beyond that, 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 value.”

Polk’s historical vision was one of national destiny, a new kind of nation of vast designs “that straddled an entire continent, positioned to dominate the commerce of two oceans.” It was left to Polk, Mr. Merry writes, “with all his limitations of temperament and leadership, to bring that vision to a reality,” and he did so “with boldness, persistence, force of will, and guile that went beyond anything anyone had before seen in him. Yet he brought those traits to the fore in such a way as to accomplish all his presidential aspirations. Therein lies whatever greatness he may claim to a place in history.”

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