A country of Vast Designs:
James K. Polk, the Mexican
War, and the Conquest of
the American Continent by Robert W. Merry
Simon & Schuster, 592 pp.
riting for U.S. News & World Report last November, columnist James Pethokoukis needed just one week to declare the Obama presidency a bust. If the economy continued its downward trajectory, Pethokoukis wrote, “the ‘O’ in ‘Obama’ may stand for ‘One Term.’” His pronouncement was a tad premature—the flubbed oath of office was still ten weeks away—but by no means exceptional. Within a week of Bill Clinton’s triumph in 1992, analysts darkly warned that his contract would not be renewed if his health care reform failed; and only two days after the Supreme Court effectively sealed the Florida recount in 2000, Thomas F. Eagleton, writing for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, sketched a comparison between George W. Bush and Rutherford B. Hayes—the latter a beneficiary of widescale voter fraud and, more damning for his legacy, a one-term president.
For occupants of the Oval Office, the prospect of a four-and-out brings with it the putrid aroma of failure. Even Cincinnatus, the patron saint of civic virtue, served two full terms as dictator before famously turning in his fasces for a plow. And so, when health care reform, economic woe, and an escalating war in Afghanistan conspired to sink the new president’s approval ratings back to par this August, there was a minor kerfuffle when White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs declared that his boss was “quite comfortable” sacrificing a second term if it meant pushing through progressive legislation.
Quite comfortable? Hasn’t he ever heard of Jimmy Carter?
Perhaps Gibbs had in mind James K. Polk, the nation’s greatest president never to seek reelection and the subject of Robert W. Merry’s A Country of Vast Designs. Merry, formerly editor in chief of Congressional Quarterly, tackles a compelling but largely uncharted era in American history: the flurry of western expansion that bridged the Age of Jackson to the politics of the Civil War. In three grand strokes, Polk transformed the geopolitical outlook of the continent for centuries to come, expanding the nation by a third and solidifying its claim to the Pacific. Polk secured the annexation of Texas, snatched the Oregon Territory from the hated Brits, and went to war with Mexico over the title to California and the Southwest. On the home front, Polk solidified the legacy of his mentor, Andrew Jackson, by slashing a divisive tariff and installing an independent banking system—a reform that would define the landscape until the inception of the Federal Reserve in 1913. He did in one term what few could have done in two.
Polk accomplished all of this in a political climate that could most accurately be described as unhinged, and with a hopelessly small penny jar of political capital. He even managed to turn his lame-duck status into an asset. Designs is a thoroughly enjoyable book that illuminates a man and a moment that have been largely glossed over in popular history. Merry offers an inside-the-Beltway narrative of westward expansion, capturing the fierce ideological and sectional differences that gripped the federal government in the 1840s while injecting enough color to bring to life the personalities and fierce ideals of a largely forgotten cast of politicians, diplomats, and commanders.
And he does so without the luxury of a colorful and commanding protagonist. Unlike his ally Andrew Jackson, Polk never fought a duel or wed an already-married woman. Nor were his ideas timeless: these days candidates talk about Manifest Destiny about as often as they talk about the temperance movement. There’s little inherently interesting about Polk beyond the riddle of why someone who did so much could be so little remembered, and the question of how he did it.
erry depicts the eleventh president as an introvert whose standard response to crisis was to scribble away in his diary. Polk was not in any sense charismatic—even his marriage to his devoted wife, Sarah, came about not through individual initiative, we learn, but after explicit prodding from Jackson. His oratory was forceful but unspectacular, an eminently perishable brand of populism that stands little chance of ever gracing a marble monument. “He was in many ways a smaller-than-life figure,” Merry writes, who “harbored larger-than-life ambitions.” What separated Polk from the generally defective presidents of his era was an uncommon perseverance, an approach to governing made possible by a concession that lent structure and urgency to his agenda.
Polk’s decision to serve just one term was rooted on neither principle nor actuarial tables (although he died less than four months after his term ended). Instead, it came about as a campaign promise meant to win the support of his party’s deep bench of aspiring candidates, whose feuds positioned the dark-horse candidate Polk for the nomination but who threatened to withhold their support unless he pledged not to run again.
For everyone but the man in the Oval Office, the self-imposed term limit had the exact impact you might expect: Polk’s advisers, diplomats, and commanders behaved toward their lame-duck leader in much the same way a class of rowdy students might treat their substitute algebra teacher. His two leading generals in the Mexican War, the boorish Zachary Taylor (whose mental aptitude Polk frequently questioned) and the vainglorious Winfield “Old Fuss and Feathers” Scott, sought to pave their own paths to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue by publicly and privately undermining the commander in chief. A third officer, Captain John C. Frémont, somehow spun a cartographic mission to California into a bizarre—and totally illegal—war of conquest that briefly turned the Mexican territory into an independent state named the Bear Flag Republic. And then there was Polk’s perpetually petulant secretary of state, James Buchanan, who comes off in Merry’s account as some sort of cross between Henry Kissinger and the little boy from The Omen, a backstabbing statesman whom Polk, against his better judgment, stuck with to the end.
At the time of Polk’s inauguration, the Oregon territory was held jointly by the U.S. and Great Britain under terms of an earlier agreement. Ever the diplomat, Polk informed the British that the U.S. held legitimate title to the entire territory, but he’d be willing to compromise along the 49th parallel (the present-day boundary). When they refused, he changed course dramatically, demanding all of the contested lands up to the southern tip of Alaska and, just to show the British he was serious, threatening to go to war unless a new deal was brokered. He egged on Congress’s most ardent expansionists while leaving his own plans ambiguous, pushing the debate far enough toward the fringe that the eventual compromise treaty, larded with British concessions, looked moderate by comparison.
If Polk’s Oregon strategy amounted to a high-stakes game of chicken, his acquisition of the Southwest was a bit more complicated, owing to the fact that the U.S. had no legitimate claim to the land, and it wasn’t for sale. These would normally be considered deal breakers, but Polk figured that if he could somehow provoke Mexico into firing the first shot he could then justify a more expansive military approach, occupy the territories he wanted to obtain, and force a relatively quick concession. It wasn’t a war of conquest, he argued; the U.S. was just defending itself from an aggressor and taking a little something (525,000 square miles) for the inconvenience. The war engendered fierce opposition at every turn, but Polk never wavered on his goal.
Merry emphasizes that what set Polk apart from his contemporaries—in fact, the only thing that set him apart from everyone else—was his dogged persistence in pushing through his agenda. He conducted foreign policy with the audacity, perhaps recklessness, of someone with nothing to lose.
Had Polk pined for a renewal on his White House lease, it’s reasonable to assume he’d have taken a more tactful approach to governance, one that steered clear of potential intraparty conflicts and sectional spats. He might have settled for less than the 49th parallel as his northern border and San Diego harbor as his southern one, or perhaps he’d have simply acquired Texas and called it a day. Instead, he played to a different set of calculations than did his political rivals.
Merry captures this most clearly not in his description of Polk, but through the machinations of Buchanan, who in many ways served as a perfect foil for his boss—dead set on political advancement with little regard for principle. To Polk’s constant dismay, Buchanan reversed his position on nearly every major question before him with little warning or stated rationale. His gaze fixated on his own future, Buchanan was, unlike Polk, a prisoner of Washington’s fickle political winds.
one-term limit is by no means a guarantee of presidential boldness or success; the only other chief executive to enter office with a promise similar to Polk’s was Rutherford B. Hayes, one of our worst presidents ever. Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, meanwhile, both seemed quite comfortable taking bold positions despite harboring reelection hopes. But Jackson enjoyed something close to a cult of personality among his supporters, and Lincoln had the mixed blessing of losing the eleven states that most opposed his policies. Polk’s antebellum America, as the failings of his successors demonstrated, was an impossible climate in which presidential inaction was compulsory but never satisfactory. By taking his name out of consideration for a second term, Polk lost any incentive to hold back on his ambitions and created a window of opportunity that allowed him to push through his own agenda. It took a considerable level of political skill to make it work, but the lame-duck status was arguably the critical variable that spared Polk from the paralysis that gripped his inept successors.
Merry never makes this connection explicitly, though, and therein lies the book’s biggest shortcoming: we are left to marvel at Polk’s “martyrdom of duty,” as the author puts it, with little explanation as to where it came from. The lame-duck imperative is hardly mentioned; Merry instead uses the term limit to depict the president as sort of a male bumblebee, who accomplished everything he was put on earth to do and then almost immediately bit the dust. “Polk brought to his presidency imperatives of boldness, persistence, force of will, and guile that went beyond anything anyone had ever before seen in him,” Merry concludes, and leaves it at that. And while we’re frequently told that Polk turned to his diary for consultation, those words rarely make it into the book. This book isn’t, in short, John Adams. We’re left to intuit the larger forces that shaped Polk’s presidency.
But Polk succeeded in a unique fashion no one else has replicated. It took a president who didn’t care about the electoral consequences to transform the nation as Young Hickory managed to do. Today’s lame ducks are perhaps unfairly caricaturized, as Sarah Palin so gracefully articulated, as “unproductive, typical, politics-as-usual” doormats. Merry’s book offers a fresh perspective, and a glimpse of how things can work out differently. A four-and-out might not be Obama’s worst nightmare—and it shouldn’t be.