What James K. Polk Knew

President James Knox Polk

I’ve long tended to look at American history and see in the presidency of James Knox Polk (1845-1849) the origin of a great curse.  President Polk led the United States into war with Mexico.  In consequence of that war, the United States forced Mexico to cede its claims on all territory north of its present boundaries.  The US victory was quick and easy; for a loss of about 13,000 soldiers, the USA gained an internationally undisputed claim to almost a million square miles of territory, stretching from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean.  Americans would flood into this territory, displacing and slaughtering the native peoples on whom the Mexicans had made so little impression during their years of nominal rule.  Northern and Southern states vied with each other for influence over this newly secured territory, a contest that laid the political groundwork for the Civil War twelve years later.  As the USA’s first successful attack on a sovereign nation, the invasion of Mexico crossed a psychological boundary which previous attacks on native peoples and British possessions had left in place.  Moreover, the relatively low cost and fantastically rich rewards of the US victory fed in Americans the cannibal appetites of militarism.  So the curse that I have seen as the legacy of the Polk administration includes nearly all of America’s subsequent wars.    

President Polk represented the Democratic Party; his chief opposition was the Whig Party.  I’m a bit of a Whig myself, which is one reason why I chose a cartoon image of Millard Fillmore as my WordPress avatar.*  Leading Whigs like Fillmore spoke out against the invasion of Mexico.  The Whig-dominated Massachusetts legislature passed a resolution during the war denouncing the US effort as the result of a criminal conspiracy to extend slavery into the West.  When Polk claimed that Mexico’s hostile greeting to a US cavalry column he had dispatched into Mexican territory between the Rio del Norte and the Nueces somehow constituted an act by which “American blood was shed on American soil,” Illinois’ Whig Congressman Abraham Lincoln introduced a resolution into the US House of Representatives demanding that the president show the Congress the spot on which this had occurred.  The so-called “Spot Resolution” had the support of the congressional Whig party, and made Lincoln a national figure.  Among future President Lincoln’s colleagues in the House was former President John Quincy Adams.  Technically an independent, Adams was a hero to the Whigs, a friend to Whig Party mastermind Henry Clay, and a reliable supporter of the Whigs’ core policies.  Adams would collapse on the House floor and die in the Capitol; virtually his last earthly act was to vote against a resolution commending US veterans of the war against Mexico.  Many young Whigs who fought in the war would afterward match their elders in the fervor with which they denounced it; Ulysses S. Grant, for example, would write in his memoirs that as a young captain he had won his medals as a perpetrator of “the most unjust war ever waged.”     

The Whigs championed industrialization.  They saw economic centralization as indispensible to industrialization.  Therefore, they were allies of big business and generally sympathetic to established elites.  As such, they would have to be called a conservative party, and their opposition to the war against Mexico would qualify them, if only for the duration of the Polk  administration, as specimens of the antiwar Right.  Chronicles magazine is a voice of today’s antiwar Right, but not of renewed Whiggery.  Their July issue included a review of Robert W. Merry’s A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent which praises Merry for making a case that Polk was right.  Since I’m so far out of sympathy with Polk and his war, I will quote at length from this review:

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 claims.  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 Kearney’s army of frontier dragoons and Missouri volunteer cavalry took Santa Fe without a fight.   

There are some good points in this.  What Mexico ceded to the USA in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was not land that was populated by people loyal to Mexico and protected by its government, but was instead a claim on territory chiefly inhabited by native people who were barely aware of the existence of Mexico.  It is not too harsh to say that by 1846 Mexico had failed to make good on this claim.  And it is also true that in the mid-1840s Russia and Britain were both very active in the nortwestern parts of North America.  So if Polk had lost 1844 election to Whig nominee Henry Clay, and Clay had as president refused to make war on Mexico, then there would have been a considerable likelihood that instead of confronting each other in a the Crimea in 1854-1856 Britain and Russia would have had their showdown in San Francisco Bay.  But I’m still not for the Mexican War.        

*Here’s the cartoon Fillmore, for those of you who’d like a look:

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