Term in Office: 11th president, 1845-1849
Home State: Tennessee
One day in my 8th grade social studies class, my teacher, Mr. E, told us that James K. Polk was his choice for the greatest American president. He reminded us that he is the only one who achieved all of his campaign promises: Texas was annexed into the Union, Oregon Territory was negotiated with the British, California was wrested from Mexico, With no disrespect intended toward Mr. E, this is a decadent bourgeois reason for praising a president. This post is committed to taking down James Polk’s reputation as the “best-kept secret” in the presidential pantheon. While Polk is undeniably more obscure than other presidents who are ranked ‘near-great’, he was the ringleader in one of the most shameful chapters in the American melodrama, the Mexican War.
It might be helpful to view these bottom five spots in my ranking as being reserved not for presidential failure, but presidential ignominy. All of the bottom five were, to some degree or other, successful in their aims. They avoided a civil war (Buchanan), or restored “law and order” (Nixon), established the United States as a continental power (Polk), thwarted Radical Reconstruction (A. Johnson), or stood for the common freeholder against elite East Coast interests (Jackson.) What I want to explore is how they arrived at these aims, how just these means and ends were, and what their long-term deleterious impact on the United States has been. Buchanan avoided a civil war by abetting openly treasonous activity, Nixon established law and order by turning Americans against one another in unprecedented ways, Johnson’s lenient version of Reconstruction was a product of his own backwoods racism, and Jackson’s crimes are too numerous to even bother summarizing until we get to his post.
That leaves Polk. James Polk has many of the markers of a successful president: relevant legislative experience, a vision for America’s greatness, a strong work ethic, a laudable family life. What makes him one of our worst presidents is the insidious means to which he directed these talents. I speak, of course, of the Mexican War. Even a generous account of this era cannot avoid castigating this conflict a brazen and violent land-grab. This casts a kind of pallor over the entire Polk presidency; it is difficult to talk about very much else because this kind of aggressive expansionism was, and is, shocking. It serves as such a stark counterpoint to the “shining the beacon of liberty” narrative to which we are accustomed.
In his background, Polk was a semi-obscure protege of his fellow Tennessian, Andrew Jackson. Polk was a loyal lieutenant for Old Hickory in Congress, and rose through the ranks to become Speaker of the House, the only president to have served in that office. After a few unsuccessful races against the ascendant Whigs, Polk’s career was nearly toast. He quietly lobbied to become the Democrats’ vice-presidential candidate in 1844 to embark upon a comeback. Instead, the Democrats’ convention in Baltimore chose Polk, in no respect a household name, for the presidency. (Their front-runner, ex-president Martin Van Buren, was bearish on annexing Texas, angering Southern delegates.) Although critics jeered with the question “who is James K. Polk,” his expansionist record won a small victory over a man who probably would have been an excellent president, Henry Clay.
In the eight months between Polk’s nomination and inauguration, the Texas question had been partly settled. With the clock running down on him, President John Tyler arrived at a deviously brilliant solution by incorporating Texas not as a diplomatic act that would require a treaty (and thus a 2/3rds vote in the Senate), but as an annexation that would require a simple majority vote. It accomplished one of Polk’s biggest objectives before he even took the oath of office, Mexico was already irate at the United States for annexing Texas, which had declared its independence from Mexico some years before. Polk was determined to win California, and seemed intent on starting a war to take it on his own terms, goading, prodding, and yes, po(l)king Mexico. Here’s the litany. He sent John Slidell to Mexico as an envoy, but with an insultingly low offer, designed to irritate the Mexicans rather than treat diplomatically. He sent his navy to patrol Mexican waters. And, most egregiously, he sent Zachary Taylor across the Rio Grande, into territory that was almost certainly, beyond despute, Mexico’s. When Mexico understandably fired at what, in any sane interpretation, was an invasion force, Polk urged an obliging Congress to declare war.
It wasn’t even a close contest. 15 months into the conflict, Winfield Scott had conquered Mexico City. Mexico failed to win a single major engagement, and the United States had nearly every advantage: a corps of nearly 500+ West-Point trained junior officers, vastly superior artillery, and a stable government that could instill confidence (in 1846, Mexico endured four different presidents).
As a consequence of the war, Mexico ceded half a million square miles to the United States in exchange for $15 million dollars (this was less than half of Polk’s original offer for California). (Jefferson Davis, predictably, tried to cede even more land, but it was voted down.) The actual size of the country was cut down by almost half. The cession, along with the acquisition of Texas, lays the basis for the modern American southwest, but also laid a firmer foundation for the toxic, mistrustful, and often exploitative relationship the United States had with Latin America in the years to come.
And its not as if people didn’t know any better at the time- the war had a great many opponents, including the two men we most associate with the Union side of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant. Lincoln spent his only term in the House of Representatives denouncing the war. He lambasted the war as “the sheerest deception” and demanded that Polk name the precise spot where Mexico had allegedly invaded U.S. soil, which earned him the sobriquet “Spotty” Lincoln. Grant impugned the conflict as “the most unjust war ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation…an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies.” Even some southerners opposed the war, with Georgia’s Robert Toombs “seizing a country…which has been for centuries had been in control of the Mexicans.” Thoreau went to jail for refusing to pay any taxes that would help fund the war effort. When the Whigs took over Congress midway through Polk’s term, the House even issued a declaration that the late war with Mexico was a mistake. I just don’t buy the argument, suggested by Robert W. Merry in A Country of Vast Designs that the spirit of Manifest Destiny made the conquest of Mexico nigh-inevitable, and perhaps semi-justifiable. Even though, as Merry points out, Mexico was semi-feudal, anti-democratic, and incompetently run, it was nonetheless a sovereign nation at the time of its invasion. The United States was in the wrong, and that’s just a fact.
Starting a war on absurd grounds for acquisitional gain is lamentable enough, but there is enough evidence to suggest that the war was at least partly conducted in a concerted effort to expand the practice of slavery. William Dusinberre’s book, Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk expounds this argument. As one of Jackson’s lieutenants in Congress, he was key in preserving the “gag rule” that prevented slavery from even being addressed on the floor of Congress. He was not proslavery in the brazen manner of John C. Calhoun, fundamentally an old-school hereditary plantation owner from the most aristocratic state in the union. Instead, he viewed slaveholding as the key to upward mobility. In fact, Polk himself had taken that road to moderate wealth. Although his father owned slaves, he did not inherit any of them, and he did not become a slaveholder until relatively later in life. Only when he was a successful lawyer did he buy slaves for his investment in a cotton plantation in Mississippi. Dusinberre’s research demonstrates that Polk was not the kindest absentee master: he dismissed lenient overseers, half the children born on his land didn’t make it to age 15, and infused his work force with young males, ripping them from their families. How does this relate to the Mexican War? At the time, remember, Mississippi was the frontier. If it could furnish a middling guy like Polk was riches, imagine what it could do for other middling white frontiersmen! The key was having enough territory— expanding into a continental power. Jacksonian politics was all about elevating the enterprising frontiersman (often at the expense of other races), and the Mexican War fits neatly into its overall trajectory.
In this manner Polk, a man of frail health, labored throughout his four years as president., working all hours of the night, and taking up the portfolios of unreliable cabinet officers (including, yes, Secretary of State James Buchanan.) True to his word, he did not seek a second term, left office horrified that a man as dull as General Zachary Taylor would succeed him, and promptly died of cholera less than three months into retirement, the shortest ex-presidency in American history.
I’ve already taken Robert Merry, a non-historian who dabbles in history like a more tedious Bill O’Reiley, to task, but I need to do so one last time. He writes in his conclusion to A Country of Vast Designs, ultimately an apologia of Polk’s behavior in the Mexican War, that moral criticism of his policies “misses a fundamental reality of history: it doesn’t turn on moral pivots but on differentials of power, will, organization, and population.” Nope. Wrong. Moral criticism weaves, effectively, in and out of each and every one of these. It was the same force that caused one part of his country to fight a civil war against the other: (partly) because they believed it was morally wrong for slavery to expand, and it was morally wrong for one section to break the “sacred bonds of union”. Polk went to war with a weak and eminently beatable opponent to gain more territory south of the Missouri Compromise line where slavery was permitted. And he compromised with a powerful Britain to gain some territory in Oregon, but did not exert himself nearly so hard for territory that had already made its opposition to slavery clear. Is it conspiracy to expand the South’s “peculiar institution” or is it realpolitik? Perhaps the line between them is indistinct, but this much is clear: the Mexican War is a strong contender as the most unjust in U.S. history, and its legacy continues to poison America’s relationship with Latin America even today. We could have been a model democracy to the rest of the continent, but chose instead to be a regional bully, stealing not Mexico’s lunch money, but its left arm.
The borders of the continental United States today bear the marks of James Polk’s administration, and under his watch, my country stretched, for the first time, from Atlantic to Pacific. Whatever good may have later came from these acquisitions does not justify the manner in which they were acquired. It is probable that debt-ridden Mexico would have sold California for a fair price, if Clay had beat Polk in the general election, or if Van Buren, a convert to the virtues of free soil and free labor by the mid-1840s, had beat Polk for the Democratic nomination. Polk’s attempt to expand the U.S. violently, and in a manner that encouraged slavery’s growth, set the table for the growing concern of expansion and whether free labor could endure there. While by his own measure, Polk achieved his aims (although he did fudge a bit with Oregon), his conduct as president deserves a berth among the most ignoble chief executives.