polk changed america -- 9/19/22

Today's selection -- from A Wicked War by Amy S. Greenberg. James K. Polk, protégé of Andrew Jackson and our 11th U.S. president (1845-1849), changed America as much as or more than any other president. He did this by cementing the annexation of Texas, wresting California and contiguous states away from Mexico, and bringing half of the Oregon territory into America through a settlement with Great Britain. All of this was accomplished within a single term. Never before or since has there been as breathtaking a territorial expansion in U.S. history:
"Polk was smart enough to see the great opportu­nity before him, one that his country would embrace. As Polk surveyed America in 1844, he saw a young nation experiencing growing pains and at the same time desperate to claim its place among leading nations. Nearly everything was in transition, and there was no clarity about the future. Eco­nomic developments that heralded a 'market revolution' were increasing class divisions between the newly and ostentatiously rich and poor people with little opportunity for upward mobility. Great waves of immigration from Europe were changing the country's ethnic profile, and xenophobia, then called 'nativism,' was on the rise. Women had begun demanding rec­ognition and power, undermining male authority at home and in public. Religious revivals emerging out of the Second Great Awakening gave birth to reform movements that dared insist society radically change. Working­men were forming trade unions. And there were the hotly contested issues of slavery and temperance, so divisive that few dared truly engage with them. No wonder, then, that a shifting electorate, one whose electoral par­ticipation had expanded dramatically in the 1820s and 1830s to encompass virtually all white men, regarded the values and assumptions that had once defined the two political parties as less and less meaningful.

U.S. states and territories when Polk entered office

"In the midst of these shifts, Polk understood, one core belief remained that could both galvanize his party and unite the nation: Manifest Destiny. The push west could solve all of America's problems. It could provide the immigrant masses crowding American cities with land of their own to farm and a stake in society, as well as reinforce patriarchy by providing men with a means of supporting their families in an environment where strength and physical skill mattered. It would buttress American democracy by reducing the growing strength of manufacturing in the economy and the influence of the northeastern urban elite who profited from that system. And Alta California, on the far west coast, was home to harbors that might allow the United States to compete with Europe for control of trade with China. Expansion would make America strong.

"Expansionism was a winning political issue and the best policy for the country. But -- and Polk believed this in his very soul -- it was also right. He saw clearly that the long years during which cool heads had prevailed on Texas were over. There had been a quick romance and Americans had fallen for Texas, even mythologizing the Alamo's dead. The American people were ready for annexation; indeed, they believed just what Polk did -- that the United States was destined to expand and should take every opportunity to do so. Didn't everything in America's short history point to that conclusion, from the Puritan understanding of America as a city on a hill, a model to be replicated by others, to previous territorial acquisi­tions (the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the purchase of Florida from Spain in 1819, the displacement of the Five Civilized Tribes in the 1830s), and finally the nation's incredible population growth (from four million to seventeen million people between 1790 and 1840)? The nation's very character made expansion inevitable. Americans had a go-ahead, get-ahead nature, with strains of ambition and individualism that led them to constantly push westward, to and beyond the frontier.

U.S. states and territories when Polk left office

"Polk instinctively grasped all of this. Expansion was a winning political issue, at once a promise of national glory and a symbol of dynamic change. Still, he was not its standard-bearer merely to sway voters. He truly believed that Americans were exceptional, that his country was marked for great­ness. Manifest Destiny was not a matter of if but merely one of how. And it justified almost any tactic. The issue was, for him, a perfect marriage of politics and conviction. Tyler had done him the enormous favor of bringing the statehood of Texas into the mainstream, and now he would do the rest.

"Still, something else was at work in Polk's vision, something that held great appeal for the majority of southern Democrats. For he was a slave­holder."

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Amy S. Greenberg


A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico


Vintage Books a division of Random House


Copyright 2012 by Amy Greenberg


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