the radical presidency of james polk -- 1/27/20
Today's selection -- from A Country of Vast Designs by Robert W. Merry. Little studied by contemporary Americans, James Polk was one of the most impactful presidents in American history. In his brief four-year term, America annexed Texas as a new state, purchased California and contiguous territories from Mexico, and compromised with Britain to gain outright ownership of the Oregon territory south of the 49th parallel. It was a radical series of actions that more than doubled the size of the country:
"Around the time of Polk's inauguration, the Tennessean sat down for a private chat with his new navy secretary, George Bancroft. Polk liked Bancroft, respected his intellect, and trusted his loyalty. Thus he indulged himself in a rare bit of candor. Speaking with a degree of animation seldom seen in the man, he slapped his hand upon his thigh and laid out the four central elements of his presidential ambition.
"First, he said, he planned to settle the Oregon question with Great Britain and extend America to the Pacific Ocean. Second, he would acquire California from Mexico and secure for his country an additional broad expanse of coastal territory. Third, he would reduce the Tariff of 1842 and replace its overt protectionism with a pure revenue rationale. And finally he would revive Martin Van Buren's 'independent treasury' designed to protect federal monies and ensure currency stability.
|United States states and territories when Polk entered office|
"The two domestic aims, representing standard Democratic doctrine, were predictable enough. The foreign policy goals were of a different case -- almost breathtaking, a bold extension of the expansionism that had burst upon the scene with John Tyler's effort to bring Texas into the Union.
"What was remarkable about them collectively, aside from the Jacksonian audacity they represented, was that Polk never went beyond Bancroft in discussing the daring goals he set for himself and his country. He was in many ways a smaller-than-life figure, but he harbored larger-than-life ambitions. This dual reality was to shape his presidency, bringing forth both his success and the high price he would pay for his success.
"Particularly intriguing was Polk's resolve to acquire California. How, as he sat there with Bancroft on the threshold of his presidency, did he intend to accomplish this? Polk didn't say, and apparently Bancroft didn't ask. But both men were wise in the ways of diplomacy; both knew every previous effort to broach the subject with Mexico had been firmly rebuffed. Hence, both had to realize that any such resolve would be frivolous without a corollary willingness to force the issue through war.
"Beyond Polk's four bold ambitions were two challenges of more immediate urgency -- completing the annexation of Texas and shoreing up his political standing within a fractious Democratic Party. The first would require decisive moves likely to generate intraparty frictions. The latter would require that he get rid of Francis Blair as editor of the Daily Globe. This wouldn't go down easily. Blair was a Jackson protege and close friend to both Van Buren and Benton. Clearly, Polk's presidency would traverse some treacherous territory."