A Country of Vast Designs--James K. Polk, The Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent by Robert W. Merry was published in 2009 by Simon & Schuster. I just had to snap it up when I saw it laying there on display at Barnes & Noble. Ever since I learned about President Polk about thirty years ago in AP American History class, he has been my favorite president.
Mr. Merry really makes the history of the Polk presidency and the 1840s come alive. Most of the time, the biography reads like an historical novel. It is filled with colorful characters, vivid descriptions of people and settings, military and political intrigue, explorers and spies, heroes and rogues (and some who are a little of each).
However, a completely unbiased account it is not. Polk was a controversial president--the historians of today are as divided about his legacy and modus operandi as were his contemporaries, and while Mr. Merry certainly mentions the controversies, his bias in favor of the president is abundantly clear. This makes Mr. Merry's book an easy read for those, such as I, who share his bias--and, no doubt, would make for difficult reading for those who do not.
Polk is consistently ranked by historians in the presidential top ten, and almost universally recognized by those in the know as the best single term president. However, there were, are, and probably always will be those who view Polk as a scheming aggressor who essentially bullied Mexico into submission without cause and stole her lands. The controversies surrounding his presidency notwithstanding, Mr. Merry and I beg to disagree with those who view Polk in this bad light.
The war with Mexico was completely justified as were the land indemnities. Mexico started the war. Period. After years of turning a blind eye to banditos raiding our borders and stealing from Americans living or doing business in Mexico, she owed American citizens more than she could or cared to pay. France took military action to protect the property rights of her citizens wronged in this way by Mexico at that time, and England had threatened to do so. Then Texas--a sovereign nation recognized as such by the nations of the world, including Mexico--decided to join the United States. Mexico didn't like that and decided to kill American soldiers patrolling the Texas border. What more justification for declaring war did the United States need?
After the war was won, the United States could have taken over all of Mexico--and some of Polk's contemporaries urged exactly that. Polk and others used their influence to quell that movement. Instead, Polk had Mexico "pay" for her misdeeds with "land reparations" (New Mexico and California). "Pay?" In exchange, not only did the United States cease hostilities, but forgave Mexico her entire debt, and paid Mexico $15 million. Polk was fierce in war, magnanimous in peace.
In my opinion, Polk was the best president ever, and I defy anyone to read Mr. Merry's painstakingly researched, well-paced biography of the president to come to any other conclusion. Through sheer political will and brilliant diplomatic acumen, Polk took control of the Oregon territory from the British without firing a shot and then went on to improve trade relations with the British to the benefit of both countries. He completed the process started by his predecessor, President Tyler, of bringing Texas into the union. He added New Mexico and California to the United States. The total amount of land added (Texas, New Mexico, California, and Oregon) is comparable to that of the Louisiana Purchase. In addition, his controversial low tariff policy increased free trade to such a degree that the United States collected roughly double the taxes in tariffs that it had under the higher tariff in place when he took office. And his independent treasury policy restored financial stability and confidence in the U.S. dollar for decades to come.
Let's compare Polk with some other "great" presidents. Washington will always be considered great. He was the first. But what did he really do that was all that great? In my opinion, the greatest thing Washington did was to step down after two terms and peacefully hand the reigns of government over to John Adams. Jefferson certainly was great, too. But the Louisiana purchase was relatively easy for him--after all, Napoleon approach HIM with the deal. Abraham Lincoln? The one who, rather than allowing the southern states to peacefully depart, decided to fight a particularly bloody and expensive war over it? In my opinion, Lincoln was the WORST president ever--there, I said it. How about FDR? Hmm... Doesn't that stand for Fascists Destroy Republics? Ronald Reagan? Granted, he was great, but his accomplishments pale in comparison with Polk's--the man of Manifest Destiny.
How refreshing would it be for a presidential candidate to pledge to serve for only one term if elected and during that term to work tirelessly on behalf of the American people without any regard to re-election politics? Polk did more than that--he literally worked himself to death for his country. Elected at the age of forty-nine, Polk was then the youngest man ever elected president. He died three months after he left office at the age of fifty-three. No other president before or since died any younger without being assassinated.
It is about time that someone wrote a definitive biography without a bleeding-heart-liberal bias of the greatest president ever. Thank you, Mr. Merry, for being brave enough to do so and for making the reading of it not only informative but profoundly entertaining.