Skip to comments.Polk: Forgotten Great
Posted on 11/13/2009 6:04:17 AM PST by Kaslin
As America debates whether to send tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan, in the ninth year of a war for ends we cannot discern, a riveting new history recalls times when Americans fought for vital national interests.
"A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent" is Robert Merry's brilliant biography and history of that time. Merry goes far toward righting the injustice done by historians who have denied this great man his place in the pantheon of presidents, because they believe "Jimmy Polk's War" to have been a war of aggression against a Third World people.
As Merry relates, the problem is not with "Young Hickory," the protege of Andrew Jackson, but with historians who ever allow political correctness to blind them to true greatness.
The Mexican War was as just a war as we have ever fought.
In 1836 at San Jacinto, Sam Houston had won the independence of Texas with his defeat of Santa Anna, butcher of the Alamo and Goliad. In eight years, Mexico had not tried to recapture Texas. For eight years, Houston and Texas had sought admission to the Union.
In 1844, Polk, twice defeated for governor of Tennessee, was seeking the Democratic vice presidential nomination on a ticket with ex-President Martin Van Buren, Jackson's vice president.
But when the issue of annexation of Texas caught fire in the country, Van Buren opposed it, losing his patron Jackson. Polk rode the Texas issue to victory in Baltimore as the "dark horse" in the most dramatic convention in history. His opponent that November, the Whig Henry Clay, running a third time, was also fatally wrong on Texas.
Lame-duck president John Tyler, however, stole a march on Polk by annexing Texas by joint resolution of Congress.
But where was the southern border of Texas?
Santa Anna had signed Texas away to the Rio Grande. Mexico said the border was the Nueces River, far to the north. In dispute were thousands of square miles. To enforce America's claim, Polk sent Gen. Zachary Taylor to the Rio Grande.
A Mexican army arrived on the south bank, and an American patrol, north of the Rio Grande, was ambushed and cut to pieces by Mexican troops. When word reached Washington, Polk sent Congress a message: "The cup of forbearance" has "been exhausted."
Congress voted a near-unanimous declaration of war.
And as ever in wartime, bold men rise to immortality.
Col. Stephen Kearny set out from Kansas with 1,500 troops, marched to Santa Fe, claimed New Mexico for the Union and, with 300 dragoons, rode on to Los Angeles, into a clash with Capt. John C. Fremont, son-in-law of Polk's mighty Senate ally, Thomas Hart Benton.
Zachary Taylor, "Old Rough and Ready," routed Santa Anna at Buena Vista in a victory that would make this Whig general Polk's successor as president. Bayoneted to death at Buena Vista had been the young hero Henry Clay Jr. His father had bitterly opposed the war.
To Gen. Winfield Scott, Polk gave command of an army that was to land at Veracruz and take the path of Cortez to the capital to dictate terms if Mexican diehards rejected a negotiated peace.
Leading an invasion force half the size of the defending army, Scott never lost a battle on his six-month march to Mexico City. The Duke of Wellington called Scott the world's "greatest living soldier" and said his campaign "was unsurpassed in military annals."
Riding with Scott's army was Polk's agent, Nicholas Trist, who would bring home a triumph rivaled only by the Louisiana Purchase. Trist was the chief clerk of the State Department under that devious secretary of state and future president James Buchanan, who ever had his eyes on the prize.
Given specific instructions by Polk on what he could offer Mexico, the cantankerous Trist ran afoul first of Scott, then of Polk, who ordered him recalled.
But Trist rode on to Mexico City, reconciled with Scott, seized the opportunity of a peace party in power, negotiated the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, came home and was sacked.
But under Trist's treaty, Mexico had agreed to the Rio Grande as the Texas border, ceded all of New Mexico, which included half a dozen future American states, and signed away California, for $15 million and forgiveness of Mexico's debts.
The renegade envoy had come home with half of Mexico. They ought to rename the State Department for this great American.
Some urged Polk to break his pledge and run again. He refused. He had done what he came to do: annex all of Texas, acquire California and settle the Oregon Territory dispute with Great Britain on terms favorable to the United States.
Polk went home to Tennessee and, in 100 days, was dead.
He lacked the character of Washington, the brilliance of Jefferson, the charisma of Jackson, but James K. Polk belongs with the immortals. None gave more or did more for America. Bob Merry has made a major contribution to historical truth and written one splendid book.
I grew up in Polk county FL, named after the president.
Thanks! This is a must read for me. As stated, too many historians decry the war with Mexico as a bad war and failed diplomacy.
I polka (poorly).
Stopped reading right there.
And all this time I thought it was named after the salad. (spent too much time passing through Bradley Junction).
Is it true Mexico offered the U.S. all of Baja for an additional $8 million and we turned them down?
Personally, I also rank Polk in the top 10 US Presidents; Washington, Lincoln, T.Roosevelt, Jackson, Reagan, Polk, Truman, FDR, Jefferson & Eisenhower.
Pat’s got it right about Polk. He was one of our greatest POTUS’s. He said he would only serve one term, and he lived up to his word, and didn’t run although the history of the country would have been different had he run and won re-election in the general election of 1848. Of course, it would have been much different for Polk as well because he died a couple months after leaving office, when he was doing a victory tour lap through the South and he got sick from something he ate down in NewOrleans.
I don’t think that Mr.Buchanan would think much of Polk’s domestic agenda, specifically the way Polk handled the tariff issue. Polk was instrumental in reducing tariffs, while his political opponents, the Whigs, favored higher tariffs.
I specifically remember every time I hear about President Polk, being in 5th grade when all the students drew Presidents from a hat to do a report on. I drew James Polk and my teacher pulled me aside and told me to draw again because he was boring. So I drew again and I drew Ronald Reagan. Then my teacher said to draw again because he was too recent of a president to find any research on. But this time I told her I wanted to keep him because my parents loved President Reagan and I’m sure there’s a reason why.
I saw an interesting film made about the St. Patrick’s brigade (artillery) led by, what I got out of the film a deserter from the U.S. Army, a sergent, of Irish decent...
They fought for the Mexican army and were defeated, and all but the Sergent, played by the actor Tom Berringer were hanged, while viewing the fall of the Mexican flag in the last big battle of that war...
I foget right off the top of my head what the name of that film was...Somebody will find it...
My gut feeling is that the film was skewed to show empathy to the Mexican side of the war, but it was still interesting to watch...
OHHHH OHHHHH I KNOW, I KNOW Mistah Kottah!!!
If you read up on the history of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of Soviet Russia and the Warsaw Pact, you will find the man who led the nation to that great moment.
Where one man, with one speech, ended the Cold War.
Interesting article, interesting book....
Of course, you can bet the Jeraldo Rivera/La Raza/Hispano-Racists will whine about this time in American history....but, Polk’s decision spared many people living in over 1 million square miles of territory from living in a Third World cesspool called Mexico....
Thanks for posting this.
That's because the Mexican War was the first war about slavery.
I live in Polk country.
Williamson County TN...Polk was big in Maury County too.
the signs of he and his family...Leonidis, their kin the McGavocks, Childresses etc are everywhere...their plantations and churchs and what not from here down into northern Mississippi.
and for the overly sensitive here, he freed his many slaves at his death and rarely if ever sold off any and if he did, he did it by families
he was like Jackson’s protege and dealt with the clash that was brewing while trying to expand the nation
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.