books History

How the West was Won: Robert Merry’s “A Country of Vast Designs”

James K. Polk, the eleventh President of the United States, if he is remembered at all, is probably remembered as the brutal president who hoaxed the nation into a violent war against Mexico to seize California and New Mexico. Though often highly rated by academics as a good president, the popularly understood picture of Polk is that he presided over a war, as former Vice President Al Gore has said, was “condemned by history.”

Robert W. Merry, a veteran mainstream conservative journalist with traditionalist leanings, has written an excellent portrait of this oft forgotten, and unfairly maligned, president. As Merry covers the inner workings of the Polk Presidency, a portrait of a man dedicated to the principles of self-government, strict constructionism of the Constitution, fidelity to President Andrew Jackson, faithfulness to his wife (Sarah), and stoic and determined demeanor, is revealed. Polk was not a bombastic or, apparently, charismatic figure. What he lacked in personality he made up for with stout resolution and perceptive foresight.

Unlike many politicians today, Polk was not dedicated to soaking his pockets with money or self-preservation. Instead, he was committed to a short list of ambitious goals: Annex Texas into the Union; acquire the Oregon Territory for the United States; acquire California and New Mexico for the United States; reduce the national tariff; and establish an independent treasury. More ideologically speaking, Polk aimed at securing the North American continent for the American people (and we’ll return to this subject on a bit), limit the atrophying influence of European powers (specifically Britain) over the western hemisphere, and break the power of centralized capital from the hand of national bankers. He was, as Merry clearly identifies, a traditional Jacksonian and Jeffersonian. If he achieved these things Polk promised that he would not run for reelection. As we know, he accomplished all of his goals and promptly retired with his beloved wife to his Tennessee mansion where he died peacefully in his sleep a few months later at the age of only 54.

Polk presided over the apogee of westward expansion, which is what Merry predominately focuses on. While the book portends to be about the Mexican War, Merry’s history is part biography, part Mexican War history, part exoneration of Polk from his contemporary critics, and part coverage of the Oregon Territorial dispute. We often forget that Polk presided over the peaceful acquisition of the Oregon Territory and the disputations with the British are covered quite nicely for those who should have a better understanding of this intriguing and Machiavellian episode in American history.

In dealing with westward expansion and the Mexican War, Merry identifies the “four principles” of westward expansion: “exploration; cession, or transfer by treaty; contiguity, meaning a nation’s right to claim territory necessary to protect adjacent undisputed lands; and settlement” (p. 165). Merry continues, “Ultimately, no country could maintain a claim to any lands indefinitely if it didn’t send its people there to take jurisdiction through settlement” (p. 165). Settlement, Merry identifies, as did the Mexicans in the 1830s and 1840s, was the main and most forceful principle of westward expansion. The Californian and New Mexican territories were sparsely populated by the Mexicans and the Mestizo peoples under Mexican authority. As tens of thousands of Anglo-Saxon and Scotch-Irish Americans moved westward, there emerged a brewing cultural and racial chasm in the region that would necessitate conflict.

Merry, for his part, is astute to this reality. The eleventh chapter of the book contrasts the differing cultural, racial, and political spirits that moved the two countries to war. As he writes, “If the two countries were indeed on a path to war, it was a path that stretched far into each nation’s history, accentuating profound differences between Anglo-Saxon and Spanish-Indian outlooks, attitudes, religious sensibilities, and governance. Those differences would complicate all efforts at post annexation conciliation” (p. 177). The conflict was brewing because of two different peoples, with two different histories, and two different cultures staking claim on the lands west of the Mississippi and along the Pacific Coast.

Merry gives an excellent account of these competing cultures and how they moved the continent toward war: “The Anglo-Saxon migrants to the New World arrived bent on perpetuating the folkways and mores of the Old Country” (p.177). Thus they arrived and established Anglo-Saxon and Scotch-Irish diasporas (which Merry discusses in the early chapters of the book dealing with the context and background to Polk’s emergence). “That culture,” Merry writes, “included powerful new concepts of the Enlightenment, incubated through centuries of English history and reflected in Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence and such profound civic principles as freedom of speech and conscience, popular sovereignty, governmental checks and balances, a degree of social and political equality, and free enterprise” (p. 177). One may quibble with Merry’s standard presentation of the heritage of Anglo-Saxon settlement as promoting Enlightenment values and social and political equality, but his point highlights the reality that the United States was founded by mostly British isle folk who brought with them their ideals and ways to the new continent.

Reflecting on Mexico, Merry states the stark contrast. “Spaniards came as conquerors and plunderers. They mixed freely with indigenous women…They wanted quick riches, preferably in the form of gold…Modern Mexico was thus born in blood but born also with a dual legend. The first was that of Tenochtitlan and its fallen heroes—the last emperor, Moctezuma, and the martyred resistance fighter, Cuauhtémoc. The other legend was that of Cortes, the military genius who brought the Spanish culture and Catholic religion to these New World lands” (p.177-178). Today we see this dual legacy played out.

Insofar that Polk wanted to secure the North American continent for the American peoples, he was not envisioning a North American continent for the “propositional American” but the blooded Anglo-Saxon, Scotch-Irish, and Northwest European as is implied by Merry’s cultural commentary of mid-nineteenth century America. John C. Calhoun, who factors prominently in the book, also understood this. Calhoun’s relationship to the Mexican War is complicated. He supported Texas annexation and thus helped pave the way for American-Mexican hostilities. He initially supported the war believing the newly conquered and sparsely populated territories to be won would become slave states. When the Wilmot Proviso was passed through Congress to prevent slavery’s expansion into the prospective conquered territories, Calhoun began to oppose the war. When far more ardent Manifest Destiny Democrats, riding the successful coattails of Generals Winfield Scott and Zachary Taylor, began envisioning the conquest of all Mexico, Calhoun suddenly became a co-conspirator with the abolitionist Whigs to stop the war. The reason: because Calhoun saw racial and cultural differences as a threat. Merry cites the relevant speeches where Calhoun made these arguments, but then brushes them aside as antiquated, “Here’s where Calhoun moved into ideological territory commonly occupied by Americans at the time but slowly abandoned over succeeding decades” (p. 414). Most Americans certainly did not move away from this perspective in the succeeding decades, not even the next century, until after the 1960s.

In one of the more illuminating parts of the book, Merry details the conniving and scheming peace process between General Santa Anna and his American counterpart, Winfield Scott, working alongside the American diplomatic attaché, Nicholas Trist. Scott and Trist were initially opponents who became friends over their mutual dislike of Polk. Together, they tried to bribe Santa Anna into organizing a favorable peace which threatened Polk’s ambitions. However, Mexican problems ensured the peace process was amenable to Polk’s original plans.

Merry’s book on Polk and the conquest of the North American continent is an excellent and insightful read covering an epoch of American history either largely unknown or maligned. Merry exonerates Polk from his critics, and he careens into some much larger truths as relevant then as today. When responding to critics of Polk, Merry not only captures the liberal hypocrisy on war (showing how liberals love humanitarian wars but hate wars of the national interest), but also the reality that moral sentiment has no bearing on the outcome of history. “[T]he moralistic impulse, when applied to the Mexican War, misses a fundamental reality of history: It doesn’t turn on moral pivots but on differentials of power, will, organization, and population” (p. 476). He ends where westward expansion began: population and settlement.

The United States won the west because of its strong population-settlement claim to the region when the other powers of the North American continent: Mexico and Great Britain, had little population presence (which is often forgotten today when discussing America’s war against Mexico). Whatever political and otherwise de jure claims Mexico (and Britain) had on these regions were moot because the people living there were mostly American pioneers and settlers whose allegiance wasn’t to Mexico or British colonial claims. America’s settlement boom over the western lands in the 1820s-1840s then found a courageous and astute political leader to secure these lands for the American people. As Merry states of Polk, “But in the end he succeeded and fulfilled the vision and dream of his constituency. In a democratic system that is the ultimate measure of political success” (p. 477). America’s modern democracy still plays to the Polkian understanding of democratic constituency.

Robert W. Merry
A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, The Mexican War, and the Conqeust of the American Continent
New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009; 576pp.

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