December 14, 2011

Robert Merry’s ,  A COUNTRY OF VAST DESIGNS   is a political biography of President James K. Polk, the Mexican War (1846-1848), and  the conquest of  the American  Continent.  Preparing lectures in American history particularly stimulating for me was the Ante Bellum period, partiularly 1830 to 1860, and raising issues serving as prime causation for The C ivil War.  Abolition of slavery was one movementt of  Romantic Reform.  The Mexican Session in the peace treaty with Mexico resulted in acquisition of the vast Southwest.  Raised, as ressult,was the volitile issue of the extension of slavery into the acquired.territories. Both issues led to the splintering  and realignment of political parties north and south at the eve of The Civil War.

The one term presidency of President James K. Polk completed his vision of  Manifest Destiny in securing Oregon in compromise with England rather than insisting Fifty Four Forty Or Fight, and also igniting the controversial and unpopular two-year war with Mexico.The Republic of Texas was annexed by the United States in 1845 and, thus,  inheriting the  Republic’s border dispute  with Mexico.  Claims of Texas extended to the Rio Grande River while Mexico viewed the disputed boundary 150 miles north to the Nueces River – the area between the rivers  noted as the Nueces Strip. Mexico did not recognize Texas independence and viewed annexation as an act of war. Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to advance to the Rio Grand to oppose  any Mexican invasion into the disputed territory.  Mexican incursion did occur with an effusion of blood on April 25th 1854 with subsequent declaration of war May 13, 1846 against Mexico.

Of the major parties, Whigs and Democrats, most southern Democrats favored Manifest Destiny with expansion in the southwest as an area of possible slavery extension in oder to keep political balance with the North. Northern Democrats favored movement northwest to the Oregon country.  Democrats generally were for land expansion while the Whigs championed a strong economy and industrialization, not particularly land expansion. Most Whigs, even though having voted for a war declaration,  came to oppose acquisition of more land. Opinion in the North in both parties increasingly became more anti-slavery  in opposition to a Southern Slave Power.  By 1847 loss of life, cost , and war weariness  led Whigs in the House tooffer multiple resolutions in opposition to the war. Merry observed that even  freshmen House members were getting into the act, for example Abraham Lincoln. In his late thirties, Lincoln posed to the president eight questions and the challenge “show me the exact spot” where Taylor’s troops were attacked and American blood shed. (p. 411).  This was Lincoln’s attempt to prove first blood was not shed on American soil but on soil in dispute.

Robert Merry concludes his Polk  biography with an epilogue titled: ” Legacy – The Price of Presidential Accomplishment “.  Regarding Polk’s reputation in American history Merry suggests there is a “chasm between actual accomplishment and popular recognition”.  Polk died suddenly a few months after departing the White House. Democratic newspapers gave fulsome praise and and provided American impact throughout the world and subsequent history. Whig  papers were consistently negative.  Criticism, Merry suggests, was  undermined by the cross-currents unleashed by the slavery issue. It is paradoxical that Polk is largely forgotten by Americans, but highly praised by historians. Considering the “crucible of irrepressible conflict” with the allegation that expansionism conspired to extend slavery inhibits rational consideration (472).  President Polk, Merry concludes, “was trapped in the arguments and controversies that swirled around him during his momentous White House years” (473).

Published by profbartling1

Retired professor Concordia University, St. Paul, Mn. Taught mainly American History. Also taught in other areas of history, philosophy, and theology,

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