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A Country of Vast Designs

James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent



About The Book

President James K. Polk, often overlooked yet ever-consequential, comes to life in this “compelling, perceptive portrait” (The Wall Street Journal) biography of the 11th President of the United States, Andrew Jackson protégé, and champion of “manifest destiny.”

In a one-term presidency, James K. Polk completed the story of America’s Manifest Destiny—extending its territory across the continent by threatening England with war and manufacturing a controversial and unpopular two-year war with Mexico. "A crucial architect of modern America, James K. Polk deserves to be elevated out of the mists of history" (Jon Meacham, author of American Lion).


The Emergence of an Expansionist President

PRECISELY AT SUNRISE on the morning of March 4, 1845, the roar of cannon shattered the dawn’s early quiet of Washington, D.C.—twenty-eight big guns fired in rapid succession. Thus did the American military announce to the nation’s capital that it was about to experience the country’s highest ritual of democracy, the inauguration of the nation’s executive leader and premier military commander. James Knox Polk was about to become that leader and commander. On this morning he was ensconced along with his wife, Sarah, at the National Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, known popularly as Coleman’s, just ten blocks east of the White House. That night the two of them would be residing at the presidential mansion.

At forty-nine, Polk would be the youngest of the country’s eleven presidents—and, in the view of his many detractors, the most unlikely. Until the previous May of 1844, when he had emerged unexpectedly as the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, few had imagined the man would ever rise to the presidency. Indeed, just a year earlier his political career had appeared in ruin following his third campaign for Tennessee governor. He had won the office in 1839 but had been expelled two years later by a backwoods upstart known as Lean Jimmy Jones, who had greeted his exacting rhetoric and serious demeanor with lighthearted buffoonery. Trying again in 1843 to outmaneuver this unlikely rival, he once again failed, causing friend and foe alike to dismiss his political prospects.

But those observers hadn’t grasped Polk’s most powerful trait— his absolute conviction that he was a man of destiny. Throughout his political life he had been underestimated by his rivals in the Whig Party and also by some of his own Democratic colleagues. When he had captured his party’s presidential nomination, the country’s leading Whig newspaper sneered in derision. “This nomination,” declared the National Intelligencer, “may be considered as the dying gasp, the last breath of life, of the ‘democratic’ party.” The newspaper said it couldn’t imagine a “less imposing” opponent.

It was true Polk lacked the soaring attributes of the era’s two rival political giants, Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay. He didn’t possess Jackson’s forceful presence or his blunt-spoken way of attracting men instantly to his cause and his side. Nor could he match the lanky Clay’s famous wit, his smooth fluency with the language, his ability to amuse and charm those around him even as he slyly dominated them. By contrast, Polk was small of stature and drab of temperament. Upon his Washington arrival for the inauguration, some of his former colleagues noted he appeared thinner than before, and one wit suggested if he hadn’t had his coats cut a size or two large, “he would be but the merest tangible fraction of a President.”

Polk lacked the skills and traits of the natural leader. His silvery gray hair, in retreat from his forehead but abundant elsewhere, was brushed back across his head and allowed to flow luxuriantly below his collar. His probing blue eyes, deep set under dark brows, reflected a tendency toward quick and rigid judgment. Seldom did his thin lips convey any real mirth or jocularity, and the powerful jaw that jutted from his countenance signaled a narrowness of outlook tied to a persistence of resolve. Polk lacked the easy manner and demeanor that bespoke friendship and camaraderie. He didn’t much like people. What he liked was politics, the art and challenge of moving events in the favored direction, which for Polk meant the direction most favored by Democrats. People thus were a means to an end, figures on a vast civic chessboard of national destiny, to be directed and positioned in such a way as to move the country where he wanted to move it. Though a man of conviction and rectitude, he often allowed himself to become encased in his own sanctimony.

These traits shrouded the real James Polk, whose analytical skills and zest for bold action often placed him in position to outmaneuver his adversaries. He understood the forces welling up within the national polity and how they could be harnessed and dominated. He was a master in the art of crafting an effective political message. And he never allowed himself to be deflected from his chosen path by the enmity of his foes or their dismissive regard toward him or their unremitting opposition.

Besides, he enjoyed the friendship and mentorship of Andrew Jackson, Old Hickory, the country’s most popular figure and its dominant political voice for the past twenty years. Jackson had been a longtime friend of the Polk family, had watched young James grow up, had counseled him on whom to marry and how to manage his career. So now on this momentous morning, as he began his day at Coleman’s and prepared for the events ahead, his inauguration must have seemed the most natural thing in the world even as he knew it struck most others as utterly accidental.

From a window of his suite that morning, Polk could see the prospect of rain reflected in a charcoal sky. Yet the enthusiasm of democracy was running high. For days Washington had teemed with all manner of people thronging there for the festivities—“office seekers and office-expectants, political speculators and party leaders without number, and of every caliber,” as the Intelligencer put it, adding that the crowd also included “strangers of every rank in life, and every variety of personal appearance.” Hotels and boardinghouses were sold out, and some halls and bars spread pallets upon their floors to accommodate wayworn arrivals.

At ten o’clock the cannon roared again as part of a succession of inauguration day salutes, this one signaling the ceremonial procession was to begin forming at the western end of Pennsylvania Avenue for the mile-and-a-half ride up the boulevard to the Capitol. At precisely that time, as if summoned by the cannon, the rain began a steady downbeat. Up went a multitude of umbrellas. A British journalist, surveying the scene from the west end of the avenue, said it looked like “a long line of moving umbrellas, terminating at the Capitol, the dome of which towered up like a gigantic umbrella held aloft by some invisible hand.”

Leading the procession was the inauguration’s chief marshal and his aides, bedecked in silks and ribbons and carrying distinctive batons of officialdom: branches of “young hickory,” alluding to Polk’s nickname as protégé of Old Hickory. The marshals were followed by various local military units as well as leading officers of the day. Then came members of the area’s clergy and behind them the open carriage transporting President-elect Polk and his predecessor, John Tyler of Virginia. Next in line came the justices of the Supreme Court; then the diplomatic corps; members and ex-members of Congress; participants at the Democratic convention in Baltimore that had nominated Polk the previous May over New York’s Martin Van Buren, the former president who had hungered for a White House return; then governors and ex-governors.

A place in the procession had been reserved for ex-presidents, but only one such dignitary was in town that day, and he had declined the honor. That was John Quincy Adams, the New England moralist and political ascetic who had been expelled from the White House by Andrew Jackson sixteen years before. He had salved the wounds of defeat by taking up duties as an outspoken member of the House of Representatives, whence he waged unrelenting war upon Democratic aims. He had greeted Polk’s election with near despair. “I mused over the prospects before me,” he had written, “with the impression that they portend trials more severe than I yet have passed through.”

The many military bands within the procession played lively marches to stir a buoyant mood among the throngs jammed compactly along the avenue. The rain may not have dampened the mood, but it drenched everything else. Military plumes began to droop, the white silk badges of the marshals stuck fast to their soaked black coats, and pretty dresses absorbed water. Meanwhile, in the shelter of the Capitol, the Senate was called to order precisely at eleven o’clock. Like the streets and plazas outside, the galleries and nearby stairwells were filled to overflowing. The chamber bustled with the arrival of special guests—Supreme Court justices, House leaders, the District of Columbia marshal. Polk and his designated vice president, George M. Dallas of Pennsylvania, appeared precisely at eleven-forty amid much interest and bustle on the floor and in the galleries.

The next order of business was the swearing in of George Dallas, then fifty-two. His most distinguishing physical characteristic was a head of thick flowing hair, white as milk, which accentuated his dark eyebrows and a broad face that displayed friendly resolve. Sarah Polk considered him an “elegant man, exceedingly handsome and gentle.” He had served in the U.S. Senate at an early age, then held jobs as Pennsylvania attorney general and U.S. minister to Russia. He was part of a Democratic faction in his state that seemed in perpetual conflict with another faction led by Senator James Buchanan, designated as Polk’s new secretary of state. The issue seemed to be who would control Pennsylvania’s Democratic patronage, and Dallas had expected his vice presidential elevation to settle the question in his favor. “I am resolved that no one shall be taken from Pennsylvania [into the Polk administration] who is notoriously hostile to the Vice-President,” he had written to a friend amid rumors that Buchanan might be tapped for Polk’s cabinet. “If such a choice be made my relations with this administration are at an end.” Such a choice was made, and Dallas promptly cast aside his private threat. But the animosities constituted a political reality that Polk needed to monitor.

At around eleven-forty-five, the Senate’s president pro tempore, Willie P. Mangum of North Carolina, administered the oath of office to Dallas, who then delivered a brief speech marked by appropriate democratic platitudes mixed with appropriate expressions of humility. “The citizen whom it has pleased a people to elevate by their suffrages from the pursuits of private and domestic life,” he intoned, “may best evince his grateful sense of the honor … by devoting his faculties, moral and intellectual, resolutely to their service. This I shall do; yet with a diffidence unavoidable to one conscious that almost every step in his appointed path is to him new and untried.”

History doesn’t record whether, as Dallas droned on, some in the audience perhaps found their minds wandering to thoughts of forthcoming political battles. Many of those assembled were destined to play major roles in those battles. James Polk had studied these men with his hallmark attention to detail and penetration of human traits and foibles. Polk knew his first priority would be keeping his party together, and down on the Senate floor he could see just how difficult that would be. He needed to look no further than to two of the Senate’s most powerful and willful Democrats—Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton and South Carolina’s George McDuffie—who pressed their convictions with a white-hot intensity that often melted any prospect for measured political behavior. Though both proudly carried the Democratic imprimatur, each reserved for the other a degree of political vitriol seldom directed at members of the opposition Whigs.

McDuffie, a senator since December 1842 and his state’s governor before that, was a protégé and ally of South Carolina’s fiery John C. Calhoun. An oval-faced man with dark, deep-set eyes and a recessive chin, McDuffie represented the extreme states’ rights views that had emerged with South Carolina’s efforts during Jackson’s presidency to “nullify” federal laws distasteful to the state. Andrew Jackson had quashed this rebellion by threatening to hang Calhoun and any other traitors who sought to rend the hallowed union. But the sentiments behind it continued to percolate in some southern precincts, most notably in South Carolina.

Thomas Hart Benton despised those sentiments. He was a man given to flights of outrage that unleashed in turn torrents of outrageous rhetoric. John Tyler called him “the most raving political maniac I ever knew.” Benton was an imposing man with a big face, full of crags, and a beak of a nose. He spoke with authority and an air suggesting he didn’t have much patience for the mutterings of lesser men, a category that seemed to include most of those with whom he came into contact. He fancied himself a fighter, and he had a history of several duels to prove it. As a young man in Tennessee, he became embroiled in an altercation with Andrew Jackson that quickly escalated into an angry gun battle. Benton had been a protégé of Jackson and his aide-de-camp during the War of 1812, but the younger man had become enraged at Jackson’s decision to serve a friend as second at the friend’s duel with Benton’s brother, Jesse. Jesse took a bullet to the buttocks, which proved humiliating, and Thomas Benton blamed Jackson for fostering the duel. The brothers trashed Jackson’s name throughout Nashville with such abandon that the proud Jackson went after the two of them outside a downtown saloon with a riding whip. It ended with multiple wounds for Benton and a bullet-shattered shoulder for Jackson that nearly claimed his life. Concluding Tennessee was now enemy territory, Benton promptly set out for Missouri, where he emerged as its leading politician. When the territory became a state in 1821, it sent Benton to the U.S. Senate, where he nurtured his identity as a man of absolute independence. Though a proud Democrat, he could never be counted on to adhere with any consistency to the party line. He adhered only to the Thomas Hart Benton line.

Benton had awarded his political loyalty to former President Van Buren, and he felt rage toward the Democratic politicians who had maneuvered to deny Van Buren his party’s nomination at the Baltimore convention. Polk studiously had avoided any overt action that could be construed as inimical to Van Buren’s ambitions. Though Benton publicly had accepted Polk’s denials, privately he wasn’t so sure. But about George McDuffie and John C. Calhoun he harbored no doubts. They were the enemy.

The issue was Texas annexation and, just behind it, slavery. Texas had exploded onto the political scene quite unexpectedly when Tyler had negotiated an annexation treaty with this Southwest country that had secured its independence from Mexico through force of arms. It turned out that annexation was hugely popular in the United States, but an instinctive wariness emerged within the political establishment. Many politicians feared war with Mexico, which had never accepted or recognized Texas independence. They feared also an intensification of the slavery issue as the country grappled with the question of whether this vast new territory would be free or slave. Both Van Buren, the presumed Democratic presidential candidate, and Clay, the assured Whig candidate, had declared their opposition to immediate annexation, and both saw their presidential hopes destroyed in the bargain. Polk, attuned to political sentiment and attentive to Jackson’s expansionist instincts, had immediately embraced annexation, and this had helped boost him to the presidency.

Now, with the rain-soaked multitude about to witness Polk’s swearing in, the Texas issue still loomed large over the political landscape, generating acidic animosities within the party and the country. Benton was convinced McDuffie and other anti–Van Buren southerners harbored desires to bring Texas into the Union as a slave state so the expanded slave empire could form its own country. He had railed against “this long-conceived Texas machination … an intrigue for the presidency, and a contrivance to get the Southern States out of the Union.” McDuffie just as adamantly insisted the North harbored secret aims of surrounding, squeezing, and ultimately destroying the slave culture. Asked if South Carolinians would continue to submit to oppression, he had replied, “Before answering that question, I will ask—Are you men—are you South Carolinians … or are you curs—which, when kicked, will howl, and then come back and lick the foot that has inflicted the blow?”

Clearly, bringing these two men under the same political tent would not be easy.

It was nearly noon when the Senate assemblage made its way to the temporary platform constructed over the vast stairways of the Capitol’s east portico. First to emerge, to “cheers of welcome,” were Tyler and Polk, walking side by side but with the president-elect occupying the ceremonial position to the left of the outgoing president. A British journalist in attendance described Polk as “looking well, though thin and anxious in appearance.” Behind them were their wives and behind them various dignitaries. Sarah Polk, though not a true beauty, possessed a magnetism that had served her well as a politician’s wife. Her enveloping warmth was viewed by many family friends as an antidote to her husband’s stiff demeanor. She had a Spanish appearance, with black hair, large dark eyes, olive skin, thin expressive lips, and an oval face. One high-toned Pennsylvanian noted that she “dresses with taste” and called her “a very superior person.” He added, “Time has dealt kindly with her personal charms, and if she is not handsome she is at least very prepossessing and graceful.”

On this day she wore a gown of satin with a neckline that dropped into a V and with stripes of deep red and silvery gray. The waistline was tight and the sleeves long. Over it she wore a sand-colored wool coat with a quilted rose taffeta lining. On her head, protecting her from the rain, was a velvet bonnet the same color as the red of her dress. Clearly she wished to make a statement with her manner of dress on this day. Dallas wrote to his wife that he found her “rather too showy for my taste … [but] I go for the new lady.”

At the appointed time, before the swearing in, Polk stepped forward to deliver his inaugural address “to a large assemblage of umbrellas,” as John Quincy Adams wryly noted in his diary. Standing at the front of the platform, protected from the rain by an umbrella held by a servant, Polk sought to quicken the hearts of Democrats while assuaging fears of Whigs and others. Passing quickly over his own humility in accepting the awesome responsibilities and his resolve to seek divine guidance in discharging those responsibilities, he moved directly to the central tenets of the Jacksonian creed. Warning against federal usurpation of governmental prerogative beyond the limits of the Constitution, he pledged “to assume no powers not expressly granted or clearly implied” in that document. He extolled the executive veto as protection against a capricious or despotic majority. He vowed to fight any threats to the union, thus serving notice that state actions aimed at nullifying federal laws or dissolving the Union would encounter the kind of military resistance Jackson had directed at South Carolina. Polk denounced any kind of federal bank, any national debt, and any tariffs crafted specifically for the protection of particular industries. “The raising of revenue should be the object, and protection the incident,” he declared.

On foreign policy, Polk declared his expansionist vision. He celebrated the recent actions in behalf of Texas annexation and warned against any interference from Mexico or any other continental power. And he served notice that the United States considered its title to the full Oregon Territory to be “clear and unquestionable”—a bold statement given that his country and Britain had occupied those lands jointly for twenty-two years and had pledged mutually to negotiate a disposition of the matter at some point in the future. Just eighty years before, noted Polk, the country’s small population had been confined to the east side of the Alleghenies. Since then, “our people, increasing to many millions, have filled the eastern valley of the Mississippi, adventurously ascended the Missouri to its headsprings, and are already engaged in establishing the blessings of self-government in valleys of which the rivers flow to the Pacific…. To us belongs the duty of protecting [these settlers] adequately wherever they may be upon our soil.”

It was pure Jacksonian rhetoric in both substance and style. Indeed, the first draft had been crafted by Amos Kendall, Jackson’s brilliant word maestro from his own presidential days. But Jackson himself wasn’t there to hear it. In declining health for months, he now was dying. “I thank my god that the Republic is safe & that he had permitted me to live to see it, & rejoice,” Jackson had written the previous fall, upon hearing of Polk’s election. Jackson’s absence was balanced by the absence of his great political rival, Henry Clay, whose defeat in November’s presidential balloting had been his third such subjection. Clay remained at his vast Kentucky estate, Ashland, pondering how it happened that, after years of contending with Old Hickory, he now had to deal with his equally hostile young protégé.

Polk delivered his inaugural remarks, according to Washington’s Daily Globe, “in a voice so firm and distinct, as to be heard by almost every individual present.” But the response from the crowd was more polite than enthusiastic, suggesting perhaps his voice hadn’t carried over the din of rain falling upon umbrellas. In any event, now it was time for the country’s eleventh president to be sworn in, and Chief Justice Roger B. Taney stepped forward. Taney was a Jackson appointee whose robes of impartiality never fully shrouded his Democratic sympathies. “I feel so truly rejoiced at your election as President … ,” he had written Polk in November, “that I must indulge myself in the pleasure of offering my cordial congratulations… . I need not say with what pleasure I shall again meet you in Washington, & see you entering upon the high station to which you have been so honorably called.” Taney held what the Illustrated London News would describe as “a richly gilt Bible,” presented to Sarah Polk by Alexander Hunter, chief marshal of the District of Columbia. At Taney’s prompting, Polk uttered the famous thirty-five words affirming faithfully to execute the presidential office and to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Then he was president, and another 28-gun salute roared its affirmation.

The new president and the man he had just replaced left the platform, again side by side. But this time Polk occupied the ceremonial position at Tyler’s right. The official parade formed up once again into what Quincy Adams called a “draggle-tail procession thinned in numbers,” and the president and first lady were escorted back to the White House, where they greeted visitors through much of the afternoon. The evening agenda included two inaugural balls—one at Carusi’s Hall, at ten dollars a ticket; another at the National Theatre at five dollars. Intent on making yet another fashion statement, Sarah ventured forth in a marine blue velvet dress with a cape described by one biographer as “deeply fringed.” Quincy Adams, whose self-exile from the day’s activities didn’t preclude his pouring wry pronouncements into his diary, reported that Polk attended both galas, “but supped with the true-blue five-dollar Democracy.”

The next day Polk assumed the duties of a presidential term that he had promised would be his only claim upon the office. Ahead of him were four tumultuous years of American expansionism that would transform his country and set it upon a new course. But when he relinquished power in March 1849 he would be a spent force, politically and physically. His greatest accomplishments would live on in a vast expanse of territory in the West and Southwest, now part of the United States. But he himself would not last much beyond his hour of eminence. Within four months of leaving office, he would be dead.

About The Author

Photograph by Gregory Strom

Robert W. Merry is the author of five previous books, including President McKinley: Architect of the American Century and A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent. He spent a decade covering Washington for The Wall Street Journal and served as an executive at Congressional Quarterly Inc. for twenty-two years, including twelve years as CEO. He also is the former editor of The National Interest and The American Conservative. He lives with his wife, Susan, in Langley, Washington, and Washington, DC.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (November 2, 2010)
  • Length: 592 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743297448

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Raves and Reviews

“Robert Merry’s authoritative biography of James K. Polk. . . provides a compelling, perceptive portrait. . . Merry joins his skill at portraiture to thorough scholarship and a shrewd grasp of human nature.”

The Wall Street Journal

“Filled with intricate stories of personal conflict, psychological gamesmanship, and unintended consequences. . . one of the most astute and informative historical accounts yet written about national politics, and especially Washington politics, during the decisive 1840s.”

--The New York Times Book Review

“Polk was our most underrated President. He made the United States into a continental nation. Bob Merry captures the controversial and the visionary aspects of his presidency in a colorful narrative tale populated by great characters such as Jackson, Clay, and Can Buren.”

–Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein: His Life and Universe

“[Merry] brings a historian's perspective, a journalist's nose for the story and a novelist's eye to one of our country's most dramatic and defining moments. In strong, precise and elegant prose, Mr. Merry brings the key players of the day to life in terms of both personal characteristics and the causes they personified.”

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