A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent (review)
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A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent. By Robert W. Merry. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009. Pp. 576. $30.00 cloth)

Several decades ago, an enduring alternative rock band, They Might Be Giants, recorded a tribute song that rather accurately [End Page 234] recounted the many foreign and domestic triumphs of the Polk administration. Even so, the band lamented, "Precious few have mourned the passing of Mr. James K. Polk, our eleventh president, Young Hickory, Napoleon of the Stump." Such anonymity no longer exists. A well-deserved revival is underway, and Robert Merry's volume constitutes a welcome addition to that list.

While largely a study of the presidential years, the author offers insight into the personality, background, career, and marriage of Polk before he entered the White House. Born in North Carolina, he grew up a loyal disciple of Andrew Jackson in the Volunteer State, becoming a congressman and governor. While hard-working and resolute, Polk struggled politically, and his "dark horse" Democratic nomination in 1844 was primarily based on an unabashed support for expansion—the annexation of the Republic of Texas and the settlement of the Oregon territorial dispute with Great Britain. Polk was no deep thinker. As Merry claims, "With his limited imagination tied to a propulsive ambition and an unceasing tenacity, he embraced this new outlook (expansion) without thought of nuance or ramification" (p.129). The electoral victory over Whig Henry Clay combined those issues with the twin goals of revising the protective tariff and establishing a federally run independent treasury that would serve as a depository of government funds.

The president successfully pursued his objectives with typical relentlessness during his first two years in office. Each was accomplished by the summer of 1846; Polk often surmounting serious obstacles erected by Congress which was dominated by Democrats but factionalized. Meanwhile, he determined that Mexico would have to yield even more of her lands to the United States. Merry suggests that "Polk genuinely wanted to avoid war. But he wanted Mexican territory more and it wasn't clear he could get it peacefully" (p. 195). Ultimately, he could not. Where his rather cagey dealings with Great Britain yielded an advantageous compromise on the Oregon boundary, U.S. diplomatic efforts to the south failed, and the conflict with Mexico commenced in April 1846. [End Page 235]

Polk appears both self-reliant and self-righteous. However, his inability to confront and dismiss disloyal or inept advisors, particularly James Buchanan as secretary of state, reveals a disturbing and destructive character flaw. Thus, the president found himself battling not only the Mexicans but treacherous cabinet members, opposition Whigs and unfaithful Democrats in Congress, troublesome American generals, and fickle diplomats. No natural leader, Polk still eventually triumphed over adversity; the U.S. acquired the Southwest and Far West by treaty in March 1848.

Polk earns respect but little true admiration from Merry. He concedes Polk's stature as a political visionary, but his sanctimonious nature, sly maneuvering, and secretive manner doomed efforts to build trust and teamwork. Bold and persistent, he emerges as a man of his time, eager to foster the will of the public, advancing "Manifest Destiny." Polk acted as an "imperialist manipulator" in promoting the war, but Merry asserts that an unstable and weak Mexican government must also bear some responsibility.

The author's goal is to create an awareness of Polk among the interested public and academics outside of Jacksonian America. Merry is at his best—and most critical—in assessing his subject's personality and character. Some scholars might quibble with various assertions or omissions (efforts to purchase Cuba or apply the Monroe Doctrine in the rebellious Yucatan province of Mexico). Likewise, more extensive use of the published papers of contemporaries and biographies of various administration figures (George M. Dallas, Robert J. Walker, and Lewis Cass) could have strengthened solid research. Regardless, this worthy contribution to the literature on Polk deserves serious attention. [End Page 236]

John M. Belohlavek

John M. Belohlavek teaches nineteenth-century U.S. history at the University of South Florida in Tampa. He is the...