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  • Manifest Ambition: James K. Polk and Civil-Military Relations during the Mexican War
  • Samuel Watson
Manifest Ambition: James K. Polk and Civil-Military Relations during the Mexican War. By John C. Pinheiro . Westport, Conn.: Praeger Security International, 2007. ISBN 978-0-275-98409-0. Map. Illustrations. Tables. Notes. Selected bibliography. Index. Pp. x, 228. $49.95.

Civil-military relations involve three major sets of actors: the government, the army, and the people. Manifest Ambition, the first book specifically dedicated to its topic, focuses on the government, above all President James K. Polk. Doing so highlights the popular ideology of Jacksonianism and the role of the commander in chief, but the perspective of the regular army officer corps that directed the execution of Polk's policies on the ground is not explored with the same attentiveness.

Pinheiro's primary themes are the extent of civil-military conflict, the power of Jacksonian ideology, especially the ideal of the citizen-soldier, the centrality of partisanship, and Polk's dominance of the war effort. He concludes that the majority of civil-military friction was due to Polk's Jacksonianism and partisanship, as well as the president's personal intensity, which combined to produce paranoia and micromanagement. Indeed, Pinheiro maintains that the principal threats to American victory were atrocities (largely by the volunteer citizen-soldiers), disobedient officers, military government in the occupied areas, and Polk's partisanship, which culminated in undermining Winfield Scott after Polk was unable to secure Senate approval for appointing Thomas Hart Benton over Scott. Yet Polk proved a superb political leader, rebuffing Whig challenges and restraining radical Democrats who wanted to annex all of Mexico, a prescription for quagmire, and since [End Page 1237] the Mexican church was unwilling to lead a popular insurgency, and no other force was capable of inspiring one, American atrocities ultimately had limited strategic impact.

Manifest Ambition exemplifies some of the dilemmas of approaching civil-military relations from the perspective of a president: overcentralization of agency and the assumption, common among the rare studies of early American civil-military relations, that republican ideology, be it Jacksonian or Jeffersonian, was universally shared and truly felt. One can credit Polk with very effective management without giving the impression that the president somehow managed the entire war effort, which was hardly possible even in 1846. Nor should condemnation of the army staff (p. 138) rest on Polk's diary and secondary citations: internal army sources are noticeably absent, as is any reference to William B. Skelton, An American Profession of Arms (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992), the most important work on the regular army officer corps in this era. Historians of the Mexican War need to start reading Skelton: the difference in American power projection capability between 1812 and 1847 cannot be explained simply by comparing Polk to Madison.

The proof was in execution, not ideology. If "Young Hickory" was so fearful of military tyranny, why didn't he send civilian governors for the occupied territories? Why didn't he send known Democrat Thomas Sidney Jesup, one of the army's four generals in 1845, to Texas instead of Taylor? Because Jesup was quartermaster general, and Polk needed Jesup to make the supply system work—but also because he knew that Taylor was subordinate. When Taylor made an armistice at Monterrey, he was following administration policy: secure northern Mexico, then negotiate. Polk may have believed that Taylor was in a position to capture or destroy the Mexican army, but Pinheiro should be more skeptical of the president's military brilliance—and Santa Anna was repeatedly able to create new armies. Military commanders were used to executive discretion because of distance; Polk condemned Taylor whether he used his initiative or held back to avoid criticism. Neither man comes off well, but the president made tough situations more difficult for his generals, repeatedly and unnecessarily.

Pinheiro shows that American military government was both principled and effective; while ideologues anticipated tyranny, the reality on the ground was dutiful execution, and as much restraint as could be expected. The exception was John C. Frémont, a non–West Pointer married to Senator Benton's daughter, who Polk had to quash...


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pp. 1237-1239
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Archived 2010
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