Robert W. Merry, A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent, Simon & Schuster, 2009, 576 pp. (softcover)
In 2008, Al Gore told a national television audience that the Mexican-American War has been “condemned by history.” That war, which added more than a million square miles of American territory, was largely the work of one man: President James K. Polk. Liberal orthodoxy therefore spurns Polk as a warmonger and imperialist, but he was one of the most successful Presidents in American history. Anyone not blinded by contemporary self-righteousness would recognize this, and veteran journalist Robert W. Merry has not been blinded. He has written a fascinating, detailed, fair-minded biography of one of our least appreciated Presidents.
When Polk took office in 1845, he had four goals: reduce tariffs, establish an independent treasury, and secure Oregon and California for the United States. He achieved all four goals in just four years, while fighting a war against political opposition that was sometime as fierce as the war against Mexico.
Polk was a protégé of Andrew Jackson, who was 28 years his senior. He first went to Congress in 1825, and, like Jackson, he was a Tennessean. He served one term as governor of Tennessee, but when he lost bids for reelection in 1841 and 1843, many people thought his political career was over.
At the Democratic nominating convention of 1844, Polk had been proposed for the Vice Presidential slot behind Martin Van Buren, but as Van Buren’s popularity faded, Polk emerged as a compromise candidate. In order to win the support of other Democratic pretenders, he promised to serve only one term. Thomas Hart Benton, John C. Calhoun, James Buchanan, and Silas Wright might have opposed him more vigorously if they feared a second term could thwart their own presidential ambitions. Mr. Merry fills his account of the convention with details that make it clear that personal ambitions and animosities were just as potent political factors 170 years ago as they are today.
Polk’s opponent in the general election, Whig candidate Henry Clay, assumed he would make short work of the relatively unknown Polk, but was brought down largely by the Texas question.
When Mexico became independent of Spain in 1821 it tried to populate Texas by encouraging American immigration, but as Mr. Merry writes, “the newcomers rejected loyalty to Mexico and cast their devotion to their ethnic brethren in the United States.” Mexico woke up to what was happening and outlawed immigration in 1830, but could not stop it. Texas won independence from Mexico in 1836 and was recognized by the United States and the European powers.
Mexico never accepted Texas independence, however, insisting that there was a state of war between it and its “rebellious province.” The Mexicans even made a few probes as far as San Antonio, but failed to recapture Texas. There was also a huge border disagreement between the Texans and the Mexicans. As this map shows, the Mexicans recognized only the light yellow area, with its southern border on the Nueces River. Texas claimed the much larger green area that extended to the Rio Grande, and far to the north. The Texas congress passed a law officially asserting its claim to the larger area.
Texas was chronically broke during its nine years of independence, and was the subject of constant political intrigue by the French and the British, who wanted to stop American expansion towards the Pacific. The British were particularly active, offering financial assistance to Texas in exchange for an alliance. Polk’s predecessor in the White House, John Tyler, feared that a close association between Texas and Britain would undermine American influence in the Gulf of Mexico and even menace American control over New Orleans (the Battle of New Orleans had been fought only 27 years before Tyler’s inauguration). Tyler had therefore started annexation negotiations with Texas but tried to keep them secret so as to avoid interference by France and Britain.
Although in retrospect nothing seems more natural than Texas joining the union, it was not a sure thing. The last president of Texas, Anson Jones, preferred independence, and the British and French even persuaded the Mexicans to recognize Texas independence if Texas promised never to join the United States.
Nor was American sentiment unanimously pro-annexation. Ordinary people wanted it, but Whigs and abolitionists opposed it. They were afraid annexation would mean war with Mexico, and they did not want another slave state. It was opposition to Texas annexation that caused Van Buren’s star to fade as the Democratic candidate, thus opening the nomination to Polk. And it was opposition to annexation that probably lost the election for Polk’s Whig opponent, Henry Clay. Polk himself had always been a staunch expansionist, and this boosted his popularity with voters.
Opposition to annexation by politicians was strong enough to defeat Congress’s first attempt to bring Texas into the union. President Tyler sent an annexation treaty to the Senate in 1844 at the end of his term but failed to get the necessary two-thirds majority. That was how matters stood when Polk took office in 1845. The new President solved the problem by sending an annexation bill to Congress, which won majority votes in both houses on February 28, 1845. This was a Constitutionally doubtful procedure. Congress had the power to make new states from territories, but Texas was an independent country, not a territory and, by all rights, should have come in by treaty. As Mr. Merry shows, getting Texas into the Union was no easy feat, and owed much to Polk’s determination and political skill.
Of course, by annexing Texas, Polk greatly angered Mexico, which broke off diplomatic relations exactly one month later on March 28, 1845. It declared that the United States had “usurped a portion of territory which belongs to Mexico by a right which she will maintain at whatever cost.” Many people in both countries predicted that Mexico would declare war.
What had been American relations with Mexico up to that point? The United States had welcomed Mexican independence from Spain and was the first country to recognize it. It had signed treaties of friendship and mutual recognition of boundaries, and did everything possible to have good relations.
Mexico did not reciprocate. Ruled by thieves and incompetents, the government itself had stolen American property and had done little to prevent Mexican citizens from doing the same. In one notorious incident the American captain of a ship transporting Mexican troops under government contract was killed, and his crew was forced into servitude for three years. American vessels in Mexican ports were routinely seized. There had been nearly 100 such incidents, and Andrew Jackson had declared in 1837, his last year in office, that such “outrages . . . would justify, in the eyes of all nations, immediate war.”
In 1839 there was arbitration between the two countries, and an award of $2 million to the Americans, to be paid in 20 installments. Mexico quickly fell behind on the payments, and new claims continued to pile up. In 1842, a frustrated President Tyler proposed that Mexico hand over California as compensation, with the US government to pay off American claims, but the Mexicans refused.
War was the usual way to settle such claims in those days. The French had already received satisfaction by violent means, and the British were paid after threats of war. Many Americans thought they were being snubbed because they refrained from using force.
Polk did not want war, but he wanted American claims met and he wanted more territory. Magazine editor John O’Sullivan had coined the term “manifest destiny” in 1845, and Polk had a clear vision of the United States straddling the continent.
What were his intentions regarding Mexico? In Mr. Merry’s view, Polk was, first of all, determined to defend the borders of the United States, which he believed extended to the Rio Grande. Second, he was prepared to pay handsomely for as much territory as Mexico was willing to sell. Was he prepared to wage unilateral war? Mr. Merry is uncertain, but when the Mexicans fired the first shots, Polk was more than ready to fire back. In any case, in the summer of 1845, shortly after Mexico broke off relations, Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to march into Texas to defend the state against possible attack — but not to enter the disputed territories.
Polk first proposed a diplomatic solution to the Mexicans. In response, in November 1845, Mexico agreed to accept an envoy “with full powers to adjust all the questions in dispute between the two governments.” Polk quickly dispatched John Slidell, with authority to pay as much as $30 million dollars in exchange for California and New Mexico for assuming responsibility for the American claims. The Slidell mission was kept secret because the French and British were sure to try to sabotage any agreement that would add territory to the United States.
When Slidell got to Mexico City in December, the Mexicans went back on their word and refused to negotiate. This was probably because the government of the time, led by Jose Herrera, was under threat from more bellicose factions that threatened to take power if Herrera discussed the possibility of ceding territory. This rebuff infuriated Slidell, who warned that it could lead to war. Later that same month, Herrera was ousted anyway by Mariano Paredes, who ruled out compromise. He ordered Slidell out of the country, and started mobilizing for war.
It was only after the failure of the Slidell mission that Polk took the fateful step of sending General Taylor into the disputed territory. By March 28, 1845, there were 3,550 American soldiers on the Rio Grande near what is now Brownsville. Across the river was a force of 3,000 Mexicans. Their commander sent a message to Taylor saying he was in Mexican territory, warning him that there would be war if he did not withdraw. Taylor refused to move.
This standoff continued for a month, as the Mexicans brought in more troops, and by April 11, there were 6,000 soldiers on the Mexican side. Taylor then blockaded the Rio Grande, through which the Mexican troops were being supplied. On April 25, the Mexicans sent 1,600 men across the river above Taylor’s position. The next day, he sent 63 men to investigate. They were ambushed, with 11 killed and the rest captured.
When word of the incident reached Washington, Polk asked Congress for a declaration of war, stating that Mexico had “shed American blood on American soil.” As Mr. Merry notes, however, many Whigs accepted the Mexican version of the border and accused Polk of deliberately starting a war in order to wrest land from Mexico. There was much thundering about “invasion” and “waging aggressive war,” but in the end both houses voted by large majorities to declare war. At the time, Polk’s thinking appears to have been that Taylor would conquer enough territory to make Mexico sue for peace. In the meantime, Polk would send forces to occupy New Mexico and California, which would be accepted as compensation for the war.
Polk now had a war with Mexico on his hands; he very nearly had one with Britain, too. At the time of his inauguration, the United States and Britain had jointly occupied the Oregon Territory for 22 years, and had pledged to negotiate ultimate ownership. Oregon was being settled at a rate of nine or ten American immigrants to one Briton, and in time, the territory would naturally have fallen into American hands. Polk wanted it right away, and in his inaugural address he angered the British by claiming that Oregon was American. The British posted frigates off the Oregon coast, and there was talk of war.
Mr. Merry charts the course of the clever but risky diplomatic maneuvers that eventually resulted in the current boundary at the 49th parallel. He argues that Polk got what he wanted only through a willingness to go right up to the brink of war. There were hotheads in his own party who demanded a border that would have been just south of Alaska — the “54’ 40” or fight” contingent — but this would unquestionably have meant a second and probably disastrous war. Polk did not get a satisfactory Oregon settlement until June 1846, by which time the Mexican war had already begun. If Polk had delayed, Britain would certainly have exploited the Mexican conflict to drive a harder bargain.
Mr. Merry covers the war with Mexico at a level of fascinating detail that need only be summarized. Taylor fought a number of brilliant engagements, often defeating armies larger than his own, but the Mexicans refused to sue for peace. Polk finally had to send General Winfield Scott on an expedition to Vera Cruz, and the Mexicans agreed to peace talks only after Scott occupied the capital.
As Mr. Merry notes, the Mexicans deceived the gullible Americans several times. For example, at one time General Taylor had bottled up a Mexican army of 7,000 men in Monterrey, and their commander, Pedro de Ampudia sought terms. He claimed that he had word the two countries had started peace talks, and that since the war would soon be over there was no need to take his men prisoner. Taylor fell for this lie, and let the Mexican soldiers leave with their artillery. The escaped army of course went back into action against the Americans.
Perhaps the worst dupe, however, was Polk himself. In 1845 he had received word from Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, then in exile in Cuba, that if he ever returned to power, he would be happy to sell Texas and California for $30 million. In July 1846, after the war had begun, he said that if he gained power, he would sell California, recognize the Rio Grande border, and call off the war. The Paredes government had turned down a similar deal, so Polk instructed the American Navy, which was blockading Mexican ports, to let Santa Anna through. He landed at Vera Cruz in March 1847 to much fanfare, and took power. He then double-crossed Polk, announcing that he intended to roll the Americans all the way back to the Louisiana border.
After Santa Anna was defeated outside Mexico City and fled into the city, he tried to fool General Scott. He negotiated a truce that prohibited construction of fortifications and provided for resupply of the Americans, but broke these conditions.
Santa Anna’s government reluctantly agreed to negotiate. Polk had sent an envoy for this purpose, Nicolas Trist, who was under strict orders to insist on the Rio Grande border and to buy as much of Mexico as possible. Instead, Trist accepted a Mexican proposal offering only part of California, and declaring the territory between the Nueces and the Rio Grande as a neutral zone. Polk was furious when he learned of this proposal and sent a letter recalling Trist.
In September 1847 Scott renewed the war and took Mexico City in a brilliant campaign. Santa Anna’s government fell, and a new government was formed under General P.M. Anaya. Anaya had a more realistic sense of how little leverage the Mexicans had, and was more willing to accept Polk’s terms. By then, Trist had been recalled, and had no authority to negotiate, but decided to stay in Mexico and see if he could work out an agreement anyway. Polk was again furious when he learned about this, and ordered General Benjamin Butler to expel Trist from the country. Trist replied calmly that since he was no longer an American envoy but a private citizen, the President had no power over him.
The Mexicans knew Trist had no authority, but they were in the mood to negotiate, and spent the winter working out a deal much along the lines of Trist’s original instructions. On February 2, 1848, Mexico agreed to take $15 million in exchange for New Mexico, California, the border at the Rio Grande, and forgiveness of American claims.
Polk believed that the treaty was illegal because it had been negotiated without authorization, but since the 6,000-word document contained everything he wanted — Trist had authority to offer as much as $30 million — he sent it to the Senate for ratification anyway.
Again, what seems in retrospect to have been a sure thing was not. There was much Whig bluster about the propriety of taking territory from a defeated enemy. Abolitionists feared the new territory might become slave states. Some Democrats — members of Polk’s own party — insisted on annexing all of Mexico. Just 19 votes in the Senate could have killed the treaty, and Mr. Merry ably describes the arguments and posturing that lead to the final vote of 38 to 14.
In the end, therefore, Polk got what he wanted, but at a high price. The war killed 13,780 Americans and an estimated 25,000 Mexicans, and cost the federal government $100 million — which, as Mr. Merry explains, Polk had great difficulty raising from Congress. If any other man had been in the White House, it is not at all certain that the United States would have absorbed California and New Mexico.
The great majority of the fighting was in Mexico, but there were Western adventures as well. Polk wanted New Mexico and California to be in American hands by the time the Mexicans recognized they were beaten and were ready to negotiate. Therefore, on August 18, 1846, shortly after the war began, American General Stephen Kearny led 1,458 men into Santa Fe, the capital of the Mexican department of New Mexico, and claimed it for the United States. He got it without firing a shot, but the outcome could have been entirely different. The Mexican commander Manuel Armijo had massed 4,000 men around a pass where they could have rained fire down on Kearney’s men as they approached, but at the last minute Armijo lost his nerve, ordered his men to disband, and fled to Mexico. Kearney set up a government in Santa Fe, and set out on September 25 with 300 men for California.
Polk had had his eye on California from the beginning. Mexico had been no better able to populate California than Texas, and Americans were settling in large numbers. Britain, which opposed American expansion, had offered Mexico money and arms with which to assert its sovereignty, and Polk feared eventual British domination in the West. Kearney was therefore under orders to take California as soon as he had secured New Mexico, but others got there first.
John Fremont, with 60 men, had been on a government map-making mission in the Western reaches of the Louisiana Purchase, and had angered the Mexicans by poking around in California even before the war began. After the declaration of war, he raised a small army of several hundred men from among the American settlers, and joined forces with Commodore John Stockton, who arrived in Monterrey in July 23, 1846, and took command of the American fleet.
Together they subdued California, which the Mexicans defended incompetently. This was a free-lance effort, however, since Kearney was the only officer with official orders to conquer California. When Kearney arrived, Stockton submitted to his command, but Fremont did not. This led to his arrest, court martial, and conviction, but Polk eventually pardoned Fremont. The campaigns in the West were a confused mess, which Mr. Merry sorts out nicely.
Maps like the one below chart the expansion of the original 13 colonies to the Pacific as if it had been inevitable. And yet, as this book shows, there was a great deal of opposition to “Manifest Destiny.” Ordinary Americans were thrilled at the idea of expansion, but many politicians were not. The Whig leader Henry Clay, for example, wanted to keep the American population east of the Rockies, and had no interest in settling Oregon. He was also afraid to absorb Texas: “Annexation and war with Mexico are identical.”
Daniel Webster, another Whig, called Polk’s war not just “a clear violation of duty” but “an impeachable offense.” He considered it an act of naked aggression for which there was no Constitutional authority, and led the fight not to vote funds for the war. He wanted no new, lightly inhabited territories far from Washington. The rising Whig politician Abraham Lincoln also condemned the war.
General Zachery Taylor was another anti-war Whig. This was ironic, since it was the war that made him a hero and enabled him to succeed Polk as President. On the day of his inauguration, as he rode to the Capitol in the same carriage as the outgoing President, he shocked Polk by remarking that New Mexico and California were so far away that he thought they should become independent countries. This was anathema to Polk, who had devoted himself to extending the United States to the Pacific.
Whig objections to expansion seem quaint now, but Mr. Merry notes that when Polk took office, the United States had a population of only 17 million, and the addition of the Louisiana Purchase just a few decades earlier must have made the country seem gigantic. The first steam-locomotive railway started operating only in 1831. Samuel Morse sent his first telegraph message in 1838. Indeed, at many crucial junctures during the Mexican-American war, Polk had no idea what was happening, and heard conflicting rumors before he got official dispatches. San Francisco must have seemed a world away from Washington, and the United States was already a huge country. For many Americans, it was already big enough.
Naked aggression or legitimate conquest?
Was Polk’s conduct of the war legitimate? Mr. Merry seems to have no doubt that by the rules of its era it was. War was a recognized way to force a country to meet its obligations. Indeed, in 1861, France, Britain, and Spain jointly occupied Vera Cruz as part of a military campaign to make Mexico pay its debts. The United States also had a strong, if not undisputed claim to the north bank of the Rio Grande. Polk argued that sending Taylor to the river was legitimate defense of American territory.
In hindsight, it was extremely foolish of the Mexicans to begin hostilities, but Mexico expected to win. Its standing army of 32,000 men was five times that of the United States, and had been toughened by countless revolutions. Its European advisors thought it would make short work of the Americans. The principal theater of the war was expected to be Texas, which would mean long supply lines for the Americans, who had never fought a war outside their own territory. Many Mexicans were also aware of Whig opposition to the war, and believed Americans would not fight in earnest. Paredes boasted that he would not only retake Texas but occupy New Orleans and Mobile. Some Mexicans believed their invading army would be supported by a massive slave uprising, and there was even talk of dictating peace terms from the White House.
Morally and strategically, the western invasion was a different matter; New Mexico and California were indisputably Mexican. However, once war began the rules were different, and territory could be rightly acquired by the law of conquest — though not all Americans agreed. Some Whigs argued that there was no constitutional authority to acquire territory by conquest, but popular sentiment overwhelmingly favored expansion.
Mexicans today complain about “stolen” land, but their claim is weak. They accepted American payment as part of the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo, thus ratifying the transfer. The Gadsden Purchase of 1854 was a reiteration of the principle of exchanging land for money. Moreover, if the Mexicans had defeated the Americans they would certainly have exercised their own rights under the law of conquest. Had they been able to occupy New Orleans and Mobile they would have felt entitled to keep them.
Mexico gambled on war and lost. It is impossible to predict what Polk would have done had Mexico not “shed American blood on American soil,” but once blood was shed, he was determined to make the most of it. Without Polk, there could have been a different and much smaller United States.