David M Pletcher. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
Beyond a doubt the one-term president who left behind him the greatest record of accomplishment was James Knox Polk. In the area of domestic legislation his administration lowered the prevailing high tariff and established a moderate policy that lasted fifteen years, until the Civil War. It reestablished the independent treasury (sometimes called subtreasury), a system of handling revenues that made the government custodian over its own funds instead of scattering them among private banks, and thereby restored some order to a fiscal system still disorganized from Andrew Jackson’s Bank War of the 1830s. It also founded the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis.
But Polk’s record of accomplishment depends mostly on his achievements in foreign affairs. His administration completed the annexation of Texas, begun by John Tyler. Under his personal, day-by-day direction, his administration brought the United States into, and out of, a major diplomatic crisis with Britain and a war with Mexico in which the United States did not lose a single major battle. Following his instructions, American diplomats negotiated treaties that added to the national domain the western third of its continental territory—California, Oregon, and the Southwest, a vast area nearly as large as all the nations of Free Europe after World War II. In the process, he restated and partly redefined the Monroe Doctrine. Further, one of Polk’s diplomats negotiated a treaty with Colombia (then called New Granada) that was to serve Theodore Roosevelt nearly sixty years later as the legal basis for assisting in the independence of Panama, which led directly to the construction of the Panama Canal. Overall, it would not be too much to say that Polk’s administration raised the United States to the level of a second-class power and laid part of the foundation for its later establishment as a great power.
Historians have been slow to recognize Polk’s importance. Since he was a narrowly partisan Democrat, it is not surprising that early studies of his administration were mostly party tracts. By the end of the nineteenth century, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster loomed so far over him that J. T. Morse, Jr., and Ellis P. Oberholtzer failed to include him in two biographical series about American statesmen. The executive leadership of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson made Polk’s tribulations and achievements seem more relevant than at any time since 1848, and the appearance in 1922 of a major biography by Eugene Irving McCormac established Polk’s reputation. A few twentieth-century historians dismissed him as “Polk the Mediocre,” but none could ignore him, and in mid-century the succession of strong presidents forced a historical reevaluation in which Polk was recognized as the major link in the chain of executive dominance between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. In the early 1960s a poll of historians ranked Polk eighth in importance among presidents—just below Theodore Roosevelt and above Harry S. Truman. Reaction against the “imperial presidency” may have eroded some of his popularity.
Polk’s long obscurity was due partly to the nature of his background and rise to power and partly to his personality and conduct of the presidency. Born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, on 2 November 1795, he grew up in central Tennessee. As a boy he was sickly (although he had strength enough to survive, at seventeen, a gallstone operation without modern anesthesia or antisepsis), and as a man he was often ill with fever or diarrhea. With characteristic single-mindedness, he prepared himself for the law, first at the University of North Carolina and then in the law office of the veteran Tennessee politician Felix Grundy. Deciding on a career of public office, Polk made his way upward through the rough, semifrontier politics of Tennessee. In 1825 he progressed from the state legislature to the United States House of Representatives. By then he had attracted Andrew Jackson’s attention and patronage, as well as Old Hickory’s many enemies.
For most of the next two decades, Polk perfected his skills in the thick of partisan national politics, being at first a Jeffersonian republican but soon becoming a Jacksonian democrat. He fought with bitter enmity against John Quincy Adams’ administration and then against the whole Whig party, in which he could see no redeeming features. (Although Polk later received Henry Clay at the White House with warm cordiality, Adams never forgave or forgot his hostility.) By 1833, Jackson so appreciated Polk’s loyalty and ability that he put him in charge of the Bank War in the House and saw to it that he was raised to the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee. Two years later Polk won the speakership after an unusually bitter fight with fellow Tennessean John Bell. The residual animosity from the Bank War and this fight, together with the long running battle over the “gag rule” and the frustrations of Martin Van Buren’s election and early presidency, made Polk’s four-year tenure as Speaker perhaps the noisiest and most vituperative so far in American experience. Polk received the attacks with calm dignity, parried them with an acute command of parliamentary procedure, and remembered them for later reference.
Retiring from the House to become governor of Tennessee (1839), Polk hoped for the nomination for the vice presidency in the Democratic convention of 1840. He failed in this, and after his defeat for reelection as governor the following year, his career in national politics seemed at an end. Undaunted and with Jackson’s continued support, he organized a canny group of supporters to make another effort for the vice presidential nomination at the party convention of 1844, at which Van Buren’s candidacy for reelection seemed a foregone conclusion. Unfortunately for Van Buren, he chose the wrong side of the Texas question, newly emerged as a burning issue, and after Polk had come out resoundingly for annexation of both Texas and Oregon, his clique was able to obtain his nomination for the presidency by exploiting the convention’s two-thirds rule, the resulting deadlock, and Jackson’s influence.
The Whigs’ jeer “Who is James K. Polk?” has left a wide impression that Polk was the first dark-horse presidential candidate in American history. This is misleading, for Polk’s stormy years as Speaker of the House had made him well known within the party. He was, to be sure, a compromise candidate, and in order to preserve unity, he promised that, if elected, he would serve only one term. The campaign especially featured the expansionist and tariff issues; but since Clay, the Whig candidate, waffled on Texas (whose annexation he really wished to postpone) and Polk waffled on the tariff (which he really intended to reform downward), it is impossible to attribute the result to any issue. Early in the summer Clay seemed to be running ahead, but Polk finally won, with the electoral vote 170 to 105. Votes in all sections of the country were divided; Polk even carried Maine and New Hampshire but lost Tennessee and North Carolina. It has been generally assumed that Clay’s hedging on Texas allowed the minority, antislavery Liberty party to absorb enough of his strength to throw New York’s 35 electoral votes to Polk, but some have argued that a more forthright stand on Texas would have lost Clay four of the states he won (with 35 electoral votes) by narrow margins.
No man could have lived through such a nomination and election without being either steeled or broken, and Polk’s whole political life produced in him a determination to curb his rebellious party and be absolute master of his administration. At his inauguration he was only forty-nine (making him the youngest president until that time), a short, thin, angular man whose long, graying hair was brushed back from a habitually sad, unsmiling face with high cheekbones and fixed jaw. Everyone remembered his deep-set piercing eyes. The personality beneath this drab exterior was introverted, intense, narrow, and almost humorless, although alert and not without compassion. His mind was quick and shrewd, and his memory for names, faces, and records penetrating and well organized. But he lacked charisma; he might impress doubters with his determination, but he warmed few hearts and stirred few souls.
As a good Jacksonian, Polk brought to the White House a conviction that the president, the only true representative of national interests, must dominate the government and be the very symbol of the common man. More than any other Jacksonian, Polk understood and accepted the hard, grinding work that this responsibility entailed and almost literally drove himself to an early grave. American politicians commonly took long vacations from the summer heat and the year-round strains of the capital, but for one period of thirteen months Polk never traveled more than three or four miles from Washington. He mastered the routine and details of every executive department, delegated power with great reluctance, and called for frequent and full accountings.
While Polk’s contemporaries and biographers have given him full credit for determination and scrupulous honesty in personal affairs, they have also recognized a certain indirection or deviousness in his political methods. Allan Nevins has called him “cute” in the Yankee sense, but “by his lights … eminently truthful and upright.” Literally truthful he may have been, but he kept his own counsel, let others guess (often wrongly) at his intentions, and ignored or privately resented the later recriminations. From his earliest days in the House, Polk was a “good hater.” He thought opposition among Whigs natural, if misguided, and came to respect a few whom he recognized as honorable men; but opposition from fellow Democrats, especially John C. Calhoun’s faction, was to him simple treason, motivated by selfish ambition, and this he rarely forgave. Beginning in August 1845, he kept a diary of his discussions and reactions. One cannot be sure that he was completely frank, even with himself, but Polk’s record brings the historian closer to the arcanum of presidential policy-making than is his usual lot.
Polk’s handling of his cabinet reflected the combination of decision and caution that lay at the heart of his character. He chose a moderately able group of men, half of them from Congress and well balanced geographically. Like Polk, Secretary of State James Buchanan came from a Presbyterian farmer’s family and rough-and-tumble politics in a state (Pennsylvania) that had contributed heavily to Polk’s election. Ambitious, persistent, and calculating like his master, Buchanan was also timid and irresolute (Polk once said that he “sometimes acts like an old maid”). Secretary of the Treasury Robert J. Walker, an excitable, frail little man who was often ill, supported Polk’s expansionist and low-tariff policies enthusiastically, reorganized the Treasury Department and the customs service, and implemented the new subtreasury system. Secretary of War William L. Marcy, though hampered by Congress, administered a wartime army with reasonable efficiency. Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft (later minister to Britain) carried through the foundation of the United States Naval Academy on the executive’s initiative after Congress had delayed action for years. Other cabinet members—John Y. Mason (attorney general, then navy), Cave Johnson (postmaster general), and Nathan Clifford (attorney general)—supplied Polk with personal friendship (especially Mason and Johnson), party connections, and steady, competent service.
Polk managed to get full advantage from the advice of this experienced cabinet while keeping it under complete control. Holding cabinet meetings twice a week, he opened all subjects to discussion, often keeping his own opinions secret until he was ready to act. Members were encouraged to call frequently at the White House to present departmental problems, and Buchanan, who had the most complex duties of all, made almost daily visits. (Characteristically, being a strong party man, he caused more trouble for Polk over patronage than over foreign policy and at one point agonized for weeks over whether to resign and join the Supreme Court.) When Polk asked Buchanan, like other cabinet members, to forswear presidential ambitions while in the cabinet, he carefully hedged his reply. Polk often doubted his loyalty but never quite reached the point of asking him to resign. While Polk was a demanding master, he was as considerate to his cabinet members as his chilly, unbending nature allowed, and they constituted a more genuine “official family” (as he sometimes called them) than in most other administrations.
In his handling of Congress, Polk was the first president consistently to mount campaigns for administrative measures, and he exercised a degree of control unique in the period between Jackson and Lincoln, when Congress usually dominated the executive. Paradoxically, in some important matters, such as the Oregon question, Polk ostentatiously sought coordinate congressional action so as to share the blame in case of an unpopular decision. (In such cases, he was careful to avoid creating the precedent that the executive must necessarily consult Congress before acting.) Such flexible control, even though it sometimes faltered, was a high achievement, for the Democrats had only a six-vote margin in the Senate from 1845 to 1847, and in the congressional elections of 1846 they lost control of the House of Representatives; furthermore, in both houses the party was seriously divided by regional and other factions.
Polk used a variety of expedients and methods to enforce his will on Congress. He maintained constant touch with both the leadership and the rank and file by opening the White House to them daily and frequently summoning them for conferences, producing a steady stream of legislators up and down Pennsylvania Avenue. He used his cabinet members as go-betweens, especially Cave Johnson, Buchanan, and Walker, and before an important vote several of them might be seen in the Capitol, buttonholing their friends. (At the same time, Polk gravely deplored the developing practice of congressional lobbying by private interests.) Polk put pressure on doubtful Democrats with urgent editorials in the party newspaper, the Union, setting forth his arguments. He gave close and unremitting attention to patronage, although no record has been found of specific deals for desired votes.
As with many other presidents, Polk’s influence over Congress was most effective early in his term of office. In his first major confrontation, over the Oregon question, Polk could not obtain what he sought, a simple resolution advising him to notify Britain of the abrogation of the 1827 convention on the joint occupancy of Oregon, and he had to be satisfied with a mildly qualified recommendation after a three-month debate that left permanent scars on the party. During the spring and summer of 1846 he enjoyed a string of victories: quick approval of a new Oregon treaty; a declaration of war against Mexico; a new, lowered tariff; and the subtreasury act. The declaration of war was a tour de force for which administration leaders unmercifully pressed a coalition of Whigs and pacifist Democrats with imputations of unpatriotic slackness, which rankled throughout the war. In the case of the tariff, Polk won the narrowest possible victory, thanks to the political and financial blandishments of Secretary Walker; the political expertise of the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, James J. McKay; and a complicated series of compromises and votes in which presidential pressure induced more than one high-tariff politician to abandon his principles and support the bill.
During the last half of Polk’s term the increasing unpopularity of the Mexican War, the Democratic loss of the House, and the incubus of the slavery question often frustrated his measures. He had trouble obtaining new regiments for the army, and Congress would not authorize the rank of lieutenant general, to which he wished to appoint Senator Thomas H. Benton, a tyro soldier but a loyal Democrat, and thereby put him in command over the skilled but Whiggish Winfield Scott. Worse still, when Polk requested a special fund to hold in reserve for peace negotiations, the House attached to the bill the Wilmot Proviso, which prohibited slavery in any territory to be acquired from Mexico. The Senate rejected this inflammatory proposal, which Polk called “mischievous & foolish,” but the proviso haunted him for the rest of his administration, poisoning the atmosphere and obstructing much useful legislation. At the end of his term he managed to obtain a law establishing government in the newly acquired Oregon Territory without reference to slavery (in effect prohibiting it, since Oregon lay well to the north of the Missouri Compromise line); but because his skills were inadequate to put together a compromise for California and New Mexico, he had to leave this problem to his successor.
In his dealings with Congress, the Democratic party, and the American people at large, Polk exploited assiduously both press and patronage with moderate, if not unvarying, success. When he became president, he had long appreciated the power of the press, and not trusting the loyalty of Jackson’s old newspaper, the Globe, he transferred government business to a new Washington organ, the Union. As editor he chose the venerable Thomas (“Father”) Ritchie of Virginia, an experienced but old-fashioned journalist who did not have Polk’s ruthlessness and sense of timing but leaked confidences in his editorials and let himself be diverted into side issues. The president sometimes intervened to write his own editorials.
Polk also fully realized the value of patronage and surrounded himself with spoils politicians (indeed, Secretary Marcy practically invented the term spoils system), but in a factionalized party Polk often made as many enemies as friends with his appointments. Also he soon came to loathe the pressure of office seekers, and although he wrote self-righteously in his diary that he felt obliged to give up hours each day interviewing them (they were citizens, after all), he complained about them on an average of at least once a week. Far more pleasurable to him was the extensive social life he fostered in the White House with the aid of his charming and popular wife, the former Sarah Childress, but even here Polk’s stiffness and lack of charisma partly defeated his purpose.
Since Polk made his most notable accomplishments in foreign relations and war, careful examination of his skills and methods in these areas is necessary. He brought no special knowledge or talent to the conduct of foreign relations; indeed, he felt little but contempt for diplomatic protocol. As a nationalist from mid-America, he possessed a strong xenophobia unmitigated by any sophisticated, cosmopolitan appreciation of European culture or institutions. If he had any model for foreign relations, it was that of the brusque, high-handed Jackson. During the Oregon controversy, he formulated what would be called today a recommendation for “eyeball” diplomacy: “I remarked … that the only way to treat John Bull was to look him straight in the eye; … that if Congress faultered [sic] or hesitated in their course, John Bull would immediately become arrogant and more grasping in his demands.” Polk did not bother to make a corresponding recommendation for Mexico, his other adversary, but his writings show that he held both government and people in contempt as hardly worthy of nationality. His feelings toward Britain and Mexico could produce only a policy of bluntness and bluff. Take a bold stand, negotiate from apparent strength, assume what you cannot prove, make no concessions that can be interpreted as weakness, and keep your opponent off balance. Ideas of mutual interest and compromise formed little part of his thinking.
In several ways Polk’s handling of the armed forces established precedents for some of his successors. By stationing troops in disputed territory on the Mexican border, he was able—whether intentionally or not—to provoke Mexico into war without prior recourse to Congress or the democratic process. In fighting the war Polk went beyond Madison (in the War of 1812) in the number of detailed orders he issued to his generals and the frequency of reports he expected from them, thereby reasserting the traditional American assumption of civilian control over the military. His lack of experience in military affairs hampered him in personal direction of the war somewhat more than his unfamiliarity with the technicalities of diplomacy. A greater obstacle was his remoteness from the fighting fronts, a remoteness that grew as his armies advanced into Mexico. He might make major strategic decisions in Washington, such as that to send a separate army into central Mexico, but to his great chagrin, he had to entrust most other planning to two Whig generals, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott.
Polk was sure that his two generals were trying to undermine his administration and succeed him as president. After unwillingly dispatching Scott to Veracruz, he disloyally tried to get Benton promoted over his head. Congress rescued Polk from this blunder and allowed Scott to complete his career as the most distinguished American soldier between the Revolution and the Civil War. Polk functioned more effectively in other areas than strategic planning, working with Marcy to overhaul an underdeveloped, second-rate army and solve staggering problems of long-distance supply and administration.
The best way to understand Polk’s accomplishments in diplomacy and war is to study their development, step by step. On taking office, he inherited two major problems of foreign policy, both concerning American territorial expansion. At Tyler’s urging, Congress had just passed a joint resolution authorizing annexation of the independent Republic of Texas. Most Texans wanted this, but their government hesitated. Meanwhile, agents of Britain and France urged Texas to remain independent, in order to offset the United States and create a balance of power in North America. Mexico, which still claimed sovereignty over Texas, threatened the United States with war if it went through with annexation and broke relations as soon as Congress passed the joint resolution.
An older controversy with Britain had been smoldering for years on the northwestern frontier. Both Britain and the United States claimed Oregon, a region west of the Rockies stretching from the northern boundary of California to the Alaska pan-handle (54°40′) and including modern Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. The conventions of 1818 and 1827 had established joint occupancy of this area, with provision for termination by either party after a year’s notice. The Hudson’s Bay Company dominated most of Oregon, but along the Columbia River, where fur trapping had greatly declined, American immigrants were establishing a chain of farming settlements, the vanguard of a great frontier movement. Tyler’s secretary of state, John C. Calhoun, had opened exploratory negotiations over Oregon, but seeing the progress of American migration, he favored what he called “masterly inactivity” and soon let the negotiations lapse. Meanwhile, the British foreign secretary, the earl of Aberdeen, had come to the conclusion that the best solution to the question would be a compromise boundary along the forty-ninth parallel, reserving all of Vancouver Island to Britain, but he had not convinced the rest of the British cabinet, nor did he know how to suggest the compromise to the United States without weakening Britain’s negotiating position.
The American desire for Upper California was also certain to affect Polk’s foreign relations. California was undeniably Mexican territory, but distance and Mexico’s political instability had allowed the province to drift away from Mexican control. The Californians were a mixture of Mexicans, Indians, Europeans, and Americans. New England traders had established firm economic connections between California’s Pacific ports and the east coast of the United States. American explorers had traversed the interior, and early in the 1840s a few of the American emigrants to Oregon began to stray off into central California to take up farming or ranching. By 1845 the Mexican hold on California had virtually disappeared, and many Americans were wondering whether the British would intervene there as they were trying to do in Texas.
When Polk wrote his inaugural address, draft by draft, consulting many advisers as was his custom, he determined to deal explicitly with Texas and Oregon, leaving California for later disposition. He devoted considerable space to Texas, taking annexation for granted and warning foreign powers not to interfere in this purely American problem. He might have passed over Oregon with the remark that delicate negotiations were still pending, but the Democratic platform of 1844 had mentioned the “clear and unquestionable” American title to the whole territory, and this claim had aroused much enthusiasm in the Middle West during the campaign. Polk quoted this categorical phrase in his address without explaining his reference and went on to indicate that the United States government would protect the American emigrants to Oregon with laws and “the benefits of our republican institutions,” looking toward annexation in the near future. Undoubtedly he hoped to satisfy the westerners without unduly arousing the British, but in the long run he was disappointed on both counts.
After his inauguration, the new president set out to complete the annexation of Texas. Thinking to secure Mexican acquiescence, he sent an unofficial diplomatic agent to reopen formal relations, hinting at a possible indemnity for Texas. He also sent agents to Texas to join the American chargé d’affaires, Andrew Jackson Donelson (Jackson’s nephew and Polk’s personal friend), in urging the Texas government to accept the terms of the joint resolution. British and French diplomatic agents were also working for reconciliation between Texas and Mexico. The British agent even persuaded the Mexican government to recognize Texan independence as an inducement to refuse annexation, but he was too late. By May, Texas public opinion was overwhelmingly annexationist, and in the following months the Texas Congress accepted the joint resolution, and a special constitutional convention drew up a new state constitution for membership in the Union.
Polk’s success in Texas drew the United States closer to war with Mexico. On rather dubious grounds Texas claimed the Rio Grande as its boundary with Mexico, and without examining this claim carefully, Polk committed himself to its support. Mexican leaders denounced both the annexation and the boundary claim and threatened to attack the Texas frontier. Having promised to protect the Texans as soon as they accepted annexation, Polk dispatched a naval squadron along the Gulf coast and moved several thousand troops under Zachary Taylor from the Louisiana border to Corpus Christi on the Nueces River, at the northern edge of the disputed boundary zone, with permission to move south if Taylor thought best—a typical Polkian move to share responsibility but a reasonable one, considering the slowness of communications. At the same time, Polk sent private orders to Commodore John D. Sloat, commander of the Pacific squadron, that in case of war, Sloat should seize the principal ports of California.
Some historians believe that at this point Polk was consciously plotting war with Mexico. They rely on the private papers of Commodore Robert F. Stockton, the commander of the squadron protecting the Texas coast and an ultraexpansionist with powerful friends in the government. From certain inconclusive letters of his, it appears that he considered a preventive seizure of Mexican territory south of the Rio Grande. Also, according to President Anson Jones of Texas, Stockton proposed to him that the two of them provoke a war. Without written orders from Polk or some other equally clear evidence, the “plot thesis” rests on surmise. Instructions from Bancroft to Stockton and from Buchanan to Donelson were explicitly defensive, and Polk’s correspondence and other factors suggest that at this time he neither desired nor expected war with Mexico.
Perhaps the best reason why Polk should have wanted to keep peace on the border was that Anglo-American relations had taken a turn for the worse during April and May because of the blunt passage on Oregon in his inaugural address. British observers failed to notice that the president had carefully respected the sanctity of treaties and that he was only following the example of the British government and the Hudson’s Bay Company in proposing to extend legal protection to American settlers. Instead, the British press focused on Polk’s assertion of the “clear and unquestionable” American title and hurled insults and threats at the overbearing Americans. When questions arose in Parliament, the prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, declared that Britain also had clear and unquestionable rights in Oregon. Naturally the American press seized all these statements and returned them with interest.
Behind the scenes the British government began unobtrusively to check Canadian fortifications—as well as Channel defenses, in case France supported the Americans. At the same time, Aberdeen encouraged a few moderates to disparage the value of Oregon in the press and sent instructions to the British minister at Washington, Richard Pakenham, to seek American terms or suggest arbitration of the Oregon question. Privately he encouraged Pakenham to draw from the Americans, if possible, an offer of the forty-ninth parallel and Vancouver Island, with the right to navigate the Columbia River, so that he might propose a compromise to the cabinet in London. Buchanan discouraged Pakenham’s talk of arbitration but delayed further reply for several weeks.
At this point both parties blundered. When Buchanan gave Pakenham a formal reply on 12 July he indeed proposed the forty-ninth parallel, conceding to Britain all of Vancouver Island. Even though he made no reference to navigation of the Columbia River, these terms provided an adequate basis for negotiations. Unfortunately (and certainly on Polk’s instructions) Buchanan set forth the ramshackle American claim to the whole area up to 54°40′ in a manner that made the compromise offer seem an American condescension. Outraged, Pakenham replied with an equally strong statement of the British claim and, carried away by his own rhetoric, rejected Buchanan’s offer out of hand instead of referring it to London, as he should have done. Apparently Polk then jumped to the conclusion that the wily British had tricked him into showing his cards without ever intending to compromise. After brooding for several weeks, at the end of August he had Buchanan withdraw the offer altogether and intimated that if the British wished to negotiate, they must assume the initiative with an offer of their own.
Thus, in the first six months of his administration, Polk had widened the breach with Mexico and Britain and limited his freedom of action in both cases. With a little more understanding of diplomacy, he might have managed to put Britain on the defensive without interrupting communications, by giving Aberdeen a chance to explain and excuse his minister’s mistake. The situation called for Talleyrand’s probing pen; instead, Polk had used an eraser. Since neither party would reopen negotiations for fear of losing face and bargaining leverage, the impasse over Oregon continued through the rest of 1845. When western expansionists learned of Polk’s stand, they assumed that he would now carry out the Democratic party plank of pushing the boundary up to 54°40′. As he soon learned, such aroused expectations made any sort of compromise all the more difficult.
Still, the Mexican issue, at least, did not seem beyond peaceful settlement, for Polk’s special agent to Mexico City and the American consul there reported throughout the summer that despite public fury at the American annexation of Texas, the government hesitated to start hostilities because of lack of funds and uncertainty about the loyalty of the army. Both thought that the government would receive a special American commissioner to discuss the Texas question (and presumably offer Mexico a disguised indemnity for its loss). It is not clear whether Polk understood the limited nature of the Mexican concession, but, true to his aggressive instincts, he determined to appoint a full minister plenipotentiary; ignore the Texas question, which he regarded as settled; and try to persuade Mexico to sell California. For this mission he chose John Slidell of Louisiana, a rising young politician with some polish and knowledge of Spanish but no previous association with Mexican affairs.
Before Slidell departed from New Orleans in late November 1845, news from the Pacific coast suggested that the California question might require more direct action. In mid-October, Buchanan received an alarming dispatch from Thomas O. Larkin, an American merchant-consul at Monterey. Larkin warned that Britain was apparently preparing to dominate California, for a new British vice-consulate had just been established at Monterey, probably to operate in conjunction with the Hudson’s Bay Company; furthermore, there were rumors that Mexico was sending out troops, paid for by British money, to reassert authority. Larkin’s report, three months old, was exaggerated or downright wrong, for the Hudson’s Bay Company had lost interest in California trapping, the Mexican reinforcement expedition had been given up, and the British government, though deploring American influence there, was not disposed to take action. Polk and Buchanan, of course, had no way of knowing this.
The alarmed president determined to reinforce the Slidell mission with preventive measures in California. He drew up instructions for Sloat, repeating with emphasis that he should seize the principal Mexican ports in case of war. Polk also instructed Larkin to propagandize among the Californians for union with the United States and resistance to a British protectorate. These instructions Polk sent out with Commodore Stockton in the frigate Congress, but since that ship would need several months for the long voyage around Cape Horn, Polk selected a young marine lieutenant, Archibald H. Gillespie—apparently for no other reason than that he spoke Spanish. Polk gave Gillespie duplicates of the orders to Sloat and Larkin and told him to memorize the latter. Gillespie was to follow an overland route to California through central Mexico disguised as a merchant. At this point, Senator Thomas Hart Benton suggested that Gillespie should also carry coded orders and private letters to Benton’s son-in-law, the army explorer Lieutenant John Charles Frémont, then conducting a reconnaissance in eastern California. Historians have long argued as to just what was in these orders, but unless their text is found (which now seems unlikely), no one can say definitively whether Frémont’s later actions were authorized.
While Polk stood his ground on Oregon and California, he was also composing his first annual message to Congress, one of the most important documents of his whole career. In that message he said nothing of his hopes and plans for California but described the measures he had taken to protect Texas against Mexican aggression, outlined other grievances against Mexico, and characterized the Sli-dell mission as an effort to collect justifiable claims. Concerning Oregon, he summarized Tyler’s negotiations and blamed Britain for their rupture. He called on Congress to provide an armed guard and land grants for emigrants to Oregon. First, however, in order to comply with treaty requirements, he recommended that Congress take steps to give the prescribed year’s notice to terminate joint occupation.
After his discussion of Oregon, Polk reaffirmed “the principle avowed by Mr. Monroe”—the first significant presidential reference to the Monroe Doctrine since its original declaration in 1823. This passage has an interesting history. The president included something like it in an early draft of his inaugural address but soon deleted it. During the summer he was much irritated to read a statement by the French prime minister, François Guizot, that France must play an active role in North American affairs in order to maintain “l’équilibre des forces,” which the American press translated as “the balance of power,” a term embodying to Americans all the decadent, deceitful ways of monarchical Europe. After consulting Senator Benton and getting trial drafts from Buchanan and Bancroft, Polk drew up a statement.
In applying the Monroe Doctrine to Guizot’s remarks, Polk was broadening it to include European political intrigue, as well as military action, in the New World, but at the same time, he implied a limitation by suggesting that the nature of the United States action under the doctrine might depend on the circumstances—a hint that Washington would be most concerned about violations near at hand. Guizot had been referring to Texas, for France had little interest in California and none in Oregon, but Polk intended his declaration to reinforce his analysis of the Oregon question and probably also to warn Britain off California.
Polk’s annual message was an integral part of his aggressive strategy against Mexico and Britain. By justifying his policies, he sought to demonstrate that he was trying to preserve the peace, whatever the adversaries might do in the future. In the case of Oregon, he called on Congress for prompt, decisive action that would show government and country to be united behind him. Britain, he hoped, would then have to break the impasse at a disadvantage and offer new terms, which he could treat as he chose. What he really accomplished was to limit his actions further by revealing too much of his ambitions to the Mexicans and by making Congress his partner in determining policy toward Britain.
Under the political circumstances of the day it was unrealistic to expect prompt, decisive action from Congress. After the bitterly fought election of 1844, a Whig minority sought revenge and recovery of power. During the last phases of the Texas question, expansionism had become entangled with the antislavery cause; and the resulting confusion of personal ambitions, partisan loyalties, and ideological convictions made it impossible to predict anyone’s actions. Rebellious factions threatened to split the Democratic party, especially a group of western expansionists—who now spread a newly coined slogan, “Fifty-four Forty or Fight!”—and a southern bloc led by Calhoun, who had put his whole heart into the campaign for Texas but now favored delay and compromise in Oregon.
The debate dragged on from December 1845 until late April 1846. As everyone realized, abrogation of the joint-occupation agreement would remove the only legal safeguard against war over some trivial local incident in Oregon. Polk wanted a simple, noncommittal statement advising the president to give notice of abrogation; western Democrats, especially in the Senate, wanted to add a shout of rude defiance that would effectively prevent any diplomatic response from Britain; and moderates at first opposed any notice at all. By February, Whigs and antiwar Democrats in the House of Representatives managed to pass a mildly worded resolution of notice that virtually invited Britain to resume negotiations but shifted full responsibility for them to the president. In April, after weeks of thunderous debate that stirred the country to its depths, the Senate finally accepted the House resolution, as Calhoun and his bloc recognized that some sort of notice was necessary. The innocuous wording infuriated western extremists, who foresaw a compromise settlement and suspected (probably with reason) that Polk had encouraged the moderates in the last weeks of the debate rather than have the Senate adjourn without acting.
As long as Congress wrangled, Polk could make no progress in negotiations with Britain during the winter of 1845-1846. Aberdeen was well aware of conciliatory sentiment in the United States through editorials and correspondence of eastern moderates, but he probably underestimated the force of western expansionism pressing on Polk. At first he hoped that Polk might change his mind and offer terms or agree to arbitration, but eventually he reconciled himself to waiting until Congress passed a resolution that would enable Britain to reopen negotiations without loss of face. Meanwhile, he dropped hints that Britain might send naval reinforcements to Canada if pressed too hard. (These hints undoubtedly helped induce Polk to favor compromise in the Senate.) Anglo-American diplomatic communications during the impasse were admirably maintained by the two ministers, Louis McLane in London and Richard Pakenham in Washington, who made as much sense as anyone could out of the complex situation.
At the same time, American relations with Mexico were also worsening. In early December, Slidell arrived in Mexico City, where he found nationalists livid at the idea of selling more territory and a moderate government clinging feebly to power. The foreign minister, unhappy at Slidell’s inopportune arrival, refused to receive him, on the grounds that his credentials were those of a full minister plenipotentiary rather than a temporary commissioner. (This distinction was not mere desperate hairsplitting, as Polk thought, for if Mexico agreed to renew formal relations before negotiating, it would have little prospect of obtaining an indemnity or other concession in return for the loss of Texas.) At the end of the month, the nationalists staged a successful revolution and placed a conservative army leader, General Mariano Paredes y Arrillaga, in the presidential chair.
Since Paredes hoped for an Anglo-American war over Oregon, he too refused to receive Slidell. Undismayed at this setback, Polk advanced his position and took another strong stand. He ordered Taylor at Corpus Christi to move his forces across the disputed zone and occupy the north bank of the Rio Grande, avoiding any offensive action against the Mexicans. At the end of January he wrote to Slidell that if Paredes would not see him, “nothing can remain but to take the redress of the injuries to our citizens and the insults to our Government into our own hands.”
Some historians have interpreted the strong language to mean that Polk never expected Slidell to succeed but intended the mission merely as an excuse for military attack. At the same time, Polk wrote to his brother that Paredes had probably exaggerated his anti-Americanism in order to gain power and that the order to Taylor was merely “a precautionary measure.” Given the uncertain state of the Oregon debate at this time, it is reasonable to suppose that Polk hoped Slidell would sign a treaty but was prepared to increase the pressure if he did not. Nevertheless, his action in risking a Mexican attack might be criticized as compromising the powers of Congress.
During March and April 1846, Polk’s relations with both Britain and Mexico reached a turning point. In Texas, Taylor led his army to the bank of the Rio Grande, where the soldiers built a fort within cannon shot of the Mexican border city Matamoros. In Mexico City, Slidell, following instructions, sent a final request for reception, received another refusal, and prepared to leave for home. In London the British government awaited action in Congress on the Oregon question, and in Washington the congressional debate was splitting the Democratic party and threatening Polk’s whole legislative program. At the beginning of May, Polk was driven to the expedient of telling the Speaker of the House that if Congress tried to adjourn prematurely, he would forbid the action and force a showdown.
Hitherto, Polk had regarded war with Mexico as possible but unlikely. At some time during April 1846 he seems to have concluded that a short, limited conflict on the Rio Grande might be the best way to reunite his party, impress Britain, and bring Mexico to terms. Learning of Slidell’s final rejection, he went over the whole matter with the cabinet, which agreed that he should send a message to Congress recommending that the United States take matters into its own hands. Polk kept delaying action, first waiting for the end of the Oregon debate, then for Slidell’s return to Washington, and finally for some sort of Mexican attack that would arouse congressional patriotism.
The crisis came during the weekend beginning 8 May. On Friday morning Slidell arrived in Washington. After talking with him, Polk decided to make his appeal to Congress, but on Saturday morning he and the cabinet decided to wait a few days longer, hoping for further news from the Rio Grande. Four hours later, the adjutant general called at the White House with a dispatch in which Taylor reported that Mexican troops had ambushed one of his scouting parties north of the river, killing or capturing most of its members. Taylor remarked laconically, “Hostilities may now be considered as commenced.” Polk agreed and spent most of Sunday composing a war message, which he sent to Congress next day. In this he discoursed on the “fair and equitable” principles the United States had displayed toward Mexico, recited American grievances, and justified Taylor’s presence on the Rio Grande. Declaring that Mexico had “shed American blood upon the American soil,” he called on Congress to ratify the fact that “war exists … by the act of Mexico herself.”
Congress received this call to arms with mixed feelings. Nearly everyone recognized the danger to Taylor’s men and favored voting reinforcements and supplies, but the Whigs and Calhoun’s bloc of Democrats opposed a formal declaration of war or any statement blaming hostilities on Mexico until they could investigate the circumstances leading to bloodshed. Polk’s supporters outmaneuvered them at every point, while the president himself pressured Benton, a key figure, to swallow his doubts. The war bill was passed by an impressive margin, but Whigs voted for it unwillingly, lest their party suffer the stigma of disloyalty and go to pieces as the Federalist party had done during the War of 1812.
Polk’s War Leadership
For several months Polk’s plans succeeded in all theaters of action. On the Rio Grande, Taylor put his troops out of danger by defeating a larger Mexican army in two battles, Palo Alto (8 May) and Resaca de la Palma (9 May). Then he occupied Matamoros and, after receiving reinforcements, moved slowly into northeastern Mexico. At the same time, the Americans were carrying through the occupation of California. When Gillespie arrived with instructions, Larkin began quietly to propagandize among the inhabitants for annexation, but Frémont in the interior determined on more drastic action and assumed the leadership of an independence movement among American settlers in the Sacramento area, to found the so-called Bear Flag Republic. At this point Commodore Sloat of the Pacific squadron received news that war had broken out. Moving his ships to Monterey, he occupied the whole bay area. A little later Stockton and the Congress arrived; Polk sent troops overland; and the combined American forces, regular and irregular, completed the occupation. British naval forces off the coast observed the American actions with impotent chagrin, for they could not take counteraction without orders from London, which were never sent.
Meanwhile, the United States and Britain had solved the Oregon problem. By early May the conciliatory wording of the congressional resolution on Oregon made it possible for Aberdeen to renew negotiations. First, the foreign secretary argued the British cabinet into approving an offer of compromise terms; then, he proposed to McLane a treaty dividing the disputed territory at the forty-ninth parallel, with Vancouver Island reserved to Britain and navigation rights on the Columbia River to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Polk balked at the navigation rights but agreed to submit the whole matter to the Senate. Buchanan and Pakenham quickly drew up a treaty, and on 18 June the Senate approved it by 41 to 14. (Navigation rights were included but made subject to American law.) While the coming of the war undoubtedly made Polk and Congress more eager for a settlement, it does not seem to have played an important role in forming British policy. During June and July, Britain and the United States further improved their relations by lowering tariffs and thereby increasing their trade.
Success on the Rio Grande, in California, and in Oregon undoubtedly led Polk to expect a short war with Mexico and a quick treaty confirming the annexation of California and some connecting territory. He had reckoned without the Mexican sense of honor. Showing unexpected powers of resistance, the Mexicans were favored by their formidable geography: a belt of semidesert in the north, mountain ranges in the center, and the fever-ridden Gulf coast. Polk put out peace feelers to Antonio López de Santa Anna, an opportunistic spoilsman who had been president of Mexico twice in the past but was then exiled in Havana. Santa Anna hinted that if he were enabled to regain power, he would negotiate with the United States. Polk granted him free passage through the American blockade and meanwhile had Buchanan write to Mexico City suggesting negotiations. Nothing came of either venture. The government bluntly refused to discuss terms; and after Santa Anna had seized power, he ignored his assurances to Polk, issued a call for troops, and organized Mexico’s defense against the Americans. Meanwhile, Taylor had advanced beyond the Rio Grande and captured Monterrey (not to be confused with the port in California), only to see its defenders retreat into the dry lands to the south.
Polk resented these frustrations all the more because several forces were pressing him for an early peace. One was the British government, which hoped to mediate before the Americans advanced any farther; Polk politely but firmly refused its advances. More important, the Whig opposition was gaining support for its antiwar campaign in all parts of the country and especially among the northern antislavery bloc—both outright abolitionists and free-soil men, who opposed taking slavery into the territories. They were convinced that Polk, a southerner, had started the war to obtain more slaveholding territory. (The fact that Calhoun also opposed the war impressed few of these men. By then they thoroughly distrusted the South Carolina senator.) When Polk sought a special appropriation of $2 million in order to make a cash offer to Santa Anna if he seemed receptive, the antislavery bloc attached to the bill the notorious Wilmot Proviso, which would have forbidden slavery in any part of the territory to be gained from Mexico. Polk finally obtained his money at the following session of Congress, but his opponents had gained a useful issue for harassment.
By the end of 1846, Polk had to choose between alternate strategies for fighting the war and obtaining a peace. One was to occupy all of northern Mexico as far south as Tampico and San Luis Potosí, establish a line of forts, and wait until the Mexicans gave up. The other was to seize Tampico and Veracruz, the principal Gulf ports; send an army west from Veracruz along the old Spanish road through the mountains; and, if necessary, occupy Mexico City. The first tactic was obviously within American capabilities, for small detached forces had already marched almost at will through New Mexico and Chihuahua. It was the safer and less expensive of the two strategies, but it called for patience from the dynamic American people, already restive at the duration of the war. The second plan was much riskier, for it required a landing and unprecedented supply lines through the fever zone and across a punishing terrain. One victory for the Mexicans might encourage them to hold out indefinitely, and continued American successes would surely arouse the expansionists’ appetite for territory. Buchanan and most moderates favored the defense line. Slidell, Benton (who now ardently supported the war), and other activists called for a central invasion.
For several months Polk postponed a final decision, although in November 1846 he authorized the army to make plans for the capture of Veracruz. (Tampico was occupied without Mexican resistance at the same time.) Meanwhile, he sent special agents into Mexico to seek out signs of peace sentiments. In January 1847 a Mexican emissary arrived in Washington to inquire about American terms, armed with letters from Santa Anna and other Mexican officials. Polk replied with a formal proposal for negotiations. When the government in Mexico City returned a demand that the Americans withdraw from all Mexican territory before negotiations would be considered, Polk became furious at what he considered Mexican trickery and committed himself to an invasion of central Mexico.
Polk reluctantly entrusted the invasion to General Winfield Scott, the ranking officer in the army and an excellent choice. After the central campaign had begun, Taylor advanced south of Monterrey without orders and defeated Santa Anna in a hard-fought, close, but strategically insignificant battle at Buena Vista, which established him as a hero in the public eye. Scott landed successfully, captured Veracruz, and, in order to avoid the fever, quickly proceeded into the interior. Meanwhile, Santa Anna, a forceful leader if no great tactician, suppressed a civil war in Mexico City, pulled his army together, and marched out to meet Scott, taking up a strong defensive position in a mountain pass. In the most spectacular victory of the war, at Cerro Gordo (17-18 April 1847), Scott managed to outflank the Mexicans and drive them back in disorder; then, he occupied the large upland city of Puebla. Beaten for the second time in less than two months, Santa Anna limped back to Mexico City.
Since neither army had enough immediate strength for further fighting, Polk decided on another peace feeler. This time he chose an orthodox, if minor, diplomat, Nicholas P. Trist, chief clerk and de facto undersecretary of the State Department. Trist was a protégé of Buchanan, a certified Democrat (his wife was Jefferson’s granddaughter), spoke fluent Spanish, and knew Latin American ways. Polk instructed him that he should obtain at least a boundary line up the Rio Grande and across southern New Mexico at about 32° to San Diego on the Pacific coast. For this he was to offer $15 million; but if Mexico would also cede Lower California or other territory, he might raise the price. These terms represented a compromise between expansionists such as Benton and moderates such as Buchanan.
After an initial period of jealous and puerile bickering, Trist and Scott formed an effective team and tried every expedient they could conceive, straightforward or devious, to bring the Mexicans to terms. First, they established a reliable line of communications to the Mexican government through the British minister at Mexico City, who was eager to end the fighting. Then, at a hint from Santa Anna, they sent him a “sweetener” of $10,000 and promised immediate payment to Mexico of $1 million upon signature of a treaty. (When Polk learned of the thinly disguised bribes, he was scandalized and seriously considered recalling both Scott and Trist.)
After Santa Anna, perhaps losing his nerve, repudiated his overture, Scott led his forces into the Valley of Mexico, defeated the Mexicans in two more battles (Contreras and Churubusco), and encamped just outside Mexico City. Trist then met a commission of Mexicans to discuss terms, but Santa Anna, torn between factions, rejected them. Scott fought and won two more battles (Molino del Rey and Chapultepec) and finally, seeing no alternative, attacked Mexico City itself on 13 September 1847, drove out the government, and prepared for indefinite occupation. Santa Anna, thoroughly discredited, resigned and headefor exile again, while the Mexican Congress and the ranking civilian leaders straggled off to a provincial capital to reorganize. The war had reached another impasse.
Back in the United States the impatient American public was feeling more and more frustrated at the recurring news of Scott’s victories and persistent Mexican resistance. Opponents of the war continued to cite mounting casualty lists and appropriations, but a newly active group of ultraexpansionists, northern and southern, used the same casualties and appropriations to justify the United States in demanding more territory—even the annexation of all Mexico. Opponents deplored such ruthless conquest as degrading to the American character and predicted that if absorbed, the “mongrel” Mexican people would corrupt American democracy. Expansionists replied with “Manifest Destiny”—God had provided an opportunity for the United States to regenerate Mexico.
Having learned a few lessons from the Oregon debates, Polk reacted to the all-Mexico movement with caution. He was not unalterably opposed to acquiring territory south of the Rio Grande and 32°; but with every Democratic politician jockeying for position in the presidential race of the following year, he did not want to give up control over his party by taking sides prematurely. For a time he left negotiations to Trist, despite his mounting dissatisfaction. When he learned of the futile dickering at Mexico City, his impatience boiled over, and he decided to take another strong stand. Ordering Trist to come home, the president declared that if the Mexicans decided to discuss terms, they could send a representative to Washington.
By the time this order reached Trist, in mid-November, the situation in Mexico had changed to the American advantage. The civilian government that succeeded Santa Anna was moderate and favored negotiation. Although extremists invoked patriotism to continue the war, the government gradually brought them under control. When the order for Trist’s recall arrived, he feared that the chance for negotiations, if not exploited, might disappear. Scott’s troops might then have to remain in Mexico indefinitely, surrounded by an increasingly hostile population and fighting off guerrilla bands. Others in Mexico City were also aware of the dangers of indefinite occupation: American army officers, friendly Mexicans, and European residents. Urged by them and after several days of hesitation, Trist decided to disobey his orders and stay. Even after that decision, he had to wait two more months for a settlement, arguing every point at issue with the Mexican commissioners. Finally, on 2 February 1848, they signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, carrying out the most important of Trist’s instructions. Through it, the United States obtained Upper California and New Mexico in return for $15 million plus $3.75 million of American claims against Mexico.
Trist’s courageous insubordination rescued the president from the impossible task of reconciling American and Mexican ultranationalists. The text of the treaty arrived in Washington just as the all-Mexico movement crested, and Polk lost little time in submitting it to the Senate. Whatever he may have felt about additional annexations, he could not deny that Trist had achieved the original goals of the war, and he had some idea of the dangers to be incurred in continuing it. Except for ultranationalists, the country received the treaty with a collective sigh of relief, and on 10 March 1848, after the Senate had taken time to consider the alternatives, it approved nearly all the terms, by a vote of thirty-eight to fourteen. The Mexicans accepted a few revisions without difficulty, and the American troops were soon on their way home. The triumph was slightly marred by a needless quarrel between Scott and his principal officers. Because of the incident, Polk recalled Scott, to the astonishment of the Mexicans, and set up a military court of inquiry, but no important action was taken. Polk vented his spleen on Trist for disobedience and tactless dispatches by stopping his salary at the point of his recall. The unfortunate envoy, who deserved much better, had to wait over twenty years for full payment or any other recognition of his accomplishment.
During the last year of Polk’s administration, he briefly considered other ways of acquiring territory that he mistakenly suspected of being the object of British designs. Soon after the war ended, the rebellious Mexican province of Yucatán sought an American protectorate and intervention in a destructive local Indian war. Polk submitted the proposal to Congress, but before Congress could act, a truce between Indians and whites in Yucatán removed the issue. During the summer of 1848, Polk instructed his minister to Spain, Romulus M. Saunders, to explore the possibility of purchasing Cuba, recently racked by rebellion. The inexperienced Saunders could not prevail against Spanish national pride, and a trial vote in the Senate indicated that the upper house would probably have rejected a purchase treaty anyway. These failures were undoubtedly fortunate for both Polk and the country, as the southwestern annexations and the sectional arguments they aroused strained the national institutions to their limit.
Farther south, in Central America, the influence of Britain was more overt, but the Polk administration had little success in countering it. Polk sent Elijah Hise as chargé d’affaires to Guatemala with instructions to encourage the weak, feuding Central American states to revive their recently dissolved confederacy. Hise was also to negotiate commercial treaties and report on British encroachments. Hise signed two commercial treaties and went beyond his instructions in contracting for perpetual canal rights across Nicaragua, but this treaty was not ratified. A more important action was a treaty of 12 December 1846 with Colombia, which owed little to Polk’s direction. Secretary Buchanan had instructed the American chargé at Bogotá, Benjamin A. Bidlack, to negotiate a commercial treaty and guard against European efforts to obtain sole transit rights across the Isthmus of Panama, which was then part of Colombia. Bidlack included in the treaty (article 35) a long statement in which Colombia guaranteed to the United States that the isthmus would always be open and free to Americans. In return, the United States guaranteed the neutrality of the isthmus and Colombia’s sovereignty over it.
When the cabinet saw these provisions, its members remarked doubtfully that the American guarantees seemed to violate the country’s tradition against entangling alliances, but Polk submitted Bidlack’s treaty to the Senate. Busy with the Mexican War, that body delayed action for over a year, while Colombia kept a special envoy in Washington to lobby for the treaty. In June 1848, the treaty was approved with almost no discussion. This casually adopted treaty led to a considerable expansion of American influence: the construction of a successful railroad in the 1850s, repeated American naval interventions on the isthmus during the succeeding decades, and finally, in 1903, Theodore Roosevelt’s veiled support for an independence movement in Panama and the digging of the Panama Canal. It is not likely that Polk had any of these developments in mind when he received and submitted the Bidlack Treaty, but he might have applauded Roosevelt’s deeds, had he been alive to witness them.
Appraisal of Polk
How should one judge the policies and actions of the Polk administration? In order to arrive at a fair appraisal, one must first weigh the merits and demerits of its greatest accomplishment, the territorial annexations, around which nearly all its other actions revolved. The Polk administration added to the United States about 1.2 million square miles of territory—far more than any other administration before or since—and the enormous value of this territory was at once established by the discovery of gold in California. The victories of the Mexican War won the grudging but genuine respect of Europe. Britain withdrew most of its political influence from Mexico and a few years later, in the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, agreed to share influence in Central America. The broad frontage on the western coast eventually made the United States a force in Pacific affairs. In effect, the United States was promoted to a second-rank power whose views must be consulted in all international questions relating to the northern half of the New World.
Within the United States the effects of the war and the annexations were more mixed. Like all wars this one cost money, which the prosperous United States could well spare, and lives, which families and friends could not. On the one hand, the war’s heroics, superimposed on a rising Romantic movement in popular literature, refurbished American history back to the Revolution and renewed Americans’ devotion to their old ideals, which had become a little tarnished. On the other hand, the victories created a spirit of “lick all creation,” an overblown chauvinism with strong hints of militarism and racism that coarsened democratic sensibilities and laid American ideologies open to charges of hypocrisy. Europeans, especially conservatives, had long thought American institutions tainted with braggadocio; during the 1850s the whiff thickened to a stench. To Latin Americans, the events of 1843-1848 revealed perhaps for the first time the aggressive potential of their expanding neighbor, and a stereotype began to take shape in Latin American writing about the United States—the Colossus of the North.
But the most alarming effects of western annexations and the Mexican War were felt in American sectionalism, already a threat. By the early 1840s many Whigs had come to believe that further expansion in any direction would place intolerable strains on national unity. To abolitionists, Texas became a moral issue, what Charles Sumner called “our own original sin.” Although abolitionists were partly reassured by the apparent evenhandedness of the Democratic party program of 1844 and Polk’s inaugural address, the Oregon compromise at 49° struck them as a betrayal by the South and a southern president. When a seemingly unending war for limitless southern annexations followed, this northern sense of betrayal crystallized in the Wilmot Proviso (first introduced by one of Polk’s own Democrats), which completed the association of slavery and expansion. The intense opposition to the war, partly Whig and partly antislavery, made it seem not only disruptive, setting one section against another, but sinful. “When the foreign war ends, the domestic war will begin,” warned the New York Gazette and Times in 1847. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his journal that the war was a dose of arsenic, and he might well have applied the term to the acquisition of Texas and Oregon, too.
Given the mixed effects of the Polk administration’s accomplishments, we may proceed to a few conclusions about Polk’s own nature and methods. In the first place, it seems clear that he placed too great reliance on bold talk and too little confidence in the possibility of compromise. Suspicious by nature, he was inclined to view each offer by his opponents as a trap or an attempt to exploit American amiability and weakness. Although anxious to negotiate from an appearance of strength, he did not seem to think it necessary to build up the army and navy. As a result, he slipped into the dangerous practice of bluffing, not realizing or perhaps not caring how little respect American military forces inspired abroad. He probably counted on distance, trade, and the vulnerability of Canada to deter Britain from action and probably despised the Mexicans as too weak and disorganized to carry out their braggart threats.
Second, beyond these basic attitudes, much of Polk’s foreign policy was improvised from month to month in response to events. The statement on Oregon in his inaugural address was a pacifier for the West; Buchanan’s offer to Britain, an attempt to draw the fangs of British critics; and the withdrawal of that offer, a startled and indignant reflex. Meanwhile, Polk sought to renew diplomatic relations with Mexico in the hope of keeping peace during the annexation of Texas; but as soon as he understood Mexican weakness and confusion, he advanced his goal to the purchase of California. During his first year in office, he regarded war with either adversary as unlikely, but in March and April 1846, changed circumstances, especially political divisions at home, led him to favor a short tactical war with Mexico. As that war lengthened, he made other political and military decisions in reaction to events.
Third, Polk’s largely improvised policies suffered from the phenomenon that twentieth-century analysts have called “escalation.” This is a process by which an initial set of decisions starts a chain of causes and effects each more difficult to control than its predecessor, each widening the area of action and requiring increased forces and money. On inauguration day Polk had a fairly wide range of acceptable policies from which to choose. Some of his early actions and the pressure of circumstances gradually reduced this range. Eventually, after Scott had captured Mexico City, Polk found himself boxed in, unable to move, for ultraexpansionists at home would not let him withdraw from central Mexico to a tenable defensive line and he lacked the resources or the desire to extend the conquest over the whole country. Inaction, too, posed grave problems, for a few small guerrilla victories might have revived the Mexicans’ morale and enabled them to cut Scott’s long supply lines and isolate him in Mexico City. Fortunately, the disobedient Trist seized the fleeting moment of Mexican willingness to negotiate and so rescued the president from his dilemma.
Fourth, Polk failed to understand the deadly combination of the slavery and expansion issues until the explosive results were beyond his control. To this unfortunate outcome both his habit of improvisation and the element of escalation contributed. Before he became president, he shared the convictions of many southerners about slavery—that it was a practical necessity, though in many respects deplorable, and that it was a local matter and so should have no connection with national politics or international diplomacy. The ominous interjection of slavery into the Texas question during 1843 and 1844 seems to have made little impression on him.
Consequently, when the antislavery bloc opposed the war as a slaveholders’ plot and seized upon the Wilmot Proviso as a weapon, Polk reacted with irritation at its using a potentially divisive issue for partisan purposes. As soon as it was clear that the proviso could not be shunted aside, he called in its sponsor, Representative David Wilmot, to assure him that in seeking territory from Mexico, he had no intention of extending slavery, for the land was unsuited to it, and that since no slave-state senator could vote for the proviso, its inclusion would defeat necessary war legislation and prolong hostilities indefinitely. As he told Representative Preston King, slavery had “no legitimate connection” with either the war or the peace treaty. Despite the accusations of abolitionists and some early historians, these assurances seem to have accurately represented his views.
Polk managed to end the war without reference to slavery, but the argument continued to simmer, and through 1848 the proviso was attached to every bill for the organization of government in the annexed territories. By now Polk was thoroughly alarmed that the issue might split not only the Democratic party but the country. After accepting the proviso in the Oregon territorial bill, he made it clear that he would agree to any compromise terms that the North proposed for the other territories: settlement of the slavery issue by the inhabitants, extension of the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific, or submission of the whole matter to a judicial tribunal. Eventually he even favored immediate admission of California as a state without conditions attached (which would virtually guarantee the outlawry of slavery). In his last annual message to Congress he delivered an eloquent plea for tolerance and compromise in the name of “the glorious Union.” He spent his final weeks in office making desperate but vain efforts to work out an acceptable formula.
All in all, one is forced to conclude that Polk’s policies were much more hazardous than he realized, thanks to his overbold improvising, the phenomenon of escalation, the small forces that the United States deployed in the field, and the likelihood of deep divisions within the American parties, government, and people. Even assuming that Britain had no desire to fight its best customer, Polk could not be certain that a sense of honor over some uncontrollable local conflict in Oregon would not precipitate a general Anglo-American war. Britain had significant economic interests in Mexico, so a Mexican victory over Taylor on the Rio Grande would have facilitated a private loan from British bankers, and a military stalemate in northern or central Mexico would probably have led to British mediation, which rising American opposition to the war might have forced Polk to accept. An indefinite occupation of Mexico City and smoldering guerrilla warfare lasting through the American election of 1848 might well have caused an open break between ultraexpansionists largely supported by the South and pacifists backed by abolitionists.
Without placing too much weight on “contingent history,” it is possible to imagine what might have happened had Polk made a different set of choices. An arguable alternative to bold tactics against either Britain or Mexico was the policy that Calhoun had recommended for Oregon—”masterly inactivity.” This policy rested on two assumptions: the continuous, irresistible force of American western migration and Europe’s customary involvement in Old World affairs. At Polk’s inauguration, he might have refused direct comment on Oregon while examining the possibilities of a negotiated settlement with Britain and completing the annexation of Texas. If he had resisted the impulse to break off discussion with Pakenham, he might have had an agreement to announce in his first annual message, forestalling western resentment with a fait accompli. Failing that, he could have used western resentment to put pressure on Britain but without relinquishing the Oregon question to Congress.
In any case, Polk should have avoided an open break with Mexico before the Oregon controversy was completely settled. There was no need for haste; stationing Taylor at Corpus Christi would have protected Texas settlements adequately with a minimum of provocation to Mexico. As for California, careful analysis of British policy in Europe and in Texas should have reassured Polk that Britain had few designs on the Pacific coast outside of Oregon, where honor was involved. Why not allow American settlers to occupy California, keep American warships cruising off the coast, and see whether the Californians might not repeat the history of Texas? During some later European crisis (such as the revolutions of 1848 or the Crimean War of the mid-1850s), the United States would have been free to open negotiations with an independent California government, which by then might have observed the prosperity of Oregon under American rule.
Perhaps war with Mexico might have been avoided altogether. At worst, it would have been postponed until a more favorable moment, and with the United States already occupying Texas and California, any fighting would have been defensive and limited to border areas. Mexicans, of course, would have resented the loss of California under any circumstances, but they had no means of retaining it, and this course would have spared them the humiliation of a foreign army in their capital. Most important to the United States, a policy of more gradual, peaceful expansion would undoubtedly have avoided many of the bitter debates in Congress and the press that widened the alarming gap between North and South.
Such an alternative set of policies and actions might have won the United States less territory than was gained through war, for modern New Mexico and Arizona might have stayed with Mexico. Also these policies and actions would have required a president who combined Polk’s determination, persistence, and knowledge of political machinery with greater sophistication in international affairs, a deeper conviction of the dangers of sectional strife, and greater charismatic appeal to the public, which he would have to carry with him at several crucial points. It would have required him to serve a second term or at least to influence the succession enough to ensure some continuity of policy. Perhaps this was impossible in the party politics of the 1840s. Perhaps also the divisiveness of the Texas issue had pushed the slavery question past the point of no return, as some historians have argued, placing it beyond the influence of rational argument and delaying tactics. In any case, the outline of an unexplored gradualist policy is useful in appraising the actual achievements of the Polk administration.
As in the case of many other presidents, the end of the Polk administration has an element of pathos. While trying in vain to settle the question of government in California and New Mexico, Polk prepared with quiet dignity to wind up his affairs and transfer power to his Whig successor. When General Taylor arrived in Washington to take over from his old commander, there was a day of embarrassed hesitation in the White House, lest Taylor fail to make the prescribed first social call on the sitting president. The inaugural ceremonies over, Polk and his wife left at once for their home in Tennessee, traveling by train and boat through much of the South. The warm welcome he received everywhere was tempered by an onset of his old illness, intensified by fear of cholera as he hurried through disease-ridden New Orleans and up the Mississippi. Arriving in Tennessee, haggard, coughing, and racked with diarrhea, he nevertheless made a round of visits with friends and relatives before settling down in a newly acquired home. In his last diary entry, on 2 June, he told of taking a carriage ride and unpacking books for arrangement in new shelves. Two weeks later, on 15 June 1849, he died.