Jill's Reviews > A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent

A Country of Vast Designs by Robert W. Merry
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Jun 04, 12


James K. Polk, the eleventh president of the United States, is one of the most successful yet least known “consequential” occupant of that office. Polk’s presidency lasted only one term (he voluntarily chose not to seek an additional term); yet he added huge territories to the United States. In addition, he put government finances on a dependable basis by establishing an independent treasury and helping to pass an important tariff bill.

Robert Merry brings the enigmatic Polk to life with his detailed biography, A Country of Vast Designs. In it, we meet other colorful politicians like the great spokesman for the institution of slavery, South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun; the great compromiser, Kentucky’s Henry Clay; former president Martin Van Buren; and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. In addition, we learn that Polk’s scheming, ambitious, inconsistent, and somewhat disloyal secretary of state, James Buchanan, often worked to thwart Polk’s policies in order to foster his own presidential aspirations. And in the background, exercising a significant influence on political discourse and Democratic Party politics even a decade after his own presidency, was Polk’s mentor Andrew Jackson.

Polk’s first major accomplishment after his presidential victory over Henry Clay was the settlement of the dispute over the Oregon Territory with Great Britain, with whom the United States had jointly administered the area since 1818. Through tough negotiation and the threat to go to war over the issue, Polk was able to settle on a boundary of 49 degrees north, ceding to Britain what is now British Columbia, but getting for the U.S. all of what is now Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming.

Polk also spearheaded the annexation of Texas, which greatly angered Mexico and triggered the Mexican War in 1846. The war continued until 1848, and became very unpopular. Nevertheless, it resulted in the conquest and incorporation into the U.S. of California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and New Mexico. One of the military heroes of the war, Zachary Taylor, went on to become president.

A key issue complicating the annexation of western land was the expansion of Negro slavery into the new territories. Polk’s position appears to have been much like Lincoln’s early opinion: he wanted first to preserve the Union at all cost.

Evaluation: Merry paints a sympathetic portrait of a remarkable president. Although well written, the book contains a great amount of detail on the maneuverings of politicians and cabinet members, which makes for thorough history but somewhat sluggish reading or listening. It is a comprehensive work for serious students of history, but may be a bit much for the casual reader.

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