A Country Of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, The Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent, by Robert W. Merry
In many ways, the title of this book is a bit of a misnomer. One might think from the title that the book is mostly about the conquest of the West during the Mexican-American War, but that is not the case at all. Instead, this book is a bit of a tease, promising to be a work on military history while ending up being a text that focuses on political machinations and seeks to burnish the honor of James K. Polk and support his status as a near-great president despite his mendacity and his lack of personal charisma. The book does not succeed, largely because it has an abhorrent moral worldview: “To look at that map, and to take in the western and southwestern expanse included in it, is to see the magnitude of Polk’s presidential accomplishments. It did not come easily or cheaply. It depleted the country’s treasury and absorbed substantial blood of its young men. It unleashed civic forces that hadn’t been foreseen and couldn’t be controlled. It sapped his own political standing and his health. It exposed his personal lapses and his least impressive traits. It engulfed him in controversy that would diminish his place in his country’s historical consciousness. But in the end he succeeded and fulfilled the vision and dream of his constituency. In a democratic system that is the ultimate measure of political success (477).” Given the author’s total eschewing of moral aims, and his devotion to realpolitik, Polk’s success is judged by the ability he has to enact the supposed wishes of his political base. By such a measure people like Hitler and Lenin were great leaders as well, when aspects of morality and decency are taken off the table, and where a pass is given for the unleashing of civic forces of division and strife as happened when Polk’s expansionistic aims predictably led to concerns over the spread of slavery, something the author views rather agnostically, as if it was not really all that important except as an area of sectional discord.
In terms of the book’s contents, the author takes between 450 and 500 pages to provide a political history of the life and times of James K. Polk, whether that involved his early prominence in state and national offices as a protégé of Andrew Jackson, his rise to the presidency as a committed one-term dark horse candidate, his deceptive and deeply secretive ways, his struggles to achieve his aims, and his mixed record of success and failure. The book’s frequent chapters are given titles that are somewhat incomplete, because the author skips from what is going on in the war to arguments within the cabinet and with members of the House and Senate. The book is in fact made up mostly of discussions of Polk venting in his diary, struggling with his health, and feeling stressed out over the repercussions of the war, the success of the Wilmot Proviso in the House of Representatives, and the difficulty he had of finding enough money to pay his troops to conquer the defenseless Mexicans while simultaneously engaging in brinksmanship with Oregon, which is discussed, but not really brought to a successful conclusion within the course of the book, a loose end that is a bit unfortunate as a resident of the Pacific Northwest. One of the surprising aspects of this book is that the author seeks to defend President Polk from the accusation that he sought to spread slavery within the United States, and also that the author finds Presidents Lincoln and Grant far too idealistic for his tastes. For a book this large, and that repeats itself so much when it comes to the endless political difficulties that Polk found himself in, it is good that there is some wit and humor to be found, even if usually of the sardonic kind.
Ultimately, though, a worldview matters a great deal when it comes to reading. A book that dismisses the moral quality of leadership and that exalts merely in obeying the vox poppuli, regardless of what it may say, is a book that endorses anything that is wicked so long as it is sufficiently popular, and offers no encouragement at societal repentance. Given the widespread need for contemporary repentance, a book like this that praises naked power apart from any moral calculation or concern is a book that is quite dangerous to follow. And a book that one has to mistrust with the same sort of suspicion as that held by Presidents Polk and Taylor is a book that is of at best limited value. It is to be regretted that the author does not make clear his own lamentable and amoral viewpoint towards the beginning, waiting until the end to make it plain why he wrote the book as he did from the perspective of dishonest power politics. Although this book does offer a different perspective than is most common of the Mexican War , the author’s perspective is unappealing from a moral perspective, and is often immensely gossipy as well, showing a clear command of primary sources but not first principles, unfortunately. And those principles, ultimately, that are the most important part of an institution like the Presidency.
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