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A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent

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"When James K. Polk was elected president in 1844, the United States was locked in a bitter diplomatic struggle with Britain over the rich lands of the Oregon Territory, which included what is now Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Texas, not yet part of the Union, was threatened by a more powerful Mexico. And the territories north and west of Texas - what would become California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and part of Colorado - belonged to Mexico. When Polk relinquished office four years later, the country had grown by more than a third as

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A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent

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Overview

"When James K. Polk was elected president in 1844, the United States was locked in a bitter diplomatic struggle with Britain over the rich lands of the Oregon Territory, which included what is now Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Texas, not yet part of the Union, was threatened by a more powerful Mexico. And the territories north and west of Texas - what would become California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and part of Colorado - belonged to Mexico. When Polk relinquished office four years later, the country had grown by more than a third as all these lands were added. The continental United States, as we know it today, was established facing two oceans and positioned to dominate both." "In a one-term presidency, Polk completed the story of America's Manifest Destiny - extending its territory across the continent, from sea to sea, by threatening England and manufacturing a controversial and unpopular two-year war with Mexico that Abraham Lincoln, in Congress at the time, opposed as preemptive." "Robert Merry tells this story through powerful debates and towering figures - the outgoing President John Tyler and Polk's great mentor, Andrew Jackson; his defeated Whig opponent, Henry Clay; two famous generals, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott; Secretary of State James Buchanan (who would precede Lincoln as president); Senate giants Thomas Hart Benton and Lewis Cass; Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun; and ex-president Martin Van Buren, like Polka Jackson protege but now a Polk rival." This was a time of tremendous clashing forces. A surging antislavery sentiment was at the center of the territorial fight. The struggle between a slave-owning South and an opposing North was leadinginexorably to Civil War. In a gripping narrative, Robert Merry illuminates a crucial epoch in U.S. history.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

The most extraordinary thing about James K. Polk is that most of us know almost nothing about him. Among professional historians, he is commonly regarded as one of our greatest presidents, but among general readers, even history buffs, this one-term chief executive is pretty much a cipher. For me, Robert Merry's A Country of Vast Designs not only fleshed out this methodical, uncharismatic Jacksonian; it also gave me the most vivid sense I ever had of the antebellum political scene and its memorable array of willful, even bizarre major players. As for the Mexican War itself, Merry doesn't toss it down as an inchoate sequence of discontinuous battles; he places it within the tumultuous sectional, party and personality clashes of the time.

R.J. Wilson, Bookseller, #1002, New York NY

Sean Wilentz
…a refreshing challenge to the new conventional wisdom…Merry's historical rebuttals are not, however, his book's chief distinguishing feature. A Country of Vast Designs is mainly a thorough, well-wrought political history of Polk's presidency. The origins, conduct and results of the war with Mexico necessarily dominate the narrative, but Merry covers all of the other major issues and events, and many of the minor ones as well…Merry is well aware of how intrigues and manipulations have always held sway in Washington, and he reports the machinations of the Polk years with clarity and an insider's verve. Filled with intricate stories of personal conflict, psychological gamesmanship and unintended consequences, his book, although bound to stir controversy, is one of the most astute and informative historical accounts yet written about national politics, and especially Washington politics, during the decisive 1840s.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Merry, president and editor-in-chief of Congressional Quarterly Inc., offers a wide-ranging, provocative analysis of the controversial presidency of James K. Polk. Using a broad spectrum of published and archival sources, Merry depicts Polk as an unabashed expansionist. His political career was devoted to extending American power across the continent. Polk saw the fulfillment of manifest destiny as transcending even the festering issue of slavery. Elected president in 1844, he pursued confrontational diplomacy with Britain, structured a war with Mexico and enlarged the U.S. by over a third, essentially to its present boundaries, in a single term of office. Polk's achievements were correspondingly controversial across the political spectrum. Merry uses congressional debates and newspaper quotations to depict the genesis of a fundamental, enduring debate on America's nature and role. Conceding Polk's “personal lapses and his least impressive traits.” Merry makes a strong case that Polk's America embraced a sweeping vision of national destiny that he fulfilled. Merry's conclusion that history turns not on morality but on power, energy and will may be uncomfortable, but he successfully illustrates it. 16 pages of b&w photos; 1 map. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Merry (publisher, Congressional Quarterly; Sands of Empire) presents his view of James Knox Polk's presidency, describing how Polk turned his vice presidential ambitions into presidential ambitions as the first "dark horse" candidate, and then was able to accomplish his four major objectives: tariffs for revenue only, an independent federal treasury, no national debt, and expansion of the nation's boundaries to the Pacific. Drawing on Polk's correspondence, secondary sources, and records of Congressional debates, Merry focuses on the politics behind the events, showing how Polk was a master of political strategy and tactics. Merry also considers Polk's negative traits—drabness, lack of leadership qualities, tendency to micromanage—and how these led to dissension within his own party and at times jeopardized his program. VERDICT This well-written book complements Walter Borneman's Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by providing a detailed look into the Washington politics of the 1840s, making it a good starting point for general readers and undergraduates desiring to understand that era.—Stephen H. Peters, Northern Michigan Univ. Lib., Marquette
Kirkus Reviews
The president and editor in chief of Congressional Quarterly offers a lively biography of perhaps the most consequential one-term president in American history. By 1844 Andrew Jackson's protege, James K. Polk, had compiled a distinguished House career that saw him rise to the office of Speaker. After serving as Tennessee's governor and then losing two re-election bids, the ferociously ambitious "Young Hickory" angled for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination. He hitched his wagon to the resurgent Martin Van Buren, whose opposition to the annexation of Texas disappointed Jackson and created an opening for Polk to emerge with the presidential nomination, the first truly dark-horse candidate in American history. After narrowly defeating Henry Clay and pledging to serve only one term, Polk set his disciplined mind and political skills to cementing the Texas annexation, reducing the tariff and creating an "independent treasury," settling the dispute with Britain over the Oregon Territory and fomenting a war with Mexico that, to him, appeared necessary to acquire land that positioned America to dominate the continent. Though he lacked the charisma and leadership skills of his mentor, Polk achieved every one of these goals, but his stealthy maneuvering and self-righteousness inspired no love or loyalty. He left office with his party hopelessly split and the nation transformed in a manner that only heightened philosophical and regional differences that led later to civil war. Merry (Sands of Empire: Missionary Zeal, American Foreign Policy, and the Hazards of Global Ambition, 2005, etc.) skillfully places Polk within the era's political firmament, and he ably assesses his complexcharacter and chronicles his contentious relations with a variety of players, especially the conniving Secretary of State James Buchanan and the egregiously vain Gen. Winfield Scott. Polk fully embraced the country's expansionist impulse, never questioning the sometimes dubious means he employed to advance what he saw as America's destiny. The nation, in Emerson's phrase, "of vast designs and expectations" moved quickly to the 1848 election, and the exhausted Polk died four months later. Hugely entertaining popular history. Agent: Flip Brophy/Sterling Lord Literistic
From the Publisher
“Robert Merry’s authoritative biography of James K. Polk. . . provides a compelling, perceptive portrait. . . Merry joins his skill at portraiture to thorough scholarship and a shrewd grasp of human nature.”

The Wall Street Journal

“Filled with intricate stories of personal conflict, psychological gamesmanship, and unintended consequences. . . one of the most astute and informative historical accounts yet written about national politics, and especially Washington politics, during the decisive 1840s.”

The New York Times Book Review

“Polk was our most underrated President. He made the United States into a continental nation. Bob Merry captures the controversial and the visionary aspects of his presidency in a colorful narrative tale populated by great characters such as Jackson, Clay, and Can Buren.”

–Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein: His Life and Universe

“[Merry] brings a historian's perspective, a journalist's nose for the story and a novelist's eye to one of our country's most dramatic and defining moments. In strong, precise and elegant prose, Mr. Merry brings the key players of the day to life in terms of both personal characteristics and the causes they personified.”
Washingtonian

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780594234593
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 11/3/2009
  • Pages: 592
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Merry is the editor of The National Interest. He has been a Washington correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and the executive editor of the Congressional Quarterly. He has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The National Review, The American Spectator, and The National Interest. He has appeared in Meet the Press, Face the Nation, Newsmakers, and many other programs. He lives in McLean, Virginia.

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Read an Excerpt

A Country of Vast Designs INTRODUCTION: RITUAL OF DEMOCRACY
The Emergence of an Expansionist President

PRECISELY AT SUNRISE on the morning of March 4, 1845, the roar of cannon shattered the dawn’s early quiet of Washington, D.C.—twenty-eight big guns fired in rapid succession. Thus did the American military announce to the nation’s capital that it was about to experience the country’s highest ritual of democracy, the inauguration of the nation’s executive leader and premier military commander. James Knox Polk was about to become that leader and commander. On this morning he was ensconced along with his wife, Sarah, at the National Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, known popularly as Coleman’s, just ten blocks east of the White House. That night the two of them would be residing at the presidential mansion.

At forty-nine, Polk would be the youngest of the country’s eleven presidents—and, in the view of his many detractors, the most unlikely. Until the previous May of 1844, when he had emerged unexpectedly as the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, few had imagined the man would ever rise to the presidency. Indeed, just a year earlier his political career had appeared in ruin following his third campaign for Tennessee governor. He had won the office in 1839 but had been expelled two years later by a backwoods upstart known as Lean Jimmy Jones, who had greeted his exacting rhetoric and serious demeanor with lighthearted buffoonery. Trying again in 1843 to outmaneuver this unlikely rival, he once again failed, causing friend and foe alike to dismiss his political prospects.

But those observers hadn’t grasped Polk’s most powerful trait— his absolute conviction that he was a man of destiny. Throughout his political life he had been underestimated by his rivals in the Whig Party and also by some of his own Democratic colleagues. When he had captured his party’s presidential nomination, the country’s leading Whig newspaper sneered in derision. “This nomination,” declared the National Intelligencer, “may be considered as the dying gasp, the last breath of life, of the ‘democratic’ party.” The newspaper said it couldn’t imagine a “less imposing” opponent.

It was true Polk lacked the soaring attributes of the era’s two rival political giants, Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay. He didn’t possess Jackson’s forceful presence or his blunt-spoken way of attracting men instantly to his cause and his side. Nor could he match the lanky Clay’s famous wit, his smooth fluency with the language, his ability to amuse and charm those around him even as he slyly dominated them. By contrast, Polk was small of stature and drab of temperament. Upon his Washington arrival for the inauguration, some of his former colleagues noted he appeared thinner than before, and one wit suggested if he hadn’t had his coats cut a size or two large, “he would be but the merest tangible fraction of a President.”

Polk lacked the skills and traits of the natural leader. His silvery gray hair, in retreat from his forehead but abundant elsewhere, was brushed back across his head and allowed to flow luxuriantly below his collar. His probing blue eyes, deep set under dark brows, reflected a tendency toward quick and rigid judgment. Seldom did his thin lips convey any real mirth or jocularity, and the powerful jaw that jutted from his countenance signaled a narrowness of outlook tied to a persistence of resolve. Polk lacked the easy manner and demeanor that bespoke friendship and camaraderie. He didn’t much like people. What he liked was politics, the art and challenge of moving events in the favored direction, which for Polk meant the direction most favored by Democrats. People thus were a means to an end, figures on a vast civic chessboard of national destiny, to be directed and positioned in such a way as to move the country where he wanted to move it. Though a man of conviction and rectitude, he often allowed himself to become encased in his own sanctimony.

These traits shrouded the real James Polk, whose analytical skills and zest for bold action often placed him in position to outmaneuver his adversaries. He understood the forces welling up within the national polity and how they could be harnessed and dominated. He was a master in the art of crafting an effective political message. And he never allowed himself to be deflected from his chosen path by the enmity of his foes or their dismissive regard toward him or their unremitting opposition.

Besides, he enjoyed the friendship and mentorship of Andrew Jackson, Old Hickory, the country’s most popular figure and its dominant political voice for the past twenty years. Jackson had been a longtime friend of the Polk family, had watched young James grow up, had counseled him on whom to marry and how to manage his career. So now on this momentous morning, as he began his day at Coleman’s and prepared for the events ahead, his inauguration must have seemed the most natural thing in the world even as he knew it struck most others as utterly accidental.

From a window of his suite that morning, Polk could see the prospect of rain reflected in a charcoal sky. Yet the enthusiasm of democracy was running high. For days Washington had teemed with all manner of people thronging there for the festivities—“office seekers and office-expectants, political speculators and party leaders without number, and of every caliber,” as the Intelligencer put it, adding that the crowd also included “strangers of every rank in life, and every variety of personal appearance.” Hotels and boardinghouses were sold out, and some halls and bars spread pallets upon their floors to accommodate wayworn arrivals.

At ten o’clock the cannon roared again as part of a succession of inauguration day salutes, this one signaling the ceremonial procession was to begin forming at the western end of Pennsylvania Avenue for the mile-and-a-half ride up the boulevard to the Capitol. At precisely that time, as if summoned by the cannon, the rain began a steady downbeat. Up went a multitude of umbrellas. A British journalist, surveying the scene from the west end of the avenue, said it looked like “a long line of moving umbrellas, terminating at the Capitol, the dome of which towered up like a gigantic umbrella held aloft by some invisible hand.”

Leading the procession was the inauguration’s chief marshal and his aides, bedecked in silks and ribbons and carrying distinctive batons of officialdom: branches of “young hickory,” alluding to Polk’s nickname as protégé of Old Hickory. The marshals were followed by various local military units as well as leading officers of the day. Then came members of the area’s clergy and behind them the open carriage transporting President-elect Polk and his predecessor, John Tyler of Virginia. Next in line came the justices of the Supreme Court; then the diplomatic corps; members and ex-members of Congress; participants at the Democratic convention in Baltimore that had nominated Polk the previous May over New York’s Martin Van Buren, the former president who had hungered for a White House return; then governors and ex-governors.

A place in the procession had been reserved for ex-presidents, but only one such dignitary was in town that day, and he had declined the honor. That was John Quincy Adams, the New England moralist and political ascetic who had been expelled from the White House by Andrew Jackson sixteen years before. He had salved the wounds of defeat by taking up duties as an outspoken member of the House of Representatives, whence he waged unrelenting war upon Democratic aims. He had greeted Polk’s election with near despair. “I mused over the prospects before me,” he had written, “with the impression that they portend trials more severe than I yet have passed through.”

The many military bands within the procession played lively marches to stir a buoyant mood among the throngs jammed compactly along the avenue. The rain may not have dampened the mood, but it drenched everything else. Military plumes began to droop, the white silk badges of the marshals stuck fast to their soaked black coats, and pretty dresses absorbed water. Meanwhile, in the shelter of the Capitol, the Senate was called to order precisely at eleven o’clock. Like the streets and plazas outside, the galleries and nearby stairwells were filled to overflowing. The chamber bustled with the arrival of special guests—Supreme Court justices, House leaders, the District of Columbia marshal. Polk and his designated vice president, George M. Dallas of Pennsylvania, appeared precisely at eleven-forty amid much interest and bustle on the floor and in the galleries.

The next order of business was the swearing in of George Dallas, then fifty-two. His most distinguishing physical characteristic was a head of thick flowing hair, white as milk, which accentuated his dark eyebrows and a broad face that displayed friendly resolve. Sarah Polk considered him an “elegant man, exceedingly handsome and gentle.” He had served in the U.S. Senate at an early age, then held jobs as Pennsylvania attorney general and U.S. minister to Russia. He was part of a Democratic faction in his state that seemed in perpetual conflict with another faction led by Senator James Buchanan, designated as Polk’s new secretary of state. The issue seemed to be who would control Pennsylvania’s Democratic patronage, and Dallas had expected his vice presidential elevation to settle the question in his favor. “I am resolved that no one shall be taken from Pennsylvania [into the Polk administration] who is notoriously hostile to the Vice-President,” he had written to a friend amid rumors that Buchanan might be tapped for Polk’s cabinet. “If such a choice be made my relations with this administration are at an end.” Such a choice was made, and Dallas promptly cast aside his private threat. But the animosities constituted a political reality that Polk needed to monitor.

At around eleven-forty-five, the Senate’s president pro tempore, Willie P. Mangum of North Carolina, administered the oath of office to Dallas, who then delivered a brief speech marked by appropriate democratic platitudes mixed with appropriate expressions of humility. “The citizen whom it has pleased a people to elevate by their suffrages from the pursuits of private and domestic life,” he intoned, “may best evince his grateful sense of the honor … by devoting his faculties, moral and intellectual, resolutely to their service. This I shall do; yet with a diffidence unavoidable to one conscious that almost every step in his appointed path is to him new and untried.”

History doesn’t record whether, as Dallas droned on, some in the audience perhaps found their minds wandering to thoughts of forthcoming political battles. Many of those assembled were destined to play major roles in those battles. James Polk had studied these men with his hallmark attention to detail and penetration of human traits and foibles. Polk knew his first priority would be keeping his party together, and down on the Senate floor he could see just how difficult that would be. He needed to look no further than to two of the Senate’s most powerful and willful Democrats—Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton and South Carolina’s George McDuffie—who pressed their convictions with a white-hot intensity that often melted any prospect for measured political behavior. Though both proudly carried the Democratic imprimatur, each reserved for the other a degree of political vitriol seldom directed at members of the opposition Whigs.

McDuffie, a senator since December 1842 and his state’s governor before that, was a protégé and ally of South Carolina’s fiery John C. Calhoun. An oval-faced man with dark, deep-set eyes and a recessive chin, McDuffie represented the extreme states’ rights views that had emerged with South Carolina’s efforts during Jackson’s presidency to “nullify” federal laws distasteful to the state. Andrew Jackson had quashed this rebellion by threatening to hang Calhoun and any other traitors who sought to rend the hallowed union. But the sentiments behind it continued to percolate in some southern precincts, most notably in South Carolina.

Thomas Hart Benton despised those sentiments. He was a man given to flights of outrage that unleashed in turn torrents of outrageous rhetoric. John Tyler called him “the most raving political maniac I ever knew.” Benton was an imposing man with a big face, full of crags, and a beak of a nose. He spoke with authority and an air suggesting he didn’t have much patience for the mutterings of lesser men, a category that seemed to include most of those with whom he came into contact. He fancied himself a fighter, and he had a history of several duels to prove it. As a young man in Tennessee, he became embroiled in an altercation with Andrew Jackson that quickly escalated into an angry gun battle. Benton had been a protégé of Jackson and his aide-de-camp during the War of 1812, but the younger man had become enraged at Jackson’s decision to serve a friend as second at the friend’s duel with Benton’s brother, Jesse. Jesse took a bullet to the buttocks, which proved humiliating, and Thomas Benton blamed Jackson for fostering the duel. The brothers trashed Jackson’s name throughout Nashville with such abandon that the proud Jackson went after the two of them outside a downtown saloon with a riding whip. It ended with multiple wounds for Benton and a bullet-shattered shoulder for Jackson that nearly claimed his life. Concluding Tennessee was now enemy territory, Benton promptly set out for Missouri, where he emerged as its leading politician. When the territory became a state in 1821, it sent Benton to the U.S. Senate, where he nurtured his identity as a man of absolute independence. Though a proud Democrat, he could never be counted on to adhere with any consistency to the party line. He adhered only to the Thomas Hart Benton line.

Benton had awarded his political loyalty to former President Van Buren, and he felt rage toward the Democratic politicians who had maneuvered to deny Van Buren his party’s nomination at the Baltimore convention. Polk studiously had avoided any overt action that could be construed as inimical to Van Buren’s ambitions. Though Benton publicly had accepted Polk’s denials, privately he wasn’t so sure. But about George McDuffie and John C. Calhoun he harbored no doubts. They were the enemy.

The issue was Texas annexation and, just behind it, slavery. Texas had exploded onto the political scene quite unexpectedly when Tyler had negotiated an annexation treaty with this Southwest country that had secured its independence from Mexico through force of arms. It turned out that annexation was hugely popular in the United States, but an instinctive wariness emerged within the political establishment. Many politicians feared war with Mexico, which had never accepted or recognized Texas independence. They feared also an intensification of the slavery issue as the country grappled with the question of whether this vast new territory would be free or slave. Both Van Buren, the presumed Democratic presidential candidate, and Clay, the assured Whig candidate, had declared their opposition to immediate annexation, and both saw their presidential hopes destroyed in the bargain. Polk, attuned to political sentiment and attentive to Jackson’s expansionist instincts, had immediately embraced annexation, and this had helped boost him to the presidency.

Now, with the rain-soaked multitude about to witness Polk’s swearing in, the Texas issue still loomed large over the political landscape, generating acidic animosities within the party and the country. Benton was convinced McDuffie and other anti–Van Buren southerners harbored desires to bring Texas into the Union as a slave state so the expanded slave empire could form its own country. He had railed against “this long-conceived Texas machination … an intrigue for the presidency, and a contrivance to get the Southern States out of the Union.” McDuffie just as adamantly insisted the North harbored secret aims of surrounding, squeezing, and ultimately destroying the slave culture. Asked if South Carolinians would continue to submit to oppression, he had replied, “Before answering that question, I will ask—Are you men—are you South Carolinians … or are you curs—which, when kicked, will howl, and then come back and lick the foot that has inflicted the blow?”

Clearly, bringing these two men under the same political tent would not be easy.

It was nearly noon when the Senate assemblage made its way to the temporary platform constructed over the vast stairways of the Capitol’s east portico. First to emerge, to “cheers of welcome,” were Tyler and Polk, walking side by side but with the president-elect occupying the ceremonial position to the left of the outgoing president. A British journalist in attendance described Polk as “looking well, though thin and anxious in appearance.” Behind them were their wives and behind them various dignitaries. Sarah Polk, though not a true beauty, possessed a magnetism that had served her well as a politician’s wife. Her enveloping warmth was viewed by many family friends as an antidote to her husband’s stiff demeanor. She had a Spanish appearance, with black hair, large dark eyes, olive skin, thin expressive lips, and an oval face. One high-toned Pennsylvanian noted that she “dresses with taste” and called her “a very superior person.” He added, “Time has dealt kindly with her personal charms, and if she is not handsome she is at least very prepossessing and graceful.”

On this day she wore a gown of satin with a neckline that dropped into a V and with stripes of deep red and silvery gray. The waistline was tight and the sleeves long. Over it she wore a sand-colored wool coat with a quilted rose taffeta lining. On her head, protecting her from the rain, was a velvet bonnet the same color as the red of her dress. Clearly she wished to make a statement with her manner of dress on this day. Dallas wrote to his wife that he found her “rather too showy for my taste … [but] I go for the new lady.”

At the appointed time, before the swearing in, Polk stepped forward to deliver his inaugural address “to a large assemblage of umbrellas,” as John Quincy Adams wryly noted in his diary. Standing at the front of the platform, protected from the rain by an umbrella held by a servant, Polk sought to quicken the hearts of Democrats while assuaging fears of Whigs and others. Passing quickly over his own humility in accepting the awesome responsibilities and his resolve to seek divine guidance in discharging those responsibilities, he moved directly to the central tenets of the Jacksonian creed. Warning against federal usurpation of governmental prerogative beyond the limits of the Constitution, he pledged “to assume no powers not expressly granted or clearly implied” in that document. He extolled the executive veto as protection against a capricious or despotic majority. He vowed to fight any threats to the union, thus serving notice that state actions aimed at nullifying federal laws or dissolving the Union would encounter the kind of military resistance Jackson had directed at South Carolina. Polk denounced any kind of federal bank, any national debt, and any tariffs crafted specifically for the protection of particular industries. “The raising of revenue should be the object, and protection the incident,” he declared.

On foreign policy, Polk declared his expansionist vision. He celebrated the recent actions in behalf of Texas annexation and warned against any interference from Mexico or any other continental power. And he served notice that the United States considered its title to the full Oregon Territory to be “clear and unquestionable”—a bold statement given that his country and Britain had occupied those lands jointly for twenty-two years and had pledged mutually to negotiate a disposition of the matter at some point in the future. Just eighty years before, noted Polk, the country’s small population had been confined to the east side of the Alleghenies. Since then, “our people, increasing to many millions, have filled the eastern valley of the Mississippi, adventurously ascended the Missouri to its headsprings, and are already engaged in establishing the blessings of self-government in valleys of which the rivers flow to the Pacific…. To us belongs the duty of protecting [these settlers] adequately wherever they may be upon our soil.”

It was pure Jacksonian rhetoric in both substance and style. Indeed, the first draft had been crafted by Amos Kendall, Jackson’s brilliant word maestro from his own presidential days. But Jackson himself wasn’t there to hear it. In declining health for months, he now was dying. “I thank my god that the Republic is safe & that he had permitted me to live to see it, & rejoice,” Jackson had written the previous fall, upon hearing of Polk’s election. Jackson’s absence was balanced by the absence of his great political rival, Henry Clay, whose defeat in November’s presidential balloting had been his third such subjection. Clay remained at his vast Kentucky estate, Ashland, pondering how it happened that, after years of contending with Old Hickory, he now had to deal with his equally hostile young protégé.

Polk delivered his inaugural remarks, according to Washington’s Daily Globe, “in a voice so firm and distinct, as to be heard by almost every individual present.” But the response from the crowd was more polite than enthusiastic, suggesting perhaps his voice hadn’t carried over the din of rain falling upon umbrellas. In any event, now it was time for the country’s eleventh president to be sworn in, and Chief Justice Roger B. Taney stepped forward. Taney was a Jackson appointee whose robes of impartiality never fully shrouded his Democratic sympathies. “I feel so truly rejoiced at your election as President … ,” he had written Polk in November, “that I must indulge myself in the pleasure of offering my cordial congratulations… . I need not say with what pleasure I shall again meet you in Washington, & see you entering upon the high station to which you have been so honorably called.” Taney held what the Illustrated London News would describe as “a richly gilt Bible,” presented to Sarah Polk by Alexander Hunter, chief marshal of the District of Columbia. At Taney’s prompting, Polk uttered the famous thirty-five words affirming faithfully to execute the presidential office and to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Then he was president, and another 28-gun salute roared its affirmation.

The new president and the man he had just replaced left the platform, again side by side. But this time Polk occupied the ceremonial position at Tyler’s right. The official parade formed up once again into what Quincy Adams called a “draggle-tail procession thinned in numbers,” and the president and first lady were escorted back to the White House, where they greeted visitors through much of the afternoon. The evening agenda included two inaugural balls—one at Carusi’s Hall, at ten dollars a ticket; another at the National Theatre at five dollars. Intent on making yet another fashion statement, Sarah ventured forth in a marine blue velvet dress with a cape described by one biographer as “deeply fringed.” Quincy Adams, whose self-exile from the day’s activities didn’t preclude his pouring wry pronouncements into his diary, reported that Polk attended both galas, “but supped with the true-blue five-dollar Democracy.”

The next day Polk assumed the duties of a presidential term that he had promised would be his only claim upon the office. Ahead of him were four tumultuous years of American expansionism that would transform his country and set it upon a new course. But when he relinquished power in March 1849 he would be a spent force, politically and physically. His greatest accomplishments would live on in a vast expanse of territory in the West and Southwest, now part of the United States. But he himself would not last much beyond his hour of eminence. Within four months of leaving office, he would be dead.

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Table of Contents

Introduction Ritual of Democracy: The Emergence of an Expansionist President 1

1 Young Hickory: The Making of a Jackson Protege 13

2 Tennessee and Washington: The Rise and Fall of a Presidential Loyalist 31

3 The 1844 Election: Searching for a Means of Political Recovery 49

4 Texas: Dawn of a New Era 65

5 Baltimore: America's First Political Dark Horse 81

6 Polk vs. Clay: Answering the Question, "Who Is James K. Polk?" 96

7 The Victor: Preparing for the Mantle of Leadership 112

8 Taking Charge: America's Zest for Grand Ambitions 131

9 Annexation Complete: Diplomacy, Intrigue, and the Force of Politics 145

10 The United States and Oregon: "The People Here Are Worn Out by Delay" 161

11 The United States and Mexico: Divergent New World Cultures on a Path to War 176

12 Britain and Mexico: Playing with Prospects of a Dual War 190

13 The Twenty-ninth Congress: Polk Takes Command of the National Agenda 205

14 End of a Treaty: Diplomacy and Politics at War with Each Other 222

15 War: "Every Consideration of Duty and Patriotism" 238

16 Vagaries of War: "And May There Be No Recreant Soul to Fail or Falter Now" 253

17 Presidential Temperament: "I Prefer to Supervise the Whole Operations of the Government" 268

18 Wilmot's Proviso: Transformation of the War Debate 278

19 The War in the West: Patriotism, Duty, Adventure, and Glory 293

20 The New Face of War: "We Are Yet to Have a Long and Wearisome Struggle" 307

21 The Politics of Rancor: Constitutional Usurpation vs. Moral Treason 322

22 Dilatory Congress: The Challenge of Presidential Leadership 335

23 Veracruz andBeyond: Grappling with Mexico's Military Defiance 351

24 Scott and Trist: A Clash of Policy and Temperament 366

25 Mexico City: The Pivot of Personality 383

26 The Specter of Conquest: "Have We Conquered Peace? Have We Obtained a Treaty?" 402

27 Treaty: From Trist to Polk to the Senate 418

28 Peace: California, New Mexico, and the Union 436

29 Final Months: "Solemnly Impressed with the ... Emptiness of Worldly Honors" 452

Epilogue: Legacy: The Price of Presidential Accomplishment 471

Notes 479

Bibliography 543

Acknowledgments 551

Index 553

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 38 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 38 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 25, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    A Country of Vast Designs, A 5 Star Book

    A Country of Vast Designs by Robert W. Merry

    A Country of Vast Designs is well written and focuses on a President and a time period that is somewhat ignored in American history classes. Polk being elected president showed the clout of a dying former President Jackson who pulled strings in the Democratic Party and the media to get Polk nominated and elected.

    The Civil War overshadows Polk's accomplishments yet these same accomplishments led directly to the war. The rapid expansion of the US into California and the Western states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado exacerbated the slavery debate and threatened the political strength of the Southern States. The old Missouri Compromise collapsed after this expansion and 15 years later the US was at war with itself.

    Mr. Merry's work is an excellent read for general history buffs like me. His book is well researched and the bibliography and notes sections are good resources for additional research.

    After reading this book I realized I need to continue reading about this period, particularly after 1845.

    This book is one of the best of 2009.

    8 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 3, 2010

    A Country of Vast Designs by Robert W. Merry

    James K. Polk was a frail man of diminutive stature who avoided confrontation, however, he was also driven, possessed an all-consuming sense of duty, had comprehensive analytical skills, and was convinced he was a man of destiny. As our 11th president, he has, in many cases, not been remembered as a man of significance, but in reality, he truly was.

    Under Mr. Polk's watch, we achieved our westward expansion (later known as "Manifest Destiny"), a dream of many Americans. This was accomplished by completing the annexation of Texas, negotiations with the British over the Oregon Territory, and winning a war with Mexico. The States of Texas, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma became territories of the United States during Mr. Polk's administration. This represents approximately 1/3 (approximately 1.3 million square miles) of today's continental United States (approximately 3.6 million square miles). This also gave us major shorelines and ports on 2 oceans, which played major parts in the historical growth of The United States. It should also be added that before serving, Mr. Polk committed to serving just 1 term and lived up to that commitment. Less than 4 months after he left office, Mr. Polk succumbed to cholera.

    Critics of Mr. Polk fault his entry into the Mexican War as contrived and not necessary. According to them, he was overreaching and aggressive in seizing lands from Mexico. It is interesting that they seem to have conveniently forgotten how we obtained our lands from the Indians in the first place.

    In "A Country of Vast Designs", Robert W. Merry provides an in depth view of the weaknesses and strengths of this president, his unlikely trip to the Whitehouse and the machinations involved in acquiring this territory. Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, James Buchanan, John Calhoun, Thomas Hart Benton, Winfield Scott, Zachary Taylor, and Santa Anna all play key roles in "A Country of Vast Designs".

    From my own perspective, as someone who is a self professed "history nut", I did not know anything about James K. Polk. He first came to my attention when I read "Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West" by Hampton Sides which is a history of Kit Carson. Carson was Mr. Polk's main man in the West rounding up the Indians. During the reading of that book, I began to realize the impact of the Polk presidency. Coincidentally, Robert W. Merry published his book afterward and I knew I had to take a look at it. I'm glad I did.

    Polk's legacy is best summed up in the words of Harry Truman "a great president. Said what he intended to do and did it." [1]

    I heartily recommend this book.

    www.holysmoley.com

    Sources
    [1] Truman, Harry S. and Robert H. Ferrell, Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman, Letter to Dean Acheson (unsent), August 26, 1960 (University of Missouri Press, 1997), p. 390.

    [2] Merry, Robert W., A Country of Vast Designs, James K. Polk, The Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent (Simon & Schuster, 2009)

    [3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book: Presidents_of_the_United_States_(1789_1860)

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 20, 2010

    Fascinating biography of an underappreciated American President

    The biography was, on the one hand, a difficult, slow read; on the other, quite challenging as it made me want to understand better that period of our history.....the expansion of America's boundaries to essentially what they are today...and the process by which achieved.

    The difficulty was in trying to understand the language of conversation spoken in the mid-19th century.........and the nuances of rather complicated political issues during the period. The characterizations of the leading figures were detailed and brought to life their varying personalities through their differing opinions on the important issues of the day. The most telling, but hardly surprising element, throughout the book is how slowly events and communication evolved then compared to today's intantaneous, internet world.

    It is clear that the author performed extensive research to achieve a comprehensive study of the times, and particularly of Polk himself. Clearly, the author succeeded in establishing James Polk as a committed, forceful effective, uncharismatic president whose achievements are probably unknown to most yet so significant to the history of our country. Here is a public office holder sworn to term limits who actually abided by his promise!

    In other words, it was a very worthwhile, informative read because of what I did not know at the start but had learned by the end.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 17, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    In the Epilogue, author Robert W. Merry perhaps best presents the paradox which is the Presidency of James Polk: "probably no other president presents such a chasm between actual accomplishment and popular recognition."

    In the Epilogue, author Robert W. Merry perhaps best presents the paradox which is the Presidency of James Polk: "probably no other president presents such a chasm between actual accomplishment and popular recognition."

    The four years of Polk's presidency -- 1844 to 1848 -- are as significant to our America as any others, beyond the presidencies of Washington, Lincoln and FDR. During this time, Texas, Oregon, California, New Mexico and Arizona together with land comprising Washington State, parts of Colorado, Utah, Oklahoma and Nebraska became states or territories. He also established an economic structure between tariff and banking reforms, which furthered the explosive growth of the country through the end of the century.

    Polk, perhaps the most receding of personalities in a epoch of Clay, Calhoun, Jackson, Van Buren, Scott and Benton, succeeded through clarity of goals and then numbing persistence. The author shows us the idiosyncrasies of the other personalities of the age by way of showing Polk's strength in relief. For Polk the outcome was the thing; for almost all the others who shared this stage of destiny they, themselves were the end. Scott v.Trist; Fremont v. Kearny; Calhoun v. Benton; Buchanan v. everyone. What great fun and how true the mirror is to our political leaders of today.

    The only genuine moment of Polk pique, which the author identifies, is in his third annual message to Congress when, frustrated over what he sees as the ongoing politicalization of his War with Mexico, he accuses his distractors as "aiding and abetting" the enemy. Sound familiar?

    Through Polk, there is also some understanding of the American political mind-set as it came to the perpetuation of slavery. Once our founders failed, in the 1780's, to address this "peculiar institution" and simply kicked it down the road for future generations, there was a growing understanding that for us to address slavery was for us to be prepared to address our dissolution as a Union. Valor in many ways was seen as how do we, as a country, move forward, without ripping ourselves apart. Much of the opposition (represented by the Wilmot Proviso and other incendiary legislative faints) to Polk's expansionist worldview was that we would have to revisit slavery for each new territory claimed. Thus, in each of the four congresses of his presidency, Polk desperately tried to frame the discussions in non-sectarian ways so as to not frame an issue on a North / South divide. He would prefer a Whig and Democrat balance to a sectarian one. The irony at the center of Polk's Manifest Destiny is perhaps that without these new territories and the question of how they were to be governed, the country might have taken much longer to push past the "pact with the devil" aspects of the 1820's Missouri Compromise. The War with Mexico, the annexation of Texas and the Treaty with England for all land below the 49 parallel (Oregon) in fact forced us to ask what in its full capacity is this "Destiny?" And the answer to that implicit question of Polk's actions came less than 15 years later as we became a country "without conscience for slavery."

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 2, 2010

    A review of the presidency of James K Polk and his impact on the US.

    This book provides and excellent overview of how James K Polk, in one term as President, expanded US territory close to what we know now. He promised to serve only one term, set four goals for his presidency and accomplished all of them. I found the discussion of his efforts to solve the issue of the Oregon territory with England and the Mexican war the most interesting. I knew little of this president before I read this book, but feel Polk may have been one on our most important presidents once I finished the book. Robert Merry's writing and information were very good. This book may not be what a serious historian needs, but for the person interested in history, this book was a very good read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 15, 2014

    Stan

    Stan looks around her house, then watches TV.

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  • Posted January 19, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Well written

    This was a well written account of a very important president. Not only were Polk's actions and inactions shown, but also an understanding the political climate and internal struggles. This was a fair account, showing both the good and bad. This book increased my understanding of the years leading up to the civil war and the workings of Congress during this time.

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  • Posted December 7, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Fantastic!

    I have always admired President Polk as one of the most untaught and unknown leaders in American History, this is a shame. He has shaped our country arguably more than any president, from an expansionist standpoint. I enjoyed this book and would recommend to anyone who loves history. Unlike text books, this is not boring, I wish the textbook writers would write as interesting as this because more students might actually appreciate our history.

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  • Posted March 2, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Best James K Polk Book Ever

    After thinking I knew all I needed to know about James K Polk through the They Might Be Giants song, I discovered I was way off. I usually only read one non-fiction book a year and this was a great choice.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 27, 2009

    Excellent

    An extremely well written and informative review of the Polk administration and the events surrounding the dramatic expansion of the United States territory to include Texas, Oregon, New Mexico and California.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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