James K. Polk continues to stand out, and not only because he pushed the United States to the Pacific.
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“Despite the near unanimity of the congressional vote to declare war,” Borneman relates, accurately enough, “a good part of the country was skeptical of — if not outright hostile to — the Polk administration’s war program.” For one thing, the administration seemed to have set up the confrontation by belligerently challenging Mexico’s claim to that portion of Texas between the Rio Grande and Nueces rivers. Polk sent Gen. Zachary Taylor to occupy the contested area. When Mexican troops pounced on a small American force, Polk was able to argue that Mexico had “invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil.” A Boston newspaper called the conflict “Mr. Polk’s War.” Ummm-hmmm. Then there was Polk’s customary undauntedness in meeting opposition to policies he had made up his mind to advance or thwart. Further, “Many congressmen in both parties voted appropriations to fund the call-up in troops but did not support the war itself.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Or something.
Unlike the 43rd president when in domestic-policy mode, Polk invited confrontation with Congress over matters of principle. He vigorously vetoed a spending bill — the Rivers and Harbors Bill — that he saw as a mass of unconstitutional pork. He warned against “large and annually increasing appropriations and drains upon the Treasury,” accompanied by local demands for equal treatment in the dispersal of public booty.
Borneman, to his credit, writes straightforward prose, no partisan varnish laid on, the composition as a whole sullied chiefly by the unconscious appropriation of decidedly post-Polkian locutions: e.g., “loose cannons like Nicholas Trist,” “the document that would impact almost a third of the future continental United States,” “The Tennessee Whigs were quick to spin Van Buren’s recent message to their advantage.” The age of crinoline and broadcloth knew not “spin.”
Jacksonian disciple though he was, and anointed heir to Old Hickory himself, the sternly moral and non-effusive Polk stayed true to his interior standards. There would be no demagoguing , no playing the crowd for whatever could be got out of it. It was enough that he knew in his own mind the right thing to do, with some accompanying sense of how to get the thing done well.
AN UNFAMILIAR flavor can fill the mouth of an American reader of Borneman — the flavor of success. We win! Goals, during the Polk administration, get set and met. The United States, in pursuit of objectives that to many moderns would seem prideful or arrogant, strides onto the stage, ready for action. It expands its borders, opens new lands to exploration and development. A United States shorn of its western portion due to political timidity would be a different place from the nation that took shape under James K. Polk.
In him, for all that, patriotism and personal confidence rubbed elbows with an almost paradoxical humility. He would write, on the final birthday of his life, “Upon each recurrence of my birthday, I am solemnly impressed with the vanity and emptiness of worldly honors and worldly enjoyments, and of the wisdom of preparing for a future estate.”
Always a few stray movers, shakers, and arrangers of human affairs share that complex and vital understanding of duty. Never enough of them; never nearly enough. James K. Polk, as in his own day, stands out from the herd.
(This review appears in the September 2008 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.)
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