This review appears in the September 2008 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America
By Walter R. Borneman
(Random House, 422 pages, $30)
That’s “Polk” as in James K. Polk, if you please, 11th president of the United States, long one of our more underrated chief executives and also — full disclosure — a several times great uncle of the present reviewer. Ahem….
In celebrating Uncle James over the generations since his death in 1849, we diversely surnamed members of the clan like to affirm the historical consensus. That consensus touts, first, Polk’s extraordinary success in dispatching the business he outlined to the nation before taking office; second, his principled refusal to accept the second term he could easily have had. After which refusal he receded from view — an example too little imitated in our time. (Does any president of the 1990s come to mind as a counter-example?)
As to “transforming” the presidency and the nation — well, it probably depends on how you define transformation. That Polk was a focused and aggressive chief executive no one could deny. By pursuing with steady determination the goal of pushing the United States to the Pacific, in fulfillment of the country’s “Manifest Destiny,” he set us up for a greatness greater than any of his predecessors had contemplated.
Merely bringing in California set us up for Los Angeles, Haight-Ashbury, the Beach Boys, and, on a more cheerful note, Ronald Reagan. The nation swelled by a million square miles in consequence of the war that Polk waged with Mexico. Nor is that taking into account the Oregon Territory, which he peacefully gained through staring down the British and procuring peaceful division of a territory the two countries had jointly administered. It wasn’t taking Texas into account either. The Lone Star State entered the Union partly on Polk’s watch, partly on that of his predecessor, John Tyler.
So much land gobbled down in so short a time requires some digestive faculties on the part of the nation doing the gobbling. Even as Polk, in 1849, packed to leave Washington, D.C., tensions over slavery were becoming ominous. Just a dozen years ahead lay Fort Sumter.
WALTER BORNEMAN, author of several books on American history, and head of a foundation that funds postdoctoral fellowships in children’s health, in this readable and generally first-rate book makes the standard case for Polk’s executive skills. As historians began acknowledging a few decades ago, those skills were of a high order indeed, due to personal discipline and rare powers of concentration.
The office of president, even if he held it only four years, exhausted and depleted Polk, who gave to the job everything he had. Cholera apparently claimed him at age 53, a mere 103 days after he quit office. Borneman says — I think correctly — that Uncle James was “the most decisive chief executive prior to the Civil War;” further, that he greatly expanded the office’s powers.
His had been a large opportunity from the start, one he seized with energy. There wasn’t the least chance in 1844, the year of his election (following a congressional career that included the speakership) that Americans’ pulsating energies would fail to spill over into Mexico’s hardly inhabited territories east of the Pacific and west of Texas.
Still, it was Polk’s way to push, and to insist. Like a celebrated fellow Tennessean, Davy Crockett, he believed himself right. Believing thus, he went ahead. It was the 19th century spirit. Less delicacy was abroad in society concerning the effects of actions clearly in the general if not the particular interest. A few decades after Polk, the learned Master of Balliol College, Oxford, and translator of Plato, Benjamin Jowett, would give the matter a fine categorical twist: “Never retract. Never explain. Get it done and let them howl..”
Polk got it done. He had promised that inside one term of office — that was all he wanted and all he said he would accept — he would assert American title to Oregon; he would bring Texas finally into the Union; he would acquire California; he would reduce the tariff; and he would provide for an independent treasury. Wondrous to say, he did it all. There was some howling: not enough to deflect the president from his chosen course.
FEW IF ANY PRESIDENTIAL biographies come to us any more unfreighted with parallels, spoken or silent, to the present fractious and uncertain state of American politics. Nor does Borneman’s book come thus unequipped. From Polk’s hands-on policy toward Mexico we catch inflections of the 43rd president’s undeflectable determination to oust Saddam Hussein and democratize Iraq.
“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.)