That would be the other Scots-Irish Tennessee president — the nearly forgotten, but highly consequential one-term “dark horse” Democratic president, James Knox Polk of Mexican War fame and infamy. It was a war historians have generally labeled a land grab, even a crime.
Well, almost exactly. Polk had campaigned for the “re-annexation of Texas and the re-occupation of Oregon.
” But the Republic of Texas came into the union just before Polk’s inauguration by way of a congressional resolution. And the Oregon border question was settled short of war with England and well short of “fifty-four forty or fight” — a reference to the line of latitude American expansionists thought suitable.
Polk also sought to add California to the national trophy case — by purchase if possible, by war if necessary.
He wanted territory, and especially had his eye on the ports of San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle. During his only term in office he obtained all three, thereby setting the stage for America to become a Pacific power, as well as for his own exit from the political stage.
Why bother running for re-election when he had already accomplished his goals?
In his magisterial “The Year of Decision 1846,” the great liberal historian Bernard De Voto tells us that Polk’s mind was “rigid, narrow, obstinate, far from first rate … ” More than that, the man himself was “pompous, suspicious, secretive; he had no humor; he could be vindictive; and he saw spooks and villains.”
Lest there be any lingering doubts, De Voto completes his word portrait of our 11th president with this: “But if his mind was narrow, it was also powerful and he had guts … his integrity was absolute and he could not be scared, manipulated, or brought to heel.
No one bluffed him, no one moved him with direct or oblique pressure.”
There were no Trumpian promises about being able to keep your favorite undocumented laborer, if you like him.
President Polk’s war led to the creation of a “free soil” movement, which in 1856 produced the Republican party, whose first platform called for the containment of slavery. Four years later the country elected as president Abraham Lincoln, who as a congressman had opposed Polk’s war.
Is a Trump presidency, like Polk’s presidency, a prelude to such a terrible conflict? If so, might it be triggered by a secessionist movement in the American southwest? Some Californians on the left are hinting at such. So are some Texans on the right.
This leads to a second irony and more questions. If Polk can be credited with adding a huge swath of territory to the American empire, might Trump one day be credited with preserving that long-ago victory by reversing the gradual makeover of the southwestern United States?
A beneficent American empire? Historian/geographer Robert Kaplan, in “Earning the Rockies,” correctly regards the United States as at once a nation, an empire and a continent, thanks in no small measure to the “rigid, narrow and obstinate” Mr.
Polk. Kaplan also contends that America became a great power in the 20th century in part because of Polk’s unwillingess to be bluffed, manipulated or brought to heel.
Whether or not the United States remains a great power in the 21st century may well depend on the actions of another president who cannot be bluffed, manipulated or brought to heel. All of which brings us to a moral question, even a moral dilemma.
Kaplan calls the Mexican War a “crime.” And yet he is convinced that the fruits of that war helped make America a great power and a great force for good in the 20th century, as when it came time for the United States to fight World War II and prosecute the Cold War.
Will the United States remain united and a force for great good in the 21st century? If so, will it be because President Trump has taken steps to secure President Polk’s victory — and in a way that will make another Lincoln unnecessary?
“Chuck” Chalberg writes from Bloomington.