Saturday, February 3, 2018

Manifest Destiny

History Book Club
Manifest Destiny: 
The Presidency of James K. Polk
Wednesday, January 31. 2018

Wednesday, January 31, 2018:  Manifest Destiny: The 19th century period of American expansion that the United States not only could, but was destined to, stretch from coast to coast. Western settlement, Native American removal and war with Mexico. Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark Expedition, Missouri Compromise, Oregon Territory, Indian Wars, Union Pacific Railway, Texas, California… [Suggested by Sam Coulbourn]

Merry, Robert W. A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent. 2009, New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. 576 pp.

James Knox Polk, in just one term, from 1845 to 1849, made a huge impact upon the United States, expanding America with Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Arizona. He pledged to serve only one term, and that’s what he did, but in those four years, he really accomplished a few important things. 

Polk was a chip off the old block of Old Hickory, Andrew Jackson.  A Democrat from Tennessee, he served at a time when the pressure to end slavery, and the pressure to retain it, was reaching the breaking point. He was not a “people” person like Jackson.  As a matter of fact, he didn’t really seem to like people.  He was a “procedure” person.  He was all about doing whatever it took to advance the goals of the Democratic Party.

Polk’s predecessor, the renegade Whig John Tyler, had set the stage for annexation of the Republic of Texas into the Union.  The prospect of annexing Texas appeared as part of an overall scheme to extend the United States to the Pacific Ocean, at the same time cutting off a possible British scheme to connect Canada with their Oregon territory, and then perhaps take over California, and head the Americans off at the pass.

Slave states and Abolition states saw Texas differently.  Southerners wanted Texas to join as a slave state, which would give them more votes, more political weight, and, if they should have to secede from the Northern states, more of a Slaveholding Confederacy.  Northerners wanted no part of Texas if it meant another slave state. 

Westward expansion

Texas joined the Union in Polk’s first year, 1845, and then the trouble began.  At that time, the southern border between Texas and Mexico was in dispute, and Polk prepared to send his army south to straighten things out.  His lead general was a crusty prima donna named Winfield Scott.  Polk wanted Scott to marshal his troops and head down to Texas, but Scott dillied and dallied, and questioned whether he had the President’s backing. 

Scott wrote letters to the Secretary of War and shot off his mouth as if he thought he was bulletproof, even though he himself was a Whig, working for a Democrat in the Executive Mansion.  Scott was definitely a thorn in Polk’s hide.

However, Polk didn’t fire Scott—he simply elevated another general, Zachary Taylor, and sent him down to Texas. 

Taylor led the American forces admirably in opposing the Mexicans at the Nueces River, the northern boundary, according to Mexico, and 150 miles north of the Rio Grande River, the boundary according to the U.S.  Soon Taylor had the Mexicans on the run. They were in such a hurry to get back south across the Rio Grande that 300 drowned in the crossing. 

There was a lot of opposition in the country to war with Mexico. Whigs claimed that Polk trampled the Constitution and deceived the electorate to manufacture an illegal war for shady purposes, without the support of the public.  But indeed, Polk had much public support for war with Mexico.  [It seems as if modern presidents have been accused of “manufacturing illegal wars” like Lyndon Johnson with the Tonkin Gulf incident, and G.W. Bush with Iraqi “nuclear weapons”.]

The War with Mexico lasted 17 months, and Scott did get back in Polk’s good graces and invaded and captured Mexico City. 

At about the same time the Americans negotiated with the British and finally achieved a settlement that gave the U.S. the division with Canada around Vancouver Island that exists today. 

Still more forces were at work in Alta California, now known as the State of California, and that became a State in 1849. 

Perhaps no other president presents such a great difference between actual accomplishment and popular recognition.  However, America’s eleventh president’s accomplishments included a tariff policy that led to prosperity; his ‘Polk Doctrine’ [expounding U.S. resistance to European meddling in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere] has been approved and extended; his expansion policy gave the United States free access to the Pacific.

America in 1849, when Polk left office, was a Country of Vast Designs, just as it is today.

S.W. Coulbourn

Hernan Cortes
Wednesday, February 28, 2018:  Famous Travelers and Adventurers before the 20th Century—their lives and stories. Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Lewis and Clark, Stanley and Livingstone, more. [Suggested by Walt Frederick]

USS Panay sinking after Japanese air attack, near Nanking, 1937

Wednesday, March 28, 2018:  The U.S. Navy in Asia. The Asiatic Squadron. The Yangtze Patrol. Patrolling the Philippine Islands, “China Sailors”, World War II, The Seventh Fleet. [Suggested by Walt Frederick]

Wednesday, April 25, 2018:  A look at the world and times of Jane Austen. Rockport Public Library is celebrating “Austen in April”.  Read about the life of Austen, or focus upon England in the early 1800s, the Royal Navy at that time, the gentle English world Jane lived in. Feel free to read Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, or any of her novels to gather a sense of Jane and her world. [Suggested by Christiann Guibeau]

Wednesday, May 30, 2018:  A History of Public Relations. Managing the news, propaganda, image-building. Hitler’s Joseph Goebbels. Ancient persuasive techniques. How information, false. Tainted or factual, can be used to elect leaders, start wars, and more. [Suggested by Sam Coulbourn]

Wednesday, June 27, 2018: The History of Language. Can you understand the English spoken by Chaucer? [WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote; The droghte  of Marche hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veyne in swich  licour,]  Choose any language and learn how it grew from its ancient roots, how it absorbed other languages, how it spread, and its variations in use in the world today. Did you know that only one in 40 Italians spoke Italian in 1861?  What language is most widely spoken in the world today? How are languages changing in modern times? [Suggested by Sam Coulbourn]

Wednesday, July 25, 2018:  Immigration to America. How did we all get here?  Read about the history of immigration, at any stage – from first settlers to the great immigration waves of the 19th and early 20th centuries; victims of the Irish Potato famine, Jews fleeing persecution in Europe, Europeans suffering poverty in their countries, Africans brought here as slaves, Chinese brought here to build railroads; Fugitives of war everywhere; Mexicans and Central Americans coming to pick crops. Read about immigration policies and national drives to keep out or encourage immigration. [Suggested by Walt Frederick.]

Wednesday, August 29, 2018.  Let’s hear your suggestion for a history topic!

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