Thursday, June 27, 2019

Westward Ho!

History Book Club
“Westward Ho!” American History 1845-1849
Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Wednesday, June 26, 2019: Westward Ho: the westward expansion of America; Manifest Destiny; The Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark; James K. Polk; The Union Pacific.

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. With his leadership,  America expanded to acquire 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 some important things. 

            Polk was in some ways 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 efforts to retain it, were 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. 

            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. Today, it is still digesting those designs as it struggles to find its place as a sometime unwilling leader in the world.

S.W. Coulbourn


Wednesday, July 31, 2019: The Crusades—what caused them?   The Seljuk Turks; Pisa, Genoa, Venice and Amalfi; Byzantium and Jerusalem; The Children’s Crusade; Attacking the Jews in Germany; The Popes and Kings; Saladin and Richard I of the Lion Heart; how the Christians massacred Moslems and Jews and made Moslems intolerant.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

Wednesday, August 28, 2019: Intelligence Gathering and Spying in History:Julius Caesar’s Spy Network; Sun-Tzu, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Espionage Act of 1917, the KGB, MI-5, the OSS, CIA, Pinkerton’s Union Spies, Confederate Spies. [Proposed by Sam Coulbourn] 

Wednesday, September 25, 2019: El Norte, the story of Spain’s exploration and colonization of North America.  Often Americans study the growth of America from the standpoint of English colonization and the push westward. There’s another, very complex story, of the exploration of the Caribbean, Mexico, Florida and onward to California by the Spanish. It’s the story of Conquistadors, Priests and Indigenous peoples who created the Republic of Mexico, the nations of the Caribbean and Central America, and made the first cities in Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California and more[Proposed by Sam Coulbourn] 
Hitler at Nuremberg 1933
Wednesday, October 30, 2019: Charismatic leaders in History. What were the keys to Hitler’s, Churchill's, Mussolini's, FDR's successes? Keen perception of public moods? Oratory abilities? Character, firm ideology? Connecting to the people? How did they deploy their charisma? How could Napoleon manipulate the masses without TV ads? Why were people so perceptive to a madman in Germany? Recurring questions.  [Proposed by Janos Posfai] 

Wednesday, November 13, 2019 [Two weeks earlier because of Thanksgiving and another conflict] History of Farming in America.  Examine the American Indians and their farming techniques, the early colonists and the skills they brought from their home countries;  the food discoveries in the New World; Tobacco and Cotton and slavery; Farming and the Dust Bowl; Government and Agriculture; Modern Agribusiness.  [Proposed by Sam Coulbourn]