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Napoleon of the Stump

April 14, 2013 Leave a comment

For the last several months, for two hours a week, I have been locked in a soundproof room with James K. Polk. Yes, that Polk: 11th President, architect of the war with Mexico, subject of a They Might Be Giants Song (alas, to my ear, not one of their best efforts; I suppose they thought the obscurity of the subject was good enough.  Me, I would have gone for Millard Fillmore).

Polk, from an earlier edition of the diary.

Polk, from an earlier edition of the diary.

OK, I am not actually locked into that little booth. And of course Mr. Polk has been dead for some 160 years. What I am doing is recording his diary for the New Mexico State Library’s division for the blind. It’s very similar to the volunteer gig I did a few years ago in Chicago, with one main difference. There, we read books requested by our clients, and multiple readers did one book. Here, it’s one reader, one book. And the readers choose the books to record.

Yes, that’s right, I chose to read aloud Polk: The Diary of a President 1845 1849 (edited and annotated by esteemed historian Allan Nevins), thinking some hearing-impaired person might be longing to share in its wonders too.

Gotta keep those History Nerd bona fides up.

Actually, the diary makes some sense for our library. We try to focus on books that have some appeal to Southwestern clients, and what could be more relevant than getting the perspective of the president who brought much of that region into the Union? And it seemed right up my alley to choose something that would give me new insight into one of our presidents—perhaps a bit of a controversial one—given my role at Biographers International Organization (here’s a sample of the newsletter I edit, for the curious). Finally, if I’m gonna read a book out loud, it might as well be about history, since that is my vocation.

I say Polk is controversial because as a champion of manifest destiny at the expense of Mexico, he seems to have tapped early on some of the imperialist impulses that truly emerged some 50 years later, and there was a chauvinistic element in his attitude toward the Mexicans. And of course he was all for letting slavery expand into America’s newly gained Western lands. Or am I wrong?

A scene from the war that added more than 500,000 square miles to the United States.

A scene from the war that added more than 500,000 square miles to the United States.

In his introduction, Nevins offers a historiographical view of Polk that dismisses earlier claims such as those. He says an “anti-slavery interpretation of the Mexican War” led late 19th-century historians to paint Polk as a conqueror marked by “Machiavellian adroitness” who lied to Congress—or suppressed facts, as Nevins puts it, to get a war with Mexico he already wanted. Not so, Nevins claims: Polk was honest and conscientious, if stiff and mediocre, and not capable of “deceit and double dealing.” (Of course, there is this observation of Polk from a contemporary political adversary, John Quincy Adams, who called him a “slaveholding exterminator of Indians.”)

Nevins wrote in 1952; later historians were more apt to side with their 19th-century brethren in assessing Polk’s aims and attitudes. After all, he ran on a Democratic platform in 1844 that was staunchly expansionist. Still, as one college textbook from 2000 notes, war was not inevitable with Mexico; Polk just “made decisions and carried them out in ways that exacerbated already existing tensions and made war difficult to avoid.” In the end, the authors claim, Polk was lucky things turned out as well as they did, but many of the gains he sought—primarily California and the Rio Grande as a border with Mexico—might have been obtained without a war that killed 50,000 Mexicans and left many others under the rule of a Protestant, Anglo-Saxon nation that disdained them.

H. W. Brands, writing in 2002 (The Age of Gold) emphasizes that California was the prize Polk truly craved. He asked Mexico to sell the land; when it refused, Brands says, “Polk determined to take California by force.” Not a vote for casting the Mexican War as an accidental conflict, I don’t think. And, apropos of the Adams’ description quoted above, the 2003 work Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk, by William Dusinberre, shows how Polk’s Southern roots and slave holdings shaped his pro-slavery political views, including support for the gag rule in the House.

So what does the Polk diary reveal about the man? To be fair, I’m only about halfway through, but he does come across as someone who knows his “private” words will be read by others (as surely all president have for generations, if not all the way back to Washington). He also also endured something modern presidents I’m sure are glad to be done with: entertaining complete strangers who come to the White House seeking handouts and loans. Not government money, mind you, but Polk’s personal funds. Perhaps that’s what made him seem so humorless, except when recounting his exasperation with Congressmen and others seeking political favors (so glad that practice has ended). He also seemed to keep close track of personal and political slights, sometimes impugning the motives of those who disagreed with him, showing some of the self-righteousness and pettiness he has been criticized for by some historians.

I don’t particularly like the Polk who emerges from his own words, but that probably reflects my biases. But like anyone else, he has his high and low moments. He condemns one Protestant minister seeking a chaplaincy in the army for his “abuse of Catholics and…fanaticism,” and he made a personal loan of $100 in gold to a Congressman, even as he deplored the man’s descent into alcoholism (the lawmaker soon after killed himself, leaving Polk to comment on the “melancholy” of intemperance). Yet Polk also had derogatory views of the Mexicans (though not an uncommon stance for Americans of the day), and he found it amusing when a Portuguese diplomat gave a “solemn account” of the queen of Portugal’s miscarriage. Huh?

I’ve seen several sources that say at one time Polk was often included in historians’ lists of the top ten presidents, primarily, I assume, because of the huge expansion of the country that went down on his watch. A 2010 poll I found still had him highly ranked, at #12. So, as I keep reading and recording, I’ll try to keep an open mind about Young Hickory.

And dead last in that survey? Andrew Johnson. I don’t think I’ll be reading his diary any time soon.

The “Unexpected” War?

October 23, 2009 Leave a comment

Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: What follows is totally intellectually dishonest. I’m going to take a swipe at a book I haven’t even read, basing my comments on a few points in a NYT book review.

keeganThe book is The American Civil War: A Military History, and the author is British military historian John Keegan. Judging from his lengthy and wide-reaching list of works, Keegan knows his way around redoubts and fusiliers and billets. I would never question him on any assertion about tactics and strategy. But one quote from the The American Civil War, cited in the Times review, kinda made me stumble a bit:

“The American Civil War is one of the most mysterious great wars of history, mysterious because unexpected…”

Unexpected?

The division slavery engendered was no mystery to American leaders. Certainly not in the decades before the war. And even back to the Constitutional Convention, with the disagreements slavery stirred there, no one could have been too surprised by conflict of some kind, if not all-out war. Maybe some Americans thought a peaceful disunion could come. That was the term used during the 1840s, with secession eventually following it. And it wasn’t just proslavery Southern forces who talked about a split; some staunch abolitionists sometimes suggested a parting of the ways between the North and South would be better for everybody. But the majority’s desire for compromise and perpetual Union kept the country together for a time.

"Ouch," Charles Sumner said.

"Ouch," Charles Sumner said.

For a time. But after the anger stirred by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and the violence in Bleeding Kansas, the caning of Charles Sumner in the Capitol, John Brown’s failed raid on Harpers Ferry – surely after all that few people were caught off guard by war? The 1850s saw deepening venom on both sides, and after 1856, a Northern president, James Buchanan, who seemed overly sympathetic to the slave-owing South, who was willing to cripple his own party rather than work for compromise, and who only got tough with the South after South Carolina had seceded in December 1860.

Fort Sumter ablaze, and the unexpected begins...

Fort Sumter ablaze, and the unexpected begins...

Was it unexpected that even a generally pro-South president would take action to preserve Federal property, once it came under threat from secessionists? Buchanan refused to turn over Fort Sumter. Of course, he took the easy way out and said he couldn’t without permission from Congress. Still, he was not going to give in, and Lincoln largely followed the plan he had laid out for resupplying and reinforcing the fort in April 1861. Although, once the firing started, Lincoln moved much swifter for all-out war than Buchanan would have – if he would have.

But maybe even Buchanan would have fought, or been pressured to fight, to keep the Union whole. Who knows? But whatever his feelings for states’ rights and the constitutionality of slavery, Buchanan was a Unionist. And he had thought since the 1830s that secession would split the country apart. Back then, he wasn’t sure if secession were legal; by January 1861, he declared it was not:

“No State has a right by its own act to secede from the Union or throw off its federal obligations at pleasure…even if that right existed and should be exercised by any State of the Confederacy the executive department of this Government had no authority under the Constitution to recognize its validity by acknowledging the independence of such State.”

So Old Buck, reviled by many then and now (he’s been called the worst president ever by some modern historians, and another lambasted his actions before the war as near treasonous), stated the case Lincoln would follow. Given that kind of thinking, and the strong feelings of the secessionists, how unexpected was the war that began three months later?

[Speaking of strong feelings, a Georgian expressed this view to his senator during the tumultuous debates over Kansas’s status: “If Kansas comes in as a free state, Buchanan will richly deserve death, and I hope some patriotic man will inflict it.”]

During my years of research, I’ve come across many selections from both Northerners and Southerners who feared an explosive split between the North and South, with slavery the fuse and keg all in one. And real scholars of the era before the war could probably make an even stronger argument against Keegan’s claim. You can say a lot of things about the Civil War – neither side was really prepared to fight it, no one thought it would be as long and bloody as it was. But unexpected? Hmm…