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One of the strangest tendencies of conservatives in recent years has been to invoke names from the distant past of American history in order to justify retrograde policies in the present.  Often, as is the case with hacks like David Barton, these amateur historians engage in gross distortions of the historical record.  (Although progressives have a proud political past in this country, they seem less historically inclined.)  Just today I read that Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades said that a Romney administration might be like that of James K. Polk, as if that was a good thing.   

For those of you who don't know, Polk served for only one term, from 1845 to 1849.  He did not run for a second, and died soon after leaving office.  In his one term he accomplished his primary goal, which was the expansion of American territory.  His presidency gave us the treaties with Great Britain giving the United States control over Oregon Territory, the annexation of Texas, and consequently war with Mexico from 1846 to 1848 that added California and the Southwest to the United States.  Rhoades compared the boldness of Polk's expansionism to the boldness of the Romney-Ryan plan to gut ("reform") the social safety net.

I tend to think that people in this country either view American history from a nationalist or a humanist perspective.  From a nationalist point of view, Polk might look pretty admirable.  He drastically expanded American territory, including some of the most economically important regions of the country today.  However, from a humanist standpoint, Polk looks more like an unscrupulous, blood-thirsty extremist whose rash actions did horrific damage.

First, let's take the annexation of Texas.  Contrary to Texan mythology, once the Republic of Texas broke away from Mexico in 1835, it did not really want independence, but to join the United States.  This was opposed by many in Congress, because Texas was a slave-holding state, and bringing in Texas would greatly expand territory where slavery held sway.  (Mexico had banned slavery after its independence, and one important reason for the Texan independence movement was to preserve slavery, something many Texans are loathe to admit today.)  There was also the question of whether annexing Texas would bring about war with Mexico, which claimed the land between the Rio Grande and the Nueces, also claimed by the Texans.  Polk pushed the addition of Texas to the union, accomplished in 1845.

He sent representatives to the Mexican government to purchase California and New Mexico, but could not get an agreement.  Instead of respecting Mexican sovereignty, he sent a military force under Zachary Taylor to the Rio Grande, in what Mexico considered its territory.  He did this in order to provoke a war, and this strategy proved successful.  The anticipated short war did not pan out, and it lasted a bloody two years because the Mexican people put up a stout resistance.  Although the number of American war dead was pretty small by the standard of later wars, this war did have the highest percentage loss of life among the troops of any military conflict in American history.  In the end Mexico had to surrender and agree to the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which signed over the desired land for a much lower price than Polk had offered in peacetime.  There had been talk of taking all of Mexico, but racists like John C Calhoun warned against polluting the United States with brown-skinned Catholics.  His contemptuous attitude towards the Mexican people reflected larger feelings and had some pretty negative consequences.  In the aftermath of the war, the Hispanic inhabitants of this newly Americanized territory had their lands confiscated and found themselves turned into second-class citizens.

The war with Mexico was not a necessary conflict, but a war of aggression and naked conquest on the part of the United States.  This begs the question of why Polk was so keen to expand American territory.  There were the usual nationalistic reasons, of course, but Polk was especially concerned with creating new territory for slavery.  The Missouri Compromise had limited the land available for slave states, something Southerners feared would eventually leave them outnumbered in their desire to preserve the "peculiar institution."  For that reason, he had attempted to negotiate with Spain over the sale of Cuba before talks fell through.

Many great American at the time were fully aware that Polk had intended to expand slavery, and had instigated a war to do so and then tried to cover up his machinations with lies.  Serving his only term in Congress, a young Abraham Lincoln denounced the war's illegality and assailed Polk for intentionally misleading the American public.  Henry David Thoureau went to jail after refusing to pay his taxes in support of a war for slavery.  After years of acquiescing to the "gag rule" in Congress that immediately tabled any petitions related to slavery, Northern politicians like David Wilmot put the issue on the table by demanding that slavery not be expanded into the newly acquired territory.  The fierce dispute over the expansion of slavery is what eventually brought about the Civil War.  No matter what Matt Rhoades and other conservatives might believe, I don't think that the glories of Manifest Destiny can wash the blood off of Polk's hands.

The Romney campaign's emulation of Polk reveals a lot.  He and his crew don't seem to be a very reflective bunch, and so might not even be aware of the realities of Polk's policies.  Furthermore, Mitt is so power-hungry that he will say practically anything to get elected, and strikes me as the kind of person totally willing to lie to the American public to get what he wants, much like Polk.  Just as Polk pushed American expansion in the interests of the Slave Power, Romney cares most about his friends in the corporate world, who are showering him with millions of dollars.  Come to think of it, Mitt just might have found his perfect role model.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Here's what most people know about Polk: (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Stude Dude, terabthia2, Leo Flinnwood

    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White -6.00, -5.18

    by zenbassoon on Sat Aug 25, 2012 at 03:58:54 PM PDT

  •  Gonna invade Canada? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    zesty grapher, PeterHug

    "Expansion" doesn't have the same opportunities in 2012 that it did in 1845. We probably wouldn't want Mexico, and invading Canada got unpopular after 1814.

    My basic reaction (and I was a US history major) was, "Polk who?" He was one of those very forgettable mid-nineteenth century Presidents, the ones you have trouble with if you're trying to name them all in order.  

  •  Polk always ranks high... (0+ / 0-)

    ...on historical presidential rankings, for some strange reason. I suppose he was the original True Blue American Exceptionalist. Just because "he accomplished everything he set out to do?"

    Imperialist war-monger is more like it. Sheesh, no wonder Romney and today's neocons just love the guy. So Romney wants to model his administration after him? What's he going to do, invade France? Sheesh.

    He and his wife had no children. Yeah, that definitely explains alot. How 'bout them apples, Mitt?

    Yes, call me a proud member of the card-carrying Humanist faction here.

    Love the TMBG video! :)

    •  There is nothing strange about his ranking (0+ / 0-)

      Polk was known as the Napoleon of the Stump.

      At the time of his presidency, the three previous incumbents served one term or less and the four after him served one term or less.  He was the only President in a 32 year period between Jackson and Lincoln who could have had a second term.

      Polk despite being not the first in the hearts of his countrymen, he certainly won their hearts at the completion of his term.   As eras go, Polk was the master of his

  •  James Russell Lowell wrote a long poem called (0+ / 0-)

    "The Present Crisis" to protest the War to Expand Slavery. Here is an excerpt:

    Slavery, the earth-born Cyclops, fellest of the giant brood,
    Sons of brutish Force and Darkness, who have drenched the earth with       blood,
    Famished in his self-made desert, blinded by our purer day,
    Gropes in yet unblasted regions for his miserable prey;--
    Shall we guide his gory fingers where our helpless children play?

    Then to side with Truth is noble when we share her wretched crust,
    Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and 'tis prosperous to be just;
    Then it is the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside,
    Doubting in his abject spirit, till his Lord is crucified,
    And the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

    This poem was later adapted (minus the most explicit references to current events to make it more applicable to various situations) into the familiar hymn "Once to Every Man and Nation." Here is a link to the complete hymn, the complete poem, and a brief commentary.
  •  OMG (0+ / 0-)

    It's obvious now what mitt wants...To finish what Polk started...Mexico...a possession...and to invade Canada....

  •  More dogwhistles (0+ / 0-)

    That is all it is about.   Polk was pro-slavery.  

    Nuf said?

  •  Polk was a monster (0+ / 0-)

    The radical Republican party is the party of oppression, fear, loathing and above all more money and power for the people who robbed us.

    by a2nite on Sat Aug 25, 2012 at 05:42:43 PM PDT

  •  Mitt wants to emulate Polk? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    YoungArizonaLiberal

    Thank you for the diary. I'm also a history major but could barely remember President Polk.

    I thought I'd look at Wikipedia. It's where I go for a quick overview when something interesting pops up. I know it's not perfect, but I think many of my  fellow Americans will do the same.
    I think this is where Mitt went when he picked his hero, because I could see right-wingers eating this up:

    Polk was the last strong pre–Civil War president, and he is the earliest of whom there are surviving photographs taken during a term in office. He is noted for his foreign policy successes. He threatened war with Britain over the issue of which nation owned the Oregon Country, then backed away and split the ownership of the region with Britain. When Mexico rejected American annexation of Texas, Polk led the nation to a sweeping victory in the Mexican-American War, which gave the United States most of its present Southwest. He secured passage of the Walker tariff of 1846, which had low rates that pleased his native South, and he established a treasury system that lasted until 1913.

    Polk oversaw the opening of the U.S. Naval Academy and the Smithsonian Institution, the groundbreaking for the Washington Monument, and the issuance of the first postage stamps in the United States.

    I had to wonder if Mittens had read the whole thing when I saw this:
    When the parents took James to church to be baptized, the father Samuel refused to declare his belief in Christianity, and the minister refused to baptize the child.
    Dad sounds like a feisty fellow:
    Polk was admitted to the bar in June 1820 and his first case was to defend his father against a public fighting charge, and secure his release for a one dollar fine.
    I know the political parties have changed a lot over the years, and that there were no Republicans in Polk's day. Just Whigs. But does Mittens know that Polk was a Democrat?
    He was selected as a compromise candidate at the convention.
    When advised of his nomination, Polk replied: "It has been well observed that the office of President of the United States should neither be sought nor declined. I have never sought it, nor should I feel at liberty to decline it, if conferred upon me by the voluntary suffrages of my fellow citizens."
    So maybe Mitt should read that part and stop seeking the office of the President, since he wants to emulate James K. Polk.

    "I think of the right-wing Republicans as jihadists; they’re as crazy as those people. They want to destroy the country that we want to save." Paul Auster

    by zesty grapher on Sat Aug 25, 2012 at 06:02:35 PM PDT

  •  Polk's Secretary of State was Buchanan (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Redfire

    who was (probably) gay.

    I wonder if Romney will choose a gay SOS?

    But the angle said to them, "Do not be Alfred. A sailor has been born to you"

    by Dbug on Sat Aug 25, 2012 at 08:12:54 PM PDT

  •  Horrific operation as a youth (0+ / 0-)

    Polk never had good health and nearly died as a boy.  I think he was in late childhood when he was diagnosed with some nasty bladder stones.  Nowadays they'll give you medicine or non-invasive surgery, but back then...

    The doctor strapped his legs to a table and inverted him.  With only whiskey as anesthetic, the doctor cut through his perineum into his bladder and used something to literally scoop out the stones, afterwards stitching him up.  His health dramatically improved (holy cow!) but he never had children.  Some say this operation did the damage to the "plumbing."

    One of the remarkable things about Polk's presidency was his ability to assess the current political environment and have his supporters assist him further.  That's how he even got on the ticket as his name wasn't even in the running before the convention.  He was also quite the people manager (which isn't always a compliment).  That being said, yes he orchestrated the Mexican War as a means to an end.

    Faith Manages. -- J.M. Straczynski

    by Master Alchemi on Sun Aug 26, 2012 at 12:20:54 AM PDT

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