About the Author
Robert Merry is the editor of The National Interest. He has been a Washington correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and the executive editor of the Congressional Quarterly. He has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The National Review, The American Spectator, and The National Interest. He has appeared on Meet the Press, Face the Nation, Newsmakers, and many other programs. The author of McKinley, he lives in McLean, Virginia.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
A Country of Vast Designs INTRODUCTION: RITUAL OF DEMOCRACY The Emergence of an Expansionist President
PRECISELY AT SUNRISE on the morning of March 4, 1845, the roar of cannon shattered the dawn’s early quiet of Washington, D.C.—twenty-eight big guns fired in rapid succession. Thus did the American military announce to the nation’s capital that it was about to experience the country’s highest ritual of democracy, the inauguration of the nation’s executive leader and premier military commander. James Knox Polk was about to become that leader and commander. On this morning he was ensconced along with his wife, Sarah, at the National Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, known popularly as Coleman’s, just ten blocks east of the White House. That night the two of them would be residing at the presidential mansion.
At forty-nine, Polk would be the youngest of the country’s eleven presidents—and, in the view of his many detractors, the most unlikely. Until the previous May of 1844, when he had emerged unexpectedly as the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, few had imagined the man would ever rise to the presidency. Indeed, just a year earlier his political career had appeared in ruin following his third campaign for Tennessee governor. He had won the office in 1839 but had been expelled two years later by a backwoods upstart known as Lean Jimmy Jones, who had greeted his exacting rhetoric and serious demeanor with lighthearted buffoonery. Trying again in 1843 to outmaneuver this unlikely rival, he once again failed, causing friend and foe alike to dismiss his political prospects.
But those observers hadn’t grasped Polk’s most powerful trait— his absolute conviction that he was a man of destiny. Throughout his political life he had been underestimated by his rivals in the Whig Party and also by some of his own Democratic colleagues. When he had captured his party’s presidential nomination, the country’s leading Whig newspaper sneered in derision. “This nomination,” declared the National Intelligencer
, “may be considered as the dying gasp, the last breath of life, of the ‘democratic’ party.” The newspaper said it couldn’t imagine a “less imposing” opponent.
It was true Polk lacked the soaring attributes of the era’s two rival political giants, Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay. He didn’t possess Jackson’s forceful presence or his blunt-spoken way of attracting men instantly to his cause and his side. Nor could he match the lanky Clay’s famous wit, his smooth fluency with the language, his ability to amuse and charm those around him even as he slyly dominated them. By contrast, Polk was small of stature and drab of temperament. Upon his Washington arrival for the inauguration, some of his former colleagues noted he appeared thinner than before, and one wit suggested if he hadn’t had his coats cut a size or two large, “he would be but the merest tangible fraction of a President.”
Polk lacked the skills and traits of the natural leader. His silvery gray hair, in retreat from his forehead but abundant elsewhere, was brushed back across his head and allowed to flow luxuriantly below his collar. His probing blue eyes, deep set under dark brows, reflected a tendency toward quick and rigid judgment. Seldom did his thin lips convey any real mirth or jocularity, and the powerful jaw that jutted from his countenance signaled a narrowness of outlook tied to a persistence of resolve. Polk lacked the easy manner and demeanor that bespoke friendship and camaraderie. He didn’t much like people. What he liked was politics, the art and challenge of moving events in the favored direction, which for Polk meant the direction most favored by Democrats. People thus were a means to an end, figures on a vast civic chessboard of national destiny, to be directed and positioned in such a way as to move the country where he wanted to move it. Though a man of conviction and rectitude, he often allowed himself to become encased in his own sanctimony.
These traits shrouded the real James Polk, whose analytical skills and zest for bold action often placed him in position to outmaneuver his adversaries. He understood the forces welling up within the national polity and how they could be harnessed and dominated. He was a master in the art of crafting an effective political message. And he never allowed himself to be deflected from his chosen path by the enmity of his foes or their dismissive regard toward him or their unremitting opposition.
Besides, he enjoyed the friendship and mentorship of Andrew Jackson, Old Hickory, the country’s most popular figure and its dominant political voice for the past twenty years. Jackson had been a longtime friend of the Polk family, had watched young James grow up, had counseled him on whom to marry and how to manage his career. So now on this momentous morning, as he began his day at Coleman’s and prepared for the events ahead, his inauguration must have seemed the most natural thing in the world even as he knew it struck most others as utterly accidental.
From a window of his suite that morning, Polk could see the prospect of rain reflected in a charcoal sky. Yet the enthusiasm of democracy was running high. For days Washington had teemed with all manner of people thronging there for the festivities—“office seekers and office-expectants, political speculators and party leaders without number, and of every caliber,” as the Intelligencer
put it, adding that the crowd also included “strangers of every rank in life, and every variety of personal appearance.” Hotels and boardinghouses were sold out, and some halls and bars spread pallets upon their floors to accommodate wayworn arrivals.
At ten o’clock the cannon roared again as part of a succession of inauguration day salutes, this one signaling the ceremonial procession was to begin forming at the western end of Pennsylvania Avenue for the mile-and-a-half ride up the boulevard to the Capitol. At precisely that time, as if summoned by the cannon, the rain began a steady downbeat. Up went a multitude of umbrellas. A British journalist, surveying the scene from the west end of the avenue, said it looked like “a long line of moving umbrellas, terminating at the Capitol, the dome of which towered up like a gigantic umbrella held aloft by some invisible hand.”
Leading the procession was the inauguration’s chief marshal and his aides, bedecked in silks and ribbons and carrying distinctive batons of officialdom: branches of “young hickory,” alluding to Polk’s nickname as protégé of Old Hickory. The marshals were followed by various local military units as well as leading officers of the day. Then came members of the area’s clergy and behind them the open carriage transporting President-elect Polk and his predecessor, John Tyler of Virginia. Next in line came the justices of the Supreme Court; then the diplomatic corps; members and ex-members of Congress; participants at the Democratic convention in Baltimore that had nominated Polk the previous May over New York’s Martin Van Buren, the former president who had hungered for a White House return; then governors and ex-governors.
A place in the procession had been reserved for ex-presidents, but only one such dignitary was in town that day, and he had declined the honor. That was John Quincy Adams, the New England moralist and political ascetic who had been expelled from the White House by Andrew Jackson sixteen years before. He had salved the wounds of defeat by taking up duties as an outspoken member of the House of Representatives, whence he waged unrelenting war upon Democratic aims. He had greeted Polk’s election with near despair. “I mused over the prospects before me,” he had written, “with the impression that they portend trials more severe than I yet have passed through.”
The many military bands within the procession played lively marches to stir a buoyant mood among the throngs jammed compactly along the avenue. The rain may not have dampened the mood, but it drenched everything else. Military plumes began to droop, the white silk badges of the marshals stuck fast to their soaked black coats, and pretty dresses absorbed water. Meanwhile, in the shelter of the Capitol, the Senate was called to order precisely at eleven o’clock. Like the streets and plazas outside, the galleries and nearby stairwells were filled to overflowing. The chamber bustled with the arrival of special guests—Supreme Court justices, House leaders, the District of Columbia marshal. Polk and his designated vice president, George M. Dallas of Pennsylvania, appeared precisely at eleven-forty amid much interest and bustle on the floor and in the galleries.
The next order of business was the swearing in of George Dallas, then fifty-two. His most distinguishing physical characteristic was a head of thick flowing hair, white as milk, which accentuated his dark eyebrows and a broad face that displayed friendly resolve. Sarah Polk considered him an “elegant man, exceedingly handsome and gentle.” He had served in the U.S. Senate at an early age, then held jobs as Pennsylvania attorney general and U.S. minister to Russia. He was part of a Democratic faction in his state that seemed in perpetual conflict with another faction led by Senator James Buchanan, designated as Polk’s new secretary of state. The issue seemed to be who would control Pennsylvania’s Democratic patronage, and Dallas had expected his vice presidential elevation to settle the question in his favor. “I am resolved that no one shall be taken from Pennsylvania [into the Polk administration] who is notoriously hostile to the Vice-President,” he had written to a friend amid rumors that Buchanan might be tapped for Polk’s cabinet. “If such a choice be made my relations with this administration are at an end.” Such a choice was made, and Dallas promptly cast aside his private threat. But the animosities constituted a political reality that Polk needed to monitor.
At around eleven-forty-five, the Senate’s president pro tempore, Willie P. Mangum of North Carolina, administered the oath of office to Dallas, who then delivered a brief speech marked by appropriate democratic platitudes mixed with appropriate expressions of humility. “The citizen whom it has pleased a people to elevate by their suffrages from the pursuits of private and domestic life,” he intoned, “may best evince his grateful sense of the honor ... by devoting his faculties, moral and intellectual, resolutely to their service. This I shall do; yet with a diffidence unavoidable to one conscious that almost every step in his appointed path is to him new and untried.”
History doesn’t record whether, as Dallas droned on, some in the audience perhaps found their minds wandering to thoughts of forthcoming political battles. Many of those assembled were destined to play major roles in those battles. James Polk had studied these men with his hallmark attention to detail and penetration of human traits and foibles. Polk knew his first priority would be keeping his party together, and down on the Senate floor he could see just how difficult that would be. He needed to look no further than to two of the Senate’s most powerful and willful Democrats—Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton and South Carolina’s George McDuffie—who pressed their convictions with a white-hot intensity that often melted any prospect for measured political behavior. Though both proudly carried the Democratic imprimatur, each reserved for the other a degree of political vitriol seldom directed at members of the opposition Whigs.
McDuffie, a senator since December 1842 and his state’s governor before that, was a protégé and ally of South Carolina’s fiery John C. Calhoun. An oval-faced man with dark, deep-set eyes and a recessive chin, McDuffie represented the extreme states’ rights views that had emerged with South Carolina’s efforts during Jackson’s presidency to “nullify” federal laws distasteful to the state. Andrew Jackson had quashed this rebellion by threatening to hang Calhoun and any other traitors who sought to rend the hallowed union. But the sentiments behind it continued to percolate in some southern precincts, most notably in South Carolina.
Thomas Hart Benton despised those sentiments. He was a man given to flights of outrage that unleashed in turn torrents of outrageous rhetoric. John Tyler called him “the most raving political maniac I ever knew.” Benton was an imposing man with a big face, full of crags, and a beak of a nose. He spoke with authority and an air suggesting he didn’t have much patience for the mutterings of lesser men, a category that seemed to include most of those with whom he came into contact. He fancied himself a fighter, and he had a history of several duels to prove it. As a young man in Tennessee, he became embroiled in an altercation with Andrew Jackson that quickly escalated into an angry gun battle. Benton had been a protégé of Jackson and his aide-de-camp during the War of 1812, but the younger man had become enraged at Jackson’s decision to serve a friend as second at the friend’s duel with Benton’s brother, Jesse. Jesse took a bullet to the buttocks, which proved humiliating, and Thomas Benton blamed Jackson for fostering the duel. The brothers trashed Jackson’s name throughout Nashville with such abandon that the proud Jackson went after the two of them outside a downtown saloon with a riding whip. It ended with multiple wounds for Benton and a bullet-shattered shoulder for Jackson that nearly claimed his life. Concluding Tennessee was now enemy territory, Benton promptly set out for Missouri, where he emerged as its leading politician. When the territory became a state in 1821, it sent Benton to the U.S. Senate, where he nurtured his identity as a man of absolute independence. Though a proud Democrat, he could never be counted on to adhere with any consistency to the party line. He adhered only to the Thomas Hart Benton line.
Benton had awarded his political loyalty to former President Van Buren, and he felt rage toward the Democratic politicians who had maneuvered to deny Van Buren his party’s nomination at the Baltimore convention. Polk studiously had avoided any overt action that could be construed as inimical to Van Buren’s ambitions. Though Benton publicly had accepted Polk’s denials, privately he wasn’t so sure. But about George McDuffie and John C. Calhoun he harbored no doubts. They were the enemy.
The issue was Texas annexation and, just behind it, slavery. Texas had exploded onto the political scene quite unexpectedly when Tyler had negotiated an annexation treaty with this Southwest country that had secured its independence from Mexico through force of arms. It turned out that annexation was hugely popular in the United States, but an instinctive wariness emerged within the political establishment. Many politicians feared war with Mexico, which had never accepted or recognized Texas independence. They feared also an intensification of the slavery issue as the country grappled with the question of whether this vast new territory would be free or slave. Both Van Buren, the presumed Democratic presidential candidate, and Clay, the assured Whig candidate, had declared their opposition to immediate annexation, and both saw their presidential hopes destroyed in the bargain. Polk, attuned to political sentiment and attentive to Jackson’s expansionist instincts, had immediately embraced annexation, and this had helped boost him to the presidency.
Now, with the rain-soaked multitude about to witness Polk’s swearing in, the Texas issue still loomed large over the political landscape, generating aci...
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