Monday, December 9, 2013

Reviewing "A Country of Vast Designs" by Robert W. Merry

While I love history, there are certain time periods (usually the 1700’s) that I don’t really know about. Often I’ll pick a nonfiction book by virtue of my ignorance of its topic.  

“Hey,” I’ll say to myself, “I know next to nothing about President James Polk and the Mexican/American Wars and Manifest Destiny. I think I’ll listen to this audio book recording of A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, The Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent.”

In theory, reading a 592-page book on these subjects should make me an expert in all things Polk-y. Especially since listening to it would (again, in theory) keep me from skimming the pages. I've had success with similar books in the past, enjoying David McCullough’s John Adams (which I read myself) and Joseph J. Ellis’ Founding Brothers and American Creation (via audiobook; I painted a living room, dining room, and two hallways during Founding Brothers). Unfortunately A Country of Vast Designs is not in the intermediate level of history books: you can’t just dive in, like I unfortunately did, with no background on the subject whatsoever, and expect to figure it out as you go along.
Instead, Robert W. Merry’s book focuses a LOT on the politics, the bills and ratifications and the votes and who was controlling Congress and the House and the Senate. His writing takes several topical rabbit-trails into the lives of Andrew Jackson (Polk’s political mentor) and Henry Clay (Polk’s lifelong political rival). Not that these digressions would be bad to someone who knew about Polk already, but to a novice like myself it was distracting. A third of the way through the book I still had no handle on James Polk’s actual character. Even now after reading the entire book, I feel I am as ignorant as when I first began.

However, reading this book was not a total waste of time (though there were moments, such as when I reread an entire CD without realizing it, since the prose seemed so repetitive anyway…). For instance, A Country of Vast Designs really hits home how much the entire nation’s political and cultural identity between the War of 1812 and the Civil War hinged on the topic of slavery. During Polk’s mere four years as president, the United States expanded its borders clear to the Pacific Ocean.  Iowa, Texas and Wisconsin achieved statehood, while the Mexican War and conflicts with Britain ultimately ended with the U.S. claiming two new territories (comprised of what would become Washington, Idaho, Oregon, California, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona). Slavery became the huge impediment to territories gaining statehood: the Southern politicians wouldn't allow any “free” states to join unless a “slave” state was also added, keeping the balance even so that abolitionist politicians couldn’t outvote them and make slavery illegal.

Another theme that Merry underlined was the political “game” of the time. Nowadays it’s a common opinion that politicians are selfish, arrogant, and groping for power. We have a tendency to think politicians are worse than they were years ago, setting up political “saints” like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln and lamenting modern politics. From Merry’s description of many of the political figures in this book, I’d say politicians haven’t gotten worse—though sadly they've also not gotten any better. As for the U.S. politicians during the early 1800’s, gone is the idealism of creating a new republic that we envision when reading about the American Revolution, and I think the reason was directly connected to the problem of slavery and the idea of Manifest Destiny. You can’t build a nation on the idea that “all men are created equal” by compromising with a slave culture…but that’s what the American politicians did during Polk’s administration. You can’t champion a democratic government by acting like an imperial power and going to war to grab land…but that’s what Manifest Destiny and the American/Mexican War was all about. 

The application I took from A Country of Vast Designs is that the problems with the U.S. politics are directly caused by where politicians (and our culture as a whole) diverge from what America is all about. The tenets upon which this country was originally built—life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness—are sound. And, as our past of slavery and empiricism should teach us, it’s when we try to depart from these sound tenets that our country gets into real trouble.


  1. Hi,
    your mom told my mom who then told me about your blog, and I thought I'd check it out. If you don't remember me, I'm the girl who bought nearly the entire set of Sherlock Holmes books from you at a T.E.A.C.H. booksale years ago and who couldn't stop playing basketball during gymclass at the YMCA. Anyway, I'm quite glad I came here. An excellent literary appraisal is the next best thing to the book itself. This is particulary fascinating as my family and I have been watching films about what is really going at the federal level today, the agendas and utter corruption of most of our leaders, and what events in the past brought this about. If I remember correctly, the original draft of the Declaration of Independence had a paragraph that spoke very strongly against slavery, but South Carolina and Georgia refused to sign unless that language was removed. I wonder how history would have differed had that not happened. Oh, for a time machine. ;)

    1. Hi Kayley,
      Yes, I remember you! Thanks for dropping by! I hope my reviews meet your excellent literary appraisal standards. I'll have to look into the Declaration of Independence drafting because that seems vaguely familiar to me, too. Yet another "historical blind spot" to study up on...*sigh.*