Last week I wrote about having historical blind spots—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 audiobook 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.