Friday, October 17, 2008

Murchison on James Polk

There are few art forms that are more enjoyable than reading a good book review. It is a sort of a cheap thrill (quite literally,) since one gets much of the benefit of a book without having actually to purchase and read it. Thus, for many of us who are addicted to reading book reviews, we are condemned to lives of having read many more reviews than books -- and of having the sum total of our knowledge of a given book filtered through the eyes of a reviewer.

So be it.

Wiliam Murchison (long-time columnist for the Dallas Morning News,) writing in the American Spectator, recently reviewed what sounds like a fascinating biography of President James Polk. Walter R. Borneman's book makes the case that Polk's was a transformative Presidency, and when you read the summary, it's hard to argue otherwise:

Polk got it done. He had promised that inside one term of office -- that was all he wanted and all he said he would accept -- he would assert American title to Oregon; he would bring Texas finally into the Union; he would acquire California; he would reduce the tariff; and he would provide for an independent treasury. Wondrous to say, he did it all. There was some howling: not enough to deflect the president from his chosen course.

Murchison lightly notes that Boston newspapers didn't much care for "Polk's war" (known today as the Mexican-American War.) In fact, we would go further and note that the war spawned the first serious secessionist movement since the founding of the Constitution. One of John Calhoun's later biographers (we can't recall whom,) noted that the South Carolina statesman received much of his education in New England under schoolmasters who were secessionists. While Calhoun's arguments for the right of a state to secede are today considered to be part and parcel of his Southern mindset, they were actually forged in the fires of New England's anti-war sentiment.

But back to the review. Murchison is a descendant of Polk, so admits to not being completely unbiased in his admiration for Polk's accomplishment. He notes that modern political biographies of more distant figures are invariably laden with outright or thinly-veiled parallels to current events (guess which ones in this case.) But one passage sticks out at the end, as Murchison doubtless intends, one that reminds us of what a uniquely golden time the early 19th century was in the life our our country (if you were lucky enough not to be a slave, of course):

An unfamiliar flavor can fill the mouth of an American reader of Borneman -- the flavor of success. We win! Goals, during the Polk administration, get set and met. The United States, in pursuit of objectives that to many moderns would seem prideful or arrogant, strides onto the stage, ready for action. It expands its borders, opens new lands to exploration and development. A United States shorn of its western portion due to political timidity would be a different place from the nation that took shape under James K. Polk.

"Shorn of its western portion" -- enough to make a chill run down the spine, isn't it?


Ed Kemmick said...

It wasn't just the Boston newspapers. U.S. Grant said of the Mexican-American war, in which he fought: "Generally the officers of the army were indifferent whether the annexation was consummated or not; but not so all of them. For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory."

A few pages later, in his Memoirs, he says that once a war has begun, there are "but few public men who would have the courage to oppose it."

Montana Headlines said...

Anti-war sentiment was indeed widespread, especially throughout the north. Among the most prominent were the Whig leaders like Daniel Webster and Henry Clay.

One of Russell Kirk's lauded conservative forefathers -- John Randolph of Roanoke -- was even firmly opposed to the War of 1812.

What has always been most interesting to me about the Mexican-American War, however, is that the same parts of the country that harbored strong secessionist sentiments during that war, indeed articulating the Constitutional grounds for it -- driven by reasonable anti-war sentiment, were willing, and indeed eager, to go to war and see hundreds of thousands of American lives lost on the grounds that the Union must be preserved, regardless of the cost.

Grant may have seen the Mexican-American War as unjust -- and it certainly strikes this old-fashioned conservative as having been so. He seems to have lost his squeamishness about killing Mexican soldiers once he turned to the business of killing other Americans and destroying their property.

But on the other hand, in an indirect way, the Mexican-American War perhaps served the long-term purposes of peace on this continent, just as that other unjust war in 1860 did so. By having a single nation controlling the bulk of North America's land-mass, we were perhaps spared the horrors of the increasingly technologically advanced and bloody neighbor-on-neighbor warfare that plagued Europe all the way through WWII.

That is how Pat Buchanan -- a generally anti-war man of the right -- has defended Lincoln's decision to go to war to preserve the Union in response to Lincoln's modern anti-war detractors in certain parts of the right. He has pointed out that had Lincoln not done so, WWI and II would likely have been fought in our backyards, rather than overseas.