20 July 2009

President Polk and the National Honor

Few United States presidents were as avowedly expressionistic as President James Knox Polk. During his administration (1845-1849) more land was added to the nation than during that of any predecessor save Thomas Jefferson. Only the Louisiana Purchase and the acquisition of Alaska were greater territorial gains than those made by Polk. He added California, the Territories of Oregon and New Mexico (embracing the Pacific Northwest and the American Southwest), and concluded the annexation of Texas.

Prominent in Polk's rhetoric of expansion is language concerning national honor and destiny. Indeed, it was one of his supporters, John L. O'Sullivan, who coined the expression "manifest destiny."* At crucial points in his communications to Congress, Polk's arguments rely upon imprecise vocabulary: adjectives such as patriotic, just, honorable, and noble abound--often in their noun forms. He opened his inaugural address, for example, by describing the Presidency as "the most honorable and most responsible office on earth"; his "countrymen ... [h]onored [him] with this distinguished consideration" (Richardson, 2223)** Similarly, in his first annual message to Congress he articulated his objections to the British proposal to settle the boundary issue in Oregon:
The British proposition of compromise, which would make the Columbia the line south of 49°, with a trifling addition of detached territory to the United States north of that river, and would leave on the British side two-thirds of the whole Oregon Territory, including the free navigation of the Columbia and all the valuable harbors on the Pacific, can never for a moment be entertained by the United States without an abandonment of their just and clear territorial rights, their own self-respect, and the national honor. (Richardson, 2247-48)
Asserting these "clear territorial rights" was his principal goal as President.

Polk explained the United States' claims with respect to those of European nations in terms which echo the Monroe Doctrine:
it should be distinctly announced to the world as our settled policy that no future European colony or dominion shall with our consent be planted or established on any part of the North American continent. (Ricardson, 2249)
This policy of reserving to the United States exclusive rights of expansion in North America is based on "the principle that the people of this continent alone have the right to decide their own destiny" (Richardson, 2248).

Such language could seem anti-imperialistic, supporting the rights of all peoples to choose their own forms of government; but Polk intends it to be more narrowly construed. Such rights only belong to members of an enlightened, civilized society with republican institutions. Indigenous peoples, as European law asserts, have their title to land extinguished to make way for civilization. Even the Cherokee, the most exemplary of the "civilized tribes", "have not yet advanced to such a state of civilization as to dispense with the guardian care and control of the Government of the United States" (Richardson, 2280). Consequently, disputes between different factions of Cherokee require the paternal intervention of the federal government for resolution. However, Polk's attempts to resolve these disputes by negotiating a new treaty overlooks the fact that it is the refusal of certain members of the tribe to sacrifice their nation's political sovereignty in a treaty with the United States that created the factionalism in the first place.

In his policies towards tribal peoples Polk followed the pattern established by his mentor, Andrew Jackson. Indian tribes were removed from their homelands to Indian Territory where they would be out of the way of white settlers. In his first annual address, Polk described the relations between the United States and the several tribes as "favorable".
Our relations with the Indian tribes are of a favorable character. The policy of removing them to a country designed for their permanent residence west of the Mississippi, and without the limits of the organized States and Territories, is better appreciated by them than it was a few years ago, while education is now attended to and the habits of civilized life are gaining ground among them. (Richardson, 2261)
Those tribal members who most fully assimilate, while they must live in that territory designated for Indians, will be accorded a measure of respect and political autonomy. John Ross, for example, representing "what is termed the government party of the Cherokees" (Richardson, 2309) has his opinions transmitted by President Polk to Congress.

Native Americans (as they would be called later) are not the "natives of this land" who may determine their own destiny in Polk's messages. Rather, it is necessary to "cultivate amicable relations" with the tribes beyond the Rocky Mountains because "care and protection ... is due from the Government in that distant region" (Richardson, 2246). Polk claims in his inaugural address that "[o]ur title to the country of Oregon is 'clear and unquestionable'" (Richardson, 2231). This title is strengthened by America's most patriotic citizens: settlers of western lands.
It is to the enterprise and perseverance of the hardy pioneers of the West, who penetrate the wilderness with their families, suffer the dangers, the privations, and hardships attending the settlement of a new country, and prepare the way for the body of emigrants who in the course of a few years usually follow them, that we are in a great degree indebted for the rapid extension and aggrandizement of our country. (Richardson, 2259)
These men, at the time of his inaugural, are "Preparing to perfect that title [to Oregon] by occupying it with their wives and children" (Richardson, 2231).

But this territorial "aggrandizement" is not a war of conquest. Rather, the structure of the United States as a "confederation of independent States," Polk suggests, assures that its "Government can not be otherwise than pacific" (Richardson, 2230). Even so, it was Polk who led the United States into war with Mexico. He said that this war should have been unnecessary because Mexico, like the United States, had been a European colony that cast off the rule of Europe to form a Republic. The republican government in Mexico proved weaker than that in the United States; under the military leadership of Santa Anna, Mexico pursued a course "of seizure and confiscation of the property of our citizens, the violation of their persons, and the insults to our flag" (Richardson, 2324). This list of Mexico's violations appears repeatedly in Polk's writing leading up to the war with Mexico, as well as in his retrospective comments as peace negotiations progressed. The order varies, but "violation of their persons" never comes first.

Polk prefers abstractions to specific terminology. Although his annual messages are filled with specific numbers listing desired appropriations, his arguments rest on language to which it was difficult to object. War was necessary because Mexico was not "restrained by the laws which regulate the conduct of civilized nations" (Richardson, 2324). Once war broke out, it was Polk's expressed "desire to terminate ... the existing war with Mexico by a peace just and honorable to both parties." The major obstacle to peace, indeed the true cause of the war, was "adjustment of a boundary between the two Republics which shall prove satisfactory and convenient to both" (Richardson, 2309).

Early in Polk's administration, he issued a presidential order mourning the death of Andrew Jackson. In the order George Bancroft, acting Secretary of War, memorialized Jackson as the nation's "most illustrious citizen ... Child of a forest region and a settler of the wilderness ... Crowned with glory in war, in his whole career as a statesman he showed himself the friend and lover of peace" (Richardson, 2234). As his mentor, Polk pursued "pacific" policies which resulted in such territorial gains that in his farewell address he could declare the frontier of the United States to be at its geographical center.

*See Frederick Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History: A Reinterpretation (1963).

**James D. Richardson, comp., Messages and Papers of the Presidents, vol. 4, part 3 (1911). Available since 2004 through Project Gutenberg.

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