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James K. Polk

Bluffs and Boundaries: James K. Polk's Policy of Brinkmanship

A Conversation With Sam W. Haynes
University of Texas at Arlington

James.K. Polk James K. Polk

What kind of man was James K. Polk?

James Knox Polk was a small town lawyer — a man who was provincial in both his outlooks and his tastes. He was a man with a very strong sense of duty and professional obligation that made him seem cold, aloof and distant to many people. He was not a man who made friends easily or who had many interests. As far as we know, as President, his only reading materials were government documents and Bible scriptures.

Polk was very methodical — a man who paid scrupulous attention to detail. He was a man whose mind was closed to abstractions and new ideas. But one of the truly striking things about Polk was his self-confidence. In the diary he kept as President of the United States, there's absolutely no evidence of self-doubt.

What were Polk's objectives when he took office?

Polk believed very strongly in the Jacksonian agenda, so this gave him a sense of focus that perhaps others lacked. He doesn’t seem to have had any interest in or aptitude for conceptionalizing broader policy issues. He was much more interested in policy implementation. That’s not to say that Polk was not interested in the big picture — he just needed someone to draw it for him.

And that person was Andrew Jackson. Shortly before his death in 1845, Jackson became obsessed with the idea that Great Britain was trying to hem in the United States and block its territorial growth by establishing political control of such areas as Texas, California and Oregon. In Jackson’s words, this kind of encirclement would "form an iron hoop that would cost oceans of blood to burst asunder." There’s no question that Polk took those dire warnings to heart.

What kind of administrator did Polk turn out to be?

Shortly before Polk became president, he wrote a letter to a friend saying, "I intend to be, myself, president of the United States." Few people could have known what this really meant. Polk was determined to be a vigorous chief executive in much the same way as his mentor, Jackson. Polk didn’t like to delegate authority and he became involved in the everyday affairs of his Cabinet members.

Today, we might refer to Polk as a micro-manager. He was someone who immersed himself in the duties of the office and was involved in literally every detail of the Washington bureaucracy. Of course, you need to bear in mind that the president in those days did not have a large executive staff. In fact, Polk had but one secretarial assistant, whon he paid out of his own pocket. That was the entire executive staff in the White House.

So, whether he liked it or not, Polk was forced to assume many of the duties that we wouldn’t expect a President to perform today. But when the war began, there was never any question that Polk was going to take a hands-on approach to the war effort. He was going to be the Commander-in-Chief in the fullest sense of the term.

What were Polk's intentions when he sent John Slidell to negotiate with Mexico?

When John Slidell received his instructions from Polk's administration, he was given essentially four things to do in Mexico City. The first was to negotiate the Río Grande, (called the Río Bravo del Norte in Mexico) boundary. The second thing was to arrive at some kind of settlement over the claims issue — money that Mexico owed American citizens. Polk thought he could pair the two by writing off that debt in exchange for Mexican recognition of the Río Grande border.

Then, almost as an afterthought, Polk asked Slidell to sound out the Mexican government's interest in selling California and New Mexico. So those were Slidell's four objectives: settling the Río Grande boundary, settling the claims issue, and possibly purchasing California and New Mexico.

Polk didn't realize the kind of reaction this would have in Mexico City. The United States had just acquired Texas, an act which infuriated Mexico and prompted it to suspend diplomatic relations. To send a diplomat down at this stage with instructions to purchase additional Mexican territory was a recipe for disaster.

Why did Polk ask Slidell to pursue the possibility of a California sale at that time?

This was a very sensitive period in U.S.-Mexican relations and clearly, it wasn’t the best time to bring it up. But Polk had received rumors that Great Britain was interested in California and might be moving to assert its political control over that region. There had long been rumors that Mexico, which was deeply in debt to Great Britain, might cede California to British bond holders.

In 1845, therefore, the California issue suddenly took on a new sense of urgency. Polk wanted to acquire California before the British did, and that’s why it was inserted into Slidell's instructions.

Polk wanted California but even more, he didn't want Great Britain to have it. Polk’s assumption was that the United States would acquire California at some point in the not-too-distant future. But the rumors that Mexico might cede the territory to the British worried Polk a great deal. It meant the distinct possibility that the United States might be prevented from expanding all the way to the Pacific Ocean. So even though this was a very sensitive point in U.S.-Mexican relations, Polk asked Slidell to negotiate for the sale of California and New Mexico.

What did this say about Polk's understanding of international diplomacy?

The subtleties of diplomatic negotiations between nations were completely lost on someone like James K. Polk. He practiced a policy of brinkmanship. It didn’t really matter whether the country was Mexico or Great Britain — the negotiating posture remained the same. Polk really believed that he could pressure both nations into surrendering to American demands.

This posed a very serious problem in the case of Mexico. Mexico was very sensitive to American territorial ambitions, so when the United States tried to press additional territorial demands, Mexico had no intention of complying.

Polk didn’t care about the Mexican reaction. When he sent Slidell to Mexico City, it seemed he never considered that this was going to have a disastrous impact on U.S.-Mexican relations. Some people have argued that this suggests Polk’s contempt for the Mexican people, and I think that’s a valid argument. Polk was completely oblivious to the Mexican position and temperament. It just simply didn’t matter to him.

The Polk administration didn’t understand Mexican politics. José Joaquín de Herrera's government was willing to meet the administration halfway and was the first Mexican government willing to even entertain the possibility that Texas was lost forever. Then, the United States sent Slidell to Mexico with a list of impossible demands, which, more than anything else, was responsible for the collapse of the Herrera regime. The ironic thing is that both Polk and Slidell were glad that Herrera had fallen because they viewed him as a weak president and had hoped that a stronger president might be in a better negotiating position. What they didn’t understand was that General Mariano Paredes, who overthrew Herrera's government and installed himself as Mexico's president, was very anti-American and U.S.-Mexican relations deteriorated still further.

Polk may have actually been surprised when Mexican troops fired on Zachary Taylor’s forces. Polk operated under the assumption that diplomatic pressure and military pressure would force Mexico to surrender to American demands.

Polk pushed the declaration of war message through Congress with limited debate. He had rejected diplomacy as an option by that point and, as a result of Mexico’s rejection of Slidell, decided that a war was necessary to defend the national honor.

Because shots had been fired against American troops, Congress felt there was no other alternative but to stand behind the President in this crisis. But there were many members of Congress — Whigs and Democrats — who felt that they had been railroaded and pressured into agreeing to a declaration of war against Mexico. They felt that the pros and cons of a war had not been satisfactorily weighed. So, there was a sense of lingering resentment on Capitol Hill that resurfaced later as congressmen of both parties began to speak out against the President’s war effort.

Was Polk being optimistic when he thought it would be a brief war, or was he just short-sighted?

Polk didn’t think the war was going to last very long. If someone had told him in the beginning that in 18 months, U.S. troops would be encamped outside Mexico City, he simply wouldn’t have believed it. Polk fully expected Mexico to capitulate at the first opportunity. He thought the war was over when he learned of the American victories at Resaca de la Palma and Palo Alto, but it wasn’t. He thought the war was over after Taylor’s victory at Monterrey but, again it wasn’t. Polk was absolutely convinced that the end was in sight when Winfield Scott seized Veracruz. And, of course, it wasn’t.

When Santa Anna offered to sell California and New Mexico for thirty million dollars, he sent the wrong message to someone like James K. Polk. From that point on, Polk believed that Mexican leaders would much rather sell off large parcels of the national domain than undertake a costly war, and that’s one of the biggest mistakes that he made during this conflict.

Polk couldn’t understand why Mexico kept on fighting. As the war became a protracted one, the anti-war movement in the United States kept growing. And like the war in Vietnam, a little more than a century later, the United States began to find itself in a quagmire from which there seemed to be no honorable way out.

For Polk, the only option was to push forward — to continue to pressure Mexico militarily and diplomatically in the hopes of bringing the war to a speedy conclusion.

As a president, how is Polk remembered?

Polk was a very strong executive, particularly by 19th century standards. He had a clearly defined political agenda, something very few 19th-century presidents had, which he fulfilled. The Democrats were deeply divided over a number of issues in the 1840s, so that makes his accomplishments all the more significant and remarkable.

Polk will always be judged harshly for the U.S.-Mexican War. Clearly, he was responsible for making the United States a transcontinental empire. At the same time, he was also responsible for a retreat from the idealism of the 18th century.

Many historians have never forgiven James K. Polk for that. What they see in him is a president who waged a war of conquest against a weaker neighbor. But the consequences of that war clearly benefited the United States.

So, how do you reconcile the two? On one hand, do Americans want to accept their role as a world power or do they want to adhere to those lofty principles that were responsible for the birth of this nation in the 18th century?

Those are questions that won’t go away. Americans have been forced to deal with them from the mid-1800s to well into the 20th century. Americans, particularly in their relations with other nations, have had to come to grips with the essential paradox of what their republic is all about.