In August of 2007 I set myself a goal to read at least one biography about each U.S. President. I later created a blog entry (which you can find here) that keeps track of my progress and has links to my reviews of each biography.
Of the nine presidents who served between 1837 and 1861, none served for more than four years. By reading about these presidents I am reading a lot about that period in history. I just finished reading A Country of Vast Designs - James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent. It took me over a year to finish, not because it was boring but because I took a several month break.
A Country of Vast Designs is a fascinating book and Polk is a fascinating President. He was president number 11 and served from 1845 to 1849. Polk came into office promising that he would only serve one term. He had four specific goals for his presidency.
- To resolve the dispute with Great Britain over Oregon's fate and make Oregon part of the U.S.
- To acquire California from Mexico
- To reduce the tariff and replace its protectionism.
- To create an independent Treasury
Polk achieved these four goals and is viewed as one of our most effective presidents. But he is almost unknown unless you are a history aficionado.
I don't think most Americans know much about the Mexican war either. It was fought during Polk's four years in office and resulted in the US getting California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and parts of New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming from Mexico. During the war we invaded Mexico and captured Mexico City. Future president Ullysses S, Grant, a lieutenant in the war, called it "the most unjust war ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.... an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies."
Polk is forgotten because a lot of people today agree with Grant. Many Americans would rather forget about the Mexican War, Merry says:
"This lingering sentiment is not surprising in a nation with a powerful strain of foreign policy liberalism - a philosophy that deprecates wars fought for national interest and glorifies those fought for humanitarian ideals. When the United States fought the Mexican War, it decisively chose national interest over humanitarianism, and that breeds still a sense of discomfort among some Americans."
I highly recommend A Country of Vast Designs. It describes a part of our history we should know about and it describes a very interesting man.