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Book Review: A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent by Robert W. Merry

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In his newest book, A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent, historian Robert W. Merry brilliantly illustrates the largely forgotten presidency of James K. Polk.  Unfortunately, he loses much of the reader's goodwill with an opinionated, heavy-handed epilogue.

Merry's afterword takes the reader by surprise because he has done such a fine job of examining the particular problems facing President Polk without drawing overly broad conclusions.  He doesn't ignore the controversial aspects of the Polk administration, nor does he avoid their implications in a modern context.  He also manages to put these issues in a broader context while explaining them as a consequence of their particular environment.

Polk was a one-term president whose greatest flaw, Merry claims, was a lack of political grace or charm.  Merry's prose gives us a real sense of the man here rather than a historical caricature.  Polk, we learn, had a good deal of personal charm, but when it came to forming political alliances and setting a strong example for his administration, he failed rather dramatically.

Polk did succeed in realizing a very specific, yet strikingly bold, political agenda.  Merry claims, with a great deal of support, that Polk succeeded in achieving all of his primary political goals despite his shortcomings.  Merry also does a fine job of clearly establishing the difficult circumstances under which Polk was operating.  The issue of slavery was already fanning the flames of disunion, and the issue only became more prominent after Polk annexed Texas and waged war in Mexico.  Merry focuses specifically on Polk and the Mexican War in the book, and I'd say that even a reader already familiar with the historical background will none the less learn a great deal.

Had the book ended with this, it would have earned a solid recommendation.  Merry adds a great deal to our understanding of this pivotal era in American history.  And so it is that much more surprising that he chooses to include an epilogue that lacks the grace of the rest of the book, while providing a weak justification for doing so.

The basic message of the epilogue is that Polk has been unfairly maligned by history.  This is somewhat understandable, but Merry's attempts to support this idea are unconvincing.  He suggests that Polk's reputation comes from the imperial aspect of his presidency, notably the cynical attempt to justify the Mexican War as anything but a bid for land.  This claim is puzzling, since Merry had illustrated (quite well) in the book Polk's less-than-noble intentions concerning the Mexican conflict.  He does state that Mexico doesn't get blamed enough for its role, which may be true, but doesn't make Polk any less responsible for his actions.

There are more examples of statements that seem to contradict his own words earlier in the book.  He accuses Mexico of firing the first shots in the war.  This is, by his own account, a dubious statement at best, and one that still doesn't justify any response, however unreasonable.  He issues a ringing endorsement of the Manifest Destiny principle, citing the "force of democratic rule" that enabled America to embrace "this heady vision of national destiny."  It's unclear just what element of the Mexican War showed this "force of democratic rule," even before considering slavery, limited suffrage, and the undemocratic nature of the country at the time.

The most confusing statement, though, is that history doesn't move on a concern for humanity, but rather "moves forward with a crushing force and does not stop for niceties of moral suasion or concepts of political virtue."  I'm at a loss as to what this really means.  History is typically shaped by the "crushing force" of the powerful over the powerless, but are we supposed to just accept it?  Or even endorse it?  Then why address it at all?

It's disappointing to see that Merry's good work throughout the book is tainted by some sort of ultra-nationalist view of history, a view that doesn't appear in the book at all until the very end.  I wish that the editor had placed this statement at the beginning of the book, so that the reader would know what to expect before starting.  Putting it at the end inevitably dampens the reader's enthusiasm for the rest of the book, which is truly unfortunate.

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