hen I was a child studying American history (so-called) in school I used to wonder why James K. Polk was not considered one of the nation’s great presidents. The very shape of the nation was due to his adroit handing of crises with Mexico and Great Britain over what would become the western portion of the nation—from Texas to California to Washington and points in between. Facing a potentially grim two-front war with the major military powers in North America, Polk managed to out-maneuver the one diplomatically while pulling off an upset military victory against the other, and so emerged triumphant at the end of his single term. How many presidents manage as much, with as little fallout?
Not that I admired him. It just seemed odd that so much was made of James Monroe and his doctrine—which didn’t seem to make that much difference, really—and so little of Polk’s achievement, which did. And again, I don’t mean to imply that I gave the matter any deep thought—just that I wondered about, as I looked over whatever dull assignments I was actually stuck with. What were three reasons that the United States was forced into a war with Mexico? Why was this war justified? How did the country benefit? Compare and contrast Zachary Taylor with Antonio López de Santa Anna. Write a 100 word essay explaining the relative claims of Great Britain and the United States to Oregon Country. Were the British justified in their claims? Why not?
My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Allen, was quite sure that the United States had covered all its bases with Mexico by claiming the “disputed territory” both by right of conquest in a just war and by paying Mexico for it after seizing it, at a price the nation could afford. I couldn’t see it. The shop-teacher who taught us history in eighth grade sort of hurried past this stuff to get on to the important Civil War stuff later on. He was big on the Monroe Doctrine for whatever reason, considering it the (shall we say) manifest destiny of our people to control our own continent without European interference, which Monroe had somehow guaranteed.
In high school American history was taught by a two-man team, Mr. Carlson and Mr. Burns, and we finally got into some real history—not a bunch of just-so stories about the past. Mr. Burns rejected the Monroe doctrine as having any significance beyond the symbolic—but we mostly spent this period focusing on the struggle over the internal improvements issue, and the increasing differences between the economies of the northern and southern sections. I don’t remember a damn thing about what we did (if anything) with the Mexican-American war, or Oregon Country either.
One of the things I could never forgive Polk for was dividing Cascadia. Whether the forty-ninth parallel or the Columbia River, it didn’t matter. I would have preferred that the period of joint administration continue, with perhaps Cascadia eventually becoming simultaneously a Canadian province and an American state. Independence would have suited me better. But Oregon country was destined to be fragmented, divided between two nations and four or five subsidiary units. Let it go, I guess.
Anyway it was 2 December 1821 that James Monroe proclaimed what was to be known as the Monroe Doctrine, and 2 December 1845 that James K. Polk urged measures to facilitate expansion westward: “For the protection of emigrants whilst on their way to Oregon against the attacks of the Indian tribes occupying the country through which they pass, I recommend that a suitable number of stockades and blockhouse forts be erected along the usual route between our frontier settlements on the Missouri and the Rocky Mountains, and that an adequate force of mounted riflemen be raised to guard and protect them on their journey.” And it would be in consequence of this development that American citizens—my great-grandfather among them—would come pouring into Oregon country, the tide of immigration setting off a series of wars with the local peoples that ended with them confined and the land transformed.
Maybe it was the magic of manifest destiny. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered who was president. Maybe the result would have been the same no matter the sequence of events. But I don’t think so. I think the United States in general, and Cascadia in particular, look as they do because one man occupied a key position at one particular moment in time. To that extent, at least, I think my childhood impression of James K. Polk was correct. I don’t know about greatness—but I’ll go with significance. It lasts longer.