Last week marked a time steeped in manifest destiny.
Manifest Destiny. Not a term one hears much today, and a concept liberals and conservatives might debate from both sides of the ideological divide, but an organizing principle from 19th Century America with massive implications for modern day America.
This, then, is a pretty good week to consider President James K. Polk. Nov. 2 marks Polk’s birthday. Born on this day in 1795 at Pineville, North Carolina — he died of cholera only three months after leaving office in 1849 at Nashville — Polk became perhaps the leading political practitioner of manifest destiny. His first State of the Union address on Dec. 2, 1845 was remembered specifically for the vow to extend the United States “from sea to shining sea.”
Walk down any American street and ask people what they think about Polk and for that matter manifest destiny. Odds are many gazes will be empty for whatever reason, a broken education process, historic apathy, simple lack of care.
For those wanting to quantify, YouGov, an international research data and analytics group headquartered in London, crunches the online data for market research. While 82 percent of Americans have heard of Polk, he is considered unfavorably by most of them.
Broken down by age, only 30 percent of Baby Bomers, 27 percent of Gen X and 33 percent of millennials have favorable opionions of our 11 President. YouGov America found that people with favorable ratings for Polk had similar favorability ratings for another US President, Warren G. Harding. Not a coincidence, Harding also was born on Nov. 2. Polk and Hardding are the only US presidents born on the same calendar date.
However, on this birthdate — Polk, the 11th US president, would have turned a Methusal’ish 227 years old this week— let us consider his the manifest destiny he was all-in on pursuing. His presidency running from 1845-to-1849 resulted in the largest territorial expansion in US history as over 1 million square miles of land was added to the nation, mainly through treaty with England and war with Mexico.
Those 1 million miles squared included what is now Arizona, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, Idaho, Washington, much of New Mexico along with parts of Wyoming Montana and Colorado, according to the the University of Virginia’s nonpartisan Miller Center affiliate specializing in presidential scholarship, public policy and political history.
“More than any other president, Polk pursued ‘Manifest Destiny,” a phrase coined by his fellow Jacksonian Democrat, John L. O’Sullivan, to express the conviction that Providence had foreordained the United States to spread republican institutions across North America,” said John C. Pinheiro, a Polk specialist who is professor of history and director of Catholic Studies at Aquinas College
“(Polk) accomplished every major goal that he set for himself as President and in the process successfully waged war against Mexico obtaining for the United States most of its present boundaries as a nation,”Pinheiro said.
The ideology centered on the belief that white Americans were destined by God to conquer North America from “sea to shining sea.” Manifest Destiny as a defined term, was a hotly contested issue ever since the term was coined by O’Sullivan, an influential newspaper editor in 1845. Democrats and southerners seeking to protect and expand slavery were prime movers of the concept. Most Whigs and leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant rejected the idea.
While westward expansion led by the federal government began in earnest with President Thomas Jefferson’s $15 million purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803 — 828,000 square miles doubling the nation’s size — expansion and fulfillment of this particular concept was considered over by 1890 at which time leaders focused more on territory beyond the continental limits.
In 1844, the U.S. population reached 19.6 million people, an increase from 1840 of nearly 2.4 million people. Amazingly, four years later, the national population increased another 2 million, reaching 22 million (a 13-percent increase). Four new states came into the union between the time of Polk’s election and the end of his term: Florida (1845), Texas (1845), Iowa (1846), and Wisconsin (1848). This kept the balance at exactly fifteen slave states and fifteen free states, although the status of California and New Mexico remained undecided when Polk left office
Perhaps, the passage of time and lack of proper PR strategies has moved Polk to an obscure position in the scheme of American political things.
Polk accomplished nearly everything that he said he wanted to accomplish as President and everything he had promised in his party’s platform: acquisition of the Oregon Territory, California, and the Territory of New Mexico; the positive settlement of the Texas border dispute; lower tariff rates; the establishment of a new federal depository system; and the strengthening of the executive office.
The 11th President also masterfully kept open lines of communication with Congress, established the Department of the Interior, built up an administrative press, and conducted himself as a representative of the whole people. Polk came into the presidency with a focused political agenda and a clear set of convictions. He left office the most successful President since George Washington in the accomplishment of his goals, according to Pinheiro.
However, seeds of future failure were sowed within the success. Territorial expansion also expanded the debate over slavery’s future as pro- and anti-slavery forces strove to get their way in newly added territories. We all now how that turned out.
Polk’s critics charge that his underestimation of the Mexican War’s potential for disunion over the issue of slavery and his lack of concern with matters relating to the modernization of the nation contributed greatly to the sectional crisis of 1849-1850 and, in the early 1850s, to the fragmentation of both major parties.
Polk’s critics also accuse him of being too partisan to understand the dangerous depth of the emotions that might erupt over the expansion of slavery westward. He left the nation at the end of his term facing its greatest political and social crisis since the American Revolution. That crisis would progressively tear the nation apart in the twelve years between 1848 and 1860.
It’s a mixed bag to be sure, and we could talk about and debate the concept of Manifest Destiny until the end of time, but this is the week to do it. And next year during this week, we’ll get around to Polk’s birthday buddy, Warren G. Harding.
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