Friday, May 13, 2011

Polk's Precedent

One hundred and sixty-four years ago today, at the behest of the greatest and least heralded U.S. President of the Nineteenth Century--James Knox Polk--the Congress of the United States declared war on Mexico.

The proximate casus belli was tension over the admission into the union of the Republic of Texas, including territory still claimed by Mexico.  In truth, the conflict was a war of conquest in fulfillment of the American foreign policy concept of Manifest Destiny.  At war's end, Mexico ceded, according to the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, all of the territory which was later to become the States of California, Utah, Arizona and Nevada (as well as territory that would become portions of Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming).  

Frankly, as much as the Colonel is a huge fan of Polk, he is disappointed with the 11th President for not annexing all of Mexico (as many in his party--Democrats--were rightfully demanding).  The Colonel can only imagine the economic, resource, and social advantages that would have accrued to our nation had the United States added a dozen or more States stretching from California to well south of the Yucatan.  Our present issue with illegal immigration and the violent Mexican narco free-fall toward failed state status would in all likelihood be...,well, non-issues.  

The Colonel has little doubt in his military mind that, at this point in this egregious waste of rod and cone time, there are many readers with hands reflexively to mouths in horror (or a liberal facsimile thereof) at the thought of our nation making such a nakedly imperialistic land grab.  The Colonel would point out to those of you hyperventilating from behind your cupped phalanges, that the history of man is the history of men taking territory from those who took it from someone else, and that if our American ancestors had not taken land from others we Americans would probably not exist as such nor enjoy the highest standard of living and wealth of social accomplishments ever seen in the solar system.

But the Colonel digresses.

Just prior to initiating hostilities against Mexico, President Polk's administration negotiated (some today call his negotiating style "brinkmanship" due to its bellicosity) the terms of the Oregon Treaty by which the United States gained exclusive possession of the territory that would later become the States of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho (as well as portions of Montana and Wyoming).   

Thus, President Polk's muscular foreign policy resulted in the extension of the boundaries of the United States all the way to the Pacific Ocean and increased the territory of the United States by a third.  In fact, Polk increased the territory of the United States by significantly more contiguous land area than did President Jefferson's much more highly lauded Louisiana Purchase.  

Polk was not only a foreign policy visionary with significant achievements attendant to his vision, but was a domestic policy champion as well.  He created the Department of the Interior, oversaw the establishment of the United States Naval Academy and the Smithsonian Institute, re-established an independent Treasury, and reduced trade-strangling tariffs.  Were he alive today, he would undoubtedly be a darling of the Tea Party for his veto of federal funding for state and local projects that forestalled, albeit briefly, the scourge of political pork rampant in our republic.

Slight of stature and temperate in nature, Polk was nonetheless renowned for his oratory (often without notes and always without a teleprompter) which earned him the sobriquet "Napoleon of the Stump." In office, he was referred to as "Young Hickory" after his mentor and fellow Tennessean Andrew "Old Hickory" Jackson.  The youngest man (49) to assume the Presidency to that time, Polk was not without qualification, having served as Chairman of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Governor of the State of Tennessee.  

Polk is still the only Speaker of the House to serve as President.   

The Colonel would be remiss to not mention the one blight on Polk's memory--he was a slave-owner.  He was in "good" company as such, however--nine of his predecessors and four of his successors, were, or had been, slave-owners at one time.  Polk's will stipulated that his slaves were to be freed upon his wife's death.

Polk's accomplishments as President are all the more impressive given that he did not overtly seek the office, and, once nominated by his party as a compromise candidate, pledged to serve only one term.   A pledge he honored without prevarication.

Who is the man with Polk's temperament, moral and physical stature, foreign and domestic policy principles, and breadth of leadership experience in American politics today?

Mitch Daniels.
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