James K. Polk

*The great issue of the election of 1844 was Manifest Destiny—the idea that God had obviously ordained that the American people spread from sea to shining sea, starting by annexing Texas or Oregon or both.

*The Whigs opposed annexation of anything, for several reasons.  The possibility of war was very real if either Texas or Oregon was annexed.  The money spent subduing and settling the new territory would be money that could be better spent on internal improvements or possibly returned to the states.  New western territories would serve to further spread and dilute the American population, which Clay’s followers hoped to unite into one nation through the improvements of the American System.  Besides, the west would probably fill up with people inclined to vote for the party of Jackson.  Finally, any expansion would further the sectional disputes that had barely been solved by the Missouri Compromise:  Northerners would be offended at the annexation of Texas below the 36°30’ line, and Southerners would be concerned by the acquisition of Oregon. 

*The Whigs, once again, nominated Henry Clay.

*The Democrats had also expected to take annexation out of the election as a political issue, as most national politicians saw it for the divisive topic that it was.  The Democratic leadership intended to nominate Martin van Buren again.  Van Buren by this point was a Free-Soil man, opposed to the expansion of slavery, and he would not support the annexation of Texas on moral grounds or the annexation of Oregon for political reasons.

*Although van Buren had a great deal of support in the nominating convention, it was not enough to secure the nomination, and on succeeding ballots it declined each time as more and more competitors arose.  Eventually van Buren’s anti-Texas attitudes became well known, which sealed his fate.  He was opposed by, among others, Lewis Cass, a brigadier general in the War of 1812 and former governor of Michigan, James Buchanan, a career politician and pro-Southern Pennsylvanian, John C Calhoun of South Carolina, a former Vice-President, and James K Polk, former Governor of Tennessee, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and friend of Andrew Jackson

*Ultimately Polk was chosen, in part because, although very well known in Tennessee, he, like Harrison four years before, had few enemies on the national level.  Because he was a relative unknown and something of a surprise nomination, Polk was called a ‘dark horse’ candidate, a term that still exists.

*Polk was also a friend and neighbour of Andrew Jackson, still alive and offering direction to the Democratic Party, and so Polk was presented as ‘Young Hickory,’ the natural successor to Jackson.

*The Whigs, on the other hand, jeered at this dark horse, and asked ‘Who is James K. Polk?’

*Polk ran on an expansionist campaign, calling for the ‘reannexation’ of Texas and the ‘reoccupation’ of Oregon, while the Whigs said that the choices were ‘Polk, Slavery, and Texas’ or ‘Clay, Liberty, and Union.’

*Polk won with 170 electoral votes to 105, becoming the youngest man elected president to that point, but it was a close election in the popular vote.  Polk lost his home state of Tennessee by 123 votes, while New York was lost to Clay when about 16,000 voters chose to vote for the strongly anti-slavery Liberty Party, thereby splitting the vote of the anti-Texas faction and contributing significantly to the defeat of their own cause.  Had Clay had even 5,000 of the Liberty Party’s votes, he would have won New York, the most populous state, and thus the nation. 

*Tyler, who had wanted an excuse to annex Texas, announced that the victory of Polk was a mandate from the people to do so, and he convinced Congress to do so through a joint resolution during the last days of his presidency in 1845.  He retired to Virginia, and would later vote for secession from the Union in 1861, and his plantation would be burned by the US Army.

*Polk was a short, thin man, a great orator and known as the ‘Napoleon of the stump,’ a successful politician and loyal party man in Tennessee, but in private not very interesting.  He was a serious man who took his job seriously and worked himself to death.  During his campaign and presidency, he created and pursued a four-point plan, and promised to retire and not seek a second term if he accomplished it all.  He said 'there are four great measures which are to be the measures of my administration one, a reduction of the tariff; another the independent treasury; a third, the settlement of the Oregon boundary question; and lastly, the acquisition of California.’

*Polk got it all (or close enough).

1. A revenue tariff:  Robert J. Walker, Polk’s Secretary of the Treasury, lowered the tariff from 32% to 25%.  New Englanders and the Middle States opposed it but could not stop it, and were surprised to see that it was successful, thanks in large part to a concomitant economic boom period.

2. An independent treasury:  This revived van Buren’s old plan for treasuries and sub-treasuries to store the government’s gold, that had no business affiliations or direct influence on the economy.

3. Settle the Oregon dispute:  With all of Texas to digest, the clamour of ‘54°40’ or Fight!’ died away, although some Northerners asked why the South got all of Texas while the North only got as much of Oregon as lay south of an extension of the old US-Canadian border, the 49th parallel, over 5 degrees short of what some wanted.  However, most were satisfied to have gotten so much, including land occupied by British forts, without a war.  The British in turn were satisfied to avoid a war, especially since the Hudson’s Bay Company had already trapped a lot of the region’s furs anyway.

4. Acquire California:  Like Texas, California had seen an influx of American immigrants (although only about 1,000 so far, compared to about 13,000 Mexicans in the area, and numerous Indians), and some of them wanted to be part of the United States, and many Americans, including Polk, wanted to help them.

*Although the Oregon dispute was settled without a war, the annexation of Texas and the desire for California could not be.

*In the last days of his presidency, John Tyler had convinced Congress to accept the Republic of Texas as a state in a joint resolution on 26 February, 1845, just before Tyler left office.  Texas officially became the 28th state in December, 1845.

*In the months between his inauguration and Texas’s official admission to the Union, James K. Polk sent John Slidell to Mexico in 1845 to try to get Mexico to accept this annexation and to negotiate the purchase of California and the land to the east.  Slidell was authorised to offer up to $25 million for this, but the Mexican government said it was insulting to try to buy their land at any price, and did not even allow Slidell to formally present his offer.

*With it clear that negotiation was impossible, Polk decided to press the issue, specifically in Texas.  Mexico, of course, did not recognise Texan independence (let along American statehood) at all, but to the extent that it recognised a Texan border, it was based on the Mexican state of Texas’s old boundary at the Rio Nueces.  The Republic of Texas, and now the United States, asserted that the border was at the Rio Grande.

*In January, 1846, Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor, ‘Old Rough and Ready’ to cross the Rio Nueces.  He also ordered the US Navy’s Pacific squadron to be ready to attack the west coast of Mexico. 

*Mexico demanded that Taylor withdraw, and he refused.  At last, on 25 April, 1846, 2,000 Mexican soldiers attacked an American patrol of 70 men, killing 16 of them.  Two much larger battles took place in early May, both of which were American victories, thanks in large part to much better artillery, as well as generally superior American leadership and bravery.

*President Polk declared that American blood had been shed on American soil.  On 13 May, 1846, Congress declared war (although a few Whigs, including John Quincy Adams) voted against it. 

*Later, in 1847, an anti-war Whig Congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, demanded to see the spot of American soil where American blood had been shed in his famous ‘spot resolution.’  At the time, the resolution was not very popular in his home district, and Lincoln was not re-elected (although he had already pledged to serve only one term).

*The Mexican Congress declared war in return on 7 July, 1846, and Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna offered to return to Mexico from his exile in Cuba to lead the army against the Americans, and swore he did not want to be president again.  He also contacted the United States and offered to go to Mexico, take over, and sell all the disputed land to the US.  Mexico invited him to return, the US Navy allowed him to go, and once in command of the Mexican army he declared himself president and moved north to fight Taylor, who had recently crossed the Rio Grande and begun marching towards Monterrey.

*At Monterrey, the new commander of the Mexican army, Pedro de Ampudia, had decided to stand and fight with over 10,000 men to defend the city against Taylor’s 6,000.  The subsequent battle lasted from 21-24 September, 1846.

*Among the defenders of Monterrey were the San Patricio Battalion, made up of Americans (mostly Irish Catholics) who had deserted an army where they were often persecuted for their religion in order to join the Mexican army where they would not have to shoot fellow Catholics.  They fought bravely at Monterrey and several other major battles, partly because they knew they would be executed if captured.

*It looked to be a hard fight.  A large citadel (called the Black Fort by Americans) protected the main road into the city; a river and several hills (most of them defended) protected its southern side.  However, these defences were too far from the city and from each other—it was possible to move around or between them in some places without being in any field of fire.

*Taylor’s plan was to send General William Worth around Monterrey and capture the hills behind the city.  Worth did so and then began attacking the city itself.

*Taylor sent the rest of his army to attack the city from the east end, again bypassing the Black Fort.  Soon the battle turned into house-by-house street fighting, much of it brutal hand-to-hand combat.  Eventually, Mexican General Pedro de Ampudia agreed to negotiate, and because he still had a larger army (even if most of it was trapped in the city plaza), Taylor agreed to let him and his men march South with honour.  There would then be a two month armistice.  This infuriated Polk.

*Polk began planning attacks on the Mexican coast, and withdrew some of Taylor’s army for this new campaign.  When Santa Anna learned of this, he marched north to meet Taylor, but Taylor did not wait for him at Monterrey.  He marched south with what remained of his army until he found a pass through the hills south of a little town called Buena Vista and prepared to defend it with about 4,800 men.  Santa Anna arrived with 12,000 and soon 4,000 more came to join him.

*There was a small skirmish on 22 February, 1847, and on the 23rd Santa Anna attacked Taylor’s lines in earnest, but Taylor was ready for him.  The main road to Buena Vista had gullies on one side and a steep ridge on the other; Taylor placed artillery here to block the road.  He placed most of his men on a large plateau above the road.

*Santa Anna’s first attack was up the road to Buena Vista, and the first wave of men was slaughtered by artillery on the road.  On the main plateau, though, many new recruits broke and ran, exposing the entire left flank of Taylor’s army.  One of his subordinates said, ‘General, we are whipped,’ but Taylor replied, ‘That is for me to determine’ and he sent Jefferson Davis to hold the line.

*They did so, first by holding their fire to lure the Mexicans into an inverted V they formed by pulling their centre back, then firing a devastating volley into the Mexicans in their midst, then pulling out their Bowie knives for hand-to-hand fighting.

*By this point, Taylor (despite being badly outnumbered) was ready to charge.  Santa Anna tried to prevent or delay this by sending an officer with an offer to negotiate peace terms, but Taylor recognised this as a trick (because the Mexicans kept shooting) and ordered the charge.  Although it did not succeed, the Mexicans who counter-attacked were torn apart by American cannon fire.

*After this attack failed, Santa Anna pulled his men back to their camp, and during the night retreated under cover of darkness and began to move back towards Mexico City.  For the moment he had given up on Northern Mexico, partly because Mexico City itself was in danger.

*Winfield Scott was the Commanding General of the US Army when the war began (and held that post from 1841 to 1861, longer than any other officer).  He was a military genius, but arrogant and inclined to say the wrong thing in public.  His troops thought he was pompous and called him ‘Old Fuss and Feathers’ because he loved fancy uniforms, while Polk distrusted him (and Taylor, for that matter) because he was a Whig, and he feared he had political ambitions.  By October, 1846, though, Polk had agreed to let him plan at attack on the Mexican port of Vera Cruz.

*By March, 1847, Scott was ready to land on the shores of Mexico.  He had 12,000 men, while the Mexicans had 3,400 in Vera Cruz, but they were in a highly fortified city.

*Scott’s men landed south of the city in three waves on 9 March, 1847, without taking a single casualty. 

*Scott intended to reduce the city by siege, even though many of his officers wanted to make a direct assault.  It took nearly two weeks to set up his artillery as he wanted them.  This was hard because they had to create earthworks in sand, which was hard to dig in effectively, although the high dunes hid much of the American effort from the Mexicans.  Scott even borrowed some heavy guns from the Navy, designed for bombarding fort walls, and accepted the Navy’s offer to fire on the city from the sea.

*Scott gave the Mexican commander the chance to surrender on 22 March, but he refused, and despite Scott’s warning, foreigners in Vera Cruz chose not to leave.  That evening, Scott’s batteries opened fire.

*The bombardment lasted three days, until the city finally stopped fighting on 25 March, when resident foreigners asked Scott to let them leave, he refused, and they helped convince General Morales to surrender.

*This was fortunate, as Scott had been considering an infantry assault, because he wanted to be able move inland as soon as possible to avoid the vomito, the deadly yellow fever that hit the coast near Vera Cruz in the spring of every year.  Furthermore, Santa Anna was moving south after his defeat at Buena Vista (which he claimed as a victory).

*Scott marched inland towards Mexico City following the path of Hernando Cortez’s conquistadores after leaving a small force to garrison Vera Cruz and keep it open to resupply from America.  Santa Anna blocked Scott’s march at Cerro Gordo (Fat Hill) near the city of Jalapa.

*Scott had about 8,500 men and Santa Anna had 10,000-18,000.  Santa Anna had set up batteries to fire upon the main highway to Jalapa, which went around several ridges and below the hill of Cerro Gordo.  He did not, however, place many defenders atop Cerro Gordo or behind the hill, counting on Scott to come down the highway because all the terrain around it was so rough.

*Scott’s engineers, though, had scouted ahead and discovered a route behind Santa Anna’s army.

*At 7.00 a.m. on 17 April, 1847, American forces attacked up the hill of Cerro Gordo from both the front and the rear.  Soon they captured the guns atop the hill and turned them on the retreating Mexicans.

*At first, Santa Anna sent reinforcements to Cerro Gordo, but as more and more of his men retreated, he fled the field as well.  He had to abandon his carriage, leaving behind one of his artificial legs (now in a museum in Springfield, Illinois), food, wine, and $6,000.

*This was a great victory for the US army and a great embarrassment for Santa Anna.  He lost 1,000 killed and wounded and 3,000 captured, compared to 400 American killed and wounded.  One of the biggest problems was what to do with all the muskets and cannon captured, because Scott did not have enough men to use them, so many were destroyed.  Scott occupied the city of Jalapa, then began marching towards Mexico City again.

*In every place he captured Scott made a point of treating the locals with the greatest possible respect, paying good prices for any produce they would sell and punishing soldiers who mistreated the locals.  He even attended Catholic Church services, and encouraged his officers to do the same.  He knew that he had 10,000 men in the middle of ten million Mexicans, and could only win a peace by befriending the locals (many of whom did not trust or like Santa Anna).  For the most part, Scott succeeded in this policy, eventually to the point that he cut off his supply lines to the coast, because he could not spare the men needed to occupy every town and village on the route, and because he was able to trust that the Mexicans would not cut him off.

*In August, after receiving reinforcements, Scott’s army descended into the Valley of Mexico.  By now he had about 10,700 men ready to fight, while Santa Anna had gathered about 35,000 men to defend Mexico City.

*In late August and early September, Scott’s army won several victories south of Mexico City, of which the most famous was at Chapultepec.

*Chapultepec was a castle guarding two of the main roads into Mexico City, and also served as the Mexican Military Academy.  However, it was relatively lightly defended (less than a thousand men, including military academy cadets).

*At first they bombarded it with artillery on 12 September, 1847.  On 13 September, American soldiers attacked, eventually, raising so many scaling ladders that fifty men could climb the castle walls at a time.

*The Mexican commander ordered a retreat, but six cadets of the Military Academy refused to go, and were killed by American soldiers until the last one, Juan Escutia, wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and leapt off the walls.  These cadets are now known as the Niños Héroes (Boy Heroes) and there is a monument to them at Chapultepec in Mexico City.

*Among the Americans at Chapultepec were a few Marines, who remember the battle by another name for Chapultepec, near the ancient home of the Aztec Emperors:  the Halls of Montezuma.

*As the American flag was raised over Chapultepec, thirty men looking on it were hanged:  Scott had ordered that a group of San Patricios captured at Churubusco be hanged in sight of the American flag flying over Chapultepec.

*After capturing Chapultepec, the US Army broke into Mexico City and spent the rest of 13 September taking possession of its strong points.

*At 8 AM on 14 September, 1847, Scott rode into the centre of Mexico City in his best dress uniform.  On 15 September, Santa Anna resigned as President but continued to lead part of the army, but soon his soldiers refused to follow him.  In 1851 he went into exile in Jamaica, but returned for another term as president in 1853 (before being forced out in 1854).

*Taylor and Scott were not the only conquerors in Mexico.

*Even before Taylor moved across the Rio Nueces, Army Captain John C. Frémont had led about 60 armed men into California and slowly marched towards Oregon.  When rumours of war reached California, some of the 1,000 American settlers in Sonoma declared their independence from Mexico as the Bear Flag Republic on 14 June, 1846. 

*Local Mexican officials agreed that American annexation was inevitable, and did nothing to stop the revolt.  Frémont soon arrived and declared the Republic of California to be annexed by the United States on 9 July, 1846.  Although there were a few skirmishes, Frémont, with the help of local Americans, some Mexicans, and the US Navy, had California firmly under American control by 1847.

*Stephen Kearny had done the same thing in New Mexico.  As soon as the war had begun, he marched along the Santa Fe Trail to the capital of New Mexico with 1,700 men.  He captured it with no fighting, declared it part of the US on 15 August, 1846, and was named military governor on 18 August, 1846.  In September he marched towards California, and eventually replaced Frémont as military governor there.

*In the months that followed Scott’s capture of Mexico City, Nicholas Trist negotiated the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo, which the Mexican government signed on 2 March, 1848 (official ratifications were exchanged on 30 May, 1848).  In exchange for $15 million in cash and the assumption of $3.25 million in Mexican debts to American citizens, Mexico ceded over half the territory it had claimed before the war.  It not only recognised the American annexation of Texas (with its border at the Rio Grande), but also ceded Upper California and New Mexico.

*The treaty barely passed the Senate, however, as ‘Conscience Whigs’ who thought the war was unjust as well as a cover for the expansion of slavery opposed it, as did expansionists who thought America should have tried to keep all of Mexico.

*There were others who had questioned the War.  In 1846, the Transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau refused to pay six years of unpaid poll taxes because they would have been used, at that point, to pay for the war, and was imprisoned for a night until someone paid his back taxes for him.  He later published Resistance to Civil Government (later republished under the title Civil Disobedience) arguing that it was the duty of a citizen to disobey an unjust law or a corrupt government (such as one fighting a war, as he saw it, to expand slavery).

*In 1846 and again in 1847, a Whig Congressman named David Wilmot had unsuccessfully proposed the Wilmot Proviso as an amendment to a bill approving funding for the army.  His proviso would have banned slavery in any territories won from Mexico during the war.  The House passed it both times, but the Senate rejected it.  However, war would result in an upsurge in the debates over the expansion of slavery, as the Missouri Compromise began to fall apart.

*Worried about the effects of this growing division on the United States, Ralph Waldo Emerson said ‘Mexico will poison us,’ while John C. Calhoun worried that ‘Mexico is to us the forbidden fruit... the penalty of eating it would be to subject our institutions to political death.’

*The war did have a powerful legacy.  Not only did it add over a quarter of the continental United States to America, but it provided the first test of the graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point, many of whom would later fight in the Civil War.

*The same year California was officially added to the United States, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, a bit east of modern Sacramento, sparking the California Gold Rush.

*Having acquired Texas, California, and New Mexico, settled the Oregon boundary, lowered the tariff, and established an independent treasury, James K. Polk fulfilled his promise to only serve one term.  Exhausted by his hard-working schedule, he contracted cholera on a post-presidency tour of the South, went home, and died at his home in Nashville, three months after leaving office.  His last words were to his wife, ‘I love you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you.’

*Polk was followed as president by Old Rough and Ready, Zachary Taylor, a southern Whig.

This page last updated 6 September, 2018.
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