One of the strangest tendencies of conservatives in recent years has been to invoke names from the distant past of American history in order to justify retrograde policies in the present. Often, as is the case with hacks like David Barton, these amateur historians engage in gross distortions of the historical record. (Although progressives have a proud political past in this country, they seem less historically inclined.) Just today I read that Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades said that a Romney administration might be like that of James K. Polk, as if that was a good thing.
For those of you who don't know, Polk served for only one term, from 1845 to 1849. He did not run for a second, and died soon after leaving office. In his one term he accomplished his primary goal, which was the expansion of American territory. His presidency gave us the treaties with Great Britain giving the United States control over Oregon Territory, the annexation of Texas, and consequently war with Mexico from 1846 to 1848 that added California and the Southwest to the United States. Rhoades compared the boldness of Polk's expansionism to the boldness of the Romney-Ryan plan to gut ("reform") the social safety net.
I tend to think that people in this country either view American history from a nationalist or a humanist perspective. From a nationalist point of view, Polk might look pretty admirable. He drastically expanded American territory, including some of the most economically important regions of the country today. However, from a humanist standpoint, Polk looks more like an unscrupulous, blood-thirsty extremist whose rash actions did horrific damage.
First, let's take the annexation of Texas. Contrary to Texan mythology, once the Republic of Texas broke away from Mexico in 1835, it did not really want independence, but to join the United States. This was opposed by many in Congress, because Texas was a slave-holding state, and bringing in Texas would greatly expand territory where slavery held sway. (Mexico had banned slavery after its independence, and one important reason for the Texan independence movement was to preserve slavery, something many Texans are loathe to admit today.) There was also the question of whether annexing Texas would bring about war with Mexico, which claimed the land between the Rio Grande and the Nueces, also claimed by the Texans. Polk pushed the addition of Texas to the union, accomplished in 1845.
He sent representatives to the Mexican government to purchase California and New Mexico, but could not get an agreement. Instead of respecting Mexican sovereignty, he sent a military force under Zachary Taylor to the Rio Grande, in what Mexico considered its territory. He did this in order to provoke a war, and this strategy proved successful. The anticipated short war did not pan out, and it lasted a bloody two years because the Mexican people put up a stout resistance. Although the number of American war dead was pretty small by the standard of later wars, this war did have the highest percentage loss of life among the troops of any military conflict in American history. In the end Mexico had to surrender and agree to the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which signed over the desired land for a much lower price than Polk had offered in peacetime. There had been talk of taking all of Mexico, but racists like John C Calhoun warned against polluting the United States with brown-skinned Catholics. His contemptuous attitude towards the Mexican people reflected larger feelings and had some pretty negative consequences. In the aftermath of the war, the Hispanic inhabitants of this newly Americanized territory had their lands confiscated and found themselves turned into second-class citizens.
The war with Mexico was not a necessary conflict, but a war of aggression and naked conquest on the part of the United States. This begs the question of why Polk was so keen to expand American territory. There were the usual nationalistic reasons, of course, but Polk was especially concerned with creating new territory for slavery. The Missouri Compromise had limited the land available for slave states, something Southerners feared would eventually leave them outnumbered in their desire to preserve the "peculiar institution." For that reason, he had attempted to negotiate with Spain over the sale of Cuba before talks fell through.
Many great American at the time were fully aware that Polk had intended to expand slavery, and had instigated a war to do so and then tried to cover up his machinations with lies. Serving his only term in Congress, a young Abraham Lincoln denounced the war's illegality and assailed Polk for intentionally misleading the American public. Henry David Thoureau went to jail after refusing to pay his taxes in support of a war for slavery. After years of acquiescing to the "gag rule" in Congress that immediately tabled any petitions related to slavery, Northern politicians like David Wilmot put the issue on the table by demanding that slavery not be expanded into the newly acquired territory. The fierce dispute over the expansion of slavery is what eventually brought about the Civil War. No matter what Matt Rhoades and other conservatives might believe, I don't think that the glories of Manifest Destiny can wash the blood off of Polk's hands.
The Romney campaign's emulation of Polk reveals a lot. He and his crew don't seem to be a very reflective bunch, and so might not even be aware of the realities of Polk's policies. Furthermore, Mitt is so power-hungry that he will say practically anything to get elected, and strikes me as the kind of person totally willing to lie to the American public to get what he wants, much like Polk. Just as Polk pushed American expansion in the interests of the Slave Power, Romney cares most about his friends in the corporate world, who are showering him with millions of dollars. Come to think of it, Mitt just might have found his perfect role model.