Some wars fall between the cracks. That appears to be what happened with Polk’s War. James K. Polk was our 11th president. He is often listed as the worst president we’ve ever had.
Polk’s War was actually the Mexican War of 1846-48. Before and during that war, most Americans, including Congress, were not in favor of a war with Mexico.
The war was launched on questionable pretexts. Why invade a smaller, poorer neighbor just for land? Mexico’s border with the Republic of Texas was the Nueces River near Corpus Christi. New Mexico, Arizona, California along with other territory belonged to Mexico, having won them from Spain some 25 years earlier.
There were debates in Congress that the invasion of Mexico was unconstitutional. America had never invaded others (except the American Indians). A young Congressman, Abraham Lincoln, began his move into the national limelight as an avowed opponent to the war.
Polk saw America as having a manifest destiny to control the entire continent. The great American attitude of “can do” was increasing in strength. Arrogance has never been in short supply in our brief history.
President Polk sent troops to Corpus Christi to move the border to the Rio Grande. This was not something the Mexicans wanted. They responded with some strength and were not the pushover Polk and the war hawks thought they would be.
For such a strong nation to invade a weak and poor neighbor was not popular. Mexico had only been free of Spain for some 25 years. They were pretty well vanquished after their revolution and the war with Texas.
Polk sent down to Cuba for General Santa Anna to come out of retirement and help his cause in Mexico–the same Santa Anna, who 10 years earlier, lost Texas to Sam Houston. Santa Anna went to Mexico, but instead of helping the U.S.A., he made himself president of Mexico again (I think for the fourth time). He led his troops to push the Americans out of Mexico, but to no avail.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Feb. 2, 1848, ended the war and Polk paid $15 million to Mexico for California and other territories. The Rio Grande became the border with Mexico.
Joe Wheelan’s book, Invading Mexico, tells the story of many of the war’s overlooked events. For example, five New York newspapers, wanting to cover the war with the least expense, organized the Associated Press as a joint venture. It was our first war with war correspondents.
Along with press coverage, there was a peace movement against the war. Before it was over Polk was being called all sorts of things. Throughout the remainder of the 19th century most books on Polk were negative. The only promise he kept was to serve only one term. The country was glad he didn’t run again. He was, to that date, America’s worst president.
That view of Polk changed somewhat in the 20th century as America began became more imperialistic. Polk began to be viewed in a better light as we invaded Cuba and the Philippines and stole them from the Spanish. Both these invasions were blamed on the Spanish, who were growing weak and wanted no fight.
Wheelan’s book sees Polk as the worst president our nation has ever had. My “gut” reaction is Polk does not even come close to being the most inept, worst president to ever live in the White House.
Britt Towery is a former pastor-missionary in Arizona and China.