Chapter 11: The lost virtue of their better days, 1846-1850
The great irony of James K. Polk’s career as territorial expansionist extraordinaire, the one-term President under whom the United States acquired more land than any other, is that he was personally the least expansive of men.
A slight, clenched, deeply suspicious individual, he was a classic stay-at-home, certainly when compared with the Founding Fathers and his predecessors in the White House. All had seen a good deal of America, and a number of them—Franklin, the Adamses, Jefferson, and Monroe—knew much of Europe. The determinedly insular Polk knew nothing beyond a narrow belt of the middle South and Washington, hardly a cosmopolitan place at the time; the farthest he ventured was an occasional trip to his Mississippi plantation. He never went to Europe, never saw the wildly beautiful western reaches of North America that he so coveted for his country. He never served in the military, never went in for fun and games, was rarely seen even to smile. His idea of a high old time was to take a brisk walk or horseback ride at dawn or dusk—and while President, he infrequently found time for even these escapes from his duties. He was so immersed in the minutiae of the nation’s highest office that he almost never took a vacation or a whole day off—though he did go to a Presbyterian church some Sundays with his wife, Sarah. He did not read for pleasure or to broaden his frame of reference; as a result, he squinted xenophobically at the world and perceived political issues in stark black and white. To him, all Whigs were blackguards, fellow Democrats who challenged his policies were traitors, abolitionists
were wicked, the British were predatory bullies, and the Mexicans, like other nonwhite peoples and races, were unworthy of and ill-equipped for democracy.
And yet James Polk, longtime Andrew Jackson stooge, party hatchetman, and pedestrian thinker, in a feat of colossal and altogether unexpected imagination, came to power consumed by a grand vision of a continental nation that he intended to see realized within the single presidential term he had allotted himself. And no foreign power would be permitted to stand in the way of America’s destined ascent to global greatness. If that meant war, then he would wage it, though he had no experience in military matters and scant respect for professional warriors. He nonetheless understood what war was, and knowing the strength of the British, he managed to avoid war with them over Oregon. Knowing the weakness of the Mexicans, he all but invited combat with them to gain the American Southwest. And when the war came with Mexico, he supposed that its fractious, woebegone people would thank him for liberating them from their long suffering at the hands of military tyrants, demonic clerics, corrupt bureaucrats, and a disdainful landed gentry. What Polk failed to understand was that the Mexicans’ fierce pride in their nationhood was the binding element in their survival as a sovereign people.
The appropriation of Mexico’s heartland and subjugation of its people were never Polk’s purpose. Having all but ensured the inclusion of Texas within the Union by his election to the presidency and then stared down the British to gain all of Oregon that the nation could usefully digest, the President now dedicated himself to winning American dominion over the fragrant, primeval Shangri-la that formed the choicest stretch of the hemisphere’s Pacific shoreline. California, with its dazzling, craggy 800-mile coast, long, lush central valley quilted between two soaring mountain ranges, and an ideal climate for growing fruits, grains, and vegetables of infinite variety, had languished in its virtually unspoiled state of nature since Spanish explorers had claimed it in 1542. The mostly Franciscan fathers who intruded on this paradise starting in 1769, by extending a chain of twenty-one missions and attached farms close to the coast, imposed a semi-feudal social order on the docile Indians and, in the name of saving their souls, reduced them to peons to tend the mission crops. European diseases did the rest of the damage.
The church’s domination over California eased with the coming of the Mexican War of Independence and the republic’s imposed secularization of the missions, aimed at fostering increased settlement and economic development in a region remote from the core of the nation. The ripest mission holdings were sold off to the few wealthy settlers of Spanish ancestry, but the Mexican government lacked the financial resources and personnel to superintend the far northern section of the country and encourage its colonization. Federal authority was loosely imposed, if at all, by a few hundred soldiers, many lately released convicts with still larcenous tendencies, and governors of often lax morals. Visitors were struck by the absence of commercial farming in so fertile a countryside, a veritable Garden of Eden with natural orchards abounding. Whether the lassitude or ignorance of the residents or the difficulty of transporting perishable goods was more responsible for such a colossal waste was debatable, but instead of overflowing croplands, the California economy was based on cattle, which needed little tending in a land of endless, perpetual pastures. The principal exports of the slumbering region were cowhides and tallow.
Pained by their loss of Texas after inviting American settlers to colonize that similarly underpopulated province, Mexican authorities were wary of admitting foreigners to California, except as a commercial necessity—and then only when they cooperated closely with government officials. Thus, in 1832, Thomas O. Larkin, a transplanted Bostonian, was allowed to open a highly lucrative import-export business out of picturesque Monterey, the busiest harbor on the California coast. Soon afterward failed Swiss businessman John A. Sutter was granted a 50,000-acre spread in the Sacramento Valley and turned it into a bustling, if financially overextended, commercial operation, the only inland hub in the province. For the most part, though, Mexican officialdom was invisible, and residents of mixed Spanish and Indian blood—los californios
—enjoyed their relative autonomy until Santa Anna rolled back the 1824 federalist constitution and his centralist regime tried to assert dominion over outlying regions. The result was an 1836 rebellion against corrupt officers and tax collectors sent to California to hector the locals—much as the Texans found the national government’s new outreach program to be oppressive, but in this case the rebels were Mexican citizens. The californios
then established their own provincial authority, paying lip service and a modicum of taxes in tribute to the national government in return for virtual self-rule.
This pleasantly loose governance had one serious drawback: it could not stem the slowly growing encroachment of Americans, who by the early 1840s were picking their way through the Rockies, veering south off the Oregon Trail, and staking out farms in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys of the California interior, even though that often meant squatting on unpoliced Mexican soil. By 1845, California’s population did not exceed 50,000—and may have been only half that size—with twice as many Indians as Mexicans and perhaps 1,500 foreigners, most of them Americans. It was a huge human vacuum. The dearth of civil authority in the final decade of California’s Mexican era was evidenced by what historian Kevin Starr has described as “a confusion of revolution, counterrevolution, graft, spoliation, and social disintegration as Northern and Southern factions struggled for power in a series of internecine clashes” that even the most patient scholarly research cannot unravel.
This politically volatile and economically stagnant environment, it was plain to foreign observers, would not remain so for long. Because the constant woes destabilizing the national government left Mexico’s landlocked military forces without sufficient manpower and resources to police far-off California, it was highly vulnerable to penetration by British maritime interests, which had gained commercial hegemony in the Oregon Country but been thwarted in their hope of winning similar trade advantages in Texas. The lure of a potentially vast and lucrative Asian trade had already caused a collision of British and French naval forces competing for mid-Pacific bases in Hawaii and Tahiti and drawn expressions of concern from the United States, fearful that the European powers might try to colonize coastal California before American settlers could arrive in sufficient numbers to ensure its eventual annexation. Presidents John Quincy Adams, Jackson, and Polk himself, through John Slidell’s doomed peace mission to Mexico City at the end of 1845, had tried to buy all or part of California, arguing that the almost empty province was too removed from metropolitan Mexico ever to become an integral part of the nation. But the Mexicans had disdained all such direct overtures.
Their unwillingness to part with California, however, was betrayed by their inability to protect it from encroachment by foreigners. Overextended and underequipped to exercise hegemony, Mexico had all but invited the seizure of its paradise by the Pacific. The only question was when. Had the United States done nothing to hasten the process, California might have followed the pattern of Texas and Oregon, where free-flowing immigration led inevitably to American domination. But the path to the far side of the continent was long and torturous, and California was so prized that officials in Washington were anxious to speed the immigration process before Britain or an alliance of European powers, perhaps in league with the needy Mexican government, could provide the means to keep the seductive land out of American hands.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Seizing Destiny by Richard Kluger. Copyright © 2007 by Richard Kluger. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.