JAMES K. POLK SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE
If John L. O’Sullivan was the voice of the theory of Manifest Destiny then James K. Polk was the man who turned the theory into accomplished fact – it was the basis of his 1844 successful dark horse campaign for the presidency and in order to defeat the better known Henry Clay it had to have popular appeal. Polk’s other promise – which certainly deserves greater emulation – was to serve a single term and retire, which he did.
Whig senator Henry Clay is attacked here on several fronts. The artist alludes to his reputation for gambling, his widely publicized outburst in the House of Representatives in February 1838, and his alleged unethical flirtation with banking interests. The title also refers to a Clay supporter, the influential Whig editor of the “Morning Courier and New York Enquirer,” James Watson Webb. Webb is credited with popularizing the label “Whig” as the name of the anti-Jackson political party..In the print Clay is shown as he “enters the Hall of Representatives from his favorite amusement “Brag and Poker”” with a book of “Hoyle’s Games” in one hand and playing cards spilling from his coat pocket. In the upper left is the text: “I will now go home and look over Hoyle and calculate the odds in favor of my friend P—-‘s Faro Bank, in which he proposes to give me a d–n good interest.” (Soliloquy of Sir Harry Bluff). Clay was a tireless opponent of Jackson and Van Buren’s treasury program and an advocate of speculative and “soft money” interests. In the upper right is: “Now go home G-d D-n you where you belong.” Spoken by H. Clay in the Hall of the House of Representatives after the vote on the contested “Mississippi Election.” The harsh words were directed by Clay at Speaker of the House James K. Polk, after the latter cast the deciding vote invalidating the election of two pro-Whig representatives from Mississippi, Sergeant S. Prentiss and T.J. Ward.
In an age of compromise where the views of the slave-holding South had to be balanced against the economic claims of the north for “free labor” – publically arguing that that free men on free soil comprised a morally and economically superior system to slavery while privately building fortunes off immigrants and mortgages and planning a transcontinental railroad – Polk was able to balance the acquisition of the Oregon Territory with the annexation of Texas [including most of what is now the Southwest] into achieving his goal.
The first president to be photographed while in office.
A country of vast designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the conquest of the American continent New York: Simon & Schuster, c 2009 Robert W. Merry United States Territorial expansion History 19th century Hardcover. 1st Simon & Schuster hardcover ed., later printing. x, 576 p.,  p. of plates : ill., map, ports.; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 479-550) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG
Here Clay is critical of James K. Polk’s public advocacy of the 54.40 parallel as the northern boundary of American territory in Oregon. The cartoon also alludes to widespread uncertainty as to the course the secretive Polk would actually pursue on the issue. The artist invokes the specter of an earlier Democratic president, Andrew Jackson, as the inspiration for what he considers Polk’s rash and autocratic handling of the dispute. Standing at the foot of Polk’s bed in a cloud of smoke is a devil, who, concealing himself behind the mask and hat of Andrew Jackson, commands the sleeping Polk, “Child of my adoption, on whom my mantle hath fallen, swear never to take your toe off that line should you deluge your country with seas of blood, produce a servile insurrection and dislocate every joint of this happy and prosperous union!!!” Polk, slumbering in a large canopied bed, has one toe on the 54.40 line of a map of Oregon which lies on floor. Also next to bed is a potted “Poke” weed (a pun on his name) and a table with his readings: “Art of War, Calvin’s Works, Practical Piety,” and “Life of Napoleon.” Polk answers the devil, “I do my venerated and lamented chieftain! I do, by the eternal!” (The vow “By the eternal” was a well-known Jacksonism.) At left, dressed in nightshirts, three cabinet members steal into the room. They are (left to right) George Bancroft, James Buchanan, and Robert J. Walker. Treasury Secretary Walker carries a “Tariff” document, no doubt the controversial and recently introduced tariff bill of which he was generally considered the architect, and comments, “It seems to me there’s the devil to pay with the president; yet behold his great toe, greater than any Pope’s fixed firmly on the line 54.40. Patriotic even in dreams!” Behind Walker Secretary of State Buchanan, holding a candle and a portfolio marked “Packenham Correspondence,” says, “There’s certainly a strong smell of brimstone in the room! Perhaps his excellency has been practising pyrotechnics previous to commencing his campaign.” The “Packenham Correspondence” refers to Buchanan’s July 1845 note to British ambassador Richard Pakenham, wherein the forty-ninth parallel was proposed as a compromise. Pakenham’s response, a rejection, touched off Polk’s pursuit (at least temporarily) of a more hard-line stance, claiming the 54.40 boundary. “I guess there’s a screw loose here! I wonder what Polk’s going to do!” muses Navy Secretary Bancroft.
When James K. Polk was elected president in 1844, the United States was locked in a bitter diplomatic struggle with Britain over the rich lands of the Oregon Territory, which included what is now Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Texas, not yet part of the Union, was threatened by a more powerful Mexico. And the territories north and west of Texas – what would become California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and part of Colorado – belonged to Mexico. When Polk relinquished office four years later, the country had grown by more than a third as all these lands were added. The continental United States, as we know it today, was established – facing two oceans and positioned to dominate both.
A pro-Democrat cartoon forecasting the collapse of Whig opposition to the annexation of Texas. James K. Polk, the expansionist candidate, stands at right near a bridge spanning “Salt River.” He holds an American flag and hails Texans Stephen Austin (left) and Samuel Houston aboard a wheeled steamboat-like vessel “Texas.” Austin, waving the flag of the Lone Star Republic, cries, “All hail to James K. Polk, the frined [sic] of our Country!” The Texas boat has an eagle figurehead and a star on its prow. Below the bridge pandemonium reigns among the foes of annexation. Holding onto a rope attached to “Texas” above, they are dragged into Salt River. Led by Whig presidential nominee Henry Clay, they are (left to right) Theodore Frelinghuysen, Daniel Webster, Henry A. Wise, and an unidentified figure whose legs are tangled in the rope. Clay: “Curse the day that ever I got hold of this rope! this is a bad place to let go of it–But I must!” Frelinghuysen: “Oh evil day, that ever I got into the footsteps of my predecessor.” Webster: “If we let go, we are ruined, and if we hold on–Oh! crackee!” Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, straddling a barrel labeled “Abolition” in the river, shouts at Clay, “Avaunt! unholy man! I will not keep company with a blackleg!” referring to the candidate’s reputation as a gambler.
In a one-term presidency, Polk completed the story of America’s Manifest Destiny – extending its territory across the continent, from sea to sea, by threatening England and fighting a controversial and unpopular two-year war with Mexico that Abraham Lincoln
, in Congress at the time, opposed as preemptive. Merry tells this story through powerful debates and towering figures – the outgoing President John Tyler
and Polk’s great mentor, Andrew Jackson
; his defeated Whig opponent, Henry Clay; two famous generals, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott; Secretary of State James Buchanan (who would precede Lincoln as president); Senate giants Thomas Hart Benton
and Lewis Cass; Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun; and ex-president Martin Van Buren
, like Polk a Jackson protegé; but now a Polk rival.
This was a time of tremendous clashing forces. A surging antislavery sentiment was at the center of the territorial fight. The struggle between a slave-owning South and an opposing North was leading inexorably to Civil War. In a gripping narrative, Robert Merry illuminates a crucial epoch in U.S. history.
The artist resorts to the familiar metaphor of a card game for the presidential stakes in his rendition of the 1848 contest. The major contenders play a game of “brag” (an early form of poker). Around the table sit six players (left to right): South Carolina senator John Calhoun, Democratic presidential nominee Lewis Cass, Henry Clay, Whig candidate Zachary Taylor, Secretary of State James Buchanan, and President James K. Polk. In the center of the table is the “Presidential Ante.” Displaying three aces, former Mexican War general Taylor exclaims, “Three bullets, Clay! Still at my old trade! whenever bullets are to be met I am sure to have a hand with them!” Clay, who holds three low cards behind his back, replies, “I tried my old bluffing game with a contented hand & nothing to brag with but a hand full of hearts! I’m not sorry however that old Zach has won!” Seated to the left Cass laments, “Three braggers, Calhoun, would’n’t carry me through!” Calhoun, looking over Cass’s shoulder agrees, “No, Cass, the Ante is too high for you! You’ll have to play for smaller Stakes!” At the far right end of the table, Polk exclaims, “My knave hand, Buchanan, has lost me the game! I may as well slope!” Buchanan replies, “By Jove! Polk, Old Zack’s got the documents! three natties!” The satire probably appeared shortly after the June Whig convention, at which Taylor was nominated over Henry Clay, and before the emergence of strong third-party candidate Martin Van Buren.