Two days after Polk had been
inaugurated, the Mexican Minister, General Almonte, had protested against the annexation
of Texas as "the most unjust aggression in the annals of modern history" and
"the spoliation of a friendly power." Before the end of March, 1845,
diplomatic relations between Mexico and the United States were severed.
The American president was not disturbed
by this course of events. "Little Jimmy Polk," as a political rival
described him, was in many ways a small man, but with a big ambition for his
country--its expansion to the Pacific. It was in his administration that the thorny
question of Oregon was settled. There was also a vast area under Mexican control
that Polk meant to have--California, New Mexico and the boundary of the Rio Grande.
He worked at his task with single-minded devotion, rarely leaving Washington during
his four years of office. His long hours, chronic illness and intense preoccupation
with his labors exhausted him and he died a few months after his term had ended-but not
until he had seen the triumph of his expansionist program.
In fact, Polk came into power with four
great objects in view, which he announced to his Secretary of the Navy, George Bancroft.
They were, first, a reduction of the tariff, ; second, the establishment of an
independent treasury system to regulate the national finances; third, the peaceful
settlement of the Oregon question and fourth, the acquisition of California. All
four objects were attained before he left office. The Democrats carried what was
called the Walker Tariff, after Robert J. Walker, the Secretary of the Treasury; a measure
fixing duties at a very low level. When this was done, after a severe struggle, Polk
rejoiced: "The capitalists and monopolists", he wrote in his diary,
"have not surrendered the immense advantages which they possessed, and the enormous
profits which the derived under the tariff of 1842, until after a fierce and mighty
struggle. This city has swarmed with them for weeks but all has proved to be
unavailing and they have been at length vanquished." The Democrats also
reestablished the subtreasury system introduced by Van Buren in 1840; and they thus
divorced the Federal Government completely from all connection with the private banking
apparatus of the country. But above all else, Polk intended to enlarge the United
Americans had been on Pacific shores
from the end of the eighteenth century in search of sea-otter skins. Opportunities
for expanded trade were opened up in California when, with Mexico's independence in 1821,
the ports of that new republic were freed to international commerce. Rich California
ranches annually supplied thousands of hides and tons of tallow. Tallow for candles
in South American mines and leather for shoe manufacturers back east were the basis for
the lucrative "hide and tallow trade" that drew many shippers to the west coast.
Around Cape Horn came ships from the Atlantic ports loaded with coffee, sugar,
molasses, hardware, clothing, boots and shoes, hair combs, furniture--almost anything
imaginable to trade for hides and tallow. In harbor the ship became a department
store displaying its goods. After a year or more spent in trading along the coast
the vessel began its long homeward voyage. For better organization of trade, agents
of American shippers began to reside in California, to become the first permanent United
State citizens there.
Polk seem to be obsessed with the
thoughts of acquiring California and England's rumored interest in the region hurried his
hand. A month before John Slidell had been sent to Mexico, a message had gone out to
the American consul at Monterey, California: "Whilst the President will make no
effort and use no influence to induce California to become one of the free and independent
States of the Union, yet if the people should desire to unite their destiny with ours,
they would be received as brethren, whenever this can be done without affording Mexico
just cause of complaint."
When Polk learned of the Mexican refusal
to receive Slidell, the president in January 1846, ordered General Zachary Taylor to move
the American troops across the Nueces River to the Rio Grande. Tension increased
between the two countries and after news arrive in Washington of a skirmish between the
opposing forces along the Rio Grande, Congress, spurred on by the president, declared war
with Mexico on May 13, 1846.
In the United States most of the
country, in particular, the Mississippi Valley seemed to share the war fever of Congress.
An army of 50,000 men was authorized and volunteers rushed to enroll. But
enthusiasm for "Mr. Polk's War" was uneven. The nearer people were to the
scene of hostilities the greater was the president's support. To the opponents of
slavery, however, especially in New England, the war was initiated by "Land-Jobbers
and Slave-Jobbers". Residents in the country's interior felt differently.
Tennessee had 30,000 volunteers for 3000 places, while other western states three
or four times the numbers requested. In California, where United States citizens,
about 7,000 in number, equaled the population of the local Mexicans, the Americans were
well prepared for the expected conflict. Within a few months all of California was
in their hands. New Mexico had fallen away from Mexico's grasp, when Brigadier
General Stephen Kearny accepted the willing surrender of Santa Fe.
Elsewhere the conflict was more
uncertain and much more bitter. Inefficient transport, inadequate supplies, lack of
training, desertion, and sickness among the American soldiers greatly weakened their
fighting strength. Disease cost military units 50 per cent or more of their
effectiveness. Political rivalry also dulled the edge of fighting power. The
Democratic administration had no wish that a Whig general gain such luster from battle
that the presidency would be his reward in 1848. In Northern Mexico, the Whig,
"Old Rough and Ready", General Zachary Taylor won the battles of Monterey and
Buena Vista, though this latter was almost lost through faulty generalship. The
regiment of Mississippi rifles, under command of Jefferson Davis, distinguished itself in
snatching victory from defeat in this action. While Taylor was kept in northern
Mexico, General Winfield Scott was assigned the formidable task of capturing Mexico's
Scott, a vain military dandy, "Old
Fuss and Feathers" was an able general and now he began one of the most difficult
campaigns in American military history. Scott was ably assisted by junior officers,
Captain George B. McClellan, Lieutenant U.S. Grant and Captain Robert E. Lee. The steep
fortified hill of Chapultepec was stormed and in furious hand to hand fighting the Mexican
defenders were overcome. Scott's army then crashed into Mexico City and by the
morning ot September 14 was in possession of the capital. The plumed general, in
full dress uniform, clattered into the city on a big bay horse..The Halls of Montezuma had
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