In “A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico,” Amy S. Greenberg describes James K. Polk as an “instrument of Manifest Destiny.” Described as a mere “instrument,” Greenberg’s characterization of Polk is likely an understatement as the young president “extended the domain of the United States more than any other president.”[i] Due to his expansion of the United States as a result of the Mexican-American War and his Oregon settlement, Polk must be inextricable linked to Manifest Destiny. In fact, Polk’s 1845 Inaugural Address foreshadows the political philosophy that spread the United States across a continent.
Manifest Destiny is the idea that the United States was ordained by a higher power to occupy North American territory from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean due to its unique republican qualities. A justification for expansionist policies,[ii] Colonel Philip St. George Cooke’s December 18, 1846 letter to the governor of Sonora, Mexico typifies the attitude of the doctrine’s followers. For example, Cooke describes how the “unity of Sonora with the States of the north, now her neighbors, is necessary effectually to subdue” Indian tribes.[iii] The fact that the Mexican inhabitants of Sonora would be powerless to resist Native American aggression without American assistance is clear in Cooke’s correspondence.
That Polk was a believer in America’s Manifest Destiny is evident from his foreign policy as president. Not only did he negotiate a settlement with Great Britain resolving territorial claims to Oregon, his prosecution of the Mexican-American War added territory to the country that would become California, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.
The whispers of Polk’s belief in Manifest Destiny were evident in his March 4, 1845 Inaugural Address.[iv] For example, within the first three paragraphs of Polk’s address, he “invoke[s] the aid of that Almighty Ruler of the Universe” as he notes “that our domain extends from ocean to ocean.”
But it is the last third of his speech that telegraphs his belief in Manifest Destiny. Spending considerable time addressing the recently announced annexation of Texas, Polk informs the world that there is “nothing to fear from military ambition in our Government” because to increase America’s territory “is to extend the dominions of peace.” Later, he refers to America’s “strong protecting arm” as a benefit to Texas. Sounding of American Exceptionalism, Polk insinuates through these statements that only America can bring peace to North America. In so speaking, he offers a justification for his coming territorial ambition.
Polk’s advocacy of Manifest Destiny does not stop with Texas. Casting his eye toward the Pacific, he offers a clear indication of his desires: “Nor will it become in a less degree my duty to assert and maintain by all constitutional means the right of the United States to that portion of our territory which lies beyond the Rocky Mountains.” Arguably linked to the Oregon question, too much territory other than Oregon lies “beyond the Rocky Mountains” to seriously limit Polk’s reach to the territory shared with the British since 1818. Polk’s eyes are already on California.
Finally, the new president recognizes the harbingers of Manifest Destiny to the western regions of North America. According to Polk, American emigrants “adventurously ascended the Missouri to its headsprings, and are already engaged in establishing the blessings of self-government in valleys of which the rivers flow to the Pacific.” Based on the unbridled spread of Americans, Polk felt a “duty of protecting them adequately wherever they may be upon our soil.” Thus, America’s “republican institutions should be extended over them in the distant regions which they have selected for their homes.”
There was no universal belief in Manifest Destiny and Polk’s conviction in it did not magically appear on the eve of his inauguration. However, as many American presidents have used their inaugural addresses as a springboard for ambitious policy initiatives, Polk’s address is significant to the expansion of the United States into the western reaches of North America. More than a speech, given Polk’s prosecution of the Mexican-American War, his Inaugural Address serves as a jumping off point on a quest to fulfill what many felt God had ordained.
[i] Howe, Daniel Walker, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. 2007. Ebook, 808.
[ii] Id. at 703.
[iii] Cooke, Philip St. George, The Conquest of New Mexico and California; An Historical and Personal Narrative. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1878. Print. 153.
[iv] Polk, James K. “Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1845. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=25814.