James Polk was an unlikely president: A dark horse, he had no military experience and no national profile. What he had was a lust for land.
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Polk’s family wealth came from speculation and slavery, and he was a firm believer in Manifest Destiny. After taking office in 1845, he sent troops into disputed Mexican territory, and when 11 American soldiers were killed north of the Rio Grande, he had his justification for expansionist aggression against a weaker neighbor.
Abraham Lincoln questioned Polk’s version of events, but most Congressmen, afraid of seeming unpatriotic, voted for the war with Mexico. An antiwar movement soon sprang up across the country, including soldiers sickened by U.S. atrocities.
The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo added much of California, Nevada, Utah and parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma to the U.S. It also recognized the annexation of Texas.
I spoke with Amy Greenberg, author of “A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico,” on the following topics:
1. Manifest Destiny
2. Invasion of Mexico
3. Lust for California
4. Texas Slavery
5. Preamble to Civil War
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(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)