Host: Brain Lamb
December 9, 2009
BRIAN LAMB: Bob Merry, in your book, ”A Country of Vast Designs” about James Polk, in the first part, in the introduction, you talk about a Senator named Benton.
ROBERT MERRY, AUTHOR: Thomas Hart Benton.
LAMB: Yes, why?
MERRY: Well, he was a big man and a big giant of his time. Thomas Hart Benton, John Tyler called him the most raving political maniac I ever knew. But Benton was representing Missouri in the Senate for 30 years, and he was a powerful figure. He wrote a massive memoir after that, which historians have been using for a century and a half. And he was very powerful during that time.
LAMB: The story though about the duel, and Andrew Jackson, it never ceases to amaze me when I read it -- what was the story?
MERRY: Benton had been his aide-de-camp in the War of 1812, they were very close. But Jackson, there were a lot of duals in Tennessee in those days, when Jackson was relatively younger. And he consented to be the second at the duel of a friend of his who was dueling Thomas Hart Benton’s brother, Jessie Benton.
Jessie took a bullet to the buttocks, which proved somewhat embarrassing, and as a result of that the Benton’s were trashing Jackson’s name all over Nashville. Jackson doesn’t -- didn’t like that. He took himself quite seriously.
And so he went after the two of them with the riding whip. Guns were drawn. Bullets flew. Benton was wounded. Jackson was wounded in the shoulder. He was lying in the street of Nashville bleeding profusely, he almost died. And Benton sort of realized that given the fact that Jackson was the hero of Tennessee, everyone loved him, that he’d better get the heck out of Dodge. So he left Nashville, went to Missouri, and rose-up to be Missouri’s top politician for 30 years.
LAMB: Is this the incident that resulted in Andrew Jackson walking around with bullets in his shoulder for the rest of his life?
MERRY: Well, he had -- that was one of the incidents, but that was a bullet in his shoulder he never was able to get rid of. I will say that Jackson and Benton became allies in politics when Jackson was President and Benton was in the Senate. He and Jackson saw eye-to-eye on most things, and they were very together on most of the big issues of the day.
LAMB: Another Senator you write about, and the reason I’m bringing this up is to set the mood of that time period. Benton was a Democrat.
MERRY: He was a Democrat.
LAMB: Polk was a Democrat.
LAMB: And McDuffie was a Democrat.
MERRY: Correct, from South Carolina.
LAMB: Now, what was his story?
MERRY: Well, McDuffie was a protégé of John C. Calhoun, and John C. Calhoun was a Democrat but he was a southern Democrat. And, well, he had very early during the Jackson Presidency flirted with the idea that states could secede from the Union. Jackson threatened to send troops down there.
But the issue then was called nullification, which meant that states could nullify Federal laws that they didn’t like. Jackson said, ”No, that’s tantamount to succession, essentially.” And Jackson said, ”I’m sending troops down. I’ll hang any traitors who try to rend this hallowed Union.” And he quashed the nullification movement. But those southerners, especially from South Carolina, were very wary of the Federal Government, and McDuffie never really came to heel with regard to either Jackson or Polk.
LAMB: So what’s the difference between the Democratic Party today and the Democratic Party you’re writing about?
MERRY: Well, the Democratic Party today in Polk’s day, the Democratic Party of Polk’s day was much closer really to the Republican Party of today. I happen to believe that the 20th Century President that was most like Jackson was Ronald Reagan, and the 20th Century President who was most like Jackson’s great rival, Henry Clay, was Franklin Roosevelt. They were both great patriots, you know, Clay and Jackson -- they hated each other but they loved America. And they had nothing but the greatest designs for American, America’s future.
But Clay believed in the concentration of power in Washington on behalf of all those aims and goals, whereas Jackson believed that power should be diffuse and spread out among the people as much as possible, so that in those days they would talk about strict construction. All the Democrats in those days were in favor of a strict construction of the Constitution. That’s a Republican phrase today, or small government, that’s a Republican phrase.
LAMB: So we should really throw out the labels and try to compare them.
MERRY: Start over, yes, yes.
LAMB: What was the moment that led you to write a book about James Knox Polk?
MERRY: Well, I love that question because it gives me an opportunity to note that this was not my idea. The idea came from my editor at Simon & Schuster, Alice Mayhew who is legendary in publishing circles as somebody who loves narrative history and has a passion for American history.
And she asked me during a discussion we were having, when I was coming up with some ideas for some books which she was not particularly enamored of, she said, ”Well, we’ll come up with something. What do you know about the Mexican War?”
And I said, ”Well, I’m not a military historian but I love politics and I do know that that was a period of very intense politics and therein probably lies a pretty good story. So give me a couple of weeks to figure out how I would shape it.” So I did, and sent her a memo, and that’s how it got started.
LAMB: I think I’ve seen Alice Mayhew, in my life, once on video on this network in some panel she was discussing. She won’t sit for an interview, at least hasn’t so far. What is she like? Never met her.
MERRY: Oh, Alice is -- she’s so smart, and she’s so passionate about these things, and she’s very opinionated and she’s very direct. And she’s just a wonderful character. She’s been in publishing for I don’t know how many decades, but it’s just -- it’s wonderful working for her.
LAMB: So what was her reaction when you went back to her with your suggestion?
MERRY: A lot of tough questions. She wanted to make sure I had it shaped right, and so I went back and wrote -- rewrote the memo. Then she seemed to like it. And then she sent me on my own. And for three years we had almost no conversation until she got the full manuscript.
And I was kind of nervous because I’d -- my previous books, the editors had sort of read them along the way so that I knew I was on the right track. But it turned out I was on the right track.
LAMB: Well, what did she want you to do that you hadn’t done before? I mean what was she after …
MERRY: Oh, in the memo?
LAMB: … compared to what you were after?
MERRY: I think that it was a question of making sure that the narrative had enough drive and that the characters were coming in. I don’t remember the exact details that she made suggestions on.
LAMB: So how’d you go about this?
MERRY: Well, I had a job. I was running Congressional Quarterly, so that was a pretty demanding job, and so I had to sort of shape my effort kind of carefully. I read a lot of newspapers. In fact, I read the Daily Globe and the Daily Union, that was -- those were the Democratic papers, one succeeded the other. And the National Intelligencer, which was the rabid Whig newspaper. And I read those papers pretty much like I would be reading the New York Times and the Washington Post today. I read them day by day, by day, by day, following the …
LAMB: At your computer?
MERRY: No, actually it’s not convenient to do at the computer because of the printout requirement. It’s very difficult with the big broad sheet newspaper, and it’s -- if you print out the whole page you can’t read it, so you’ve got to print out portions of the page, and you can’t put them together. So I go to the Library of Congress or the Martin Luther King Library here and read it there, and print out columns, and put them in order, and them read them again, and magic marker them, and put them in files and try to figure out how the narrative goes.
And then, of course, letters. Polk, all of Polk’s letters are being published in multiple volumes, all of which I have. And Polk kept a diary during his Presidency, four volumes, 500 pages each. I pretty much had to memorize that diary. And he poured his heart into the diary. He told his diary what he was really thinking and feeling, and he was feeling beset by his political opponents a lot of the time, so I was able to get a little bit of life into it that way.
LAMB: I want to come back to the diary and the letters and all that, but paint a picture of him as -- just physically as a person?
MERRY: Well, not an imposing man particularly. He was not an unattractive man. He was relatively sort of medium height, he was about 5’8”. He was relatively small compared to the giants of the time. Thomas Hart Benton was big. Andrew Jackson was big. Henry Clay was lanky and tall. And Polk didn’t have that.
I describe him in the book as small of stature and drab of temperament. He was a bit of a -- he was a standoffish kind of a guy. He didn’t like people very much. He was somewhat self-righteous, so a little bit sanctimony, he was a bit of a prig in many ways. And so upon first meeting, people didn’t really gravitate to him.
What he had that led people to underestimate him, looking at these other traits, was an amazing ironclad will and a determination to bring about whatever goal or anything he set for himself, and he was driven. He was always working, always conniving, always thinking, always figuring out how to move things forward towards the Democratic aim.
LAMB: He was our 11th President, who was our 10th, and then who was the one after him?
MERRY: He succeeded John Tyler. John Tyler succeeded the Presidency upon the death of William Henry Harrison. He had been a Democrat, turned Whig. The Democrats had been very good to him. He was elected to the Senate as a Democrat as a young age.
LAMB: Who are you talking about now?
MERRY: I’m talking about Tyler.
MERRY: Then he became a Whig. He was elected Vice President and succeeded to the Presidency. The problem was he wasn’t really a Whig, and the Whigs were very, very upset with him. They did get a tariff bill increase, which was a Whig platform item.
But what he did that was remarkable and big was that he initiated negotiations with Texas, independent nation of Texas that had declared its independence from Mexico 10 years earlier, to bring Texas into the United States in annexation. And that, in my view, really led to the kind of explosion of expansionist sentiment in America.
LAMB: Who was right after James Polk?
MERRY: Zachary Taylor, who was a General during the Mexican War, so Polk had been his Commander in Chief. Polk never really liked Zachary Taylor, didn’t think much of him. Thought of him as a kind of a stolid, unimaginative guy.
My own view of Taylor as a military man was that he strategically was limited, and he got himself in a lot of scrapes. He got his armies in unfortunate situations, but tactically brilliant. And, therefore, managed to get his armies out of those scrapes and those unfortunate circumstances.
LAMB: A Whig?
MERRY: He was a Whig, and that was another reason why Polk never liked him, he didn’t trust Whigs. His other great General, Winfield Scott, was also a Whig, and they had a terrible relationship throughout the war.
LAMB: So in those days what would a Whig stand for, and where would a Whig stand today, in what party?
MERRY: Well, in terms of the big question that reverberates through our politics, which is concentration of power in Washington or out in the states, the Whigs were more in favor of concentration of power in Washington. So in that sense they would be mooring along the liberal side.
But what was emerging was an increasing consciousness and concern about the slavery issue, and the Whig Party was really at more of the vanguard of pushing on the slavery issue. There was some Democrats in the northeast, particularly in New York that were also raising serious questions about slavery. But if you’d go to Massachusetts, which was the hotbed of abolitionism, those abolitionists were largely Whigs.
LAMB: How many slaves did James Polk own?
MERRY: That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer to that. I didn’t get into that. I got scored a bit in a review in Newsweek Magazine, which was a very laudatory review, I was very pleased to get it from Donald Graham, the Chairman of the Washington Post. But he notes that I didn’t really get into Polk as a slave owner, I didn’t get into Polk’s personal life to the extent that he would have liked. And I think it’s a fair criticism.
LAMB: I remember seeing that. I thought what is Donald Graham doing writing a review on a book. You don’t see that very often from him.
MERRY: I’ve never seen it before.
LAMB: Do you have any idea why he did it?
MERRY: Well, I talked to him subsequently. You know, I wrote a book some years ago on Joe and Stewart Alsop, we talked about it on this set. And Joe Alsop was sort of like his uncle. I mean it was his godfather and very, very close. And he liked that book a lot. So he took an interest in the fact that I was writing a book on Polk and seemed to like the book a lot. So he decided to review it in Newsweek, and I was very pleased to have him do so.
LAMB: I’ve got a clip from that 1996 interview that you and I had about Joseph Alsop, let’s see it.
LAMB: Does Bill Clinton have a relationship with any newsperson like Joe Alsop or Stewart did with the Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Jack Kennedy?
MERRY: I don’t know that he does. I don’t believe that he does.
LAMB: What did you think when you found all the letters of -- Joe Alsop would write to President Kennedy and say you’re just the greatest thing that ever happened, or Lyndon Johnson, you’re on the right track, keep it up. Does any of that kind of thing go on today?
MERRY: Well, I don’t think it does. I mean it shouldn’t go on, and I think that most people who -- most journalists certainly and I think probably most other people who read this book will say there are a lot of transgressions here. I mean this guy is purporting to be a detached analytical newsman, and he’s really snuggling up to a lot of his sources.
But he was a columnist, of course, he wasn’t an objective reporter who is simply giving facts, he was a columnist, so that would be part of his defense, no doubt. But from almost the very beginning Joe got very close to his sources, and probably most people would say too close.
LAMB: Now, here we are many years later, Donald Graham runs the Washington Post. Is there any way to relate Donald Graham back to the days of James Polk, and what the journalistic atmosphere was back then?
MERRY: Well, that’s fascinating. Those are the days of the partisan press, and James Polk or any President had to have a newspaper that was his spokesman, that was his mouthpiece. And Polk had a real problem when he became President because the Daily Globe, which had been the main Democratic newspaper since Jackson, didn’t really like Polk very much. And it was run by Francis Blair of the famous Blair Family.
LAMB: It is that the Blair House Family?
MERRY: Blair House, and Lincoln had in his Cabinet a Blair, and they were Blair’s from Missouri, actually. And Polk was afraid that if he kept Blair in there at the Globe that Blair really was more in favor of Thomas Hart Benton and Martin VanBuren than Polk, and that that was going to be a disaster for him. So he had to maneuver to get the Globe out of there so he could create the Daily Union.
The problem was that his great mentor and the man that he revered, Andrew Jackson, loved Blair. And Jackson just could not understand why his two great protegees and friends and people that he loved so much couldn’t get along. But Polk pulled it off and got Blair out of there and created his own newspaper, the Daily Union.
LAMB: So what’s the difference between Donald Graham and the Blair’s?
MERRY: Well, I think that today’s journalism is very, very different because there’s at least a significant pretense and a desire to reach for objectivity in our newspapers. We don’t always live-up to that as successfully, but that is the rule that we try to follow. And Don Graham is of that tradition, not of the partisan press tradition.
LAMB: You were originally from the State of Washington, went to the University of Washington, and also Columbia, got a masters degree, but you wrote for something called the National Observer, which only people my age remember, a Dow Jones publication and then the Wall Street Journal. How long were you with the National Observer?
MERRY: I got in on the last two-and-a-half years of the Observer. Dow Jones started it in 1962. Never made a dime for Dow Jones, but they had great hopes for it. It was a weekly newspaper, and it was journalistically a great success. Most people thought the writing was really particularly sparkling, and I loved working for it.
But on the last day of June, 1977 Warren Phillips, the Chairman of Dow Jones, took his helicopter down from New York to tell us that they were closing it down. So at that point I went into the Washington Bureau of the Wall Street Journal. I had 10 glorious years covering politics and Congress and the White House.
LAMB: And what’d you do after that?
MERRY: After that I ended up at Congressional Quarterly as Managing Editor. I spent two-and-a-half years in that job, and then seven years as Executive Editor, and then 12 years as CEO, President, and Editor-in-Chief of Congressional Quarterly.
LAMB: And it was owned by a newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times.
LAMB: And it was sold recently to what organization?
MERRY: It was sold to the Economist Group of London, which also owns Roll Call, which is a Washington publishing company, focuses on Congress, as did Congressional Quarterly primarily. And so the Economist merged, the Roll Call and CQ, at which point they had two CEOs for one news organization. And I was the one standing when the music stopped.
So on August 4 at 4:15, at the moment that the final papers were signed my job came to an end, and at 6:00 the next morning I was on an airplane to Seattle to sort of decompress.
LAMB: Polk promised somewhere he’d be a one-termer, when was that?
MERRY: As soon as he got the nomination he wrote a letter, and accepting the nomination, saying that he would if elected serve only one term.
MERRY: Two reasons. I think one was somewhat frivolous, the other was more serious. He believed in diffuse powers, I said. He didn’t believe in entrenched power in Washington and power that remains in place becomes entrenched. So the one term sort of fit into that philosophy. I think that’s a little frivolous because after all his great mentor, Andrew Jackson, served two terms and nobody raised any questions about that.
More significantly, he emerged in a party, and I said, as I said he was not an imposing figure, he was not a giant of his time, and yet he emerged as the nominee at a time when the party was populated by big figures, very ambitious figures.
And I’ll just name some of them -- Thomas Hart Benton, which we’ve talked about, Martin VanBuren had been President, lost the Presidency largely because of the panic of 1837, a real depression, wanted it back. A guy by the name of Silas Wright of New York, who died young, and therefore we don’t know much about him, but he was a real giant of his time. John C. Calhoun wanted the Democratic nomination.
And Polk’s fear was that if these guys all thought that he was going to be in the Presidency for eight years there was no way in the world that they were going to get behind him in the election of 1844 and he needed them because he knew he was going to have a very close election against Henry Clay, which he did.
LAMB: How many political jobs did he have before he became President?
MERRY: Elected to Congress at age 25, spent 14 years in the Congress. He rose up to the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which interested me of course because during my Wall Street Journal days I covered tax policy in Ways and Means, spent a lot of time hanging out there. Never thought about James Polk during those years.
Served as Speaker for two terms. Then he was importune to go back to Tennessee and run for Governor. Didn’t’ really want to do it. Loved the House, liked Washington, but the Democrats were losing power, they were losing force in Tennessee, largely again because of this panic of 1837.
So he goes back, he becomes Governor. Two years later he’s running for reelection, and he runs up against a young, 30-year-old upstart from the backwoods of Tennessee by the name of James Jones. He went by the name of Lean Jimmy Jones. And Lean Jimmy was a bit of a jokester, he was a jester, who didn’t take things very seriously. And, of course, we’ve described Polk as a man who took things very seriously, including himself. Prided himself on his mastery of all the arcane -- of all the issues that the State faced.
And here’s Jimmy just kind of prancing around him in the debates. At one point, Polk thinks he’s going to puncture this upstart, and he suggested his brand of politics is more suited to a circus than a political campaign. Whereupon, Lean Jimmy says, ”You’re right, Governor, we both belong in the circus. I’d be the clown, of course, and you’d be that little guy in the red suit riding around on a pony.”
And Lean Jimmy knocks him out, so now his career is really stunned. And he’d been on the side of history and on the side of Andrew Jackson, and he couldn’t believe what had happened to him. So two years later he ran again against Lean Jimmy, hoping to get the Governorship back. And Lean Jimmy won again. At which point Polk looks finished, he looks totally washed up, and his only hope to resurrect his career was to cadge the Vice Presidential nomination. In those days people actually ran for the Vice Presidency, it wasn’t just anointed by the Presidential candidate.
So he tries to get the Vice Presidential nomination, things aren’t going very well, and then I note that Tyler began the annexation of Texas. And two things happened, well, three things really. The country really galvanized behind that idea, and the idea of the onward expansion to the Pacific, number one. Number two, Martin Van Buren came out against it, said, ”The time is not right.” Number three, Henry Clay came out against it, and it really destroyed the Presidential prospects of both Van Buren and Clay, and Polk became the compromise candidate of the Democratic Convention in Baltimore in 1844.
LAMB: What ballot did he win on?
LAMB: And Van Buren had been President, what years?
MERRY: He was elected after Jackson, so that would have been -- well, he was elected in ’36 and defeated in ’40.
LAMB: And he was trying to run again?
MERRY: He wanted to get the Presidency back.
LAMB: He was a Democrat?
MERRY: He was a Democrat.
LAMB: That wasn’t for the annexation of Texas?
MERRY: He was against it.
LAMB: You mentioned tariffs earlier, any party today want to put tariffs into the mix?
MERRY: Not so much, I mean tariffs are a big issue today, it’s the free trader position versus people who are called protectionists, they don’t like that term. So that continues with us today, but bear in mind that that was the primary source of revenue for our country in those days. We didn’t have an income tax.
So in some ways the tariff issue was a little bit like our income tax issue today with regard to rates, so the Republicans are always in favor of reducing the rates, Democrats are less in favor of that. And in those days the Whigs largely wanted higher tariff rates, and Democrats not so much.
But like a lot of these issues there were the geographical component. So in Pennsylvania, for example, where there was a lot of industrialization, they wanted high tariffs to protect themselves against imports. In the south, it doesn’t matter whether you were a Whig or a Democrat, if you were in the south you wanted low tariffs because you didn’t want the complications in trade regarding sending agricultural goods overseas.
LAMB: It’s interesting, a lot of the people you talk about in your book today, you can see their names everywhere, including his Vice President.
LAMB: Yes, I mean they named Dallas, Texas after him.
LAMB: Did he do anything in history worth naming a city after him?
MERRY: He was elected Vice President, that’s about the only thing he ever did.
LAMB: How did he get to be Vice President?
MERRY: Well, he’s from the north, and Polk was from the south. In those days you had to have both. He had not antagonized anybody, and he didn’t -- he wasn’t used much by Polk, he was kind of a nonentity as Vice President, and he hadn’t had a -- he had a serious career but not a hugely distinguished career prior to that. And I have no idea what happened to him afterwards.
LAMB: You pointed out that he was the youngest president in history up till that time, but the most interesting thing is that at the very end and it just kind of drops off, he’s out of the White House and about three months later he’s dead.
MERRY: Yes, Polk, as I say, was a very serious minded guy. He worked very, very hard. He was a micromanager. He worked himself very, very hard. And I believe that he worked himself to death, literally.
And the war, the Mexican War, which he maneuvered the country into and which he presided over for two years, he thought it would a brief war, it was a long war, it sapped his political standing, it brought huge concerns and grief to him. And, as a result of that, I think he just lost his resistance. And he was not a particularly healthy man anyway, and so he died most likely of cholera.
LAMB: And those days he left in what, March 4th or 5th?
MERRY: On March 4th, yes, and actually it ended up being March 5th because March 4th was a Sunday.
LAMB: And what did he do right after the Presidency?
MERRY: Well, he was on his way back to Tennessee, he was going to buy a beautiful home. He did buy a beautiful home in Nashville. It previously had been owned by a guy of the name of Felix Grundy, who had been a very prominent lawyer and legislator. And he was looking forward to his retirement.
But he was sickly towards the end of his Presidency and all the way on his journey back to Tennessee, which began the day after the inauguration. And then he began to revive a little bit. He was refurbishing this house, and then he took a turn for the worse, and very quickly he died.
LAMB: Where did he -- where was he born?
MERRY: Born in North Carolina. Moved at age 11 to Tennessee with his family. That was a real pioneering frontier period or place in those days. It was dangerous. A lot of Indian attack. When Jackson went to Tennessee a man, woman, or child of the Caucasian race was killed by Indian attack every 10 days or so. So it was very dangerous even when Polk was a boy.
And but his family had become quite prominent in land. They speculated in land in North Carolina, made a fair amount of money, went to Tennessee with what they earned there, and did it again on a bigger scale. So they were quite prominent. They were very friendly with Andrew Jackson and all of his coterie and all that sort of high-end society of the Nashville and Tennessee during that period.
LAMB: How did he meet Sarah?
MERRY: Sarah Childress, her brother had been a classmate of Polk. She was quite a bit younger, so he had actually known her when she was maybe 11 or 12. He met her at a reception or party for a prominent Tennessean who later became Governor, a guy by the name of Caroll, as I recall.
And saw her in a mirror, saw her reflection in a mirror, and immediately was smitten with the visage that he saw. And made his way to find her, but through the crowd, and he lost her. And then when he finally found her she was with her brother, who he had known from school, and they were pretty much together ever since.
LAMB: Did he know her brother at the University of North Carolina?
LAMB: And he graduated from there, and what was he studying, and how -- he got a law degree?
MERRY: He got -- he became a lawyer, but you didn’t get a law degree in those days, but he studied sort of liberal arts and sciences, and was graduated number one in both. But in those days I don’t think you really majored in anything in particular, you studied the curriculum of liberal arts.
LAMB: You took three years to do this book?
LAMB: When did you change your mind about anything that you thought you believed about Polk?
MERRY: I knew very little about Polk, so that wasn’t a big thing. I think that what struck me was how -- my friend Ken Bacon, the late Ken Bacon, former Pentagon spokesman, read my manuscript as it was being produced to give me some guidance and counsel along the way. And he described Polk as a smaller than life figure with larger than life ambitions, and I loved that phrase, and I got it into the book.
And I think what struck me about Polk is I didn’t really understand who he was in terms of his temperament and his personality. A man so limited in so many ways could be so successful as a President.
LAMB: You’ve had some pretty good reviews.
MERRY: I have received some good reviews.
LAMB: I wondered how much of -- some of them -- I mean David Sherman gave you a good review in Pittsburgh, but didn’t you all -- did you all work together at the Wall Street Journal?
MERRY: I knew David. We were competitors when he was with the New York Times, and later we were colleagues at the Wall Street Journal, yes.
LAMB: I just wondered how much of a, you know, well, the one -- the major one in the New York Times Book Review, is Sean Wilentz. Did you know him?
MERRY: Never met him, no. I certainly knew his reputation, and I knew that he was one of the truly prodigious scholars of that era, so I was very pleased to get good words from him.
LAMB: He says that, ”Robert W. Merry’s book is a refreshing challenge to the new conventional wisdom. Polk in Merry’s view certainly was an ambitious expansionist, but in this he merely reflected the electorate’s passionate desire to push the country ever westward.”
MERRY: I believe that when word filtered through the country that Texas annexation was a possibility that this expansionist dream, this vision really exploded on the American scene. Think about this, Brian, there’d never really been a country that dominated an entire continent and positioned itself to dominate two oceans, to straddle an entire continent.
And with the idea of Texas, you know, we had the Louisiana Purchase, and now Texas are moving us toward the Pacific, and there was Oregon territory up there which was jointly occupied by the British and the Americans and that had to be settled somehow. And we had an opportunity to get a significant expanse of land up in the northwest. And then if we can just get that southern, southwestern part, California and those four States, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico, that would be a country of vast designs.
And I think that what Sean Wilentz is saying here is that Polk was the instrument of the sentiment that emerged, and I make it very clear that he emerged very powerfully in America, largely as a result of the annexation of Texas.
LAMB: Go back to, you say you’re reading the newspaper articles and the diary, did you read the diary in printed form or in longhand form?
MERRY: No, I get too frustrated trying to read people who had the handwriting of people from the 19th Century. I read it in printed form. It was published by the Chicago Public Library in four volumes, and I had all four volumes. And I went over it very, very, very carefully.
LAMB: I accessed it on the -- Google has got it on there.
LAMB: Watch it on your computer. Did you read it all?
MERRY: Oh, yes, yes, I read it all multiple times really. I went over it and over it. Took notes from it. I really came very close to memorizing it.
LAMB: If you had the four volumes and stacked them up, how thick was it?
MERRY: Each one was 500 pages.
LAMB: So he had 2,000 pages of typewritten diary?
LAMB: And how often -- and this is only from the Presidency?
MERRY: Yes, he began, he actually got very upset with his Secretary of State, James Buchanan, later President, often considered the worst President of our history. He was a terrible Secretary of State, and he was totally disloyal to Polk and the bane of his existence.
The interesting thing about Polk in his controversies with Buchanan was his inability to fire the man. He couldn’t handle face-to-face confrontation. Don Graham in that review we talked about, called him I think cowardly face-to-face. And I think that was not an unfair characterization. But nevertheless he -- oh, I don’t recall what we were …
LAMB: Well, let me go to the point I wanted you to make on -- or talk about, is the diary, itself, what did -- I mean the four years of his Presidency how much did he do every day? And did you get any sense of what time of day that he wrote the diary?
MERRY: He wrote it late at night. And I remember what I was going to say, he started the diary because he was upset with the confrontation he had in a Cabinet meeting with Buchanan. And so he goes home and goes back to his office that night, and he writes the whole thing out. And then he sort of says, ”Well, now that I’ve done this, I think I’m going to continue to do it.”
So sometimes it would be a very brief entry. Other times it would be three, four, five pages, including extensive depictions of conversations that he had with various members of Congress and others, diplomats and others.
And it was a tremendous undertaking because obviously he was a very busy man, but as I say he was a workaholic. Didn’t have that word in those days but that’s what he was. And he would late into the night write these entries, and it’s a marvelous record of the time.
LAMB: How many people do you think in history have read that entire diary?
MERRY: Well, mostly historians and you see evidence of it in any historian who is writing about that period of time, go through that diary, and it’s been picked over pretty thoroughly.
LAMB: At what point in your research did you read the diary?
MERRY: I read the diary, the first part of my research, the first year -- I tend to do it in stages -- the first year I took Polk up till the point when he was elected. And I researched and wrote that. And then the next year I researched the remainder, basically the four years of the Polk Presidency, which was the main central part of the book. And then I got into the diary at that point.
LAMB: So what did you, you know, what did you start to sense in reading the diary about him as a person, as a writer?
MERRY: A good writer, clear headed, but I think that there was a very clear evidence of his sanctimony. He was a sanctimonious man that was there. He had a certain self-pitying quality that was not particularly attractive. He, and sometimes those things go together, right? A man who thinks, well, I’m above it all, and all these people are trying to thwart me in what I’m trying to do for the American people. And that was a theme that kind of ran through the diary, and sometimes not in very appetizing ways.
And an interesting thing about him was that he never seemed to -- and this is not a good trait for a politician -- he tended to see ulterior motives in his opponents. He didn’t really give them credit for being honorable people with a different point of view. He always saw a kind of secondary, ulterior, unfortunate motive in these people.
You know, sanctimonious Presidents, most of them have been failures. John Quincy Adams was a sanctimonious man. Jimmy Carter was a sanctimonious man. George W. Bush, in my view, was a sanctimonious man. Maybe we can debate that. Woodrow Wilson was a sanctimonious man. And sanctimony at that level of politics tends to be a trait that causes problems.
Polk was probably the most successful of the sanctimonious Presidents. People can argue about Woodrow Wilson. I happen to believe that he interjected himself into World War I in ways that led inevitably to World War II, but that’s a huge historical debate we could have on another show.
LAMB: Well, you talked about two people there that I want you to expound on -- the John Quincy Adams’ approach to -- he was a President, had been a President, the 6th President of the United States, and then went on 17 years in the House of Representatives. But what did he do when James Polk was inaugurated President?
MERRY: Well, he had a chance to be in the inaugural procession, which he had no intention of doing because he was very upset about Polk’s election. He despised Andrew Jackson, but Jackson was a giant of his time, and now we had Jackson’s protégé who is not a giant of his time, in Quincy Adams’ view, being elected. It was a rainy day that day, it rained all day during inauguration. And Quincy Adams kind of watched from a distance and then put wry comments, many of them quite pointed in his diary about Polk and the proceedings.
LAMB: Did you look up his diary?
MERRY: Oh, yes. Yes, his data goes on and on.
LAMB: And he has that little tiny writing that he did?
LAMB: Where do they keep the Polk diary, the written, actual longhand?
MERRY: That is at the Library of Congress.
LAMB: And then jump to another scenario you paint, talking about Henry Clay, first of all, how did Henry Clay relate to him? And had they run against each other, and that scene in the Oval Office or whatever the office was at the time, it wasn’t the oval office, he came to visit him and why did he visit him?
MERRY: I don’t think I know, but it’s a touching scene to me. I think it’s maybe the most touching scene in the book. Henry Clay had been the great opponent of Jacksonism, Jacksonian Democracy, the Jackson Democrats, all of his life. And he had sought the Presidency three times, three times thwarted, the last time by James Polk, who he hadn’t really respected all that much. Then Polk gets us into the Mexican War. Henry Clay has a son, Lieutenant Colonel, a wonderful young man, killed in the war.
You would think that that would be enough so that Henry Clay would never want to go near James Polk, but yet he stops by on a courtesy call when he’s visiting in Washington. And Polk immediately goes downstairs to the parlor from his upstairs office, and Clay basically says, ”I wasn’t sure you’d be pleased to receive me, Mr. President, but my friends have told me that I should come and see you.” And he said, ”Well, I’m very pleased you did.” He asked about Mrs. Polk. Polk immediately has her summoned. And they have this beautiful little bi-play. And then Polk has a dinner for Clay a few days later with Whigs and Democrats, and it’s a really lovely scene.
LAMB: And where did you find the details on it?
MERRY: The diary, and I mixed a couple of things. Allan Nevins in his magisterial book about the lead up to the Civil War has this episode, but he has it in a different setting, he has it at a dinner which Clay in his very elaborate manner has always spoke in a sort of rotundity and elaborate manner. And he lays a lovely compliment upon Mrs. Polk. He says essentially, ”Everywhere I go I hear nothing but good about how you’re doing. Not so much about this guy.” They kind of laugh.
Nevins has this at a dinner, but I -- so -- but Nevins has a more robust description of what was actually said. So I combine that. My conclusion was this was in Polk’s diary, it happened that day, it must have happened in the parlor of the White House or he wouldn’t have written it.
But I took -- I could have taken Polk’s more clipped rendition of the language of Clay or I could have taken Allan Nevins’. And I said, ”Well, I’d better take the better part.” So I just put the two together with a little note in the footnotes that explain how I did that.
LAMB: Another journalist of note, John Seigenthaler, wrote a book on James Polk. He was here about five years ago, and I just want you to see a little bit of what he had to say about him.
JOHN SEIGENTHALER; AUTHOR: Polk would have been right at home in today’s acidic Washington environment, political environment. I think that he would have been up to the needles and the digs and the knives that are wielded. And I think he would have waded right into that environment and been right at home.
He was a man for his time. There’s very little you can say that he left. His Administration was sandwiched between the only two Whig Administrations in our history. And both of those Administrations, the Harrison Administration and the Taylor Administration, were of course interrupted by the deaths of those two Presidents. And so those two Whig Administrations did very little, and his Administration was sandwiched between those. And he did a great deal.
LAMB: What do you think, do you agree?
MERRY: Oh, I certainly agree with John on that. One interesting sidelight, that book that he wrote was part of the American President Series that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. put together. And John Seigenthaler told me, when we talked about this that the only thing that Schlesinger wanted him to change when he saw John’s manuscript was that he thought that he had slighted the what is known as the all of Mexico movement, the idea during the Mexican War when we were sort of in logger heads, we’d gone all the way to Mexico City but they still wouldn’t retreat or negotiate, that we should just take over the whole country.
And Schlesinger believed that that was a more serious movement at that time than was in Seigenthaler’s book, and so John went back and put it in. And my research indicates that it was a significant bi-play during a certain point of the Mexican War.
But, no, I think John has got Polk exactly right. I do think that he would have gotten right into the acidic politics of today, although not so much in terms of face-to-face confrontation because Polk was not good at that but he was very good at attempting to outmaneuver his rivals behind the scenes and he loved doing that.
LAMB: Just for a side moment, for those who say that today’s politics are a lot more acidic or a lot more difficult or a lot more uncivil, what do you say to them, than in the past?
MERRY: No, there are various periods in our history in which politics have been just as raucous and just as nasty and just as bitter as we are experiencing today, and many people, many Americans are a little uncomfortable with the brand of politics that we’re living through. But we’ve gone through that, the early part of the Republic with the people who were writing the pamphlets, the pamphleteers, very, very nasty and bitter.
The Polk era, the Mexican War period, very bitter. Everything leading up to the Civil War, we had a caning on the floor of the Senate in which a distinguished Senator from Massachusetts was caned by a Congressman from South Carolina. Took him three years to recover and get back to the Senate.
So we’ve had this, it’s all part of human nature. Brian, my view is that there’s only one constant in politics in history and that’s human nature. Everything else is a variable.
LAMB: Well, on the Polk Administration and a lot of historians write this, that they give him credit for making decisions and having four accomplishments. That’s what he set out to do, and he did it. And the one term and all. And I’ll list the four of them -- acquire California from Mexico, and you can explain what that means. Acquire Oregon from Britain. Reduce tariff rates, and create an independent Treasury to ensure currency stability.
MERRY: Let’s talk about that one real briefly. During the Jackson era there was a big, big issue about the Bank of the United States, which was the Bank that was essentially created by the Government to be the repository of Federal money, and to attempt to ensure currency stability. Jackson, all the populists, Jefferson, Jackson hated that Bank, and Jackson killed it. But …
LAMB: So they would hate what’s going on right now?
MERRY: In many ways. But at the same time everyone understood that there had to be some kind of an agency for stability, for currency stability, and for repository of Federal money. I mean Jackson basically put it into various state banks, promptly labeled pet banks, Jackson’s pet banks, by opponents.
So the independent Treasury was an effort to create a Government entity that would take care of those two things. And John Seigenthaler in his book notes that that lasted until the creation of the Fed. So it was not a petite or a trivial accomplishment.
Tariff rates were a natural Democratic position, that was not surprising. Getting the Oregon territory or as much as possible was a natural thing. For 26 years the United States and Britain had been trying to negotiate where to draw the line.
LAMB: And how many states would have been involved in the Oregon territory?
MERRY: Well, the states that we have now would be Washington, Oregon, Idaho, part of Montana, and part of Wyoming, but the Oregon territory went up to what is now Alaska, up into British Columbia and other parts of Canada.
And Polk boldly said in his inaugural address that, ”We basically stake out our claim to all of Oregon.” The Brits went crazy. The Times of London was saying that it’s going to lead to war. And a lot of Americans were worried that Polk was going to get us into a war.
But at sort of the last minute he was, he had an iron nerve in a lot of ways, and at the last minute he offered a compromise that brought the border cross at the 49th parallel all the way to the Straight of Juan de Fuca, where I grew-up, around there. And then down and around Vancouver Island, so that the British could have all of Vancouver Island, and that broke the logjam, the 26-year logjam, and so we got Oregon.
LAMB: Is it, what, 49-40 or fight?
MERRY: 54-40 or fight.
LAMB: Right. What was that -- who came-up with that slogan?
MERRY: Mostly Midwesterners, or people called Northwesterners in those days, but the Midwesterners, people from around the Great Lakes who wanted all of Oregon because they saw a natural trading relationship between that part of their country and their own. And they wanted all of Oregon territory which went up to 54-40, so their view was we want it all, 54-40 or fight. And Polk disappointed them, but it was very deft politics and very deft diplomacy.
LAMB: The Congress at that time was controlled by what party?
MERRY: It was controlled by the Democrats at the first part of his Presidency but because of the hostilities that emerged with the Mexican War he lost the House, not the Senate, but he lost the House halfway through his Presidency.
LAMB: So the one thing that we haven’t talked about among the four right now is they acquired California from Mexico, but what did that mean? What was California?
MERRY: Well, I believe California was part of Mexico, as was that southwestern territory, those four states I noted. And I believe that as soon as Polk -- and he never said this publicly, but as soon as he said privately at the beginning of his Presidency that he wanted to acquire California, that’s a tip-off that Polk intended if necessary, and I think he probably thought it would be necessary, to have a war with Mexico in order to get California. Because other Presidents had tried to purchase California, the Mexicans were not interested. And so I think that that sort of tips off the astute pursuer of these events that Polk was prepared for and even willing to maneuver the United States into a war with Mexico in order to bring about this expansion.
LAMB: You spurred me on to look up the Abraham Lincoln July 12th, 1848 speech after the war was over, and I just want to read the last line here and explain how that would say, maybe at the end of the day what kind of figure was Abraham Lincoln at the time.
He said, as I said before, ”He knows not where he is,” meaning Polk. ”He is a bewildered, confounded and miserably perplexed man. God grant he may be able to show there is not something about his conscience more painful than all his mental perplexity.” A little hard to understand, but what was Abraham Lincoln getting at, and how would that fit today? Who would be the one that would stand-up and make that speech today?
MERRY: Well, in any war you have very emotional sentiments and very emotional debates. And Lincoln was a Whig. He was -- his great hero was Henry Clay, and therefore it was natural that he would despise James Polk and despise his war. But in looking at Lincoln throughout his entire biography now in historical terms, it’s a little bit ironic that he would be so opposed to this war on sort of moral grounds when, in fact, he became a war President on a grander, more significant scale than any other President in our history.
And Sean Wilentz in the review of my book in the New York Times suggests, and I’d never seen this noted before but it’s sort of my sentiment, that this Lincoln speech and some other speeches along the same lines were really, could be attributable more to Lincoln’s partisanship than to any fundamental philosophical grounding.
LAMB: And Lincoln was just a one-term Congressman.
MERRY: He was a one-term Congressman, and one of the reasons -- and it was sort of assumed that these group of people in Illinois in that district were going to trade-off on the district, but Lincoln really wanted to remain in Washington. But even if his colleagues in Illinois had wanted him to his opposition to Polk and the nature of his opposition had kind of destroyed his prospect of having another term.
LAMB: Very little time to get into this, but you do in the book, the Mexican War -- what did Polk have to do with that, and what was the end result?
MERRY: When we annexed Texas, Mexico considered that to be an act of war. Texas had been an independent nation for 10 years, Mexico had not been able to get it back but had never recognized the Texas independence.
So now we have Texas, and Mexico withdraws its ambassador, threatens to declare war on the United States, and that leads to huge tensions between the United States and Mexico. Polk sends an army to the Rio Grande in what was really disputed territory between Mexico and the United States. A skirmish breaks out, 11 Americans are killed. Polk immediately goes to Congress and says, ”They have spilled American blood upon the American soil.” One could argue that that was not exactly accurate, that it was disputed soil, but he believed it was American soil. And that led to the Mexican War.
He thought it would last maybe three or four months. He would send under Zachary Taylor an Army into Mexico for a couple hundred miles. They would see the futility of their effort and would negotiate for peace, but the Mexicans were a proud people and they wouldn’t negotiate. They never won a battle, but they never negotiated until the very end. And the war dragged on for two years and became a major, major issue.
LAMB: And how much did it cost this country, and then how many lives might have been lost?
MERRY: I have it in the book. I think the lives might have been -- I probably shouldn’t say it’s in the book -- I think it might have been somewhere in the neighborhood of 17,000 lives, many of them through disease.
LAMB: What was the population of the country, do you remember?
MERRY: Population? That’s in the book, also. I believe the population of the United States at that time would have been somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 million, but again I’m not real good at remembering figures anymore.
MERRY: I used to be better at it.
LAMB: Now that you’re no longer doing the CQ business, Congressional Quarterly, what’s your plan?
MERRY: Well, I’ve been looking for another horse to ride, and I think pretty soon, within a week or two, I’ll be in a position to announce that I will be becoming Executive of another publishing company.
LAMB: What about writing books? And I’m -- let me ask it this way, if you had to choose a character that you learned about in this book to write another book on, was there anybody big enough for you and who would it be?
MERRY: No one really sort of struck my fancy in terms of my next book. I’ve got what I think is kind of a bigger idea. I find that I seem to navigate fairly well in the 19th Century, so I think my next book will be -- will keep me in the 19th Century and it will be something related to the run-up to the Civil War.
LAMB: Knowing your personality and James Polk’s personality how would you two have gotten along at a dinner?
MERRY: Well, I tell people that if you and I, Brian, were at a bar or tavern having a drink and we noticed that Jimmy Polk was over in the corner drinking by himself, and the question might come-up, should we invite Jimmy over to join us so he won’t be drinking alone? Probably the answer would be no, because he just wasn’t much fun.
And I think that as a reporter I probably would have gotten along with him because – if he’d been a good source, but sanctimonious people are generally not very good sources to reporters. So I don’t know. I’m not sure I would have liked him an awful lot, but I think I would have admired him in many ways.
LAMB: The book is called, ”A Country of Vast Designs.” The author is Robert W. Merry. This is about James Polk, the Mexican War, and the conquest of the American Continent. Thank you very much.
MERRY: Thank you, Brian.