James K. Polk, the 11th President of the United States, mastered the art of diplomacy and foreign policy. Polk successfully used diplomacy to situate the United States as the dominant power in North America by securing the northern border with the British Empire as well as engineering a war with Mexico to acquire the American southwest.
The Succesful Maneuvers of President James K. Polk
Oregon Territory: Prelude to the Mexican War
Following the victorious conclusion of the War of 1812 for the United States, the peace treaty signed created a unique position in the United States regarding the northwest. In 1818, Canada was part of the British Empire. Both the British Empire and the United States agreed that neither nation would claim sole ownership of the Oregon Territory, which encompassed modern-day Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. They both signed a treaty that would extend this principle for thirty years, and the issue would be solved in 1848.
By 1848, there were nearly 30,000 American settlers in the Oregon Territory with most arriving from the Oregon Trail. President Polk relied on bold expansionist diplomacy to gain the desired territory. He began by claiming the whole Oregon Territory, up to the 54-40 parallel and mobilizing forces to move northwest. As a result, the British Empire began organizing troops and ships. However, they were at a distinct disadvantage. In order to extend their influence in the Oregon Territory, which was 9,000 miles away, they would have to send wooden ships from the south of England, around Cape Horn, and north to the west coast of the United States to put “boots on the ground” in the Oregon Territory.
Polk, fully aware of this reality, presented himself as willing to compromise and be a negotiator. This maneuver successfully got the territory initially desired, which was the 49th parallel. In doing so, American territory extended from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Such an overextended development of the United States left a “soft underbelly” to America and left Mexico in a position to threaten American security.
Texas Rebellion: The Weakening of Mexico
In 1822, Mexico declared its independence from Spain. The new Mexican state wanted to develop the province of Tejas (known as Texas in the United States), and they invited citizens of the United States, primarily from Louisiana and Arkansas, to settle Tejas and invest in the region. These settlers, however, were highly individualistic and not submissive to authority from Mexico City. One of the leading seeds of discontent was slavery.
In 1822, along with their independence from Spain, Mexico abolished slavery and was a free nation. When settlers were coming from Louisiana, Arkansas, and other southern states, they brought with them their slaves – a crime in Tejas.
The seed of discontent blossomed into a rebellion in 1835. After three key battles (Gonzales, Alamo, and San Jacinto), Tejas won its independence and was renamed the Republic of Texas which lasted until the end of President Tyler’s term, where the state was annexed as a slave-holding state.
The Battle of Gonzales noted the true beginning of the Texas Rebellion, and in the grand scheme of the was a very minor affair. At most, 200 Texan militia had assembled in the vicinity of Gonzales, Texas. Involved in the battle was a Mexican cavalry contingent under Francisco de Castañeda numbering around 100 strong.
After only one volley from the Texan militia, the Mexican cavalry withdrew and reformed, as orders from higher-ups suggested they do should firing begin. The initial Texas victory served as a morale boost for the Texas cause, despite casualties in the Mexican army reported at being two.
In the most critical battle of the rebellion, the Battle of San Jacinto, the head of the Mexican government and army, Santa Anna (his full name being Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón), was captured in his camp following a surprise attack. He was then forced to sign a peace treaty favorable to the Texan cause for independence.
Thornton Affair: Engineering War with Mexico
Following the peace in 1837 and annexation into the United State in 1845, a border dispute emerged between Mexico and the United States. Texas and the United States recognized the border at the Rio Grande River, whereas Mexico recognized the Nueces River as the border, which was northeast of the Rio Grande.
President James Polk wanted to push the claim. In 1845-46, he attempted to purchase the disputed territory. This attempt ended in failure as the Mexican government was very unstable with new governments frequently being formed. The inability for a stable government left any negotiations untenable. Any deal accepted to sell the territory by a Mexican official would be the end of such a regime.
This rebuff was considered an insult by Polk and his administration, and he ordered an army to form at Corpus Christi, north of the Nueces River. This army was under the command of Zachary Taylor. In April of 1846, Taylor’s army was ordered into the disputed territory. Reports state that the Mexican forces had crossed the Rio Grande on April 24th. Captain Seth Thornton, with two companies of American dragoons, numbering eighty strong, were ambushed by nearly 1600 Mexican soldiers under the command of General Anastasio Torrejón on the 26th of April.
In the brief battle, eleven Americans were killed, six wounded, and the rest captured. Polk went to Congress and asked for a declaration of war as a result of American lives being lost defending American soil. War was narrowly declared on Mexico on May 13th.
“The cup of forbearance had been exhausted even before the recent information from the frontier of the Del Norte [Rio Grande]. But now, after reiterated menaces, Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil. She has proclaimed that hostilities have commenced, and that the two nations are now at war.” – President James Polk to Congress on the Deceleration of War
The history of the United States was defined by the ability of President James Polk to masterfully use diplomacy to not only place the United States as the dominant power in North America, but in securing the northern border with the British Empire and the southern border with Mexico by engineering a war to acquire the lands of the American southwest.
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