Friday, June 27, 2008


I've read the new biography of James Polk, by Walter Borneman. It's a great read, and it's a long-overdue effort to explain how it was that Polk was able to accomplish so much in such a short period of time. What it comes down to is that Polk knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish but also that to get it done, you need to be shrewd and indirect. That's the dark horse strategy.

Just to take one example, for many years before Polk, the US and the British disputed sovereignty over a large area called Oregon, including, I think, what is now Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. He campaigned on a Jacksonian expansionist platform, and implied that he supported the aggressive Westeners' slogan, "54-40 or fight," a reference to a latitude at the very northern end of the disputed territory. Once in office, however, he said that it was his duty to stand by a US offer to the British at around the 49th parallel, or a little south of it in some instances. So he gave the British an opportunity to accept this compromise, based on his need to honor an American promise. When the British negotiator said no, Polk said, fine, that offer is now off the table.

Many Americans were worried about war with the British and were eager to make counter-proposals. Secretary of State Buchanan was especially anxious to engage in new negotiations. (Another element of the dark-horse philosophy: keep your enemy, Buchanan, in the administration and keep your hands on his neck at all times. Buchanan was undermining Polk right and left, but Polk never fired him. Just kept slapping him down.) No communication with the British took place, and the British negotiator ended up getting in trouble for failing to get a deal done, and risking war. Ultimately they came back with a proposal like the one they had rejected, but a little more favorable to the US: the famous 49th parallel. Polk asked the Senate for advice and consent. They said fine. Oregon and Washington were then part of the US.

What interests me about this story is that an administration remembered for its aggressive postures in fact accomplished its aims through a careful communications strategy, encompassing a calculated obfuscation about Polk's position prior to the election and then a careful couching of the US position once he took power. It was this kind of poker-playing that got him elected in the first place and then permitted him to accomplish what he did in his four-year term.