American Diplomacy Under Tyler and Polk

A review of American Diplomacy under Tyler and Polk (Johns Hopkins, 1907) by Jesse S. Reeves.

Both as an interesting chapter in the history of the diplomacy of the United States, and as dealing with an important and but recently exploited period of our national politics, Dr. Jesse S. Reeves’s American Diplomacy under Tyler and Polk is a timely and welcome work, which embodies the lectures delivered in 1906 before the Johns Hopkins Uni­versity, upon the Albert Shaw foundation in diplomatic history. To the lectures as then delivered Dr. Reeves has added as two concluding chapters, one which contains the report of Mackenzie, delegated by Polk to confer with Santa Anna at Havana, in June, 1846 (here printed for the first time), and one upon the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which appeared in the American Historical Review for January, 1905. The sources of the book are found, first in the state papers, and the corre­spondence of Webster, Calhoun, and other leading actors in the tangled negotiations of this period, and secondly in the diary of President Polk of which Dr. Reeves has made a careful and critical study. Thus excel­lently documented the volume is of importance to all who wish to work in this field, while the easy style in which the book is written invites the attention of the general reader and will make it serviceable to younger students.

Avowedly limiting his treatment to diplomatic history, Dr. Reeves has chosen to restrict further his subject-matter to the four important questions which, in these two administrations, were prominent in the public mind, and has omitted the lesser problems of foreign relations. These four matters were all concerned with the territorial limits of the United States, and involved as the other parties to the disputes Great Britain and Mexico: with the former, the boundaries on the northeast and the northwest were at issue: with the latter, Texas and California constituted the debatable ground In each case Dr. Reeves has given a careful outline of the earlier phases of the controversy, afterwards developing in detail the settlement—whether by peaceful negotiation or as the result of war—which was reached under Tyler and Polk. The masterful and patient work of Webster, and the successful accom­plishment of the Ashburton treaty are discussed and brought to a con­clusion in the early chapters: our relations with Mexico are then traced to the time of Webster’s resignation from Tyler’s cabinet; the question of the annexation of Texas as handled under Tyler by Upshur, and after the latter’s tragic death, by Calhoun, is brought down to the beginning of Polk’s administration and to the annexation by joint resolution: next is taken up the northwestern boundary question in its origin, through the period of joint occupation, and the Oregon treaty of 1846: finally Polk’s determination to have California, the missions of Parrott and Slidell, Polk’s negotiations with Santa Anna through Atecha and Mackenzie, and the curious selection, as confidential agent to arrange a peace, of Nicholas Philip Trist, bring the volume to a close with the conclusion of the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

The negotiations with Great Britain during the period under con­sideration have been thoroughly worked over, and in a new treatment of them it is the author’s judgment of persons and cases rather than additions to our knowledge that is of chief interest. Dr. Reeves’ narrative is eminently fair in its tone, and is cordial in its appreciation of Lord Ashburton, Lord Aberdeen and Sir Robert Peel. But about the dealings with the Mexican government, the causal relations between the Texas and California questions and the Mexican war, and the personality of President Polk, there has been more of an air of mystery. It is in just this field that the clear analysis and keen criticism of Dr. Reeves’ book are most apparent. The central thesis is this: that the Mexican war and the conquest of California formed a distinct episode, completely disassociated from the annexation of Texas. Hence Dr. Reeves stands in the attitude of sharp criticism of the older view elaborated in Von Holst’s history, that these two events were but links in the chain of a southern conspiracy for territorial expansion in the interest of slavery [emphasis added]. Dr. Reeves’ conclusions thus far agree with those of another grateful student of this period, Prof. George P. Garrison of Texas. With Dr. Reeves’ account of Jackson’s policy toward Texas should be compared the article in the American Historical Review for July, 1907, by Prof. E C. Barker.

The author gives succinctly the reasons for the misconception of Polk and his administration. These were “the rapid succession of political events ending in civil war” by which “public attention was drawn away from the causes to the consequences of the Mexican war.” Books appearing soon after the event, animated not by a spirit of unbiased historical investigation, but written with the professed purpose of pre­senting a brief against the aggressions of slavery, have furnished in large measure the materials for the history of the period. The treat­ment of the subject of the Mexican war in the ‘reviews’ of Jay and Livermore, well-constructed and widely distributed as they were, and fortified by an examination of published documents and newspapers, has grown into the narrative of Von Holst.

The sources, and especially the record of Parrott’s mission and the instructions given to Slidell prove, on the contrary, two things: (1) that the Mexican war was not the result of the annexation of Texas, and (2) that the reopening of diplomatic negotiations with Mexico was for the purpose of securing California by purchase. Claims against Mexico unsettled since Jackson’s day, the undetermined boundary of Texas, Mexico’s unwillingness or inability to pay in cash were to lead to a demand for territory; and the clash of the Mexicans with Taylor was a lucky accident, not the cause of the war, which would have been declared whether this had taken place or not.

Of Polk no final judgment is given; it is made evident that he was far from being the political nonentity pictured in the older accounts. But if strong, was he wise or just in his dealings with Mexico, or “firm” in his attitude to England? Dr. Reeves, if one may judge from his criti­cisms of individual acts, would seem to answer negatively, or at least with an accent of doubt. But he has not undertaken to write Polk’s biography, and thus is justified in a rather non-committal position. The same attitude is maintained in Professor Bourne’s paper upon The United States and Mexico, written eight years ago. Professor Garrison, on the contrary, in his recent Westward Extension, speaks of Polk’s “sincere faith in the righteousness of his own purposes and of the means he used to attain them.” Not until the voluminous correspondence of Polk shall have been subjected to the same criticism which has recently been devoted to his Diary will it be possible justly to estimate the man.

This review as originally published in The American Political Science Review, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Nov., 1908).

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