A Country Of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, The Mexican War And The Conquest Of The American Continent, By Robert W. Merry

James K. Polk appears doomed to remain one of our least appreciated presidents, despite Robert W. Merry’s valiant attempt to drag him from the shadows in A Country of Vast Designs. The problem lies with Polk himself, a man even Merry concedes was “drab of temperament,” with “limited imagination” and lacking in “natural leadership ability.” He was affectless, narrow-minded, and difficult, but so are many great national leaders. Read more »

Frémont Steals California

A junior Army officer, acting on secret orders from the president, bluffed a far stronger Mexican force into conceding North America's westernmost province to the United States

In June 1842, Army topographer Lt. John Charles Frémont and 22 men left Chouteau’s Trading Post near present-day Kansas City to survey a wagon trail that would lead through the northern Rockies to Oregon. By August a small splinter group led by Frémont and his most famous scout, Kit Carson, snaked their way through the Wind River Mountains, determined to plant a flag on what was believed to be the continent’s highest peak. Read more »

Overrated/Underrated

Novelist; author of Chesapeake and Texas , among many others

Most overrated: Read more »

“Texas Must Be Ours”

On the 150th anniversary of Texan independence, we trace the fierce negotiations that brought the republic into the Union after ten turbulent years

From the moment he entered the White House in March 1829, Andrew Jackson of Tennessee turned a cold and calculating eye on Texas. Sitting in his study on the second floor of the mansion, maps strewn around the room, the white-haired, sharp-featured, cadaverous President breathed a passion for Texas that was soon shared by other Americans. Read more »

101 Things Every College Graduate Should Know About American History

This is not a test. It’s the real thing.

How precise is the educated American’s understanding of the history of our country? I don’t mean exact knowledge of minor dates, or small details about the terms of laws, or questions like “Who was secretary of war in 1851?” ( Answer: Charles M. Conrad.) But just how well does the average person remember the important facts—the laws, treaties, people, and events that should be familiar to everyone? Read more »

“To A Distant And Perilous Service”

Westward with the course of empire Colonel Jonathan Drake Stevenson took his way in 1846. With him went the denizens of New York’s Tammany wards, oyster cellars, and gin mills—the future leaders of California.

The lumpy peninsula now called San Francisco was humanized at some unrecorded moment of prehistory by brown-skinned Californians of the Costanoan strain.Read more »

The Taking Of California

A low comedy for high stakes:

For three hundred years California drifted in a backwash of time. Spain had discovered the region in 1542 but had done little about it until the latter part of the eighteenth century, when fears of Russian interest in the province inspired her to settle a handful of missionary priests, half-educated soldiers, and thoroughly uneducated civilians in a few pinprick outposts scattered along the coast from San Diego Bay to San Francisco Bay. After Mexico won her independence from Spain in 1821, the Mexicans had done little better by California.Read more »

How To Make It To The White House Without Really Trying

President Polk, a Democrat, needed a commander to win his war with Mexico, but all the good generals were Whigs. Now, could the winning general steal the Presidency from the party? As a matter of fact, he did.

Destiny and Fate are not, historically speaking, respectable concepts. Yet throughout the war with Mexico, Zachary Taylor’s luck was so uniformly bright that in retrospect it almost seems that some conscious providence, having determined to make him President of the United States, would thereafter let nothing operate to his harm.Read more »