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 »

Tragic Story Of The San Patricio Battalion

Ne’er-do-wells and deserters, these soldiers lived hard, fought hard— and died when they saw a flag go up

In the 5th U.S. Infantry, stationed with General Zachary Taylor’s army on the Mexican border in 1846, Sergeant John Riley was rated a good soldier. Before his present duty he had served as a drillmaster for the Corps of Cadets at West Point which demanded high competence. Such was Riley’s ability that he was in line for a lieutenant’s commission, and rising from the ranks was rare at that period. He hail only one apparent fault, a grave one. He could enforce discipline but found it hard to take.

 
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Compromise 3: Clay and The 1850 Debate

Fistfights broke out in Congress in 1850 over whether the territories just won in the Mexican War should be slave or free—and only a last-minute series of compromises prevented catastrophe

On a raw evening in winter of 1850, a weary-looking, feeble, and desperately ill old man arrived unannounced at the Washington, D.C. residence of Sen. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky had come to seek Webster’s help in his battle to save the Union. He believed that Webster’s legendary eloquence would be essential in preventing what appeared to be a headlong rush by Southern states to secede from the Union and possibly initiate civil war. Read more »

The San Patricios

Most of them were American soldiers who fought with skill, discipline, and high courage against a U.S. Army that numbered Ulysses Grant in its ranks. The year was 1847.

The court-martial of Capt. John O’Reilly was one of twenty-nine convened by the United States Army at the San Angel prison camp in Mexico on August 28, 1847: thirty-six other men of O’Reilly’s San Patricio Battalion faced courts-martial on that same day at nearby Tacubaya. 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 »

Amnesty

Although the first recorded amnesty was proclaimed at Athens yi. in 403 B.C., American practice not unexpectedly derives from English usage. Beginning with Ethelbert, the sixth-century king of Kent, and continuing through succeeding monarchies, “the king’s mercy”—what Rlackstone called “the most amiable prerogative” of the British Crown—gradually became a settled part of English common law until it was recognized by parliamentary statute in the sixteenth century.

 

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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 »

Faces From The Past-XII

The dark troubles of disunion that beset America as mid-century approached called for a man who had slain dragons (or one who appeared to have accomplished something of the sort). So the Whigs, mindful that they had won their one and only presidential election with a military man in 1840, decided to enter the lists with another in 1848.

 
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A Record Filled With Sunlight

John Charles Frémont never succeeded in living up to his fame, yet he was one of America’s great explorers

Rolling plains covered with dry bunch grass stretch for miles on every side. Far on the northern horizon lifts an enormous square-topped butte, giving individuality to that quarter of the landscape. Westward, faint in the distance but brought into hard relief as the sun sets, are penciled the snowy peaks of an isolated mountain chain; and close inspection shows that near their base the country dips into a narrow valley, with cottonwoods indicating a stream whose waters are fed by these distant summits.

 
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