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This is not a popular history, but a scholarly treatment consistent with it being a component of “The Oxford History of the United States”. Thus, there is more here than an average reader can comfortably digest. It’s written well enough to flow well, and the author keeps touching base with the big picture and with themes and angles on key events and people that mark his own contribution. In such a well-trod arena he does a good job standing of the shoulders of giants while keeping all the scaffolding out of sight as copious references. It fulfilled a need for me to get a handle on my ignorance of a 30-plus year gap between the War of 1812 through the Mexican-American War (1846-48). As bookends to this period I have read a significant number of books about the American Revolution and its aftermath and a whole lot of fiction and non-fiction about the Civil War and the American West in the last half of the century. My reading from the period has almost entirely been about either the Napoleanic Wars in the fiction of O’Brian and Cornwell or tales of pioneers, explorers, and mountain men by Guthrie and McMurtry (“The Big Sky”, “The Berrybinder Narratives”). A lot happened in this 30-plus year gap, things that take the tarnish off my pride with the pioneers and Founding Fathers. Especially notable was the deadly removals of most of the Indians east of the Mississippi (think “Trail of Tears”) and the acquisition most of the American southwest and California from Mexico as the spoils of a war we started. How did we get to such a virtual genocide and imperialist takeover when we started out collaborating pretty well with the Indians and threw off the reins of British monarchy while harnessing ourselves to the noble words of “inalienable rights” and “all men are created equal”? In Philbrick’s “Mayflower” I learned of peaceful relations with the Indians for about 100 years, and in Ambrose’s “Undaunted Courage”, I was left amazed how the Lewis and Clarke explorations in the Louisiana Purchase was welcomed by many tribes and was almost entirely violence-free. The hopeful prospects of peaceful coexistence were dashed pretty well to hell in this period. The birth of hemispheric hubris had its birth in this period with the formulation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, which asserted that no new European colonies in the New World would be countenanced. The other tarnish on our plucky little republic I sought to remove in this read concerns the mystery of why it took so shamefully long to end slavery and whether there wasn’t some chance to do it without the Civil War.What I learned is that there is some sort of inevitability to history, that in the words of a David Mitchell character “the weak are meat the strong do eat”. But I was refreshed that there was always an undercurrent to adverse tides that flow toward the good. I also treasured was certain villains I could have every right to curse and on heroes I could root for. Andrew Jackson, the one most responsibly for the Indian removals, and James Polk, the mastermind for the great Mexican ripoff, make for great bad guys for my personalized narrative (unfortunately nicknamed for my favorite tree, “Old Hickory” and “Young Hickory”). For heroes who sought to stem the flood and moral fallout of Manifest Destiny I could cheer for John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay. The fertile chorus is sung by the likes of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the father of Transcendentalism Emerson, and the early journalist and feminist Margaret Fuller. The first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, also blazed bright on some key cases that carved out legitimate independent role for the judiciary as a check to abuses of the power of executive and legislative branches.Jackson and Polk, my new targets for shameJackson is admired by many due to his ideals of individual sovereignty against the tyranny of the majority and corrupt power of the elite, core elements of the Democratic Party he founded. But ultimately he was a hypocrite and a demagogue. He got his juice from as a kickass military hero, though he was particularly brutal in his part in the Indian wars and overblown as a winner of the Battle of New Orleans. He got away with illegally invading Spanish Florida and executed prisoners. The engagement of the British in New Orleans in the War of 1812 turned out to be of limited import coming as it did after a peace treaty was already set in London. For public aggrandizement he successfully painted a picture as leading a brotherhood of crackshot Kentucky volunteers to victory, when in fact their militia bolted at a critical fight along a canal and were the subject of his official censure. His successes came from superior artillery and steady combat by local volunteers that included freed blacks, mixed Creoles, slaves, and French pirates. He reneged on his promise to repay the free blacks for fighting with land. He kept New Orleans unreasonably long under martial law and imprisoned a judge who declared it illegal. Such chicanery and disregard for law marked his presidency. His effort to kill the National Bank by removal of all federal funds and disbursement to “pet” banks without legislative approval earned him a formal censure by Congress, but he could scoff at that. It was his policies to encourage southern states to put the Indians under their laws and powers and to allow federal minions to force unfair agreements with the Indians and carry out poorly planned removal actions that led to the travesty and tragedy that resulted.Indian removals involving about 46,000 people between 1830 and 1835The forced travel of the Cherokees from Georgia to Oklahoma cost about 4,000 lives out of 12,000. The Creeks in Alabama wangled a deal for some to get land allotments and stay behind, but when whites took over these lands, the Creeks fought back. Between the heavy military response and their own trip to Oklahoma led to about a 50% mortality. The Chickasaws of Alabama agreed quickly to go, but they learned no space was secured for them when they arrived, so they had to buy a small reserve from the Choctaws. The Seminoles in Florida hid and fought back valiantly, but to no avail. The cost of the U.S. war with them was ten times more than what the whole cost of all the removals was supposed to be. In terms of decimation, the Sac and Fox tribe was decimated the most. Out of about 2,000 only 150 survived when their efforts to get away from enemy Sioux by slipping into Illinois was taken as hostile and worthy of a massacre. In all the U.S. got 100 million acres from the Indians, including a lot of rich farmland, in exchange for 50 million acres of poor land in Oklahoma and total expenses of $70 million. Quite a bill for a party which wanted small government and taxes as invisible as possible. But happy for voters to be able to get cheap land for tobacco and cotton plantations.Polk came into office with the goal of expanding U.S. territory to the Pacific Coast. He wanted the Brits out of much of the Oregon Territory, which was under common occupation. He also had a secret mission to acquire California from Spain somehow. The cheap deal to take Florida in 1819 made a precedent to strip Spain of its holdings. Texas declaring independence soon after Mexico gained independence itself from Spain provided Polk with annexation of the region as a state. Rather than accept the Nueces River as the southern boundary of Texas, he made a claim for the Rio Grande for the boundary and sent troops there. The expected skirmishes with Mexicans who saw them as invaders kicked off a war that Polk planned in advance to take advantage of. Despite having no standing army, it took only a surprisingly modest number troops and volunteers to New Mexico and California to defeat the meager military outposts Mexico had in place. The young Mexican government was poor and unstable, but they refused to submit to a forced sale of the vast regions under our occupation. Polk chose well when he picked Winfield Scott to mount an assault on the capital to force a defeat. His amphibious invasion at Vera Cruz is admired by all military historians, a scale of attack not seen again by the U.S. until D-Day. While Gen. Zachery Taylor bogged down while driving down from Texas, Scott was effective in following the path of the Conquistadors in taking Mexico City, with little pillaging or bombings of the civilian population. I got a kick out of the role of Robert E. Lee as an engineer who devised brilliant ways to sneak the army across lava fields and around well-defended chokepoints (a story portrayed wonderfully in Michael Shaara’s “Gone for Soldiers”). I was pleased to learn how much public and political outcry there was against the war. The Whig Party couldn’t get muck traction from the voters however. Politically, Polk balanced conciliatory negotiations with the Brits in the northwest, i.e. letting them have British Columbia over the “54-40 or fight” crowd, against the favorable outcome of the Mexican War. The acquisition of future states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California for about $18 million was a bounty that fed into the sea-to-sea Manifest Destiny conception that moralistic opponents could not reverse. Polk showed a bit of slime by treating his winning generals poorly and by giving his ambassador Nicholas Trist the boot for taking the unauthorized initiative to pull off the treaty and for not including even more territory, specifically Baja California. in the cession. Another black mark for me is that he mouthed the words of deploring slavery but even while in office quietly acquired a bunch for his Kentucky plantation The new lands and new states being formed out of the Louisiana Purchase made the whole conflict over slavery worse as political forces wrangled over how many would be slave states or free, which affected the balance of power in Congress. For a long time a “gag rule” was applied that permitted no petitions or bills affecting slavery in existing states to even be introduced in the legislature. The post office won the right to block mailing of abolitionist literature to the south. The Democrats could keep a strong coalition of southern slave holding planters and northern working class voters who feared competition for jobs from freed slaves. To be a national party the Whigs had to rein in the antislavery sentiments of their northern more middle class constituents and push for gradual compensated emancipation to placate southern voters. The absurd scheme of making a homeland for freed slaves was another serious dream pushed by politicians as far back as Monroe. A few cases of violent resistance among blacks to their status (e.g. Nat Turner’s Revolt) were subject to massive retaliation and permanent paranoia of a slave revolution as seen in Haiti or the British West Indies. Slavery was just too much of an economic benefit to give up. Combined with the high horse of states’ rights, it was unlikely that any federal legislation or Supreme Court decision could hold any sway. South Carolina and other southern states kept trying to exercise the right of states to nullify any federal law they deemed unconstitutional, so the seeds were sown for a crisis of secession over any federal constraint on slavery. The Civil War seems to have been inevitable. Still, it was uplifting to see the ferment of many people and factions to end slavery. Other warm feelings from this history come from many elements explored in its 800 plus pages. Innovations like the telegraph, canals, railroads, mass printing, and key manufacturing processes. A renaissance among writers and journalists. Experiments in utopian communities. The amazing diversity in religious movements provided support both for white supremacy among some groups and for universal rights among others. Overall, the author finds millennial thinking affected most of the populace and fed into the conception of America as a proving ground for humanity to usher in the Second Coming or to create the heaven on earth. The white Protestant dominion soon had to accommodate a lot of Irish Catholic immigrants after the potato famine and Hispanics residing in the new acquisitions. The God Rush in California drew polyglot, multicultural populations to our shores that helped raise the concept of the U.S. as a fertile melting pot. The revolution in public education saw more women expanding their minds and ambition through school. The book ends with a meeting of early feminists at Seneca Falls New York to forge a revised Declaration of Independence, one with women added to “all men are created equal” and assertion of their rights to work, own property, and vote. All in all a solid read that helped dispel much ignorance on my part. Personally, having grown up in Oklahoma, I can better appreciate the sad story of how so many tribes got corralled there. As a former resident of Texas, I can appreciate how a Republic of Texas came about and then got annexed. As a current resident of Maine, I can better understand how it came to pass it was occupied by the British in the War of 1812 and later played a part in the manufacturing revolution linked to the water power of its rivers. And as an American citizen, I have gained a clearer narrative for heroes and villains in its evolution toward becoming a powerful nation, one with a lot of blood woven into its tapestry but full of inspiring and colorful threads.
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