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James K. Polk, The Manifest Absurdity of Manifest Destiny, And Some Traits Exemplified by Great Nations

The OLD Philosopher – John M. Miller


Introduction. James K. Polk was one of the most consequential American presidents in our long and checkered history. Of our first sixteen presidents, through Abraham Lincoln, six can be classified to varying degrees as expansionists of the presidential office, and two of them as expansionists of the nation. The six are Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Polk, and Lincoln. Jefferson also oversaw the greatest acquisition of land in our nation’s history, and Polk the second-largest acquisition.

The United States Constitution both intentionally and unintentionally instituted a complicated and ultimately unresolved tension between the three branches of our government: legislative, judicial, and executive. Historically, which branch seemed to dominate at which period in our history has depended on who seemed to control the greatest political power at any given time. That may be good; it may be bad; but it is fact.

The historian Walter R. Borneman wrote the most important recent biography of President James K. Polk. It is called Polk: The Man Who Transformed America and the Presidency.

Polk was a young protégé of Andrew Jackson. Jackson was president from 1828 to 1836. Polk was president from 1844-1848. Through the years Polk was called Young Hickory, because Jackson had been known as Old Hickory since the Battle of New Orleans in 1814.

Polk sought the vice-presidency three times, the governorship of Tennessee three times, and the presidency once. He was never vice-president, governor for a two-year term, and president for one self-limited term. In his thirty years of government service until his death, Polk was nothing if not the consummate Democratic Party politician.

From the time of Thomas Jefferson until Andrew Jackson, however, there was no Democratic Party as such. Instead there was the Democratic-Republican Party. It was the opposition to the Federalist Party of Washington, Adams, and Hamilton. Jackson changed its name to the Democratic Party. Jackson’s party was almost unrecognizable as the Democratic Party of today, and in fact was much more like the Republican Party of today.

The Inevitability of Historical Bias

     Much of the following is admittedly historically-biased. (Those who think they have no historical biases are deluded. They are not very serious students of history either.)

     Thomas Jefferson claimed to oppose a strong federal government. Nevertheless, in 1803 he arranged the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon for the far-less-than-imperial sum of fifteen million dollars. The figure was almost obscenely minimal. It doubled the size of the United States at the stroke of a presidential pen. Mr. Jefferson was the first, and most influential, of all the American expansionists. He set the tone for those who followed him.

     From the presidencies of Andrew Jackson to Lyndon Johnson, the Democratic Party was mainly controlled by southern conservative politicians. But from Lincoln’s assassination to Franklin D. Roosevelt, a period of sixty-seven years, there were only two Democratic presidents: Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson, each of whom served two terms. Wilson was in many respects a Jacksonian Democrat, but Cleveland was not.

James K. Polk was a chip off the old Jacksonian block. He strongly favored slavery, states’ rights, a strong presidency, a strong military, separation of the races, conservative social values, and a decidedly expansionist concept of the United States of America. Ironically, a large majority of the contemporary Republican Party, now controlled by southern and western conservatives, share all but one of those same fundamental political views.

The 1830s and 1840s evolved into another epoch of enthusiastic American expansionism, following the Louisiana Purchase. Under Polk, the U.S. purchased Florida from the French in 1845 (a story too long to tell here), and fought the Mexicans for what became all or parts of the states of New Mexico, Arizona, California, Colorado, and Utah, and Nevada. Texas also was tangentially involved in the Mexican War, but that too is too long a story to relate herein.

Under Polk, in 1848 the U.S. paid Mexico an indemnity of fifteen million dollars for the disputed territory, having already successfully seized it by force. That sum was considerably inflated from Jefferson’s fifteen million in 1803 for the Louisiana Purchase, so it was almost an unconscionable steal. It could be called The Mexican War Purchase.

America has had a lengthy record of buying huge chunks of land for shamefully paltry amounts. These purchases were arranged through autocrats who happened to need large amounts of money for their fiefdoms at home. Secretary of State Seward followed that practice in 1867 when he snatched Alaska from the financially-stressed Russian czar for $7.2 million. That also was a massive area for a minuscule amount.

Before his election, James K. Polk had intentionally announced he would serve only four years as president. Under his leadership, the USA came to an agreement with Britain, and to a lesser degree, France, over what eventuated as the northern border of the continental United States.     

To understand this Polk stratagem, it must first be recognized that France was in a long, slow slide from western global power after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. Its claims to any part of the Pacific west coast were very weak indeed, having sold most of that land to Mr. Jefferson three decades earlier. The British Empire, on the other hand, was in the ascendancy. It was far more powerful than France, and had more plausible claims to the Pacific Northwest. It already controlled Canada from the Atlantic all the way west to the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

During the Polk presidency, American warmongers and even the president himself originated the famous battle cry, “54.40 or Fight!” This suggested that the United States potentially laid claim to all the land along the Pacific Ocean from San Diego north to the 54th parallel of latitude. That was the southern border of Russian Alaska.

To their credit, all but the most bellicose of American expansionists thought it prudent not to risk war with Russia as well as Britain and possibly France in the 1840s. To his credit, Polk quickly recognized the military and political folly of the 54.40 border. He reluctantly settled for the 49th parallel, the line which now runs from the state of Washington to Minnesota. It is, providentially, the northern extremity of the Lower Forty-Eight, as Alaskans are fondly wont to refer the rest of the continental United States.

At the time of the War of 1812 with Britain, journalists named it “Mr. Madison’s War,” even though it was Congress that officially declared war. When Polk (not Congress) declared war on Mexico in 1846, the press called it “Mr. Polk’s War.” Journalists delight in tying warlike zeal around the necks of presidents and other politicians like an ailing albatross.

Polk was as politically adroit an American as has ever drawn breath. He elevated the powers of the presidency more visibly than any president before him, including Andrew Jackson, who was a master of presidential manipulation.

Polk did not brazenly lure Mexico into a war, but he did everything possible to nudge Mexico into fomenting a war on the United States. Finally, Santa Anna ruefully obliged. American involvement in the conflict was cleverly passive-aggressive, with a strong emphasis on the aggressive side.

General Zachary Taylor was the commander of an American regiment in an early victory in the war. For his victory in a minor battle his troops labeled him Ol’ Rough and Ready, though he was quite young, and not very ready. His purported exploits catapulted him into becoming the next president after Polk in 1848. He also was one of the least qualified men ever to attain the White House. Notwithstanding, he was sufficiently thoughtful to die of cholera a year and a half after his ill-fated election.

Throughout James K. Polk’s administration and his expansionist presidency, slavery was always the overarching political issue, even more than territorial expansion. Texas was admitted into the Union as a slave state, as seemed virtually preordained. But what about New Mexico and California? The pro- and anti-slavery factions of the government wrangled over the peculiar institution in those territories, as they had done off and on ever since 1787, or realistically even since 1776.

Slavery was the unresolved constitutional question which plagued the United States of America from its inception until the Civil War. Eighteenth and nineteenth century politicians wrestled valiantly but fruitlessly over the stalemate, trying to resolve it peaceably.

There is little likelihood the Constitution ever would have been adopted by the thirteen states in 1787 had a serious attempt been made to ratify the new constitution with slavery abolished. Nor would it have received the necessary approvals without more power being cumulatively granted to the states than to the federal government.

Before, during, and after the American Revolution, the greatest external threat Americans felt was from a potentially overpowering and heavy-handed British monarchy. They wanted to prevent that type of government in their own land. Hence they created a structure which assiduously limited the authority of the national government and gave greater power to the several states individually and collectively.

For this very reason neither Congress nor any president up to 1865 could do anything to quell the slavery question. For that reason also James K. Polk, who owned slaves and never sought to abolish the peculiar institution, did nothing effectively to deal with The Disastrous Historical American Impediment. It was silenced only by the loss of six hundred thousand young American lives.

Great Nations and Geographical Expansion

Borneman’s biography of Polk serves to remind us that there were numerous similarities between the politics of the late 1840s and the politics of the late 2010s. The political parties in both eras were badly splintered. Few attempts were made to overcome that divide. There was little effort by the members of Congress to compromise on anything. Those who favored the Mexican War were fiercely in favor, and those who opposed it were fiercely opposed. In both decades there were presidents who exercised far more executive power than has been the norm in American history.

There the similarities end. From 1944 to 1948, Polk was a shrewd, well educated, highly experienced politician and president. He had been in Washington for most of his adult life, and knew its ins and outs. When he came to the White House, he had a firm grasp on the nature of American government, and he felt prepared under the tutelage of Andrew Jackson to continue in the Jacksonian tradition of a powerful executive branch.

In the nineteenth century, the seeds were sown for making the USA a great nation. The acquisition of the third-largest land area of all the nations on earth was a major factor in that development. James K. Polk was instrumental in that process. Early in the century a series of canals was built. Later came railroads, including three major transcontinental lines. Beneath American soil were large deposits of coal, oil, iron ore, and other minerals necessary for developing an economic colossus. Americans themselves created a “can-do” attitude which resulted in many great-nation advances.

Numerous nations throughout world history have been relatively good, but few have been truly great. Further, few remarkably good nations have become truly great. The words “great” and “nation” seldom merge. When they do, they do not continue for numerous centuries. Not many nations experience genuine greatness, and when it happens, invariably it does not last indefinitely.

Our species has been on earth for only a hundred thousand years or so. What we vaguely understand to be countries or nations or nation-states have existed for only six or seven thousand years at most. Only in the last thousand years have there been nation-states or empires that have affected most of the world in measurable indices: China, India, Persia, Greece, Rome, the various Muslim empires, Spain, France, Britain, and the United States of America. Russians might assert that the Soviet Union was a great twentieth-century power, but their power did not last very long, and many outside Russia would deny that the Soviet Union was all that good in the first place.

All great powers inevitably have weaknesses as well as strengths. In every instance of the existence of a great power, their detractors, who are innumerable, think them petty, irresponsible, and flawed, if not downright evil. Being Number One, or First Among Great Equals, is a status no nation should reasonably either seek or desire. It simply happens; it transpires; it descends. It also is always a burden. Whenever a great nation acts with great policies, it usually has a great leader who leads the process.

Only one nation in the history of humanity has had a permanent impact as a great nation on almost all other nations. That was the nation of Israel. Nonetheless, Israel was “great” only in a limited cultural and ethical sense. Its greatness was never measured in political, economic, geographical, or military prowess. Its influence has always been primarily religious, philosophical, and ethical.

There is almost no one living on any of the six inhabited continents whose life has not been positively touched by the people who once were identified as Hebrews, later as Israelites, and later still as Jews. Millions of people may be totally unaware of the Jewish influence on their existence, but it exists all the same.

From the Hebrews came what Muslims call “the Peoples of the Book:” the Jews, the Christians, and the Muslims. By this point in history, however, even people in the sections of the world not dominated by Jews, Christians, or Muslims are influenced by the scriptural traditions of these three religious groups. No one living in any nation-state anywhere is unaffected by their ubiquitous values.

Nevertheless, there is one major weakness of biblical religion which has plagued its proponents in all their variations ever since Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, and its walls came tumbling down. That weakness has been the insatiable quest for political, military, and geographical domination by virtually all large states.

The Israelites were convinced that God wanted them to conquer the land of Canaan. To do that, they also believed they were commanded by God to kill or capture every single Gentile who lived among or around them. Canaanites, Jebusites, Amorites, Ammonites, Edomites, Hittites, Perizzites, and Hivites: all were either to be exterminated or enslaved. The Israelites showed genuine religious partiality to no other “-ites” than Israelites, and they were not always partial to all of them, either.

The Bible proclaimed completely insupportable theology when it declared that God wanted the destruction of the enemies of Israel and the annexation of their land. God has never desired or demanded such atrocious behavior from any nation.

Sadly, the same notion which prompted the Israelites to conquer Canaan is similar to the notion which prompted Americans from the first landings at Jamestown and Massachusetts Bay to overcome the Indians or the British or the French or Spanish or Mexicans in armed turf acquisitions. Americans succeeded in that effort from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

God has never lent His hand to the establishment of any ethnic or national boundaries; none. God mandates nothing in the world, but He does observe everything. From God’s standpoint, the primary question always is this: Do human or national decisions match up with the spiritual and ethical values God seeks to inculcate into the minds and hearts of all His sentient beings on this planet?

God does not pull strings to get anything to happen. Instead, spiritually He always attempts to inspire us, as Spike Lee says, to do the right thing.

The Doctrine of Providence

Here we need briefly to examine the doctrine of providence. Providence is generally understood to mean that God causes many things, and perhaps everything, to happen. That is not the true meaning of this very important theological notion, however.

Providence means that God uses human actions and decisions, as well as all other happenstances, for His own purposes. God rarely if ever directly intervenes in our lives, but He uses us to intervene in our own lives. Medical researchers, nurses, and doctors bring healing and wholeness to people in need of medical assistance. God inspires them to do that. Teachers and professors train young people to improve the world. God inspires everyone in that process to do that. Politicians and statesmen strive to make the world and their nation-states more just and equitable places. God inspires them to do that. He uses us to do His will in His world.

The purpose of this section of this essay is to insist that “American expansionism” and “Manifest Destiny” were very faulty ideas in American national history. We got very large because we wanted to get very large. God did not cause that to happen, but He has used our size to give us the ability to help improve the entire earth.

The religious principles which propelled the earliest white settlers onto these shores were wrong-headedly mistaken ever to have imagined that God intended America to stretch from sea to shining sea. The national hymns along that theme sound glorious, and their sentiments are majestically uplifting, but theologically, they are badly flawed. God never wanted the USA to be as large and powerful a nation as we are, but we certainly wanted it. By dint of cunning, courage, grit, and guns, we made it happen. Nonetheless it was never the overt will of God.

It is nationalistic and xenophobic nonsensical theology to suppose that God favors any nation, people, or ethnic group over any other. God would be an unworthy deity if He chose one person, people, or nation over all other people or nations. Any creator who would do that is a creator everyone should avoid.

Nevertheless, there is little if any value after the fact in debating the validity of how the United States of America became the greatest of the great powers after World War II. It happened through the wisdom of the founding fathers, good leadership for much of its history, and the extremely good fortune of being located on one of the most productive large plots of Planet Earth.

The USA is great in many respects. Are also we good in most respects? Are the American people truly good people? Is the American nation genuinely a good and great nation?

How should a great nation act with respect to all the peoples of the world and to its own people? How ought our politics to reflect what we claim to be our national ideals? Greatness is not really measured in political, military, or economic might.

Theologically, we were and are a deluded nation if we honestly believed or believe that God has a “manifest destiny” in mind for the United States of America. That is a manifest absurdity. No objective person or people can imagine such a thing.

Nevertheless, although God did not intend for a large tract in North America to become a great nation, it became one on its own. God now uses that reality in order for that great nation to nurture the existence of its three hundred million citizens and to assist in the nurturing of seven billion other people around the world. God’s providence is unlimited in its reach.

Any reader who does not by now realize it is an unrepentant liberal, progressive, inclusivist, would-be Christian spewing forth his historically-biased notions has not been reading nearly carefully enough. All that notwithstanding, palaver about expansionism and manifest destiny for any people or nation is anathema to the Almighty One of Israel and of the entire universe.

The United States of America was not exhibiting greatness when it was expanding westward from the Atlantic, or when it drove the native Americans off their land, or when it purloined or paid for other lands from other perhaps not-as-great nations as we see ourselves to be. National greatness never results from national expansion per se. It is what a nation does with its own self-perceived greatness that matters.

When foreign aid was three or five or eight per cent of our national budget after World War II: that was greatness. When the Marshall Plan peacefully kept southeastern Europe and Turkey from becoming dominated by the Soviet Union: that was goodness. When USAID was founded, sending federally-paid workers to countries all over the world; when the Peace Corps was inaugurated; when AMERICORPS began (even if it has never really gotten off the ground): there goodness and greatness were enmeshed into magnificent world-transforming endeavors. Were Congress to pass a law requiring all able people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five to contribute one or two years of national service for a wide choice of activities: there national greatness would surely be considerably enhanced.

Great nations do not withdraw from the rightful place in the family of nations that their position requires of them. They do not become isolationist. They realize the importance of assembling alliances to stem to expansion of autocratic governments. They do not deprive the most vulnerable of their citizens of the basic necessities of life. They do not displace the weak and helpless. They do not walk away from international commitments previously made by their government. They seek to be leaders in the world but not to try to dominate the world. They attempt to make the world more livable, and not merely more profitable.

A great nation does not turn its back on one of its great symbols. The Statue of Liberty stands in New York Harbor, and she declares to the world, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddles masses yearning to breathe free/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore/ Send them, the tempest-tossed to me/ I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” A great nation does not ignore refugees, and immigrants, and people who have been shoved from pillar to post in lands where liberty is callously thwarted and freedom is deemed to be an enemy.

A great nation values its immigrants, because all great nations are great, to varying degrees, because of their immigrants. Historically, the United States of America is completely a nation of immigrants. Everyone who ever originally came here came from somewhere else.

Some of the most effective American leaders in politics, business, science, research, finance, education, and the military are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Many of the nationalities of their names would have been both unrecognizable and unpronounceable twenty-five or fifty years ago, when European names were nearly universal in America. The USA has become a great contemporary nation in part because of its contemporary immigrants. Americans have long been encouraged to think outside the box. Immigrants bring boxes from their countries of origin we could not even imagine without them. The boxes we think outside are nurtured by some of the foreign boxes others bring to us. 

A great nation does not attempt to seize medical advantages which government has arranged for its citizens through hard-fought political battles, only to have those benefits snatched away through a transfer of political power. Great nations use diplomats to seek just solutions to unjust situations in nations ruled by autocrats or dictators, but they do not use their military to overthrow them through the raw exercise of armed force. They do not pass laws to benefit the wealthy and burden the middle class and the poor.  

A great nation does not imprison foreigners for years in foreign prisons, torturing them for information they do not possess. The Geneva Conventions are carefully observed by great nations.

Eventually great nations always lose some of their greatness. When that happens, however, they can return to being great by striking out in new directions from how they once conducted themselves during their most influential periods of political, military, and economic power. In recent years, Britain, France, Spain, Germany, and Japan all have succeeded in re-inventing themselves for new situations and opportunities in an ever-changing world. The United States, which has lost some of its luster as a great nation, can also re-invent itself for the future. 

In any human enterprise, self-interest cannot be divorced from an interest in serving others. In everything we do, though, we should seek to benefit others as well as ourselves. The great English philosopher Jeremy Bentham said we should always seek to do the greatest good for the greatest number. We should indeed. If we suppose we can be great without also doing good we delude ourselves, but we also deceive ourselves if we think we can manage to do the good without carefully considering how it affects our own good.

The greatest of nations should always attempt to do the most good they can for their own citizens as well as for as many citizens of other nations as possible. Providentially, we can only do what we can do; we can’t do what we can’t do.

The evolution of the United States of America into a great nation was not foreordained by God, history, or geography. We happened to begin as thirteen sparsely populated British colonies scattered along the western shore of the mid-North Atlantic Ocean. Those colonies also happened to be adjacent to a vast expanse of very productive land in the temperate zone, stretching westward to the Pacific, filled with bountiful natural resources.

Nation-states acquire land however they acquire it. God carefully watches that process. He watches what they do with it even more closely once they have it.

The USA has done great good for the world and for its own citizens through the two and a half centuries of our illustrious existence as a nation and collectively our more than four centuries upon this continent. It is theologically unacceptable and manifestly absurd not to try to continue doing that.

Now we need to seek to cobble together a government which conscientiously will do its best for everyone, both domestically and internationally, but especially for the least, the last, and the lost. Nothing is more admirable than for individuals and individual governments always to strive, above all else, to be humanitarian in their humanity.   


John M. Miller received a bachelor of arts degree with a major in history from the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1961, and a master of divinity degree from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago in 1964. He is Pastor of The Chapel Without Walls on Hilton Head Island, SC.


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