Here’s another statue that needs to come down

Revisiting the legacy American expansion 

historic painting of President James Polk
James Knox Polk, Eleventh President (1845-1849) by Cliff via Flickr CC BY 2.0

I nominate James K. Polk.

We seem to be in the mood of late to reexamine our “great men.” Certain statues are coming down or there is a clamor for them to tumble. 

Polk, our 11th president, has long been in need of such scrutiny.  What better time than July 4, when we are supposed to be examining what it means to be American?

A common charge leveled against questioning the propriety of certain statues or the virtue of various historical figures is that this is tantamount to denying or revising history. Well, no, the study of history is not static. New facts or better understood facts are not forbidden and there is no reason we should not revise judgments of historical figures based on credible information. 

Otherwise, let’s all just agree that George Washington cut down that apple tree.

The debate of late has spread beyond Confederate statues to other slave-holders and a discussion of why U.S. military bases are named after those who fought to dissolve the Union and preserve slavery.

Statue of President James Polk with American flag in background
Polk Statue – Polk Memorial Gardens
This statue of President James K. Polk is located in Polk Memorial Gardens cemetery on the south side of Columbia, TN. The cemetery is located on highway TN243 (Old U.S. 43) on the road to Mt. Pleasant in Maury County by Brent Moore CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The list of historical figures getting added scrutiny is expanding. 

Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt appear. Even Ulysses S. Grant is there for having once owned a slave. He either bought or was given a man whom he freed before the Civil War. And there is his role in stripping the Lakota of their gold-bearing lands. 

Unfair to focus a modern lens on people of different times and attitudes? Sorry, our understanding of history can evolve as knowledge does. But, granted, balancing claims of greatness against a fuller record that contains moral lapses can cause intellectual contortions. This is because achievements, like failings, are historical fact. 

So, how about we focus on facts? Those Confederate statues were mostly erected after folks in the southern states foisted the “lost cause” myth on the rest of us. So, talk to any random product of southern public education and you’ll hear that slavery gets nary a mention in instruction about the lost  cause of secession. Those who don’t want  Confederate statues to come down are  asking us to accept a their own false,  revisionist history.

It boggles the mind, but many can’t wrap their heads around a simple premise: it is unreasonable to expect anyone, but African Americans in particular, to accept statues in public spaces glorifying men who fought to keep  people enslaved.

That brings me back to James K. Polk. Many have attributed great achievement to him based on his towering role in U.S. expansion from sea to shining sea. 

Ascribing greatness to this, however, requires willful ignorance of how and why this came about. Polk was a disciple of an early version of white nationalism. That would be Manifest Destiny — the notion that the U.S. was meant to expand ever westward. That “different” people had previous claims and were already there was ultimately a trivial matter.

So, after persuading Texas to be annexed in 1845, Polk sent U.S. troops to disputed territory to pick a fight. Texas said the border was in one place, Mexico claimed it was another. 

Here’s how Grant put it: “We were sent to provoke a fight, but it was essential that Mexico should commence it.” Yes, there is a U.S. history of pretext for war even before the Gulf of Tonkin and weapons of mass destruction. 

There are many ways to settle territorial disputes. Sending troops into territory claimed by another is as subtle as setting up a tent city on your neighbor’s front lawn. And there are ways to deal with an attack on U.S. troops in disputed territory — provoked or not — short of conquering and occupying a weaker nation and taking about half its territory.

Polk rattled sabers to get Britain to hand over the Oregon Territory. This handing over happened short of war. Not so with Mexico. Two years later, this beaten country agreed to accept money for about half its nation from the victors. This is akin to you “selling” me your car cheap after I’ve beaten you to a frazzle with a tire iron.

Grant labeled the war in which he fought “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” Abraham Lincoln, not yet president, was similarly aghast.

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I know. I’m American because I was born in a U.S. California to Mexican nationals. But recognizing I’m a beneficiary of how it all turned out does not at all mitigate what Manifest Destiny was. It was outright theft, built on a foundation of racism and imperialism. I see no need to ascribe greatness to this particular means to an end, no more than white privilege gives anyone license to ignore the racial history upon which our country  is built. 

Right. There will be no return of the western U.S. to Mexico. But honor Polk? I suspect there is more than one statue of him, but I found mention of one on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, erected to honor its only graduate to become a U.S. president. It is in the lobby of the school’s Morehead Planetarium. 

Did I mention Polk was a slave owner who bought enslaved people while he was in the White House and that the U.S. expansion exacerbated the issue of free-state vs. slave-state? 

As long as we’re in the revisiting mood, Polk is a worthy candidate. I asked UNC if there was any such discussion. I got no answer. Not sure why. So I looked for other sources. And I’ve not seen anything that indicates such a discussion is taking place or has taken place on the UNC campus or anywhere else. 

I don’t buy every call to bring down every statue of a historical figure who has a complicated history. 

But as with prominent Confederate figures, Polk is an easy call.

And there are, by the way, at least 10 Polk counties named for the former president in the United States, including one in Wisconsin.