A President elected based on a grassroots sentiment completely misunderstood by New England elites. A faction agitating for war with a hereditary rival. Another faction egging on increased hostilities with a weak and belligerent country, the conflict stemming from a disputed piece of land lost in a revolution. A mass of troops stationed at the southern border. A long-lasting war against a wide-spanning network of stone-age terrorists. Domestic strife based around the treatment of persons of color.

It could be a description of President Trump’s first few months in office, but it also applies to James K. Polk’s presidency. Back then, phrases like “Manifest Destiny” were bandied about, representing the conquering spirit of the American people in the mid-19th century. Agitators were pushing aggressive postures against Great Britain (over the Oregon Territory) and Mexico (over Texas and California) so that the US could claim a great swath of the Western Frontier. Polk was also engaged in a generations’ long battle that he inherited from his predecessors, a smoldering fight against the Indians. Some Indians, like the Seminoles, had resorted to indiscriminate violence against all infidels Americans. People traveling between towns would be snatched off the highway, tortured, and have their brains bashed in. Further, the tinderbox of slavery was awaiting a spark before igniting the Civil War. Interestingly, Polk’s acquisition of California was one of the biggest destabilizing events in the mid-19th Century that made the Civil War inevitable.

I’ve been listening (audiobook) to a biography of General Sherman, and his connection to the politics of this time is fascinating. As a Lieutenant looking to get a taste of the glory of war and a promotion, Sherman’s near-exile to Monterrey, California during the Mexican War was excruciating. However, he was right in the middle of history, being one of the first people to know of gold in California. It’s interesting to see the reaction of Americans to border disputes in territories far away from the states themselves. People seemed to have the same”go get ’em” attitude when it came to 19th century imperialism as when it comes to 21st century nation building.