The Polk Corollary

7 March 2011


Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman

I’ve been listening to Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman, which has made me aware of what is called the Polk Corollary. Borneman cites Polk’s First Annual Message of 02 December 1845 and goes on to comment:

Then Polk went a bold step further. Alluding to past British and French influences in Texas and warning those governments away from any similar intrigues in Oregon, California, or anywhere else in North America, Polk became the first American president to reaffirm the Monroe doctrine as a basic tenet of American foreign policy. He quoted Monroe’s noncolonialization clause … as continuing American Policy. Polk further insisted that whatever the European power might think about “a balance of power,” such “cannot be permitted to have any application on the North American continent, and especially to the United States. We must ever maintain the principle that the people of this continent alone have the right to decide their own destiny.” In the words of Monroe Doctrine historian Dexter Perkins, Polk’s brash statement — sometimes called the Polk Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine — “out-Monroes Monroe.”

Walter R. Borneman, Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America, p. 168

Here’s what Howard Jones had to say about the Polk Corollary:

“In what has become known as the Polk Corollary of the Monroe Doctrine, he proclaimed that the United States opposed European involvement in North America and stood ‘ready to resist it at any and all hazards’.”

Howard Jones, Crucible of power: a history of American foreign relations to 1913, 2009, p. 154

And this from the book The Buck Stops Here:

“In what became known as the Polk Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, he read the riot act to Britain: ‘We must ever maintain that the people of this continent alone have the right to decide their own destiny.’ And moreover, America would not back down from its claims to the entire territory; no, indeed, “The only way to treat with John Bull is to look him straight in the eye,” Polk wrote in his diary.”

Thomas J. Craughwell, Edwin Kiester Jr, Edwin Kiester, Jr., The Buck Stops Here: The 28 Toughest Presidential Decisions and How They Changed History, 2010, p. 47

The crucial text of the Monroe Doctrine upon which Polk was expounding and expanding was from James Monroe’s seventh annual message to Congress on 02 December 1823, as follows:

“At the proposal of the Russian Imperial Government, made through the minister of the Emperor residing here, a full power and instructions have been transmitted to the minister of the United States at St. Petersburg to arrange by amicable negotiation the respective rights and interests of the two nations on the northwest coast of this continent. A similar proposal has been made by His Imperial Majesty to the Government of Great Britain, which has likewise been acceded to. The Government of the United States has been desirous by this friendly proceeding of manifesting the great value which they have invariably attached to the friendship of the Emperor and their solicitude to cultivate the best understanding with his Government. In the discussions to which this interest has given rise and in the arrangements by which they may terminate the occasion has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.”

Polk’s reiteration almost a quarter century later in his address of 02 December 1845 runs as follows:

“The rapid extension of our settlements over our territories heretofore unoccupied, the addition of new States to our Confederacy, the expansion of free principles, and our rising greatness as a nation are attracting the attention of the powers of Europe, and lately the doctrine has been broached in some of them of a ‘balance of power’ on this continent to check our advancement. The United States, sincerely desirous of preserving relations of good understanding with all nations, can not in silence permit any European interference on the North American continent, and should any such interference be attempted will be ready to resist it at any and all hazards.”

James K. Polk, First Annual Message, 02 December 1845

While the Monroe Doctrine and its corollaries can be seen as self-serving statements of a growing nation-state seeking a principle to justify what was seen as its manifest destiny to control an entire continent — and this would not necessarily be wrong — but we can see this statement of Polk’s more charitably not only as an ex post facto justification of US seizure of lands but also as an explicit assertion of how the US sees the world, and how the US understands its agency in the world, in contradistinction to those traditions of state agency that are the legacy of Europe.

Europe was the model for the US in countless ways, but there are at least two ways to be a role model: as an ideal to emulate, and as a cautionary tale to avoid. Europe, with its deep and complex history, played both roles for the New World. The extent to which the US reacted against Europe is insufficiently appreciated, but it is clear in many particulars that the founders, and the men who followed them, wanted to clearly distinguish their political experiment from what they frequently thought of as the failed example of the old world. For many US politicians and policy makers, Europe was something to be overcome.

Thus I find it of particular interest that Polk should single out the doctrine of the “balance of power” as something to be resisted at all hazard. Again, this can be seen in an obvious way as self-serving, but I think it is just as plausible for an American president of this era to look at the European state system of his time, to hear the talk of “balance of power” and to see the contrast wrangling, and to assert that the US would have no part of this, and would not countenance the importation of the European state system in the Western hemisphere.

There is some justification for this in Monroe’s original statement, which includes the following:

“In the wars of the European powers in matters relating to themselves we have never taken any part, nor does it comport with our policy to do so. It is only when our rights are invaded or seriously menaced that we resent injuries or make preparation for our defense. With the movements in this hemisphere we are of necessity more immediately connected, and by causes which must be obvious to all enlightened and impartial observers. The political system of the allied powers is essentially different in this respect from that of America. This difference proceeds from that which exists in their respective Governments; and to the defense of our own, which has been achieved by the loss of so much blood and treasure, and matured by the wisdom of their most enlightened citizens, and under which we have enjoyed unexampled felicity, this whole nation is devoted. We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.”

For Monroe himself, it is not only European power projection in the Western hemisphere that is the problem, it is “their system” which is to be resisted, and the “balance of power” theory of politics was very much “their system” at this time, and still to this day.

Neither Polk nor Monroe in these particular quoted context says what American will do instead of pursuing balance of power politics, although it is clear from the context that it is believed that, having won its own freedom and independence at the cost of blood and treasure, that these are valuable political commodities that other peoples will ultimately and eventually aspire to in turn.

American power proved sufficient in the long term not only to prevent the importation of the European system into the Western Hemisphere, but also to see the expulsion of Spanish and Portuguese power from this hemisphere and the establishment of a state system largely free of European-style balance of power politics. As it turned out, it was the disproportionate power of the US that made the possible, and legion are the critics of US hegemony in the western hemisphere, but it would be difficult to find an honest person who would sincerely claim that the European “system” that was once imposed on the Western hemisphere and which still prevails in Europe was or is better or preferable to the fact of US hegemony in the Western hemisphere. A political thought experiment that extends European balance of power politics to the Americas would not have spared us any of the conflicts that we have seen, and probably would have been the occasion of many more.

Europe still plays this game, and Europe, despite its wealth, remains vulnerable because of it. With the unraveling of official diplomatic relations with Libya in the wake of the Strategic Shock in North Africa, many unsavory deals — primarily involving the French and the Italians, but probably extending throughout Europe — have already come to light, and no doubt more will be revealed with the passage of time. European diplomacy remains as rotten as Monroe and Polk suspected it of being.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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