I had a very Merry Christmas season this year — specifically, about 500 powerful pages by Robert Merry. His new book is A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, The Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent (2009).
Many agree it’s enthralling. The New York Times (Sean Wilentz, 11/22/09) calls it “one of the most astute and informative historical accounts yet written about national politics, and especially Waahington politics, during the decisive 1840s.” The Wall Street Journal (Aram Bakshian, Jr; 11/6/09) says it’s an “authoritative biography …(that) provides a compelling, perceptive portrait of one of the oddest men (James Polk) ever to occupy the White House…”
Against all odds, this smaller-than-life man achieved the impossible and ebulliently changed the world in only 4 short years; President James K. Polk in 1845.
In his unlikely, self-imposed one-term presidency, Polk accomplished the nearly impossible — he “engineered the triumph of Manifest Destiny” (NY Times) — including the annexation of Texas (1845), and the acquisition of the Oregon Territory (1846) and essentially the rest of the U.S. West including California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona — all by 1848.
This is an extraordinary story that occurred in ebullient times that we call a “Maslow Window” — see “Buzz Aldrin — A Man For All Maslow Windows!” — less than half a century after Lewis and Clark explored the Louisiana Purchase to the Pacific, and still a few decades before the U.S. became the leading economic power on Earth. Probably for this reason, neither the Great Exploration of this Window — see 10 Lessons Dr. Livingstone (“…I presume?”) Teaches Us About the Human Future in Space — nor the primary Macro-Engineering Project (MEP) — the Suez Canal — were closely related to the U.S. (although Stanley was dispatched by a New York newspaper to find Livingstone in Africa).
However, the affluence-induced ebullience — see The Economics of Ebullience Points to a Sparkling New Global Space Age— that triggered these epochal events abroad was also strongly present in the U.S. as evidenced in Merry’s book. Here are a few examples:
1. New Technology Was “Exploding” in America.
According to Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1844, “American is the country of the Future. It is a country of beginnings, of projects, of vast designs and expectations.”
Merry explains that a key reason the “impulse of exuberant expansionism” continued to surge was because, “Just as America was encompassing ever greater distances, technology — steam power and Morse’s telegraph — was obliterating the sluggishness of distance.”
2. The Financial Panic of 1837 and Great Recession Recovered by 1843 to a most “Prosperous State of Affairs.”
The financial Panic of 1837 was a major contraction where 40% of the U.S. banks failed and unemployment was at record highs; the resulting Great Recession lasted 6 years until 1843. According to Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman writing in 1960, the Panic of 1837 “is the only depression on record comparable in severity and scope to the Great Depression of the 1930s.”
Merry notes that,
Within nine weeks of Van Buren’s innauguration, economic collapse swept the country. It began when New York banks suspended specie payments, causing widespread alarm and setting in motion a deflationary period as credit dried up … The Panic of 1837 ushered in “a cycle of recession, recovery, and depression” that would dominate American politics for the next seven years … Van Buren lost much of his popularity … Polk remained a stalwart floor leader for Van Buren’s agenda, but the tide had turned against his party.
Polk left the House and won the Tennessee governorship in 1839, but lost it in 1841 and 1843. “At forty-seven, he knew he looked washed up…” But due to his pro-Texas annexation position which mirrored the expansionist electorate, Polk, against all odds, became the Democratic candidate for president and was elected in 1844.
As Polk assumed the presidency in 1845, the dynamic duo of prosperity and ebullience was everywhere. According to Merry,
The national economy had been expanding at an average annual rate of 3.9%. Not even the Panic of 1837, for all its destructive force, could forestall for long this creation of wealth. And throughout the land could be seen a confidence that fueled national success. “We are now reaching the very height, perhaps, to which we can expect to ascend,” declared the Democratic Wilmington Gazette of Delaware.
Despite the Panic of 1837 and its Great Recession, the mid-19th Century Dr. Livingstone/Suez Maslow Window (roughly 1847 to 1860) opened on time and featured Africa’s most famous explorer (Dr. Livingstone), the “technological jewel” of the 19th Century (the Suez Canal), as well as impressive secondary MEPs (including the Great Eastern ship). In addition to the stunning culmination of American Manifest Destiny in 1848, this Maslow Window’s ebullience is also exemplified by the famous Gold Rush of the American West (1848 – 1855).
Over the last 200 years, financial panics and great recessions have usually preceded Maslow Windows; see “Economic Crisis Supports Maslow Window Forecasts.” Two 19th Century panics (1837 and 1893) , were both about one decade prior to their Maslow Windows; none in 1949 (during the post W.W. II boom) one decade before the Apollo Maslow Window; and one in 2008 (7 years before our expected 2015 Maslow Window). The New York Times (11/30/08) also describes a “deep recession” that appearently occurred somewhat after 1776, about 10+ years before the Lewis & Clark Maslow Window.
In fact, during the last 200+ years, no financial panic/great recession pair has ever delayed or diminished, in any observable way, any Great Explorations or MEPs associated with a Maslow Window. And there’s every reason to expect this 200+ year pattern will continue.
3. The Controversial Mexican War Played a Major Role in U.S. Expansion.
Wars that occur early in the Maslow Windows of the last 200 years are complex, destructive events — far beyond the scope of our discussion here — but according to historical accounts, usually play an important role in the ensuing events of the Maslow Windows. It appears that ebullience — also known as “animal spirits” and “irrational exuberance” in an economic context; see “Are Great Explorations Driven by Keynesian “Animal Spirits” on Steroids?” — played a central role.
A few of the interesting parallels are sketched here:
Despite the (then) unresolved issues of slavery and the legality of the war, the Mexican War was vigorously and successfully executed by Polk with the support of the American people. Their ebullient expansionist belief in Manifest Destiny transformed the world. According to Merry, the U.S. was “a vibrant, expanding, exuberant experiment in democracy whose burgeoning population thrilled to the notion that it was engaging in something big and historically momentous.” This is the language of societal ebullience.
One Maslow Window earlier, the Napoleonic Wars in Europe played a major role enabling the Lewis and Clark expedition and in launching U.S. westward expansion. Napoleon’s need to fund his war machine encouraged the sale of Louisiana to Jefferson; see “10 Lessons Lewis & Clark Teach Us About the Human Future in Space.”
Likewise, the Spanish-American War of 1898 — as the Great 1890s Recession was ending and as the ebullient Peary/Panama Maslow Window began — played an intriguing role in Maslow Window events. “Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!”, an Alamo-like cry in response to the deaths of 266 US sailors while anchored in Havana Harbor, helped ignite the Spanish-American War. To replace the Maine, another battleship (USS Oregon) stationed on the Pacific coast rushed 14,700 miles around South America to Cuba — while Teddy Roosevelt, leader of the famous “Rough Riders,” vectored toward Cuban battle himself. Since the Oregon arrived at Cuba two months after war began, it didn’t require much abstract thinking for TR to recognize the Panama Canal’s potential strategic advantages; see “10 Lessons the Panama Canal Teaches Us About the Human Future in Space.”
Early in the 1960s Apollo Maslow Window, Cuba again was the focus of an even bigger crisis for America and President John F. Kennedy: the Cuban Missile Crisis. Because of Soviet emplacement of offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba the world came closer to a major nuclear exchange than ever before or since. Although this crisis did not ignite the Space Age — the surprise 1957 launch of Sputnik did that — it intensified the Moon race and showed that the global stakes were high; see “The New Cuban Space Center and Vladimir Bonaparte.”
The “early Maslow Window wars” are continuing into the present — Iraq, Afghanistan, the War on Terror — as we recover from our Panic of 2008/Great Recession combination (analogous to the Panic of 1893/Great 1890s Recession and Panic of 1837/Great Recession), and as we ebulliently head toward the much anticipated, spectacular 2015 Maslow Window.
4. Manifest Destiny Was Fueled by an “Exuberance of Spirit” Across the U.S.
There are many visionary quotes in Merry’s book that clearly indicate the extraordinary level of ebullience permeating mid-1840s America, but one of the most striking is from an obscure Democratic congressman from Ohio (then a western state) named John D. Cummins, who referred to the disputed Oregon Territory as nothing less than,
“the master key of the commerce of the universe.” Get that territory into U.S. jurisdiction, he argued, and soon it would fill up with “an industrious, thriving, American population” and “flourishing towns and embryo cities” facing west upon the Pacific within four thousand miles of vast Asian markets. Now contemplate, he added, ribbons of railroad track across America, connecting New York, Boston, and Philadelphia to those burgeoning West Coast cities and ports that would spring up once Oregon was in American hands.
Cumins continued, think about how the “inevitable external laws of trade” would render American the necessary passageway for “the whole eastern commerce of Europe.” … “The commerce of the world would thus be revolutionized.”
Cummins bold vision was easily dismissed as hopelessly fanciful in a world utterly dominated by Great Britain. And yet it crystallized a fundamental element of the era’s politics — the widely shared conviction that America was a nation of destiny, that one day it would supplant Britain as the world’s dominant power, that Oregon represented merely an interim step toward realization of that vision.
Merry’s bottom line regarding Polk and American ebullience of the 1840s is simple but powerful:
his legacy comes down to … the map outline of the continental United States, which is very close to what Polk bequeathed to his nation … To look at that map, and to take in the western and southwestern expanse included in it, is to see the magnitude of Polk’s presidential accomplishments … It didn’t come easily or cheaply …It unleashed civic forces that hadn’t been foreseen and couldn’t be controlled … But in the end he succeeded and fulfilled the vision and dream of his constituency. In a democratic system that is the ultimate measure of political success.
The expansionist effects of ebullience apparently drove not only the Manifest Destiny of 1840s America, but also Jefferson’s seminal Lewis and Clark expedition, and the early 20th century’s international races to the north and south poles as well as the greatest MEP of the last 200 years (until Apollo): the Panama Canal. In the 1960s the expansionist effects of ebullience finally drove us offworld to the Moon.
As we approach another ebullient golden age of prosperity, exploration, and technology — the 2015 Maslow Window — it’s very likely the impossible will be accomplished again and the world will be changed.