The Logic of the Map

Soon after his election in 1844, James K. Polk sat down with the historian George Bancroft and, before offering him the Cabinet post of secretary of the Navy, sketched the four objectives of his presidency.  They were to lower the tariff, restore the independent treasury system, extend American sovereignty over the vast Oregon Country (claimed also by the British), and acquire the Mexican province of California.  He achieved all four.  He also got New Mexico.  By his Oregon Treaty and Mexican Cession, Polk added 943,097 square miles to the national domain (the Louisiana Purchase had added 827,987), extended American rule from the crest of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific shore, and made the United States a continental confederation.  No president has ever done more of lasting benefit for his country.

It is worth recalling all that was gained.  The new territory on the western ocean extended from the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the north to San Diego in the south, boasted three magnificent natural harbors, featured the lush and temperate valley of the Willamette (at the terminus of the Oregon Trail), and was blessed with a paradisiacal climate and spectacular natural beauty.  This much was known.  What was not known (but soon would be) were the rich gold fields along the rivers flowing out of the High Sierras, as well as the abundant silver veins on the eastern side of the range.  Nor was it known, or even suspected,...

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