By Martin Northway
In his eloquent, expansive homage to American figures central to our western growth, “Lions of the West,” novelist-turned-historian Robert Morgan notes the irony that a godfather of republicanism and limited government, President Thomas Jefferson, engineered the greatest increase of U.S. territory.
Jefferson envisioned an “Empire of Liberty.” “In retrospect we can see the contradiction that Jefferson and his contemporaries could not: Morgan calls it “the oxymoron of imperial power promoting the spread of ‘liberty.'” Two decades after Washington’s warning against foreign entanglements, Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase put America on a possible collision course with both Britain and Spain—and later Mexico.
One can track our democratic rationale for expansion from Jefferson’s “empire” through the Manifest Destiny of the Mexican War period to today’s “American exceptionalism” under-girding global defense of the American way (including a capitalism not necessarily coextensive with free enterprise) and adventures like the Iraq War, seeking not physical territory but expanded power and influence.
By Morgan’s account, the die was clearly cast from Jefferson to just before the Civil War, a host of leaders putting their stamp on the enterprise. These were not all heroes—not even seen as such in their own day—but in our desire to make sense of the greater narrative we have elevated many to mythological status, suiting a “great man” construction of history.
Yet, writes Morgan, though “Historians may concentrate on the famous… most of what happens is the composite deeds of common folk. There is no better example of this paradox than in the narrative of the westward expansion,” where our successful leaders through policy and action enabled so many Americans’ hopes and dreams.
Morgan’s talents are well-suited to interweaving the stories—and mythologies—of these leaders with the story of the American frontier. As in his best-selling biography “Boone,” he brings the sensibilities of his novels like “Gap Creek” to “Lions of the West.” He is keenly alert to their human strengths and flaws, and discourses profoundly on the myths with which we have embroidered their biographies.
At the heart of the book is the problematic President James K. Polk, “Young Hickory” to Andrew Jackson’s “Old Hickory.” Brilliant but running hot and cold emotionally, eloquent but often personally callous, he was our most successful president, almost forgotten today. Embarking on his 1845-1849 administration intending to serve but a single term, he made good on every one of his four central promises.
Like most Americans, he underestimated Mexico’s determination to hold onto their underutilized territories, yet presided over a successful war that wrested away both Texas and what is now our Southwest, including California; but he despised Zachary Taylor, the general responsible for perhaps half Polk’s victory. Besides that war, Polk won a game of brinkmanship with Britain, securing the northwest border of our frontier.
He was a man of many blind spots. Like Jackson, he was a “benign” slaveholder, whose values collided with those of Americans who opposed introducing slavery into the Southwest.
As in other chapters, there are wonderful digressions about figures like the colorful, widely traveled, multilingual U.S. ambassador to Mexico, South Carolinian Joel R. Poinsett, “one of the most versatile and cosmopolitan Americans of his time.” It was he who brought from Mexico to the U.S. the plant that bloomed brilliant red at Christmastime and which came to be called the poinsettia in his honor.
There are also chapters about folks we would expect to find here, like Davy Crockett, but Morgan includes valuable insights, such as how onetime Congressman Crockett’s enmity for fellow Tennesseean Andrew Jackson placed him on the fatal road to the Alamo; Morgan also perceptively deconstructs the martyred Crockett’s myth.
There are some surprising inclusions, too, such as Jefferson’s nearly forgotten grandson-in-law Nicholas Trist, who negotiated the treaty with Mexico that led to the Gadsden Purchase of the Southwest.
And Morgan’s narrative of the eccentric John Chapman (“Johnny Appleseed”) is both a smile and a revelation. In facilitating homesteading by spreading apple orchards across Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, Chapman proved to be physically indomitable and a gentle but iron-willed embodiment of Swedenborgian values who successfully coexisted with Indians and settlers alike. He spoke of conversations with angels and the dead. Said one settler he visited, “His was a strange eloquence at times, and he was undoubtedly a man of genius.”
Like his subjects, Morgan’s engrossing narrative is itself lionesque.
“Lions of the West: Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion”
By Robert Morgan
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 526 pages, $30