Recently I’ve had a work-related assignment that has involved reading a bunch of old presidential State-of-the-Union messages. The earliest was one by James Monroe (short & elegant), and the latest was by Grover Cleveland in the 1880s. In between I looked at a couple each by Andrew Jackson, Franklin Pierce, James Polk, & Millard Fillmore. What is remarkable is how, on the whole they are all pretty readable, even the ones from Jackson, who was always rumored to be semi-literate, at best.
The speeches are full of all sort of period details & quaint appeals to Providence etc., but also some very hard-headed arguments & lines here and there that ring with an eerieness for a modern reader, knowing what’s going to happen in the next decade, the next year. References to Native Americans abound: Apaches raiding along the border of Texas and Mexico, Comanches turning the Panhandle into a no-go zone, the Sioux off the reservation (again!) and one sad and self-congratulatory reference to how the Seminole Nation is now almost completely “evacuated” from Florida, leaving it open to white settlement and COMMERCE! In the address by Cleveland there is a paragraph devoted to King Leopold of Belgium’s ‘true and Christian’ actions in the Congo. I can only hope that Grover had not yet seen the shocking proof of Leopold’s nightmare regime, with its cross-limb amputations, punitive rape, and the deliberate breaking up of nuclear families in order to deprive them of the will to resist which might be fed on hope. In another address there is a cryptic one-liner about a small fleet of gunboats that are on their way to Japan to force the Japanese to open their ports to COMMERCE! Two years later another address contains a one-liner saying that the small fleet has just gotten back having achieved their aim. It seems the Japanese were brought to enlightenment once they faced the prospect of bombardment.
Almost every one of these addresses opens with a reaffirmation that the United States desires to be neutral and wishes to have hostilities with no one but relations of COMMERCE with all! In the early days (Monroe, Jackson etc.) there’s almost a sense of national paranoia in this statement of neutrality as a policy, and it seems very clearly designed as a message to Great Britain, the Royal Navy still being close to 20 times larger than the US Navy well into the 1840s. Another thing that crops up over and over is the settlement of claims by the US government on behalf of various American merchants whose property was damaged abroad. It makes for very depressing reading when you realize the context that caused the damage, in most cases being independence movements against European powers. Where one might expect the US President to send out some fraternal message of solidarity to men (and women) fighting for their freedom, instead you get to see successive Commanders-In-Chief behaving as repo-men on the behalf of organized business cartels. In one address alone, Polk proudly announces his progress in coercing payments out of every single one of the Central American countries, not a one of which had the funds to spare. And yet they did, choosing national bankruptcy over the threat of naval blockades or bombardment or worse. We really have behaved like the neighborhood bully for the better part of our history.
Oh, and there’s also a tirade against the Mormons of Utah in one of the addresses, which jumps out from between a paragraph about the Post Office and one about floating weigh-stations on the Mississippi.
Finally, reading Polk’s explanation of why we were going to war with Mexico hits really close to home. He sets out 7 reasons why there can be no alternative to war. A glance at any neutral history of the war shows that all 7 reasons presented were based on out-and-out lies, and the verdict as to whether Polk knew he was lying at the time is universally damning. We’ve all learned, to our great sorrow, that the unlamented George Bush was no student of history, and so, looking back now at Polk’s war, it’s proof of Santayana’s old chestnut: those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.