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Teacher: Amanda Becker Course/Grade Level: us history/10-12 Lesson Title


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Teacher: Amanda Becker
Course/Grade Level: US History/10-12
Lesson Title: James K. Polk and the Mexican War
Set Induction: As the students come into class, they will pull their notebooks out and answer the following questions as a bell-ringer activity:

  1. If you were President and faced with a dispute between the US and another country, would you choose diplomacy or war to settle the dispute?

  2. If you were President and had the opportunity to gain more territory for the United States, would you annex the additional land?

  3. If you were President and about to go to war with an army that had never fought in a foreign country before, how much confidence would you have in winning the conflict?

  4. Congratulations! Your military is successful in winning a war against a foreign country. Your nation has annexed land from the defeated foe. What would happen to all of the defeated countries’ citizens in the area you annexed? Would they automatically become citizens, or would you remove them from their territory?


Aims/Objectives/Power Standards: Analyze political interactions between the United States and other countries within a global context. USH-02, Apply methods of historical inquiry (poses questions, collect and analyzes primary and secondary sources, make and support arguments with evidence, and report findings). USH-04.
Procedure: Students will answer the bell ringer questions in their notebooks. Then as a class or individually the students will read, analyze, and evaluate Polk’s Mexican foreign policies. The students will answer the questions in their notebooks.
Formative Assessment: Students will be able to analyze and evaluate primary and secondary sources pertaining to Polk’s Mexican foreign policy.
Summative Assessment: Students will be able to describe and evaluate Polk’s decisions and Mexican War Foreign Policies for their Manifest Destiny/Mexican War Unit Test.
Materials Required: James Polk and the Mexican War Handout, students’ notebooks.
Resources and Scholarship: The sources are listed on the handout.
Conclusion/Wrap Up: A follow-up activity could include students creating a political cartoon in favor or against Polk’s Mexican foreign policies in their notebooks.

James K. Polk and the Mexican War

“When James K. Polk was elected president in 1844, the United States was locked in a bitter diplomatic struggle with Britain over the rich lands of the Oregon Territory, which included what is now Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Texas, not yet part of the Union, was threatened by a more powerful Mexico. And the territories north and west of Texas -- what would become California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and part of Colorado -- belonged to Mexico. When Polk relinquished [gave up] office four years later, the country had grown by more than a third as all these lands were added. The continental United States, as we know it today, was established -- facing two oceans and positioned to dominate both. In a one-term presidency, Polk completed the story of America's Manifest Destiny -- extending its territory across the continent, from sea to sea, by threatening England and manufacturing a controversial and unpopular two-year war with Mexico that Abraham Lincoln, in Congress at the time, opposed as preemptive.”



- Robert Merry, A Country of Vast Designs : James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent. New York : Simon & Schuster, c2009
Directions: The following are either primary or secondary source statements about Polk’s involvement towards the Mexican-American War. Each question is an opinion question. Remember to explain your reasoning.


  1. “He [James Polk] had grown up in the lower Mississippi valley during the last stages of the Spanish Empire and had learned to hate and mistrust the deceitful Spanish "dons," with whom he now identified the Mexicans. Their weak, fumbling government only aroused his contempt.” David M. Pletcher, “James K. Polk and the U.S. Mexican War: A Policy Appraisal” http://www.pbs.org/kera/usmexicanwar/prelude/jp_jp_and_the_

mexican_war.html. Question: Should Polk’s personal experience effect his presidential decisions?

  1. “I regard the question of annexation [taking over, claiming] as belonging exclusively to the United States and Texas. Foreign powers do not seem to appreciate the true character of our Government. Our Union is a confederation of independent States, whose policy is peace with each other and all the world. To enlarge its limits is to extend the dominions of peace over additional territories and increasing millions. The world has nothing to fear from military ambition in our Government.” Inauguration Speech, March 4, 1845. Question: Is Polk correct in stating that by taking over Mexican territory, we are bringing peace to that territory?

  2. “It is well known to the American people and to all nations that this government has never interfered with the relations subsisting between other governments. We have never made ourselves parties to their wars or their alliances; we have not sought their territories by conquest; we have not mingled with parties in their domestic struggles; and believing our own form of government to be the best, we have never attempted to propagate it by intrigues, by diplomacy, or by force.” Message to Congress, December 2, 1845. Question: Did Polk speak the truth in his message to Congress?

  3. “Following the annexation of Texas, the Mexican government had severed diplomatic relations with the U.S. Polk subsequently sent an envoy, former Louisiana congressman John Slidell, to Mexico to try to resolve disputes over the Texas boundary and over damages that the Mexican government owed to U.S. citizens but could not pay. Polk instructed Slidell to make an offer that the U.S. would pay off Mexico's debt in order to acquire "Upper California and New Mexico" and would spend as much as $40 million to purchase the land.” Alan Gevinson, Why Did President Polk Want War with Mexico? http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/22205. Question: Was Polk’s offer to Mexico a fair deal?

  4. “After the failure of the Slidell [Mexico did not accept Polk’s deal in question number 4] mission, Polk ordered Zachary Taylor to move his army to the mouth of the Rio Grande and to prepare to defend Texas from invasion. Taylor did so, arriving at the Rio Grande on Mar. 28, 1846. Abolitionists in the United States, who had opposed the annexation of Texas as a slave state, claimed that the move to the Rio Grande was a hostile and aggressive act by Polk to provoke a war with Mexico to add new slave territory to the United States.” Lone Star Internet, http://www.lnstar.com/mall/texasinfo/mexicow.htm Question: What was a stronger motive for Polk moving Taylor’s troops to the Rio Grande- protecting Texans from Mexican invasion, or to add slave territory to the United States?



  1. On April 25, 1846 a group of Mexican troops ambushed a detachment of American troops who were stationed along the disputed Rio Grande border. “Polk requested a declaration of war from Congress, arguing that Mexicans had ‘shed the blood of our fellow-citizens on our own soil.’” American President: A Reference Resource. http://millercenter.org/president/polk/essays/biography/5. Question: The Mexican Army shot American soldiers because they were along the disputed border with Mexico. Who were the villains of this incident?



  1. “The grievous wrongs perpetrated by Mexico upon our citizens throughout a long period of years remain unredressed, and solemn treaties pledging her public faith for this redress have been disregarded. A government either unable or unwilling to enforce the execution of such treaties fails to perform one of its plainest duties.” War Message to Congress, May, 1845. Question: Polk stated that Mexico had failed to live up to its treaty promises. Had the United States government held all of its treaty promises in the past?



  1. James Polk is credited with starting the Mexican War because of his campaign promises to annex California and Texas. “Many probable causes of the Mexican-American War have been posed throughout our nation's history. These range from the obvious (Mexico) [not wanting to accept American demands] to the subtle (southern "slave power"). The two causes that make the most sense, however, are the constant westward movement of Americans and the concept of Manifest Destiny.” John Heys, Enough Blame to Go Around: Causes of the Mexican-American War, http://www.mexica.net/war/Mexican-American-War.html. Question: After reading this selection, what was the primary cause of the war: Polk’s actions as president, or the people

  2. California was one of the states gained by the United States from Mexico after the war. In 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in California, and a gold rush soon followed. In this political cartoon, miners in California are killing each other over gold claims as the Polk administration (represented by the birds) leaves office at the end of his 4 year term. Incoming president Zachary Taylor looks on in his military uniform. Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2008661518/. Question: Is this a positive or negative commentary of Polk’s decision to go to war with Mexico?



  1. “The most immediate and obvious effect was a war lasting a year and nine months. In this war nearly 13,000 American men lost their lives and the country incurred expenses amounting to about $100,000 million. As a result of the U.S.-Mexican War, the settlement of the Oregon boundary and the annexation of Texas, the U.S. gained about 1.2 million square miles of land, over one-third of its present territory. On the positive side, it took a big step up toward becoming a great power, on a par with Britain, France, and Russia, for the older nations respected strength, and American generals and soldiers had displayed this in abundance, even against a weaker foe. But on the negative side, the war exacted heavy costs as well. Latin Americans have usually looked up to us as a model of a liberal, democratic society and a government. Now, after our attack on Mexico, there began to be talk of "the colossus of the North." Worst of all, the Texas question and even more the war itself created an open wound of sectionalism inside the country, and the spread of slavery rose to the top of the list of public problems demanding solution. The war trained a generation of soldiers for the civil strife to come; it also trained the minds of the public at large.” James K. Polk and the U.S. Mexican War: A Policy Appraisal, A Conversation With David M. Pletcher, Indiana University. http://www.pbs.org/kera/usmexicanwar/prelude/jp_jp_and_the_mexican_war.html. Question: Was the Mexican War overall positive or negative for the United States because Polk refused to negotiate?


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