Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Lincoln and the War With Mexico: Fahrenheit 1846

I'm still slogging through my Sandburg biography of Abraham Lincoln, and I was stunned when I read the portion dealing with Lincoln's opposition to the Mexican-American war. Read some of these statements and tell me this exact debate from 1848 isn't taking place in America as we speak in 2006.

As you know, President James K. Polk began the War with Mexico in 1846 as a response to border disputes between Mexico and Texas. Democrats unanimously supported the war, while the Whigs (of which Lincoln was one) tended to oppose the war, seeing it as unnecessary, greedy, and a plot to divert attention from the administration's problems in dealing with settlement of the Oregon territory.

Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, on the floor of Congress, defended the President's decision to go to war in 1846:

"Gentlemen have the hardihood to tell us that the President has unwisely and unnecessarily precipitated the country into an unjust war and unholy war. They express great sympathy for Mexico, profess to regard her as an injured and persecuted nation – the victim of American injustice and aggression. They have no sympathy for the widows and orphans whose husbands and fathers have been robbed and murdered by the Mexican authorities; no sympathy with our own countrymen who have dragged out miserable lives within the walls of her dungeons, without crime and without trial; no indignation at the outrages upon our commerce and shipping, and the insults to our national flag, no resentment at the violation of treaties and the invasion of our territory. I despair of ever seeing my country again in the right, if they are to be the oracles.

Douglas quoted Frederick the Great, “Take possession first and negotiate afterward,” and declared “That is precisely what President Polk has done. He has taken possession and proposed to negotiate.”

By the time Lincoln took his seat in Congress, the war with Mexico was nearly over. Over 27,000 American soldiers had died in the conflict. Mexico had succumbed, but questions arose about what the U.S. would do with the land it had conquered.

In 1848, Lincoln took to the floor of Congress, “declaring that the war with Mexico was unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced by the President.” He spoke of his impression of how he and others believed they ought to behave while their country was engaged in a war they considered unjustly commenced. “When the war began, it was my opinion that all those because of knowing too little, or because of knowing too much, could not conscientiously oppose the conduct of the President in the beginning of it should nevertheless, as good citizens and patriots, remain silent on that point, at least until the war should be ended.”

Now, he was forced to break his silence; the President was telling the country, continually, that votes of the Whigs for supplies to the soldiers in the field were an endorsement of the President’s conduct of the war. Then too, the President was holding back documents and information to which the public was entitled.

He said of President Polk: “Originally having some strong motive to involve the countries in a war, and trusting to escape scrutiny by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory – that attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood – that serpent’s eye that charms to destroy – he plunged into it, and has swept on and on till, disappointed in his calculations of the ease with which Mexico might be subdued, he now finds himself he knows not where.”

“The President is in no wise satisfied with his own positions. First he takes up one, and in attempting to argue us into it he argues himself out of it, then seizes another and goes through the same process, and then, confused at being able to think of nothing new, he snatches up the old one again. His mind, taxed beyond its power, is running hither and thither, like some tortured creature on a burning surface, finding no position on which it can settle down and be at ease…”

Lincoln took a beating back in his Illinois home district for his anti-war position, which was seen as Anti-American.

From Sandburg's book:

Back in Illinois were political enemies murmuring that Lincoln was revealed as a Benedict Arnold in his “spot resolutions” [against the war]. The Belleville Advocate for March 2, 1848, came along with a report of a meeting in Clark County of patriotic Whigs and Democrats who adopted this declaration: “Resolved, That Abe Lincoln, the author of the ‘spotty’ resolutions in Congress, against his own country, may they long be remembered by his constituents, but may they cease to remember him, except to rebuke him – they have done much for him, but he has done nothing for them, save in the part they have taken in their country’s cause.” The Illinois State Register was telling its readers of newspapers and public meetings that declared Lincoln to be “a second Benedict Arnold.”

Lincoln lost his next election, in large part due to his opposition to the War with Mexico, and settled back in to practice law in Springfield.

While this post isn't necessarily a reflection my own views of our current war, I thought it was interesting how the same issues emerge during wars of any era. I'm sure I'll hear from somebody explaining the obvious differences between the wars and the justification for each. But the parallels between the politics and rhetoric of each war are profound.