the mexican-american war of 1846-- 3/18/19

Today's selection -- from Heirs of the Founders by H.W. Brands. After three short years under presidents John Tyler and James Polk, the United States doubled in geographic size, primarily as an outcome of its war with Mexico:

"[In 1846,] James Polk made prophets of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster by commencing a war with Mexico. Polk's war was a land grab wrapped in self-defense. Texas entered the Union with its southern boundary in dispute. The United States claimed the Rio Grande as the border; Mexico claimed the Rio Nueces, more than a hundred miles to the north. Mexico nominally claimed the rest of Texas as well, never having acknowledged the loss of its rebellious province. But though it responded to the American annexation of Texas by severing relations with the United States, it took no military action to challenge the new regime on its northern frontier.

"This frustrated Polk. The president's expansionist appetite grew with the eating; not content with depriving Mexico of Texas, Polk coveted California as well. He attempted to purchase California, but the Mexi­can government rebuffed him. Polk then sought a pretext for declaring war on Mexico. He sent troops to the disputed strip between the rivers, hoping to goad the Mexicans to attack. Weeks went by and the Mexi­cans refused to take the bait. Polk, more vexed than ever, prepared a war message for Congress, in which he blamed the Mexicans for insults and injuries against American honor and interests. It was a flimsy document, as Polk himself recognized, but he was determined to have California and its Pacific harbors, by whatever means necessary. Then, just as he was about to transmit his message to Congress, he received news that Mexican troops had finally engaged the Americans. 'After reiterated menaces, Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil,' Polk told Congress. 'War exists, and notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it, exists by the act of Mexico itself.' For emphasis the president added, 'The two nations are now at war.'

"John Calhoun begged to differ. Polk wanted Congress simply to endorse his assertion that war existed and give him authority to pros­ecute it. Calhoun wasn't going to be stampeded into anything. 'The question now submitted to us is one of the gravest character, and the importance of the consequences which may result from it we cannot now determine,' he told the Senate. 'The president has announced that there is war; but according to my interpretation, there is no war accord­ing to the sense of our Constitution.'

"Calhoun didn't challenge Polk's account of the attack on American forces. Nor did he question Polk's authority to resist and repel such attacks. But he distinguished hostili­ties from war. 'It is our sacred duty to make war,' he told his fellow sena­tors, 'and it is for us to determine whether war shall be declared. If we have declared war, a state of war exists, and not till then.'

"Calhoun succeeded in slowing the rush to war, but not by much. Congress debated the president's request, with most of the negative comments coming from the Whigs. Some asked whether Polk had done all he could to avoid armed conflict; their strong implication was that he had not. A few went so far as to charge Polk with provoking the war. 'This war was begun by the president,' Garrett Davis, a Kentucky Whig, told the House. Some inquired whether the Mexican attack, if it indeed had occurred as the president said, had been authorized by the Mexican government. Still others rejected Polk's assertion that the soil on which the blood had been shed was American. Some said flatly that it was Mexican; others remarked that ownership was still in dispute.

"But Polk knew the American political mind better than the dissent­ers did. He understood that the shedding of American blood --under whatever circumstances -- created an irresistible impulse toward war. A negative vote could be characterized as an unpatriotic vote, and no law­maker lightly risked that. The few surviving former Federalists remembered how their party had wrecked on its opposition to the War of 1812. In the end scarcely a dozen Whigs refused the president's request. John Calhoun haughtily abstained.

"Daniel Webster dodged. His conscience and his constituents opposed the war, but as one of those Federalist refugees, he recalled how the winds of war could blow popular sentiment in unexpected direc­tions. When the vote was taken, he was not in the Senate chamber."



H.W. Brands


Heirs of the Founders




Copyright 2018 H.W. Brands


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