America’s War with Mexico

bca3wickedwar Americas War with Mexico

A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of
Mexico, by Amy S. Greenberg, Knopf, 344 pages, $30.President James K. Polk was a charmless workaholic who suffered
from chronic diarrhea and launched the invasion of Mexico, setting
off what Ulysses S. Grant called, with excusable hyperbole, the
most “wicked war” ever waged. Starting an unjust war elevated Polk
to “near great” status in those Schlesinger polls by which court
historians reward warmarkers and punish the peaceful.The best narrative historians refashion William Carlos
Williams’s dictum “No ideas but in things” as “No ideas but through
persons”; that is, they convey history, and the contending ideas
therein, through vivid portraiture. In her absorbing and valuable
A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion
of Mexico, Penn State’s Amy S. Greenberg does a splendid job
of vivifying this disgraceful episode in American history by
following the fortunes of five men (Polk, Henry Clay, Abraham
Lincoln, John J. Hardin, and Nicholas Trist) and their
families.The West was considerably more hawkish toward Mexico than was
New England, which, as with the War of 1812 and the
Spanish-American War, mongered peace. Henry David Thoreau even
spent a night in jail protesting the war. But Greenberg’s subjects
are all men of the South or the West, beginning with Whig Party
eminence Henry Clay, lover of “gambling, whiskey, and women,” and
the Sage of Ashland, his showplace Kentucky estate (worked by 50
slaves).As speaker of the House, Clay had cawed as loudly as any warhawk
in 1812, though in later years he tied his reputation to his
“American System” of federally subsidized development. As the
presumptive nominee of the Whig Party for president in 1844, he
came out against adding Texas to the Union, explaining that
“annexation and war with Mexico are identical.” Stated Clay: “I
regard all wars as great calamities…and honorable peace as the
wisest and truest policy of this country.”Clay’s rival, ex-president Matty Van Buren, the Sage of
Kinderhook (every American town once had its sage), also opposed
inviting the Lone Star Republic into the United States. This
position crippled his bid for the Democratic nomination, which went
instead to James K. Polk, another former Speaker of the House.
Polk’s chief asset, according to Greenberg, was his stylish and
self-possessed wife Sarah, a shrewd assesser of the political scene
and abettor of her husband’s fortunes.The Texas-craving Polk edged Clay, despite the latter’s
backtracking on annexation during the campaign. (This malleable man
earned his surname.) Bowing to the election returns, the Senate
voted to add Texas to the Union just days before Polk took the keys
to the White House from the friendless constitutionalist John
Tyler, “His Accidency,” a Jeffersonian upon whom Greenberg is too
hard.The dour new president was a Manifest Destinarian, a
land-grabbing expansionist like so many Southern and Western
Democrats, many of them otherwise advocates of a limited central
government. Meanwhile, the Whigs, who preached Clay’s American
System of a national bank, high tariffs, and federally funded
internal improvements, were inclined to peace and often skeptical
of the helter-skelter distention of the republic. Even then, the
two-party system forced liberty-minded voters to flip a coin.Polk, who had pledged to serve but one term, entered the White
House with “big plans and poor people skills,” writes Greenberg.
His avaricious eye was on Mexican territory. Texas was the
nexus.By asserting that Texas’s southern border was the Rio Grande and
not the Nueces River, and by ordering General Zachary Taylor to
march his 4,000 men to the Rio Grande—into Mexican-claimed
territory—President Polk more or less guaranteed a war with Mexico.
(To Polk’s annoyance, the war catapulted the Whig Taylor, “Old
Rough and Ready,” into the White House at the next election.)The Mexican War featured several battles (Monterey, Buena Vista,
Veracruz) containing the usual mix of valor and cowardice, baseness
and nobility, and at which reputations were made for acts which
from a distance of years savor of the the pyritical (not to mention
piratical). It was naked aggression in the service of expansion, of
mindless growth (the ideology of the cancer cell, as Edward Abbey
used to say), but a supine Congress consented. House debate over
Polk’s war—sanction for which was attached to a measure funding the
soldiers in the field; even then knees went weak upon hearing
Support the Troops—was limited, outrageously, to two
hours. Only “the immortal fourteen,” most famously ex-president
John Quincy Adams, voted against Polk’s war in the House, while
just two senators were brave enough to shout Nay.The jingo press screeched for blood. The Illinois State
Register, for instance, editorialized that Mexicans “are
reptiles in the path of progressive democracy.” Mexicans were said
to be dirty, barbarous, and bewitched by an alien religion.But not all Illinoisians ached to go abroad in search of
reptiles to slay. Greenberg profiles Abraham Lincoln, an admirer of
Clay, and John J. Hardin, Clay’s step-nephew. Exuding confidence
the way other men drip sweat, the elegant patrician Hardin was
bound for glory. Then war got in the way.Hardin and Lincoln were friends, at least until Lincoln proposed
that he, former Rep. Hardin, and current Rep. Edward Baker play a
round robin with their Illlinois congressional seat. Hardin,
contemplating a return to Congress, demurred, and when Lincoln
grabbed for the ring in 1846 the affronted gentleman withdrew.
Lincoln’s ambition, as his law partner Billy Herndon said, was an
“engine that knew no rest.” The engine ran right over Hardin, who
never spoke to Lincoln again.


America’s War with Mexico

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