Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory, and shed American blood upon American soil. War exists, and notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it, exists by the act of Mexico herself.
— President James K. Polk’s War Message to Congress (May 11, 1846)
President Polk’s dreams were big, enormous in fact. He desired, and sought to make a reality, a United States that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific. While he made a fuss about Texas annexation, his eyes had long been on California, which he saw as the real prize. Nevertheless, drumming up the war he desired hinged on a relatively minor border dispute in South Texas. Even though the long-established border of the Mexican province of Texas had been the Nueces River, the Texian Republic claimed its border was further south along the Rio Grande River. It was a ludicrous, unsubstantiated claim. Mexico hadn’t even recognized Texian independence in the first place, and nearly every Anglo advance south of the Nueces had been rebuffed. The new republic had managed to establish only one small settlement just across the river at Corpus Christi. No matter, in the border controversy, Polk sensed an opportunity.
Everything that subsequently unfolded proved one thing quite unassailably: Polk, for all his aww-shucks, vice-less, personal habits, was a liar! The new president perhaps genuinely believed that his obfuscations were in the service of “good,” in the interest, ultimately, of the nation. Nevertheless, his rampant dissembling was indefensible.
It was understandable that the formal annexation of Texas on July 4, 1846, caused Mexico to sever diplomatic relations and withdraw its minister in Washington. The Mexican people were fired up by America’s egregious insults. “Defeat and death [fighting the United States] would be glorious and beautiful,” a relatively moderate Mexico City newspaper declared. Yet for all the responsive (and justifiable) jingoism among the Mexican populace, their government neither attacked nor declared war, and even signaled its willingness to negotiate.
Polk, conversely, had readied his nation for war. He ordered a naval flotilla to the Gulf of Mexico, and covertly ordered his commodore in the Pacific to seize San Francisco and various other ports in California immediately upon the outbreak of war. As for the U.S. Army contingent, Polk ordered Gen. Zachary Taylor to march his small force across the Nueces River to Corpus Christi.
Next, to provide international diplomatic top-cover — in a move reminiscent of George W. Bush’s disingenuous deployment of WMD inspectors to Iraq in 2002-2003 —Polk sent a Democratic Party hack, John Slidell, to ostensibly negotiate a deal with Mexico. In reality, Slidell’s actual mission was to incense the Mexicans with unacceptable demands in the hope they’d appear to start the expected war, or, even better — as Polk had hoped — concede to U.S. impositions. Even after it became clear that no Mexican official of substance would deal with the intransigent Slidell, the secretary of War ordered him to remain in Mexico a bit longer, as it was necessary to “satisfy the American people that all had been done … to avoid the necessity of resorting to hostilities.” Nevertheless, by late December 1845, Slidell was totally disgusted with the “inferior” Mexicans, writing the president, “A war would probably be the best mode of settling our affairs with Mexico.” Up to that point, mind you, Congress had not been consulted on the crucial question of war or peace. Here was an early manifestation of the imperial presidency in action.
Just as Texas annexation hadn’t, Taylor’s order to occupy Corpus Christi didn’t provoke a violent Mexican response. Persistent as ever, Polk tried to instigate a Mexican attack for a third time in January 1846 — ordering the general to march his army right up to the Rio Grande River and take up defensive positions — supported by a U.S. naval blockade — in the heart of the contested territory. Taylor was reluctant, concerned not only by the blatant aggression of the move, but by the tactically impracticable nature of his exposed defensive positions along the Rio Grande. Still, always the dutiful soldier, he hesitantly acquiesced. In response, a larger Mexican force was deployed to the southern bank of the river. A precarious standoff ensued. The situation was inherently unstable.
Even then, before the first shots were fired, there were prominent officers in Taylor’s army who vocally opposed Polk’s military policy. Lt. Col. Ethan Allen Hitchcock confided to his diary, “We have not one particle of right to be here…. It looks as if the [U.S.] government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have a pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses.” It’s remarkable how prescient Hitchcock proved to be, so far from Washington’s corridors of power. He had diagnosed the Polk strategy to a T.
The long-awaited spark came on April 24, 1846, when Mexican cavalrymen crossed the Rio Grande, and ambushed an intercepting force of U.S. dragoons, killing eleven. The limitations of mid-18th-century communications technology being what they were, Polk didn’t receive news of the bloody skirmish for two weeks. In the meantime, he’d been overtly preparing for war. Democratic newspapers were reporting that “war will be immediately declared against Mexico.” With hysterical war fever sweeping large expanses of the nation, Polk told his cabinet that since the country wanted war, he “would not be doing [his] duty,” if he didn’t oblige. Just hours later, he received news of the Mexican attack and immediately set about drafting a declaration of war to send over to Congress.
The resultant speech was vintage Polk: pure fiction, but loaded with crowd-pleasing, martial hyperbole. He didn’t exactly ask Congress for the constitutionally required war declaration, but rather asked it to recognize that a war was already in existence. In the process, of course, he omitted any of the complicated context surrounding the Mexican attack. His penultimate line informed Congress that “after reiterated menaces, Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil.” Blood and soil, it was an effervescent call to nationalism, to arms. Only none of it was true! American blood had, indeed, been shed. However, it had spilled on contested soil, in a territory that simple reason and international consensus agreed was actually Mexican.
Nevertheless, Polk’s Democratic loyalists in Congress sprang into action in support of their president’s war. They immediately, and in a cynical masterstroke, attached a preamble to the war-declaration bill that authorized funding for the troops. The move was brilliant, deplorable, and completely new in American history. For now, if a skeptical Whig dared to vote against war with Mexico, he could easily be tarnished as “anti-soldier!” The tactic plays, and is masterfully used by both major political parties even today. Yet more flagrantly, the Democratic House leadership limited debate on the war to two hours — 90 minutes of which were taken up by a diligent reading of the many documents that accompanied Polk’s war message. Only thirteen representatives, led by the stalwart, 78-year-old former president John Quincy Adams held out.
Mainstream Whigs, fearful for their political futures in Washington, were in a bind. Most folded and acceded to war. In the Senate the next day, the vote was even more lopsided, with a 42-2 majority supportive of war. The U.S. Congress, hastily, and without sufficient information, had simply rolled over. It may have been the first time, but it wouldn’t be the last. Unshackled from the feared congressional opposition, Polk proceeded to set expansive goals for the postwar settlement following what was expected to be a short, decisive war.
Polk lectured his secretary of State James Buchanan (a future president) — who had initially held circumscribed postwar expectations — that “though we had not gone to war for conquest, yet it was clear that in making peace we would if practicable obtain California and such other portion of Mexican territory as would be sufficient … to defray the expenses of the war.” It was a precursor to events in 2003: Iraq’s oil would cover the costs of the 2003 invasion, Bush administration officials had assured the American people. Whether delusion, obfuscation, or a bit of both, the absurd, discredited promise would prove to be, historically, in good company.
Race and jingoism: Justifying war
[Mexicans] are reptiles in the path of progressive democracy, [who] must either crawl or be crushed.
— From the Illinois State Register, a prominent newspaper in Abraham Lincoln’s district (1846)
While the few congressional diehards led by John Quincy Adams stridently opposed the war, the louder and more numerous voices rose from pro-war populists on Capitol Hill, in the press, and among the people. Though the Polk administration may have drummed up the war, it largely relied on political and media supporters to sell it. Three ideological strands coalesced to justify war: racism, jingoism, and the desperate fear of being labeled unpatriotic, a fear that gripped most war-ambivalent Whigs. Thus, like modern mainstream Democrats, even outwardly anti-war Whigs continued to vote in favor of disbursements to fund a conflict most hated. To appear anti-military, then and now, was a political death sentence.
Many Americans held deep-seated beliefs regarding the inferiority of Hispanic, especially mestizo, Mexicans. Religious chauvinism, too, played a role. Majority Protestant Americans believed Mexican Catholics to be servile, unenlightened, and in need of proselytization. The combination of Protestant and racial paternalism also infused the ranks of the military before and early in the war. Capt. R.A. Stewart, a minister and commander of Louisiana volunteers, declared, after an early American victory in Northern Mexico, that the battle “showed most plainly and beautifully, that it was the order of providence that the Anglo-Saxon race was not only to take possession of the whole North American continent, but to influence and modify the character of the world.”
White Protestant chauvinism was strongest in the volunteer, rather than professional regular, regiments. One Ohio volunteer stationed near Matamoros, wrote of Mexicans that “it is now pretty generally believed that they are almost without exception snakes in the grass…. They are in short a treacherous race and have hearts the most of them as black as their skins.”
One fact perfectly demonstrated the contradictory character of the U.S. mission in Mexico and its clear racial overtures. Many officers in the invading American army brought their slaves — who served as personal servants — along with them. The paradoxical result was a U.S. slave army, representing a “free” republic. Indeed, many black “servants” in Mexico took the opportunity to flee the American lines and escape deeper into Mexico — the real land of freedom (for them). Even embedded journalists attached to General Taylor and Gen. Winfield Scott’s armies identified overmuch — as they would in the Persian Gulf and Second Iraq Wars — with their troops, and usually sympathized with the soldiers’ racialized and religious justifications for war with Mexico.
The ghost of the Federalist Party — a relic of America’s first political party system — haunted the Whigs. Though there was hardly a nationwide anti-war movement during the War of 1812 against Britain (1812–15), significant Federalist-based opposition had grown in New England by 1814. The Whigs of 1846 remembered well how the Federalists — though they’d been largely correct in their war skepticism at the time — had been forever discredited as unpatriotic and anti-soldier in the wake of Andrew Jackson’s surprise victory at the Battle of New Orleans. The party never again ran a viable presidential candidate or maintained any support outside New England, and disappeared completely by 1820. All of that had occurred in recent memory, illustrated by the persistence of the Democratic disparagement of Whigs as “the Federal Party.”
Furthermore, the Whigs were hypersensitive to the Democrats’ charge that they associated with abolitionist (anti-slavery) “radicals.” The fatal flaw in Whig thinking early in the conflict — nearly identical to that of Iraq-invasion skeptics in the Democratic Party — was their assumption that their loyal (if tepid) support for the war would protect them from precisely the same attacks from their opponents in the other party. No matter how virulently the Whigs proclaimed their support for the war effort and soldiers alike, the Democrats nevertheless blasted them as “weak” on national defense, insufficiently pro-military, and (however inaccurately) fatally connected to the hated abolitionists. Thus, while establishment Whigs, as a whole, were usually enthusiastic (if tactically so) cheerleaders for war at the start, many would later struggle to justify their hawkish positions when their party base and insurgent freshmen congressmen — including Abraham Lincoln — later unabashedly turned against the invasion and occupation of Mexico.
This article was originally published in the June 2020 edition of Future of Freedom.