The President, in his first war message of May 1846, declares that the soil was ours on which hostilities were commenced by Mexico. Now I propose to try to show, that the whole of this … is, from beginning to end, the sheerest deception.
— Gen. Winfield Scott to the Secretary of War (January 1847)
Though Polk’s initial declaration of war on Mexico passed both houses of Congress with flying colors, early war fever waned within a year, picked up unassailable momentum by late 1847, and culminated in America’s first-ever nationwide anti-war movement. While the climax of that activity was political and centered (most vocally) in Washington, D.C., much of its genesis — surprising as it sounds — lay within the deployed army itself. Dreadful conditions and consequent low morale helped lay the foundation for that even before American atrocities sickened some of the soldiers, and the unexpected length of the war began to frustrate volunteers and regular troops alike.
Hygiene was terrible in military encampments from the start. Unsanitary camps, especially those filled with undisciplined volunteers lacking immunity, led to massive outbreaks of communicable diseases. Supplies were also a problem, and remained short throughout most of the war. Regular army officers — most of whom were sympathetic to the Whig Party — were convinced it was a form of political retribution from the staunchly Democratic president. There was a grain of truth in that assessment. Polk’s was — at least in the volunteer regiments — a rather politicized army. After all, every one of the 13 generals he appointed during the war was a Democrat, most former party officeholders. Mostly, though, the culprit was Polk’s policies, since he — just as George W. Bush would in the 2003 Iraq War — insisted on waging war and cutting taxes simultaneously. Partly as a result of the shortfalls and rampant disease infestations, more than 9,200 soldiers deserted the U.S. armies in Mexico — the highest for any American foreign war before or since.
Patriotic dissent: The rise of military and political opposition
As the war dragged on, casualties mounted, and many veteran troops began to realize the inherent cruelty of the U.S. invasion and more political dissent infused the military ranks. In a sense it began at the top. General Taylor abhorred Polk. During his early campaign around Monterrey, the general, having heard rumors (which he did “not credit”) that Polk was dead, wrote his son-in-law, “While I regret to hear the death of anyone, I would as soon have heard of his death … as that of any other individual in the whole Union.” Coming from a serving combat-theater commander, those were profound, even shocking, sentiments.
In other cases, dissent, desertion, and even treason reigned. So disgusted with the American invasion were many recently emigrated Irish Catholic soldiers — who had often suffered abuse and ethnic riots in northeastern cities the decade before — that a battalion’s worth responded to enemy entreaties and defected to the Mexican Army. Most spent the remainder of the war as some of the fiercest fighters — and best artillerists — in the Mexican Army. They named their unit the San Patricio (Saint Patrick’s) Battalion. At one of the final major battles — Churubusco — the San Patricios rallied Mexican troops, even tearing white flags of surrender out of their hands. The Irish deserters undoubtedly knew that for them surrender meant execution for treason. Ultimately, 72 of the Irish survivors were captured and court-martialed. Seventy were sentenced to death. Forty six were actually executed — 30 in a single mass hanging. The others’ sentences were reduced to jail, 50 lashes, and being branded with the letter D, for “deserter.”
One of the most famous military skeptics was Lieutenant — and future general and president — Ulysses Grant. Uncomfortable with the justifications for the Mexican War from the start, he wrote his wife, during the lengthy occupation of Mexico City, that, “Mexico is a very pleasant place to live because it is never hot nor ever cold, but I believe everyone is hartily [sic] tired of war…. I pity poor Mexico.” Grant never forgot the horror of his first war, and never forgave his country for its aggressive invasion. In 1879, a few years after leaving the White House, he told a journalist, “I do not think there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico. I thought so at the time, when I was a youngster…. [The war] was one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” In his memoirs, he went further, and described that the Civil War as “our punishment,” for that “transgression.”
The Whigs, most of whom had followed their party leadership in feckless acquiescence to a war few had any enthusiasm for, were later transformed by the Mexican conflict. By war’s end it was their finest hour, but also, perhaps, their party’s downfall. No one with even scant knowledge of American history would conclude that anti-war activism tends towards political success. Nevertheless, even if most Whigs — fearful of suffering the extinction the anti–1812 War Federalists suffered — folded, a few in Congress, known as the “14 irreconcilables” showed courage from the start.
They were led by the indefatigable Rep. John Quincy Adams. When nearly all Whigs gave in to Polk’s reasoning for war, the 78-year-old Adams would have none of it. Not only was old John Quincy totally opposed to “this most outrageous war,” but he told a fellow Massachusetts congressman that he “hoped the officers would all resign & the men all desert!” One of his fellow “irreconcilables,” Congressman Luther Severance of Maine, declared that from the start, “It is on Mexican soil that blood has been shed,” and, going further, even averred that for their “manly resistance” the Mexicans should be “honored and applauded.”
Nonetheless, it wasn’t until the Whigs’ stalwart party leader, Henry Clay, took a strong anti-war stand, that most members changed course. The three-time presidential candidate was very likely moved to a more vocal position of dissent after the death of his favorite son — Col. Henry Clay Jr. — at the Battle of Buena Vista. The younger Clay had, after being struck with a bullet in the thigh, heroically protected his retreating soldiers before succumbing to a deluge of Mexican bayonets. He was just 35. The elder Clay, was somewhat comforted by knowing that his son “if he were to die … preferred to meet death on the battlefield.” However, Clay, never enthusiastic about the invasion (and having very likely torpedoed his last presidential campaign by his muted critique), admitted to a friend, “That consolation would be greater, if I did not believe the Mexican War was unnecessary and of an aggressive character.”
Matters began to shift by the summer of 1847, when, finally, journalists outside of New England had seen enough atrocities in Mexico and began to condemn the war. The public intellectuals spoke out next. Henry David Thoreau spent a night in jail after he symbolically refused to pay his poll tax in protest of the war. He then delivered a famous lecture, “Civil Disobedience,” which called for resistance against the government’s immoral war effort. Other writers and poets, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Russell Lowell, followed suit. Then Walt Whitman, initially a war supporter, published an editorial titled “American Workingmen, versus Slavery” in support of the upstart Pennsylvania Democrat David Wilmot’s “Proviso” that all forms of human bondage be prohibited in any land taken from Mexico. Whitman’s dissent, certainly a slap in the face to his paper’s conservative Democratic readership, got him fired from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, where he had served as an editor.
Still, the major turning point was clearly Henry Clay’s profound decision, on November 13, 1847, to give a widely promoted speech — the finest of his long career — in his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky. He had, after much soul-searching, and realizing his presidential prospects were very likely behind him, decided to boldly and publicly oppose the war that had cost him his son. A newly elected freshman congressman from Illinois — a young Abraham Lincoln — was in attendance, having fortuitously stopped in the town to visit his wife’s family en route to Washington, D.C. What Clay said shocked his party and the nation.
With thousands in attendance, Clay started from the beginning. The United States should never have annexed Texas in the first place, he asserted, and then he proceeded to attack not only the obvious target — Polk — but to excoriate the vast majority of his own party, which had expediently voted for the war in 1846. Significant highlights from the speech are worth quoting. The war had resulted in a “mad sacrifice of human life … waste of human treasure … mangled bodies … death and desolation.” It was Mexico, not the United States that was “defending her firesides, her castles, her altars.” The consequences, he said, were substantial. America had ceded its “unsullied” international “character.” The only moral course, Clay declared, was for Congress to use its constitutional powers to cut off funds, end the war, and refuse to annex even a square mile of Mexican land. Now, and in the future, America should disavow “any desire … to acquire any foreign territory … for the purpose of introducing slavery into it.” Going a step further, in a radical step for a Kentuckian, Clay added that he had “ever regarded slavery as a great evil.”
Clay’s melancholy over his son’s death may have contributed to the sabotage of any remaining hopes he had for the presidency. Nonetheless, the renowned orator’s two-and half-hour speech was incredibly courageous, and, more important, widely influential. Thanks to the wonders of technology (which his Whig party had long championed) — specifically the telegraph — Clay’s remarks boomeranged across the entirety of the country within days. Democratic papers labeled Clay a traitor. Polk’s favored newspaper, the Washington Union, condemned Clay’s remarks as “the spirit of treason promulgated.” No matter, this single speech catalyzed and exploded the nascent anti-war movement. That faction was no longer a New England phenomenon. At rallies across the nation, from Indiana, to Kentucky, to New Jersey, to Maine, thousands denounced the war and read aloud Clay’s speech.
The Lexington speech may have altered the career and even character of that young congressman in the audience, Abraham Lincoln. Before the Lexington talk, Lincoln was a “tariff-man,” a domestic policy-wonk, with little interest in foreign affairs. He hadn’t planned to kick off his freshman term in Washington on an anti-war platform. Yet, despite hailing from an enthusiastically pro-war Illinois district, that’s just what he did. No doubt, he foresaw the political consequences. Perhaps he thought, well, if Clay — his lifelong idol — could demonstrate political bravery, then so should he.
So it was, then, that on December 22, 1847, Lincoln, the unknown (and sole Whig) congressman from Illinois, delivered a bold first speech on the House floor. As a well-trained country lawyer, Lincoln’s inaugural remarks were more methodical than inspirational, but other members took notice as he effectively battered away at Polk’s deceptive justification for the invasion. American blood, Lincoln asserted, had been shed, but in a “contested region” by “armed officers and soldiers, sent into that settlement by the military orders of the President,” and thus could not be blamed on the defensive Mexican troopers. Polk, according to Lincoln, though seduced by “military glory,” must, in his heart, be “deeply conscious of being in the wrong — that he feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to Heaven against him.”
Congressman Lincoln’s speech and early votes didn’t endear him to his pro-war constituents. Though his remarks brought him the national renown so rare for an obscure freshman representative, the blowback — particularly back in Illinois — was severe. One prominent Democratic paper labeled him a new “Benedict Arnold.” His own local State Register seconded the notion and declared, “Henceforth will the Benedict Arnold of our district be known here only as the Ranchero Spotty [slang for a Mexican guerrilla fighter] of one term.” Lincoln’s own law partner back in Springfield warned him that his anti-war position constituted “political suicide.” Unfazed, Lincoln doubled down. On January 12, 1848, he again spoke — for 45 minutes — and declared that Polk should “remember he sits where Washington sat…. As a nation should not, and the Almighty will not, be evaded, so let him attempt no evasion — no equivocation.” It ought to come as no surprise, then, that Lincoln, was, in fact, to be just a single-term congressman.
If Lincoln was the newest anti-war voice on Capitol Hill, former President John Quincy Adams was most certainly the eldest and ablest. Indeed, opposition to the Mexican War would constitute, literally, his final mortal act. As the historian Richard Immerman wrote, “Adams [had] never voted to withhold appropriations from the soldiers, but … on Feb. 21, 1848, he cast his final vote against a resolution to commend America’s victorious generals.” It is fitting that, when the clerk called for a roll call on the routine measure, Adams bellowed what was to be his last word ever in Congress: “No!” He slumped over at his desk. At age 80, he had suffered a massive stroke. He soon lapsed into unconsciousness. Before he did, he gathered the strength to ask for Henry Clay, who grasped his hand and weeped over the old president. Two days later, the only ex-president to leave the White House for a career in the House of Representatives was dead.
The young Lincoln — representative of the “new blood” in the revamped Whig Party — had witnessed Adams’s dramatic collapse on the House floor. No doubt, he was soon surprised to learn that he’d been chosen to serve as one the indefatigable old man’s pallbearers at the forthcoming elaborate state funeral. One wonders what effect these theatrical events had on the future president — how it influenced his future career. What we do know, is that a few days later Lincoln cast his first anti-slavery vote as a congressman. Adams’s death, coming on top of Clay’s histrionic speech, also seemed to buoy the Whig Party. Though they never cut off funds or supplies to the troops, Whig congressmen never acted on Polk’s two requests for reinforcements for the occupation of Mexico, and — in a prelude to modern political dramas — actually lowered the ceiling on federal borrowing.
Clay must have known his Lexington speech ruined any remaining hope he’d had for his party’s 1848 nomination — it would go, instead, to the more electable and less controversial Gen. Zachary Taylor. Furthermore, though Clay reentered the Senate in 1849 and worked hard to forge a compromise (in 1850) to avert civil war, the anti-war — and, by extension, anti-slave-state-expansion — positions he’d staked out in his speech ultimately proved the undoing of the Whig Party within a decade. But that didn’t make him, or Lincoln, wrong.
This article was originally published in the August 2020 edition of Future of Freedom.