Friday, April 7, 2006
Confederate "Heritage" Month 2006 - April 7: La Guerra de Estados Unidos a México
La Guerra Mexicano-estadounidense de 1846-48 was yet another step in the intensification of sectional tensions over slavery. Among hardline opponents of slavery, it was a blatant attempt by the Slave Power to absorb Texas as a slave state and to expand the "peculiar institution" to an even wider area. For others it was a necessary war to secure the United States over the long term and to expand the Empire of Liberty.
The antislavery Congregational minister Theodore Parker definitely fell within the first group. He said in a speech against the war:
I maintain that aggressive war is a sin; that it is a national infidelity, a denial of Christianity and of God. . . . Treason against the people, against mankind, against God, is a great sin, not lightly to be spoken of. The political authors of the war on this continent, and at this day, are either utterly incapable of a statesman's work, or else guilty of that sin. Fools they are, or traitors they must be. . . . Considering how we acquired Louisiana. Florida, Oregon, I cannot forbear thinking that this people will possess the whole of this continent before many years, perhaps before the century ends. ... Is it not better to acquire it by the schoolmaster than the cannon, by peddling cloth, tin, anything rather than bullets? ... It would be a gain to mankind if we could spread over that country the Idea of America - that all men are born free and equal in rights, and establish there political, social, and individual freedom. But to do that we must first make real those ideas at home. ...
When we annexed Texas we of course took her for better or worse, debts and all, and annexed her war along with her. I take it everybody knew that, though some now seem to pretend a decent astonishment at the result. Now one party is ready to fight for it as the other. ... Now the Government and its Congress would throw the blame on the innocent and say war exists "by the act of Mexico!" If a lie was ever told, I think this is one. Then the "dear people" must be called on for money and men, for "the soil of this free republic is invaded," and the Governor of Massachusetts, one of the men who declared the annexation of Texas unconstitutional, recommends the war he just now told us to pray against, and appealsto our "patriotism" and "humanity" as arguments for butchering the Mexicans, when they are in the right and we in the wrong! ... How tamely the people yield their necks - and say "Take our sons for the war - we care not, right or wrong." (my emphasis)
(No, trolls, the fact that he said "aggressive war is a sin" did not make him an ally of The Terrorists.)
Bernard De Voto In The Year of Decision 1846 (1943) described this process by which much of the North rallied around what those like Parker saw as a slaveeowners' war. And yet at the same time, the war increased their awareness that the interests of slavery and the slaveholders may not have been the interests of the nation:
By August , ... the aimless crosscurrents of pure emotion had subsided enough to permit certain elementary perceptions, and as this war, like all wars, was seen to be something other than its beginning had made out, realism began to take the place of evasion. It was a surprising realism. It exploded in [Democratic President James] Polk's face and he felt that it was ominous. It was: far more ominous than he knew.
But meanwhile an exultant people had their glory, at little risk. They had drifted into war without understanding even their own assent, with a bland feeling that any war the Americans might want to fight was both an easy one to win and a righteous one in motive. They had doggedly evaded both its immediate and its collateral issues and had refused to look at its implications. But now the awareness that is the forerunner of realism began to disturb certain persons who would eventually find ways of making a nation look at facts it had refused to see and at necessary consequences.
Realism is the most painful, most difficult, and slowest of human faculties. Mr. Seward, who was some years short of discovering that there was a higher law than the statutes and that an irrepressible conflict was eroding the nation's core, condemned the new war but was in favor "of plenty of men and supplies once it was started." William Cullen Bryant found it "not practicable" to oppose the war, "though he detested its objects and tried to terminate it as soon as possible." They and their kind lacked Ulysses Grant's, and Ethan Allen Hitchcock's, soldierly forthrightness - but there were those who didn't. Something was beginning to get rearranged. A number who had loved the middle way, holding, they supposed, to the course of progress, were suddenly arm in arm with fanatics who, they had supposed, were impeding it. Men of goodwill who for a long time had been looking at a composite, a complex, of social irreconcilables were now beginning, a few of them, to understand what they saw. Human wills that had been divided by doctrine or theory found themselves blending. With eager or reluctant hearts they achieved understanding and hardened toward purpose [in opposition to the war]. (my emphasis)
In my own view of la Guerra de Estados Unidos a México, I think a good case can be made that annexing Texas and risking war with México was in the United States' national interest, even from an antislavery point of view.
But there are abstract justifications, and there's what really happened. And what really happened was that Southern slaveowners wanted a new slave territory. And their friend in the White House, James K. Polk, was looking for a war with México to settle the question. Illinois Congressman Abraham Lincoln believed, as did Parker, that the war was an unjustified war of aggression. In his antiwar speech in Congress of 01/12/1848, Lincoln called into question the administration's claim that the war began in response to a clear-cut violation of American territory by the Mexican army.
He claimed that Polk was hiding the real causes of the war, because the nominal, official cause was insupportable. He suspected of Polk, he said, "that he feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to Heaven against him". And he continued:
That originally having some strong motive - what, I will not stop now to give my opinion concerning - to involve the two 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 calculation of the ease with which Mexico might be subdued, he now finds himself, he knows not where. How like the half insane mumbling of a fever-dream, is the whole war part of his late message! At one time telling us that Mexico has nothing whatever, that we can get, but teritory; at another, showing us how we can support the war, by levying contributions on Mexico. At one time, urging the national honor, the security of the future, the prevention of foreign interference, and even, the good of Mexico herself, as among the objects of the war; at another, telling us, that "to reject indemnity, by refusing to accept a cession of teritory, would be to abandon all our just demands, and to wage the war, bearing all it's expenses, without a purpose or definite object." So then, the national honor, security of the future, and even' thing but teritorial indemnity, may be considered the no-purposes, and indefinite, objects of the war! (my emphasis in bold)
It's fascinating to see elements of more recent events foreshadowed by Lincoln's indictment of Polk. But I'm using the Lincoln quotation as an illustration of the intensity of the feelings that la Guerra Mexicano-estadounidense brought out, setting the stage for the next round of confrontation over slavery.
An Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month 2006 postings is available.