In the early nineteenth century, many “second sons” of slave-holding families (who would not inherit the family plantations) moved west into the Mexican state of Texas, where land was plentiful and well suited for many of the same cash crops as were grown in other parts of the American South. Although these settlers were at first welcomed by the Mexican government, when the country abolished slavery in 1829, they instigated an independence movement that quickly escalated into a war. In 1836, after the Battle of San Jacinto, Mexico recognized Texas as an independent republic; yet tensions remained between the two nations over the disputed territory between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande, some 150 miles to the south.
When the United States agreed to the annexation of Texas in 1845, it also adopted the Rio Grande as the border, leading to a break in diplomatic relations with Mexico and, eventually, to Democratic President James K. Polk’s request for a war declaration in 1847. Polk asserted that the Mexican army had attacked on American soil; skeptical Whigs, including the freshman congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, questioned the veracity of Polk’s claim. Lincoln and his political compatriots accused Polk of illegitimately escalating a conflict over disputed territory for the sole purpose of extending slave territory. Indeed, Lincoln presented a series of resolutions on the floor of Congress, challenging Polk to identify the very spot where the alleged Mexican attack had occurred and to prove that it was, in fact, on America soil. The “spot resolutions,” as they became known, showcase Lincoln’s famous wit, but with a degree of acerbity that ultimately proved fatal to Lincoln’s career in the House, as Democrats charged him with being unpatriotic, unsupportive of the Army, and even disloyal.
Lincoln’s senior colleague, Henry Clay, also opposed the war publicly, but since his son fought and died in the battle of Vera Cruz, the Democratic press regularly portrayed Clay as two-faced and his opposition as insincere and politically motivated. In “The Great Speech of Clay,” one political cartoon with this trope, Clay’s anti-war audience (to the right) includes Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, who compares the position of anti-war Whigs with that of the New England Federalists who organized the Hartford Convention. This trope was taken up by at least one member of Congress in a speech haranguing his fellow legislators for their faithlessness to the war effort they had voted to commence only a short time before.
Not all opposition to the war was politically motivated, however: many Northern religious leaders, some of whom were pacifists on principle and some of whom were ardent anti-slavery advocates, freely denounced the war as an act of imperialism and a blatant attempt to increase the territory available to Southern slaveholders. Interestingly, Ulysses S. Grant’s account of the mindset of the troops on the ground in Texas during the conflict supports the latter interpretation (although it is worth noting that the date of Grant’s memoir is significantly after the fact).
Thomas N. Lord, Cause, Character and Consequences of the War with Mexico (Portland: Thurston and Co., 1847), 5-7, 10-12.
I am aware that the subject I have chosen is intimately connected with the politics of parties. But the subject is not political merely. It has its moral and religious aspects. Its political bearings I leave in the hands of politicians. Its moral and religious aspects come within the province of the ministers of the gospel, and it is in reference to these that I shall speak at this time, confining myself to the cause, character and consequences of the present war.
What then has been the procuring cause of the war in which this nation is now engaged? The same which involved the people of Israel in war. The procuring cause of their calamity was their choosing new gods. They forsook the Lord God of their fathers, and served other gods. They bowed down to idols, and provoked the Lord to anger, and he suffered them to fall into the hands of the spoilers, that spoiled them.
The history of events which have transpired in reference to the war we are waging, shows most conclusively, that it is reckless disregard to God’s authority, the spirit of daring impiety which has brought us to our present position. If, as a nation, we had heeded the teachings of the Bible, if those who fill our most important public stations, and direct out great national interests, had regarded God’s law, we should have been saved from the curse of war, “the abomination which maketh desolate.”1
We have a system of iniquity among us as hateful to god, as unreasonable, cruel, and destructive, as any system of idolatry and heathenism which ever existed. I mean American Slavery. This is the Moloch which our national government have long worshipped, and the demon to which is sacrificed the peace, prosperity, and purity of the nation. This monster of deformity and cruelty has so much beauty and benevolence in the eyes of many politicians, that they cannot endure the expression of a sentiment against it. – Those who will not bow down and worship it, must be cast into the midst of the burning fiery furnace of political reprobation, heated seven times hotter than usual. Every northern statesman who has dared to open his mouth against the iniquitous policy of slavery has been brow beaten, and insulted. Hideous as the monster slavery has become in the eyes of Christianity, cruel as are the sacrifices it demands, wide spread as are the scenes of desolation it has caused, powerful as has been its influence to corrupt and destroy our fair inheritance, yet it received the patronage of the general government, and is nourished as the child of promise. Whenever a decision is to be made between slavery and freedom, that decision proves that the sympathy of the government is with slavery, and that its energies are employed to sustain and extend it.
It is the “evil genius” of slavery that has led us into war with Mexico. Had it not been for the “peculiar institution,” and a fixed determination of the government to strengthen and perpetuate it, we should have remained in the enjoyment of peace, and all the waste of property, and profusion of blood, and sacrifice of life which have occurred, would have been prevented. Why was Texas annexed to this Union? The interests of slavery demand it. And what has the annexation of Texas to do with our war with Mexico? It was the fatal step which led to this war. These are stubborn facts which wily politicians in vain attempt to gainsay or resist. It is already acknowledged by some of the chief actors in the scene, that taking Texas as we did, is the real cause of our war; and that the South desired the war, and has enlisted its energies in its prosecution, for the sake of promoting the interests of slavery.
It was then that rapacious, devouring spirit of slavery that led to the present hostile movements against Mexico. The spirit of liberty could not have perpetrated the deeds of selfishness and injustice which have resulted in the present war. Slavery has done it, and it is a work worthy of itself, and in bringing about which, it has revealed its odious nature, and given its hateful character to the civilized world. It has shown itself in its violation of the constitution, in its reckless disregard of solemn treaties, in its readiness to trample upon the rights of others, and most of all in its bold defiance of the law of God. It has written its own disgraceful history, and stamped upon its forehead the mark of its abominations.
I am aware that many are slow to believe that the present war is owing to slavery, and is encouraged for the purpose of perpetuating it. We are told of wrongs which Mexico has done of us, of redress she has been slow to make. Yes, after slavery has obtained her main object, and placed things in a train to secure all the rest, as she hopes; after she has taken a whole province from Mexico, and sent an army of invaders to plant themselves a hundred miles upon her territory, and driven the inhabitants from their own land; then she raises a huge cry of the wrongs which Mexico has inflicted upon this country. These doings of slavery will not bear the light. There is the spirit which is not of God, that has directed this whole affair; and I tremble for my country,2 when I behold what slavery has done for it, and what my countrymen are willing to do for slavery. I am alarmed, when I reflect, that the devotion of this government to a system which bids defiance to the Almighty, and dethrones the noblest workmanship of his hands, has subjected us to the scourge of war. It is for such a system that we are spending millions of dollars, sacrificing thousands of lives, and dooming a multitude of souls to the perdition of hell. What a record are we making for the generations which shall come after us, when, in the light of truth, they shall see what American Slavery was in its nature and its effects. The fact that slavery is the real cause of the present war, and that the extent and perpetuity of this unchristian, and heaven-condemned institution were the objects for which the crusade was undertaken, makes it a terrible wicked enterprise. The cause of it is horrible, the motives which led to it detestable. . . .
With the gospel as my guide, I do not hesitate to call the present war wicked. On no principle of religion can it be justified. Reason about it as we may, it is not only a war with Mexico, it is a war with Jehovah, with the eternal principles of rectitude which He has established. It cannot be called a war of resistance. Mexico has not invaded our territory, attempted to lay waste our cities and villages, plunder our treasures, and destroy our lives. She has not committed depredations upon the province which has rebelled against her, and which we have received. This was, on our part, is anything else, but a war of resistance. We ourselves are the invaders, and Mexico is struggling to repel an invading army.
But we are told it is a war for redress. Mexico owes us, and does not seem inclined to make payment. Admit it, and does this justify America in sending an invading army into her territory, in desolating her cities, in destroying her inhabitants? When we consider the character and condition of Mexico, the withering influence of her religious system, the instability of her government, the disorder which pervades the instability of her government, the disorder which pervades all her public affairs, does she not deserve forbearance and compassion at the hands of this government? Has our treatment of her been Christian? Was it right for this government to undertake a crusade against her, for the purpose of revenge, and labor to make her confusion, worse confused, and increase the dregs in her bitter cup of misery? The right to do this, is the same that the South has to reduce millions of men to chattels; the same that England has to extend her iron hand of tyranny over India and China; the same that every high-way robber has to strip the defenseless traveler; “that is, in respect to god and intrinsic justice, no right at all.”3 I envy not the man, either his head or his heart, who attempts to justify this war on the principles of the gospel. I pronounce it wrong, wicked, because our grievances might have been peaceably adjusted, and because everything at stake was not of sufficient importance to compensate for the sacrifice of life, the increase of wickedness, the detriment to civil, literary and religious institutions it occasions, it must be plain that nothing short of “obvious necessity” can justify a nation in resorting to it.
I pronounce the war unrighteous because it is evidently aggressive, waged for the purpose of acquiring territory. – The object of the war is to force Mexico, to renounce her title to certain possessions which she claims. There has been a determination to acquire certain territory, without regard to right or wrong. The object of the war is to get it. The devouring “genius,” slavery, demands it, and means to have it. In reference to this whole affair with Mexico, the spirit of Southern injustice and oppression has goaded the government to desperation. It has changed the policy of the republic, and instigated to deeds which will bring down upon us the reproach of nations. Usually, when there has been a dispute about a territory, our government has manifested no disposition to over-reach and defraud. It has not rushed madly to arms, and involved the country in war. Contrast the conduct of Congress, when the question of the North Eastern Boundary and the Oregon Territory were being discussed, with its conduct in reference to Texas, and the war it has produced. Why the forbearance, and disposition to seek the things which make for peace in the former cases, and such rashness and readiness to rush to mortal combat in the latter? The simple reason is found in the fact that slavery was immediately interested in the latter case and not in the former. Slavery caused the war. The motive for which it was undertaken was to extend this system of abominations. The object which slavery means to accomplish, is to acquire empire and domination. To everything in her path, no matter how valuable or sacred, she says, bow, or be crushed beneath my iron hoof.
But let us remember that might does not make right. We may prosecute this war till we force the objects of our vengeance to sue for mercy. We may yet gain, what we term “splendid victories.” But all these things do not prove our cause righteous. The best soldiers, the most destructive weapons, the greatest success, are not always on the side of justice. The tribunal before which the moral character of every contest must be decided, is the tribunal of the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe. He is a God of truth, without iniquity, just and right is He. He sees the cause of the war we are waging, the motives which led to it and the objects it was designed to secure. If they meet his approval we have nothing to fear. If he condemn them, we have nothing to boast of in the past, nothing to hope for in the future.
A. What, exactly, does James K. Polk accuse Mexico of doing in his request for a declaration of war? Why do you think Abraham Lincoln was skeptical of these claims? Would the war seem more or less just depending upon the answers to the questions posed in the spot resolutions? Having once voted to authorize a declaration of war, are congressmen morally obligated, as Andrew Kennedy suggests, to see the thing through to the end, even if they come to see the war as unjust? Was the war with Mexico a legitimate war to protect American territory, or an illegitimate attempt to use federal power to protect and promote the expansion of slavery? Does Ulysses S. Grant’s account seem trustworthy as a reflection of the mindset of the troops on their mission at the time, or does it seem like an example of revisionist history, given his later experiences in the Civil War?
B. How might we connect the anti-war arguments presented here to the abolitionists’ denunciations of armed resistance?
C. In what ways do the arguments for and against the Mexican-American War compare with the arguments for and against the Spanish-American War?
- Matthew 24:15; Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 12:11
- An echo of Thomas Jefferson’s remark about slavery in Notes on the State of Virginia. See Chapter 6, Document D.
- The source of this quotation is not known.