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In the first half of the nineteenth century, few American politicians wielded as much influence over public affairs as Henry Clay of Kentucky. As a congressman, Speaker of the House, member of the U.S. Senate, and frequent candidate for president, Clay was both revered and despised for his deal-making skills and for his oratory.
One of Clay’s admirers was Representative Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, who considered him the model of an ideal statesman. Lincoln was in the audience in Lexington, Kentucky, when Clay delivered this speech. He shared Clay’s contempt for a war he considered to be a betrayal of everything that set America apart from the despotic powers of the Old World. Polk had fallen victim to the lust for military glory, or in Lincoln’s words, “that attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood.”
Along with many of his fellow members of the Whig Party, Clay condemned Polk’s broad interpretation of his commander-in-chief powers and urged Congress to reassert its control over the conduct of war and foreign affairs. In this speech Clay observed that “the whole war-making power of the nation, as to motives, causes, and objects, is confided by the Constitution to the discretion and judgment of Congress. . . and that it is therefore, the right of Congress, at the commencement or during the progress of any war, to declare for what objects and purposes the war ought to be waged and prosecuted.”
Clay initially supported the war with Mexico but revised his views after questions were raised over the Polk administration’s account of the events that triggered the conflict. Clay’s son fought as a lieutenant colonel with the 2nd Kentucky Volunteers and was killed at the Battle of Buena Vista on February 23, 1847. Despite the sacrifice made by his family, Clay’s “Market Speech” prompted accusations that he was “anti-American” and was “aiding and abetting” the enemy of the United States.
This speech captures many of the sentiments expressed by Americans who opposed the practice of acquiring territory by military force or economic coercion. The motives of these dissenters varied over time, but there were certain consistent themes expressed during the Mexican War and the Spanish-American War. Some of those themes represented the best in American political thought, others less so, including the notion that only those of Anglo-Saxon heritage could assume the responsibilities of republican government. In Clay’s view, annexing Mexico would present a host of problems, including the challenge presented by allowing millions of Mexicans to eventually participate in the American political process. Additionally, the United States was in danger of losing its soul and becoming a “warlike and conquering power,” perhaps following the declining trajectory of the Roman Empire. Clay also believed that Polk’s assertive conduct of the war contributed greatly to the erosion of Congress’ war powers and urged that body to reassert its constitutionally mandated role.
Henry Clay, Advice to His Countrymen. The Speech of Henry Clay. . . on the War with
Mexico (New York: H. R. Robinson, 1847), available at https://library.uta.edu/usmexicowar/
. . . Shall this war be prosecuted for the purpose of conquering and annexing Mexico, in all its boundless extent, to the United States?
I will not attribute to the president of the United States any such design; but I confess that I have been shocked and alarmed by manifestations of it in various quarters. Of all the dangers and misfortunes which could befall this nation, I should regard that of its becoming a warlike and conquering power the most direful and fatal. History tells the mournful tale of conquering nations and conquerors. The three most celebrated conquerors, in the civilized world, were Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon. The first, after overrunning a large portion of Asia, and sighing and lamenting that there were no more worlds to subdue, met a premature and ignoble death. His lieutenants quarreled and warred with each other as to the spoils of his victories, and finally lost them all. Caesar, after conquering Gaul, returned with his triumphant legions to Rome, passed the Rubicon, won the battle of Pharsalia,1 trampled upon the liberties of his country, and expired by the patriot hand of Brutus.2 But Rome ceased to be free. War and conquest had enervated and corrupted the masses. The spirit of true liberty was extinguished, and a long line of emperors succeeded, some of whom were the most execrable monsters that ever existed in human form. And that most extraordinary man [Napoleon], perhaps, in all history, after subjugating all continental Europe, occupying almost all its capitals, seriously threatening, according to Mr. [Adophe] Thiers,3 proud Albion itself, and decking the brow of various members of his family with crowns torn from the heads of other monarchs, lived to behold his own dear France itself in the possession of his enemies, and was made himself a wretched captive, and far removed from country, family, and friends, breathed his last on the distant and inhospitable rock of St. Helena.4 The Alps and the Rhine had been claimed as the natural boundaries of France, but even these could not be secured in the treaties to which she was reduced to submit. Do you believe that the people of Macedon or Greece, of Rome or France, were benefited, individually or collectively, by the triumphs of their great captains? Their sad lot was immense sacrifice of life, heavy and intolerable burdens, and the ultimate loss of liberty itself.
That the power of the United States is competent to the conquest of Mexico is quite probable. But it could not be achieved without frightful carnage, dreadful sacrifices of human life, and the creation of an onerous national debt; nor could it be completely effected, in all probability, until after the lapse of many years. It would be necessary to occupy all its strongholds, to disarm its inhabitants, and to keep them in constant fear and subjection. To consummate the work, I presume that standing armies, not less than a hundred thousand men, would be necessary, to be kept perhaps always in the bosom of their country. These standing armies, reveling in a foreign land, and accustomed to trample upon the liberties of a foreign people, at some distant day, might be fit and ready instruments, under the lead of some daring and unprincipled chieftain, to return to their country and prostrate the public liberty.
Supposing the conquest to be once made, what is to be done with it? Is it to be governed, like Roman provinces, by proconsuls?5 Would it be compatible with genius, character, and safety of our free institutions, to keep such a great country as Mexico, with a population of not less than nine million, in a state of constant military subjugation?
Shall it be annexed to the United States: Does any considerate man believe it possible that two such populations so incongruous, so different in race, in language, in religion, and in laws, could be blended together in one harmonious mass, and happily governed by one common authority? Murmurs, discontent, insurrections, rebellion would inevitably ensue, until the incompatible parts would be broken asunder, and possibly, in the frightful struggle, our present glorious Union itself would be dissevered or dissolved.
We ought not to forget the warning voice of all history, which teaches the difficulty of combining and consolidating together, conquering and conquered nations. After the lapse of eight hundred years, during which the Moors held their conquest of Spain, the indomitable courage, perseverance, and obstinacy of the Spanish race finally triumphed and expelled the African invaders from the peninsula. And, even within our own time, the colossal power of Napoleon, when at its loftiest height, was incompetent to subdue and subjugate the proud Castilian.6 And here in our own neighborhood, Lower Canada, which near one hundred years ago, after the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War, was ceded by France to Great Britain, remains a foreign land in the midst of the British provinces, foreign in feelings and attachments, and foreign in laws, language, and religion. And what has been the fact with poor, gallant, generous, and oppressed Ireland? Centuries have passed away since the overbearing Saxon overran and subjugated the Emerald Isle. Rivers of Irish blood have flowed during the long and arduous contest. Insurrection and rebellion have been the order of the day; and yet, up to this time, Ireland remains alien in feeling, affection, and sympathy toward the power which has so long borne her down. Every Irishman hates, with a mortal hatred, his Saxon oppressor.
Although there are great territorial differences between the conditions of England and Ireland, as compared to that of the United States and Mexico, there are some points of striking resemblance between them. Both the Irish and the Mexicans are probably of the same Celtic race. Both the English and the Americans are of the same Saxon origin. The Catholic religion predominates in both the former, the Protestant among both the latter. Religion has been the fruitful cause of dissatisfaction and discontent between the Irish and the English nations. Is there no reason to apprehend that it would become so between the people of the United States and those of Mexico, if they were united together? Why should we seek to interfere with them, in their mode of worship of a common Savior? We believe that they are wrong, especially in the exclusive character of their faith, and that we are right. They think that they are right and we wrong. What other rule can there be than to leave followers of each religion to their own solemn convictions of conscientious duty toward God? Who, but the great Arbitrator of the Universe, can judge in such a question? . . .
But I suppose it to be impossible that those who favor, if there be any who favor the annexation of Mexico to the United States, can think that it ought to be perpetually governed by military sway. Certainly no votary of human liberty could deem it right that a violation should be perpetrated of the great principles of our own Revolution, according to which, laws ought not to be enacted and taxes ought not be levied without representation on the part of those who are to obey the one, and pay the other. Then, Mexico is to participate in our councils and equally share in our legislation and government. But, suppose she would not voluntarily choose representatives to the national Congress, is our soldiery to follow the electors to the ballot box, and by force to compel them, at the point of the bayonet, to deposit their ballots? And how are the nine million of Mexican people to be represented in the Congress of the United States of the Republic of Mexico combined? Is every Mexican, without regard to color or caste, per capitum,7 to exercise the elective franchise? How is the quota of representation between the two republics, to be fixed? Where is their seat of common government to be established? And who can foresee or foretell, if Mexico, voluntarily or by force, were to share in the common government what would be the consequences her or to us?
Unprepared, as I fear her population yet is for the practical enjoyment of self-government, and of habits, customs, languages, laws, and religion so totally different from our own, we should present the revolting spectacle of a confused, distracted, and motley government. We should have a Mexican Party, a Pacific Ocean Party, an Atlantic Ocean Party in addition to the other parties, which exist, or with which we are threatened, each striving to execute its own particular view and purposes, and reproaching the other with thwarting and disappointing them. The Mexican representation, in Congress, would probably form a separate and impenetrable corps, always ready to throw itself into the scale of any other party, to advance and promote Mexican interests. Such a state of things could not long endure. Those whom God and geography have pronounced should live asunder, could never be permanently and harmoniously united together.
Do we want for our own happiness or greatness the addition of Mexico to the existing Union of our states? If our population was too dense for our territory, and there was a difficulty in obtaining honorably the means of subsistence, there might be some excuse for an attempt to enlarge our dominions. But we have no such apology. We have already, in our glorious country, a vast and almost boundless territory. Beginning at the north, in the frozen regions of the British provinces, it stretches thousands of miles along the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mexican Gulf, until it almost reaches the Tropics. It extends to the Pacific Ocean, borders on those great inland seas, the Lakes, which separate us from the possessions of Great Britain, and it embraces the great Father of Rivers,8 from its uppermost source to the Belize,9 and the still longer Missouri, from its mouth to the gorges of the Rocky Mountains. It comprehends the greatest variety of the richest soils, capable of almost all the productions of the earth, except tea and coffee and the spices, and it includes every variety of climate which heart could wish or desire. We have more than ten thousand millions of acres of waste and unsettled lands, enough for the subsistence of ten or twenty times our present population. Ought we not to be satisfied with such a country? Ought we not to be profoundly thankful to the Giver of all good things for such a vast and bountiful land? Is it not the height of ingratitude to Him to seek, by war and conquest, indulging in a spirit of rapacity, to acquire other lands, the homes and habitations of a large portion of his common children?
If we pursue the object of such a conquest, besides mortgaging the revenue and resources of this country for ages to come in the form of an onerous national debt, we should have greatly to augment that debt, by an assumption of the sixty or seventy million of the national debt of Mexico. For I take it that nothing is more certain than that, if we obtain, voluntarily or by conquest a foreign nation, we acquire it with all the incumbrances attached to it. In my humble opinion, we are now bound, in honor and morality, to pay the just debt of Texas. And we should be equally bound, by the same obligations, to pay the debt of Mexico if it were annexed to the United States.
Of the possessions which appertain to man, in his collective or individual condition, none should be preserved and cherished, with more sedulous and unremitting care, than that of an unsullied character. It is impossible to estimate it too highly, in society, when attached to an individual, nor can it be exaggerated or too greatly magnified in a nation. Those who lose or are indifferent to it become just objects of scorn and contempt. . . .
. . . Let us avoid affixing to our name and national character a similar, if not worse, stigma. I am afraid that we do not now stand well in the opinion of other parts of Christendom. Repudiation has brought up on us much reproach. All the nation I apprehend, look upon us, in the prosecution of the present war, as being actuated by a spirit of rapacity and an inordinate desire for territorial aggrandizement. Let us not forfeit altogether their good opinions. Let us command their applause by a noble exercise of forbearance and justice. In the elevated station which we hold, we can safely afford to practice the Godlike virtues of moderation and magnanimity. The long series of glorious triumphs, achieved by our gallant commanders and their brave armies, unattended by a single reverse, justify us, without the least danger of tarnishing the national honor, in disinterestedly holding out the olive branch of peace. We do not want the mines, the mountains, the morasses, and the sterile lands of Mexico. To her the loss of them would be humiliating, and be a perpetual source of regret and mortification. To us they might prove a fatal acquisition, producing distractions, dissensions, possibly disunion.
Let, therefore, the integrity of the national existence and national territory of Mexico remain undisturbed. For one, I desire to see no part of her territory torn from her by war. Some of our people have placed their hearts upon the acquisition of the Bay of San Francisco in Upper California. To us, as a great maritime power, it might prove to be of advantage hereafter in respect to our commercial and navigating interests. To Mexico, which can never be a great maritime power, it can never be of much advantage. If we can obtain it by fair purchase with a just equivalent, I should be happy to see it so acquired. As, whenever the war ceases, Mexico ought to be required to pay the debt due our citizens, perhaps an equivalent for that bay may be found in that debt, our government assuming to pay to our citizens whatever portion of it may be applied to that object. But it should form no motive in the prosecution of the war, which I would not continue a solitary hour for the sake of that harbor. . . .
Among the resolutions, which it is my intention to present for your consideration at the conclusion of this address, one proposes, in your behalf and mine, to disavow, in the most positive manner, any desire, on our part, to acquire any foreign territory whatever, for the purpose of introducing slavery into it. I do not know that any citizen of the United States entertains such a wish. But such a motive has been imputed to the slave states, and I therefore think it necessary to notice it on this occasion. My opinions on the subject of slavery are well known. They have the merit, if it be one, of consistency, uniformity, and long duration. I have ever regarded slavery as a great evil, a wrong, for the present, I fear, an irremediable wrong to its unfortunate victims. I should rejoice if not a single slave breathed the air or was within the limits of our country. But here they are, to be dealt with as well as we can, with a due consideration of all circumstances affecting the security, safety, and happiness of both races. Every state has the supreme uncontrolled and exclusive power to decide for itself whether slavery shall cease or continue within its limits, without any exterior intervention from any quarter. In states where the slaves outnumber the whites, as is the case with several, the Blacks could not be emancipated and invested with all the rights of freemen without becoming the governing race in those states. Collisions and conflicts between the two races would be inevitable, and after shocking scenes of rapine and carnage, the extinction or expulsion of the Blacks would certainly take place. In the state of Kentucky, near fifty years ago, I thought the proportion of slaves, in comparison with the whites, was so inconsiderable that we might safely adopt a system of gradual emancipation that would ultimately eradicate this evil in our state. That system was totally different from the immediate abolition of slavery for which the party of the abolitionists of the present day contend. Whether they have intended it or not, it is my calm and deliberate belief that they have done incalculable mischief even to the very cause which they have espoused, to say nothing of the discord which has been produced between different parts of the Union. According to the system we attempted near the last century, all slaves in being were to remain such, but all who might be born subsequent to a specified day were to become free at the age of twenty-eight, and, during their service, were to be taught to read, write, and cipher. Thus, instead of being thrown upon the community, ignorant and unprepared, as would be the case by immediate emancipation, they would have entered upon the possession of their freedom, capable, in some degree, of enjoying it. After a hard struggle, the system was defeated, and I regret it extremely, as, if it had been adopted, our state would be now nearly rid of that reproach. . . .
- 1. he decisive battle of the civil war fought in 48 BC between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. Caesar decisively defeated Pompey, who was the leader of the forces assembled by the Roman Senate.
- 2. Marcus Junius Brutus (85 BC–42 BC), Roman senator and one of Caesar’s assassins.
- 3. Adolphe Thiers (1797–1877), a French historian and public official who held a variety of posts in the government of France, including president, prime minister, and foreign minister.
- 4. St. Helena is an island in the Atlantic Ocean some 1,200 miles off the coast of Africa to which the European powers exiled Napoleon in 1815.
- 5. A governor of a province in ancient Rome.
- 6. Castile is a region of Spain that resisted Napoleonic rule despite repeated efforts by French forces to conquer it.
- 7. Each individual Mexican.
- 8. The Mississippi River.
- 9. La Belize, a fort built by the French at the mouth of the Mississippi River in the early eighteenth century.