Speech on the War with Mexico

Image: Abraham Lincoln. Calvin Jackson (October 1, 1858) Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/98504517/.
On what grounds did Lincoln and opponents of the war object to its constitutionality? Why did Lincoln, an anti-slave Whig (but not an abolitionist) not explicitly raise the question of slavery in his speech? On what grounds might Lincoln have supported territorial expansion? Why did he choose to use—selectively—language similar to that of the Declaration of Independence in his argument about the legitimate control and governance of territory?
How would Lincoln have responded to John O’Sullivan’s arguments about expansion? If the war had gone badly and Mexico had occupied part of the United States, would Lincoln have approved a peace in which the United States surrendered territory to Mexico?

In May 1846, both Houses of Congress, at the request of President James Polk (1795–1849), passed a resolution declaring that a state of war existed between the United States and Mexico. Polk claimed that Mexico was the aggressor because its army had entered territory claimed by the state of Texas, now part of the Union, and attacked and killed American troops. This naturally spurred patriotic support for the war, but adverse reactions in Congress and the press quickly followed Polk’s war message. Many Whigs, deeming the conflict “Mr. Polk’s War,” charged that the president and members of his Democratic Party in Congress had employed stampede tactics to ensure the resolution’s passage and to foment public hysteria. Polk, they contended, had provoked the Mexicans to attack in order to start a war against a weak neighbor so that the United States could acquire Mexico’s western territory, especially California, which Polk had unsuccessfully attempted to purchase. Some antislavery Whigs, including John Quincy Adams (1767–1848), argued that Polk’s primary goal in instigating war was to expand slavery in order to increase the political power of slaveholding states. Their argument gained political momentum when it appeared that, contrary to initial predictions of an easy and quick victory, the invasion of Mexico had proven costly in terms of blood and treasure. As of the end of 1847, the war appeared to have no end in sight.

One of Polk’s Whig opponents was an obscure first-term congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), who entered the House after the war declaration was passed. With the conflict now under way, some of its critics, Lincoln included, felt compelled to vote to fund supplies for the troops. But to demonstrate that this did not signal support for Polk’s alleged aggression, Whigs sought other ways to demonstrate their disapproval of the war. For his part, Lincoln introduced in December 1847 what became known as the Spot Resolutions, requesting President Polk to submit evidence to Congress that the land on which the initial battle occurred was indeed American territory. The House never acted on Lincoln’s resolutions.

In early January 1848, Representative George Ashmun of Massachusetts (1804–1870) proposed an amendment to a motion to refer a resolution to a House committee, which instructed the committee to add the phrase “in a war unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the president” to the resolution, which would amount to a censure of Polk. The amendment passed the House 82–81 or 85–81 (the congressional records differ on the final tabulation). The resolution itself was never acted upon in that form. In the following speech, Lincoln explains his support of Ashmun’s amendment, with a detailed argument that the sovereignty of the territory between the Rio Grande and the Nueces River was at best disputed (argument not reprinted below). He then goes on to chastise Polk for waging an unconstitutional war of aggression for the purpose of territorial aggrandizement—the material gains of which were already being exceeded by the costs of the war, to say nothing of the stain on American honor. Lincoln would later vote multiple times in favor of the so-called Wilmot Proviso, introduced by Representative David Wilmot (D., 1814–1868) of Pennsylvania, which would have prohibited slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico as a result of the war.

In February 1848, however, American forces under Gen. Winfield Scott (1786–1866), who led a remarkable overland invasion that culminated in the capture of Mexico City, finally brought about an enforced peace with Mexico. A large number of volunteers from Illinois served bravely in the war—some were killed or wounded—and with the victory, Lincoln’s stance became politically unpopular in his home state. For years, his Democratic opponents jeered him with the sobriquet Spotty Lincoln

—David Tucker

Source: Abraham Lincoln Papers, series 1, General Correspondence, 1833 to 1916: “Abraham Lincoln to Congress, Speech regarding Mexican War,” 1848, Manuscript/Mixed Material, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/mal0007400/.

Some, if not all the gentlemen, on the other side of the House,[1] who have addressed the committee within the last two days, have spoken rather complainingly, if I have rightly understood them, of the vote given a week or ten days ago, declaring that the war with Mexico was unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced by the president [James K. Polk]. I admit that such a vote should not be given, in mere party wantonness, and that the one given, is justly censurable, if it have no other, or better foundation. I am one of those who joined in that vote; and I did so under my best impression of the truth of the case. How I got this impression, and how it may possibly be removed, I will now try to show.

When the war began, it was my opinion that all those who, because of knowing too little, or because of knowing too much, could not conscientiously approve the conduct of the president, in the beginning of it, should, nevertheless, as good citizens and patriots, remain silent on that point, at least till the war should be ended. Some leading democrats, including Ex-President Van Buren,[2] have taken this same view, as I understand them; and I adhered to it, and acted upon it, until since I took my seat here; and I think I should still adhere to it, were it not that the president and his friends will not allow it to be so. Besides the continual effort of the president to argue every silent vote given for supplies, into an endorsement of the justice and wisdom of his conduct—besides that singularly candid paragraph, in his late message in which he tells us that Congress,[3] with great unanimity, only two in the Senate and fourteen in the House dissenting,[4] had declared that, “by the act of the Republic of Mexico, a state of war exists between that government and the United States,” when the same journals that informed him of this, also informed him, that when that declaration stood disconnected from the question of supplies, sixty-seven in the House, and not fourteen merely, voted against it—besides this open attempt to prove, by telling the truth, what he could not prove by telling the whole truth—demanding of all who will not submit to be misrepresented, in justice to themselves, to speak out—besides all this, one of my colleagues (Mr. Richardson) at a very early day in the session brought in a set of resolutions, expressly endorsing the original justice of the war on the part of the president.[5]

Upon these resolutions, when they shall be put on their passage I shall be compelled to vote; so that I cannot be silent, if I would. Seeing this, I went about preparing myself to give the vote understandingly when it should come. I carefully examined the president’s messages,[6] to ascertain what he himself had said and proved upon the point. The result of this examination was to make the impression, that taking for true all the president states as facts, he falls far short of proving his justification; and that the president would have gone farther with his proof, if it had not been for the small matter, that the truth would not permit him. Under the impression thus made, I gave the vote before mentioned. I propose now to give, concisely, the process of the examination I made, and how I reached the conclusion I did. The president, in his first war message of May 1846,[7] declares that the soil was ours on which hostilities were commenced by Mexico; and he repeats that declaration, almost in the same language, in each successive annual message, thus showing that he esteems that point, a highly essential one. In the importance of that point, I entirely agree with the president. To my judgment, it is the very point, upon which he should be justified, or condemned. In his message of December 1846, it seems to have occurred to him, as is certainly true, that title—ownership—to soil, or anything else, is not a simple fact; but is a conclusion following one or more simple facts; and that it was incumbent upon him, to present the facts, from which he concluded, the soil was ours, on which the first blood of the war was shed. . . .

I am now through the whole of the president’s evidence; and it is a singular fact, that if anyone should declare the president sent the army into the midst of a settlement of Mexican people, who had never submitted, by consent or by force, to the authority of Texas or of the United States, and that there, and thereby, the first blood of the war was shed, there is not one word in all the president has said, which would either admit or deny the declaration. This strange omission, it does seem to me, could not have occurred but by design. My way of living leads me to be about the courts of justice; and there, I have sometimes seen a good lawyer, struggling for his client’s neck, in a desperate case, employing every artifice to work round, befog, and cover up, with many words, some point arising in the case, which he dared not admit, and yet could not deny. Party bias may help to make it appear so; but with all the allowance I can make for such bias, it still does appear to me, that just such, and from just such necessity, is the president’s struggle in this case.

Some time after my colleague (Mr. Richardson) introduced the resolutions I have mentioned, I introduced a preamble, resolution, and interrogatories intended to draw the president out, if possible, on this hitherto untrodden ground.[8] To show their relevancy, I propose to state my understanding of the true rule for ascertaining the boundary between Texas and Mexico. It is, that wherever Texas was exercising jurisdiction, was hers; and wherever Mexico was exercising jurisdiction, was hers; and that whatever separated the actual exercise of jurisdiction of the one, from that of the other, was the true boundary between them. If, as is probably true, Texas was exercising jurisdiction along the western bank of the Nueces, and Mexico was exercising it along the eastern bank of the Rio Grande, then neither river was the boundary; but the uninhabited country between the two, was. The extent of our territory in that region depended, not on any treaty-fixed boundary (for no treaty had attempted it) but on revolution. Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable,—most sacred right—a right, which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people that can, may revolutionize, and make their own, of so much of the territory as they inhabit. More than this, a majority of any portion of such people may revolutionize, putting down a minority, intermingled with, or near about them, who may oppose their movement. Such minority was precisely the case of the Tories of our own revolution.[9] It is a quality of revolutions not to go by old lines, or old laws; but to break up both, and make new ones. As to the country now in question, we bought it of France in 1803, and sold it to Spain in 1819, according to the president’s statements.[10] After this, all Mexico, including Texas, revolutionized against Spain; and still later, Texas revolutionized against Mexico. In my view, just so far as she carried her revolution, by obtaining the actual, willing or unwilling, submission of the people, so far, the country was hers, and no farther. Now sir, for the purpose of obtaining the very best evidence, as to whether Texas had actually carried her revolution, to the place where the hostilities of the present war commenced, let the president answer the interrogatories I proposed, as before mentioned, or some other similar ones. Let him answer, fully, fairly, and candidly. Let him answer with facts, and not with arguments. Let him remember he sits where Washington sat, and so remembering, let him answer, as Washington would answer. As a nation should not, and the Almighty will not, be evaded, so let him attempt no evasion—no equivocation. . . .

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 territory; 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 territory, would be to abandon all our just demands, and to wage the war, bearing all its expenses, without a purpose or definite object[.]” So then, the national honor, security of the future, and every thing but territorial indemnity, may be considered the no-purposes, and indefinite, objects of the war! But, having it now settled that territorial indemnity is the only object, we are urged to seize, by legislation here, all that he was content to take, a few months ago, and the whole province of lower California to boot, and to still carry on the war—to take all we are fighting for, and still fight on.

Again, the president is resolved, under all circumstances, to have full territorial indemnity for the expenses of the war; but he forgets to tell us how we are to get the excess, after those expenses shall have surpassed the value of the whole of the Mexican territory. So again, he insists that the separate national existence of Mexico, shall be maintained; but he does not tell us how this can be done, after we shall have taken all her territory. Lest the questions I here suggest be considered speculative merely, let me be indulged a moment in trying [to] show they are not. The war has gone on some twenty months; for the expenses of which, together with an inconsiderable old score, the president now claims about one half of the Mexican territory; and that, by far the better half, so far as concerns our ability to make anything out of it. It is comparatively uninhabited; so that we could establish land offices in it, and raise some money in that way. But the other half is already inhabited, as I understand it, tolerably densely for the nature of the country; and all its lands, or all that are valuable, already appropriated as private property. How then are we to make anything out of these lands with this encumbrance on them? or how, remove the encumbrance? I suppose no one will say we should kill the people, or drive them out, or make slaves of them, or even confiscate their property. How then can we make much out of this part of the territory? If the prosecution of the war has, in expenses, already equaled the better half of the country, how long its future prosecution will be in equaling, the less valuable half, is not a speculative, but a practical question, pressing closely upon us. And yet it is a question which the president seems to never have thought of. As to the mode of terminating the war, and securing peace, the president is equally wandering and indefinite. . . .

Again, it is a singular omission in this message, that it nowhere intimates when the president expects the war to terminate. At its beginning, General Scott was, by this same president, driven into disfavor, if not disgrace, for intimating that peace could not be conquered in less than three or four months.[11] But now, at the end of about twenty months, during which time our arms have given us the most splendid successes—every department, and every part, land and water, officers and privates, regulars and volunteers, doing all that men could do, and hundreds of things which it had ever before been thought men could not do,—after all this, this same president gives us a long message, without showing us that, as to the end, he himself has even an imaginary conception. As I have before said, he knows not where he is. He is a bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man. God grant he may be able to show, there is not something about his conscience, more painful than all his mental perplexity!

  1. 1. That is, members of Polk’s party, the Democratic Party.
  2. 2. Martin Van Buren (1782–1862) served as president from 1837 to 1841. He had been defeated by Polk for the party’s presidential nomination in 1844, in large part because he opposed the annexation of Texas due to the probability of war with Mexico.
  3. 3. Polk’s Annual Message to Congress, or State of the Union Address, December 7, 1847.
  4. 4. The House had approved the declaration that a state of war existed by a vote of 174–14, with John Quincy Adams among those voting no. The vote in the Senate was 40–2, with John C. Calhoun (1782–1850) abstaining. When he was secretary of state in 1844, Calhoun had advocated the annexation of Texas in order to protect slavery, but he feared that the acquisition of territory from Mexico in this fashion would encourage more antislavery agitation.
  5. 5. Representative William Richardson (1811–1875) was a Democratic congressman from Illinois who had served in the Army during the early stages of the war.
  6. 6. The special message to Congress of May 11, 1846, and the Annual Messages of December 8, 1846, and December 7, 1847
  7. 7. Special Message to Congress on Mexican Relations
  8. 8. Lincoln’s “Spot Resolutions.”
  9. 9. The Tories, or Loyalists, those residents of the British colonies who opposed the American Revolution.
  10. 10. The Louisiana Purchase and the Transcontinental Treaty.
  11. 11. General Scott was aligned with the Whig Party, and Polk had attempted to minimize his role in the war so that he would not become too popular politically. Scott ran unsuccessfully for president in 1852.
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