The Reception of the Mexican-American War

Garrett Davis. By: Mathew Brady.

Following President James Polk’s announcement of war with Mexico, and Congress’ declaration of war, those in the Whig Party and those around the country had significantly different views of the war.

A Whig from Kentucky, Garrett Davis, said: “It is our own President who began this war. He has been carrying it on for months.” Congressional Globe, 29th Cong., 1st sess., 794. Many Whigs agreed with Davis, but like Davis, ultimately voted for war. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 742.

John Quincy Adams, the former president and the representative from Massachusetts, would not accede to the Polk administration, however. See id. One of Adams’ Whig cohorts in the House of Representatives, Luther Severance of Maine, stated: “It is on Mexican soil that blood has been shed,” and for the Mexicans’ brave resistance, he said, the Mexicans should be “honored and applauded.” Quoted in Charles Sellers, James K. Polk, Continentalist (Princeton, 1966), 421.

John Calhoun, the fervent proslavery Senator from South Carolina, “could not agree to make war on Mexico by making war on the Constitution.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 742 quoting Ernest Lender, Reluctant Imperialists: Calhoun, the South Carolinians, and the Mexican War (Baton Rouge, 1984), 6-10, 62-63. Calhoun’s concern was that further expansion of the country into California and New Mexico would not lead to a concomitant extension of slavery to those territories. With that being the case, he was fundamentally opposed to President Polk’s course of action.

Dissent was not confined to Congress. Lieutenant Colonel Ethan Hitchcock, on the front lines with General Zachary Taylor, wrote in his diary: “We have not one particle of right to be here. . . . It looks as if the government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have a pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses.” Journal entry for March 26, 1846, in Ethan Allan Hitchcock, Fifty Years in Camp and Field, ed. W.A. Croffut (New York, 1909), 213.

President Polk’s cabinet, on the other hand, was largely for the war. With General Taylor in Mexican territory, the question for the Polk administration was whether the administration should send a war message to Congress or wait for Taylor to be attacked. Only George Bancroft, the Secretary of the Navy, voted to wait for an attack on Taylor. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 741.

Despite all of this, President Polk’s message was clear. An excerpt is as follows:

“The cup of forbearance had been exhausted even before the recent information from the frontier of the [Rio Grande] Del Norte. But now, after reiterated menaces, Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil. . . . War exists, and, notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it, exists by the act of Mexico herself . . . I invoke the prompt action of Congress to recognize the existence of the war, and to place at the disposal of the Executive the means of prosecuting the war with vigor, and thus hastening the restoration of peace.” Presidential Messages, IV, 442-43.

President Polk’s actions show the extent of power that a president enjoys in conducting and shaping America’s foreign policy. Even the flow of information, such as what is happening on the front lines, goes through the filter of a president.

Perhaps for the first time in American history, America had manufactured a war with another country. There was no imminent threat posed, there was no necessity, and there was no real justification. Critics of President Polk were keen to point these issues out. Nonetheless, despite the awareness of President Polk manufacturing this war, and despite his detractors, the war occurred.

In one respect, this reflects the strength that America was beginning to show in the region. No longer was America the modest group of states that managed to survive Britain’s attacks. America had become a country that was on the attack.

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