Dissent Between Two Presidents

James Buchanan.

Leading up to President James Polk’s May 13, 1846 announcement of the Mexican-American War, tension arose between President Polk and the Secretary of State, James Buchanan.


At the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, President Polk’s ambition of expanding America’s borders was thinly veiled. As such, Secretary Buchanan, who would later become president himself, suggested that President Polk include in his announcement a statement that the Mexican-American War’s purpose was not to acquire territory. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 743.

Secretary Buchanan thought that this would be wise, considering the fact that Britain and France may intervene in stopping America from acquiring California. See id.

President Polk, however, “immediately rejected the advice.” Id. He described in his diary:

“I told him that though we had not gone to war for conquest, yet it was clear that in making peace we would if practicable obtain California and such other portion of the Mexican territory as would be sufficient to indemnify our claimants on Mexico, and to defray the expenses of the war which that power by her long continued wrongs and injuries had forced us to wage. I told him it was well known that the Mexican Government had no other means of indemnifying us. . . . I was much astonished at the views expressed by Mr. Buchanan.” James K. Polk, Diary, I, 397-99 (May 13, 1846).

This exchange between President Polk and Secretary Buchanan reveals the extent to which President Polk was set on expanding America’s territory and the lengths that he would go to in doing so. Secretary Buchanan was not proposing a rash tactic. Rather, it was a safeguard against provoking further conflict, at a time when America was bringing itself into war.

Further, this exchange also illustrates the divide amongst Democrats in 1846, which would only deepen as the 1840s and 1850s progressed. The unified Jacksonian Democrats of the 1820s and 1830s were disappearing, partly because of sectionalism, but also because the party was straying from its once firmly-established principles. That straying led to a weakening in unified policy decisions, making the party as a whole frail and ripe for being politically displaced and outmaneuvered.

By the end of the 1850s, the Republican Party would form and come to be a formidable force in challenging the Democratic Party’s policies. That metaphorical tug-of-war continues to the present day, with no signs of letting up.

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