The Whigs’ Dissent

Representative Alexander Stephens.

Some Americans may suppose that during wartime, partisanship declines and a sense of unity prevails. During the Mexican-American War, this was not the case. The Whigs were vocal in their disagreement with President James Polk and the Democrats.

Abraham Lincoln, then a Whig, called the war one of “conquest fought to catch votes.” Abraham Lincoln, “Speech at Wilmington, Delaware” (June 10, 1848), Collected Works of AL, I, 476. Southern Whigs were united as well. Representative Alexander Stephens of Georgia, in a series of speeches, “decried Polk’s ‘masked design of provoking Mexico to war’ and the administration’s ‘principle that patriotism consists in pliant subserviency to Executive will.'” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 763 quoting Congressional Globe, 29th Cong., 1st sess., 15 (June 16, 1846); id., 2nd sess., 16 (Feb. 12, 1847).

Despite these views, most Whigs voted to provide supplies to the armed forces, continuing to denounce President Polk and his policies. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 763.

One of the best presentations of the Whig point of view was centered on the idea that if the Mexican-American War was unjust, “it would be immoral to use it to force Mexico to cede land to the United States.” Id. at 764. This argument came from the Jeffersonian former Senator, Representative, and Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, then 86 years old. Id.

The Mexican-American War, perhaps by its very nature, would not be a war that unified the country and bring Whigs and Democrats together. The Whigs were unifying their party and positioning themselves to challenge the power of the Democrats.

The Whigs, although in the minority, were on the right side of history. Individuals like Lincoln were starting to change the political discourse to recognize that President Polk and the Democratic Party’s policies were far from unanimous. These circumstances would help form the political landscape leading up to the Civil War.

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