genwscott-engraving
Engraving of Winfield Scott.

Throughout the course of the Mexican-American War, General Winfield Scott was increasingly becoming a hero to Americans. While many Americans looked at Scott’s actions and could only admire him, one man took action to ensure Scott would not have a pristine reputation. That man was President James Polk.

President Polk, who was influenced by Gideon Pillow, came to believe that a Whig war hero, like Scott, posed a significant threat to Democrats. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 791. He vowed to take whatever action was necessary to stop Scott from enjoying a positive reputation.

When Scott enforced a rule “not to publish comments without his approval,” court-martialing Pillow and Colonel James Duncan, President Polk intervened. Id. President Polk set up a “court of inquiry” to conduct an investigation of Scott. Id. Then, Scott was charged “with compromising military operations by an attempt to bribe Santa Anna into making peace,” which was ironic coming from the Polk administration, who attempted to procure a ready-made peace treaty from Santa Anna. See id.

Scott’s soldiers sided with him. Robert E. Lee wrote: “To suspend a successful general in command of an army in the heart of an enemy’s country, [and] to try the judge in place of the accused, is to upset all discipline.” Lee to Sidney Smith Lee, quoted in Charles Dufour, The Mexican War (New York, 1968), 281. Captain George McClellan wrote, “No general ever possessed the hearts of his troops to a greater extent than does Gen. Scott.” McClellan to his mother, March 22, 1848, in Chronicles of the Gringos, ed. George W. Smith and Charles Judah (Albuquerque, N.M., 1968), 440.

The “court of inquiry” served its purpose for President Polk. It continued through the Election of 1848, burying Scott’s chances of being a viable candidate for the Whig Party. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 791. While Congress passed a joint resolution on March 9, 1848 showing appreciation for Scott’s achievements, the damage was done. Id.

President Polk’s insecurities virtually eliminated any chance that the administration would bring together both Whigs and Democrats. The persecution of Scott was ill-advised, to say the least. Scott was not an immediate political threat, by any stretch of the imagination. The Polk administration could not realize this, however, bringing the presidency to the low level of creating a “court of inquiry” to demean Scott’s image. These negative politics only created a toxic political environment that made party divisions deeper between Democrats and Whigs.

Modern Americans should remember that toxic politics have consequences. Setting precedents, like the creation of contrived political bodies to advanced agendas, while perhaps convenient in the moment as a means to an end, can be abused by future generations. That abuse only serves to chip away at the sanctity and dignity of the American government.

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