At the end of the Mexican-American War, President James Polk proposed taking as much as Mexico’s land as possible. However, he proposed this plan to a majority Whig House of Representatives.
The Whigs had no interest in agreeing with the Democrats or President Polk’s policies. A “lanky congressman from Springfield, Illinois named Abraham Lincoln” presented the strongest opposition to President Polk’s plan. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 796-97.
As a freshman congressman, Lincoln introduced “a set of resolutions challenging Polk’s claim that the war began on U.S. soil,” to be known as Lincoln’s “spot resolutions.” Id. at 797. He made the following points: “The spot where the armed clash took place had been an acknowledged part of New Spain and Mexico since the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819, the local population recognized no allegiance to the United States and fled before [Zachary] Taylor’s approach, and the U.S. citizens whose blood the Mexicans shed were soldiers in an invading army.” Id. citing “‘Spot’ Resolutions in the House of Representatives,” Collected Works of AL, I, 420-22; Congressional Globe, 30th Cong., 1st sess., 95 (internal quotations omitted).
The House of Representatives ultimately did not adopt Lincoln’s spot resolutions, but he had garnered the support of Whigs and had shown his leadership qualities. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 797.
Meanwhile, President Polk insisted that the longer Mexico went without signing a peace treaty, the more land would need to be ceded to America. See id. at 798. President Polk had his eyes on Baja California, after having already negotiated in 1846 an agreement “for the Isthmus of Panama with the government of New Grenada.” Id.
Lincoln, on January 12, 1848, gave a speech, indicting President Polk for his actions. An excerpt from his manuscript follows:
“It is a singular omission in this message, that it, no where intimates when the President expects the war to terminate. At it’s beginning, Genl. 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. But now, at the end of about twenty months, during which time our arms have given us the most splendid successes . . . this same President gives us a long message, without showing us, that as to the end, he himself, has, even an immaginary conception. . . . He is a bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man.” “The War with Mexico,” Collected Works, I, 431-42; spelling, punctuation, and italics are original.
As President Polk’s reputation was being denigrated, Lincoln was enjoying a meteoric rise in popularity. He was becoming one of the most articulate Whigs, but he was also emerging as a true leader in Congress.
The attacks on President Polk’s policies ensured that the Democrats would struggle to deal with the repercussions of the Mexican-American War, and particularly President Polk’s conduct during the war. The Whigs capitalized from these circumstances and positioned themselves ahead of the Democrats, tapping into the fatigue of many Americans with the Polk administration’s policies. As the 1840s were coming to a close and the Election of 1848 was approaching, the Whigs had the political advantage. The Whigs owed this advantage in large part to leaders like Lincoln.