A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico, by Amy S. Greenberg, Knopf, 344 pages, $30.
President James K. Polk was a charmless workaholic who suffered from chronic diarrhea and launched the invasion of Mexico, setting off what Ulysses S. Grant called, with excusable hyperbole, the most "wicked war" ever waged. Starting an unjust war elevated Polk to "near great" status in those Schlesinger polls by which court historians reward warmarkers and punish the peaceful.
The best narrative historians refashion William Carlos Williams's dictum "No ideas but in things" as "No ideas but through persons"; that is, they convey history, and the contending ideas therein, through vivid portraiture. In her absorbing and valuable A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico, Penn State's Amy S. Greenberg does a splendid job of vivifying this disgraceful episode in American history by following the fortunes of five men (Polk, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, John J. Hardin, and Nicholas Trist) and their families.
The West was considerably more hawkish toward Mexico than was New England, which, as with the War of 1812 and the Spanish-American War, mongered peace. Henry David Thoreau even spent a night in jail protesting the war. But Greenberg's subjects are all men of the South or the West, beginning with Whig Party eminence Henry Clay, lover of "gambling, whiskey, and women," and the Sage of Ashland, his showplace Kentucky estate (worked by 50 slaves).
As speaker of the House, Clay had cawed as loudly as any warhawk in 1812, though in later years he tied his reputation to his "American System" of federally subsidized development. As the presumptive nominee of the Whig Party for president in 1844, he came out against adding Texas to the Union, explaining that "annexation and war with Mexico are identical." Stated Clay: "I regard all wars as great calamities...and honorable peace as the wisest and truest policy of this country."
Clay's rival, ex-president Matty Van Buren, the Sage of Kinderhook (every American town once had its sage), also opposed inviting the Lone Star Republic into the United States. This position crippled his bid for the Democratic nomination, which went instead to James K. Polk, another former Speaker of the House. Polk's chief asset, according to Greenberg, was his stylish and self-possessed wife Sarah, a shrewd assesser of the political scene and abettor of her husband's fortunes.
The Texas-craving Polk edged Clay, despite the latter's backtracking on annexation during the campaign. (This malleable man earned his surname.) Bowing to the election returns, the Senate voted to add Texas to the Union just days before Polk took the keys to the White House from the friendless constitutionalist John Tyler, "His Accidency," a Jeffersonian upon whom Greenberg is too hard.
The dour new president was a Manifest Destinarian, a land-grabbing expansionist like so many Southern and Western Democrats, many of them otherwise advocates of a limited central government. Meanwhile, the Whigs, who preached Clay's American System of a national bank, high tariffs, and federally funded internal improvements, were inclined to peace and often skeptical of the helter-skelter distention of the republic. Even then, the two-party system forced liberty-minded voters to flip a coin.
Polk, who had pledged to serve but one term, entered the White House with "big plans and poor people skills," writes Greenberg. His avaricious eye was on Mexican territory. Texas was the nexus.
By asserting that Texas's southern border was the Rio Grande and not the Nueces River, and by ordering General Zachary Taylor to march his 4,000 men to the Rio Grande—into Mexican-claimed territory—President Polk more or less guaranteed a war with Mexico. (To Polk's annoyance, the war catapulted the Whig Taylor, "Old Rough and Ready," into the White House at the next election.)
The Mexican War featured several battles (Monterey, Buena Vista, Veracruz) containing the usual mix of valor and cowardice, baseness and nobility, and at which reputations were made for acts which from a distance of years savor of the the pyritical (not to mention piratical). It was naked aggression in the service of expansion, of mindless growth (the ideology of the cancer cell, as Edward Abbey used to say), but a supine Congress consented. House debate over Polk's war—sanction for which was attached to a measure funding the soldiers in the field; even then knees went weak upon hearing Support the Troops—was limited, outrageously, to two hours. Only "the immortal fourteen," most famously ex-president John Quincy Adams, voted against Polk's war in the House, while just two senators were brave enough to shout Nay.
The jingo press screeched for blood. The Illinois State Register, for instance, editorialized that Mexicans "are reptiles in the path of progressive democracy." Mexicans were said to be dirty, barbarous, and bewitched by an alien religion.
But not all Illinoisians ached to go abroad in search of reptiles to slay. Greenberg profiles Abraham Lincoln, an admirer of Clay, and John J. Hardin, Clay's step-nephew. Exuding confidence the way other men drip sweat, the elegant patrician Hardin was bound for glory. Then war got in the way.
Hardin and Lincoln were friends, at least until Lincoln proposed that he, former Rep. Hardin, and current Rep. Edward Baker play a round robin with their Illlinois congressional seat. Hardin, contemplating a return to Congress, demurred, and when Lincoln grabbed for the ring in 1846 the affronted gentleman withdrew. Lincoln's ambition, as his law partner Billy Herndon said, was an "engine that knew no rest." The engine ran right over Hardin, who never spoke to Lincoln again.
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