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His heart stirred by the martial drumbeat, Hardin led the First Illinois Regiment into Mexico. Before seeing up close the ugly realities of war, he was given to such guff as "I start to seek my destiny beyond the Rio Grande." Three months in country and Hardin was opining of Mexico that "there is not an acre in 500 that a man in Illinois would pay taxes on."
Hardin's law partner, David A. Smith, chose the wiser course, writing the destiny-seeker, "I would not give the glory and gain of spending one week quietly at home with my wife and children for all the laurels, honor, and enchantments of whatever name or nature that you or...Old Rough & ready will reap on the fields of Mexico." This was a fine example of that preference for the domestic over the exotic which marks the old, and mostly faded, American anti-militarist tradition. In any event, the destiny Hardin found was his own mortality. He fell at the Battle of Buena Vista, where he rallied his men by shouting, "Remember Illinois and give them Blizzard, boys!" But Illinois, so poignantly invoked in Hardin's last moments, was decidedly not what he was fighting for, any more than today's enlistees from Morgan County are fighting for Illinois in Afghanistan.
Abe Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846, less than a month after John J. Hardin boarded a steamer for the war. "Hardin's death," notes Greenberg, "vastly improved" Lincoln's "political prospects." For "had Hardin lived," she writes, "Lincoln would have been overshadowed." Less than two decades later, more than half a million American boys and their bereaved families would have reason to regret Hardin's "pointless death."
The congressional backbencher Lincoln had been in Washington less than a month before he rose to denounce Polk's war. Greenberg attributes Lincoln's lack of enthusiasm for expansion to the examples of "his unlucky father and shiftless stepbrother, who were constantly moving from place to place": boomers instead of stickers, to use Wallace Stegner's terms.
This was Lincoln's finest—certainly his most pacific—hour, though his censures of Polk were consistent with the changing mood of the country. Men were returning without their limbs, their wits, their morals. The homefolks were appalled.
Ralph Waldo Emerson prophesied that "The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man who swallows the arsenic, which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us." Emerson's forecast echoed half a century later in William Graham Sumner's classic essay "The Conquest of the United States by Spain," in which the anti-imperialist Sumner prophesied the corrosive effect of the Spanish-American War on the American soul.
As the war dragged on and families received uncensored letters from brothers and husbands and sons providing "vivid reports of overcrowded, unsanitary camps" and general turpitude, the homefront grumbled. Impatience can be a virtue, and sentiment grew to conclude the war and reunite the parted. To the architects of empire, the life of Johnny Smith meant nothing; to his family, however, Johnny was irreplaceable, and it was time that damned Polk sent him home.
The newspapers now carried stomach-turning stories of the "atrocities" committed by American soldiers against Mexican civilians. General Winfield Scott wrote the secretary of war that "Murder, robbery & rape of mothers & daughters...have been common all along the Rio Grande." And here enters Greenberg's unsung hero, the disobedient diplomat Nicholas Trist. Suave, handsome, tutored in law by Thomas Jefferson, whose private secretary he was and whose granddaughter he wed—these early luminaries sure married well—Trist ought to have had a brilliant career.
Confirmed bachelor James Buchanan, Polk's secretary of state, recommended that the president send Trist, his department's chief clerk, to parley for peace with Mexico—a peace that would leave Mexico in pieces, as Polk coveted the Southwest both for its own sake and as lebensraum for slavery. On paper, the selection made perfect sense. Trist was a Democrat, he spoke Spanish, and he had no obvious anti-expansion tics. But, writes Greenberg, Trist shared two traits with grandfather-in-law Jefferson: "the conviction that he was smarter than almost everyone else, and an innate distrust of war." This second, especially, is a curse to the ambitious.
Irritated to learn, too late, that Trist was less than rapacious, Polk fired him. Trist ignored the pink slip. He hadn't come all the way to Mexico just to slink back home, treaty-less. He set himself the task of conscientiously carrying out his mission despite his new conviction that the war was "a thing for every right-minded American to be ashamed of."
The most perfervid expansionists whooped for "All Mexico!" By comparison, Polk was a moderate freebooter, and Trist a virtual desert father of abnegation. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which Trist negotiated and Polk reluctantly accepted, established the Rio Grande as the Texas-Mexico border and paid Mexico $15 million for vast lands including California (but not Baja California, to Polk's dismay).
Trist followed a "heroic plot line," says Greenberg. Perhaps, though her claim that "Polk got California, but it was the antiwar movement that conquered a peace" is overstated. Under a truly just peace, the anti-expansionists would have won the day.
The Mexican War scathed each of Greenberg's subjects—save one.
James K. Polk died just three months after leaving office. He joined the 40,000 or so Americans and Mexicans whose deaths he was responsible for.
Henry Clay lost his son, Lt. Col. Henry Clay Jr., who had been the only child of his spectacularly ill-starred family to have escaped catastrophe: Two brothers were in bedlam, and all six sisters died young. Fighting with the Second Kentucky Volunteers, Clay Jr. fell at Buena Vista. He was hailed as a martyr, but his father wasn't buying it. "That consolation would be greater," said the senior Clay, "if I did not believe that this Mexican War was unnecessary and of an aggressive character."