America's War with Mexico

A new book paints a vivid picture of the Mexican War and the men who made it.


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.

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."

As for Trist the refractory diplomat, his political career was finished, though after the next war President Grant tossed him the sinecure of postmaster of Alexandria, Virginia.

Freed of the shadow of John J. Hardin, Illinois congressman Lincoln strode into deityhood. He alone of Greenberg's subjects prospered postwar.

Clay, Lincoln, Trist, as well as the even more forthright dissenters not discussed in this fine book—Ohio Whig Sen. Thomas Corwin, poet James Russell Lowell—reproach our timid age. As Greenberg says, they teach us that "patriotism, in early 1848, required something other than mindless consent to an endless war."

When will we ever relearn?