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The War With Mexico, Volume I (of 2) By Justin H. Smith Characters: 48183

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In the United States a strong feeling against the dominant elements in Mexico had been created by events that did not directly concern us. The atrocious massacres perpetrated at Goliad and the Alamo during the Texan struggle for independence made an indelible impression on the public mind. Said Buchanan on the floor of the American Senate: "I shall never forget the deep, the heart-rending sensations of sorrow and of indignation" which pervaded this body when we first heard of Santa Anna's "inhuman butcheries." The decimating of Texan prisoners for trying to escape from their guards, as they had a perfect right to do, and the cruelties, or at least excessive hardships, which they were made to suffer in confinement, deepened the feeling. The official threats of ruthless war and even extermination against the Texans, and the belief that Indians were incited to fall upon their women and children, sharpened it still more. In 1844 one Sentmanat went from New Orleans to Tabasco on a revolutionary mission but was unsuccessful; and his party surrendered to the Mexican leader, General Ampudia, on the promise of good treatment. Most of the men, however, were shot; the rest of them disappeared in prison; Sentmanat was summarily executed; and his head, fried in oil to make it last longer, became the chief decoration of the public square at San Juan Bautista.[1]

Such acts-naturally though incorrectly supposed to represent the character of the Mexican, and linked with the apparent cowardice of Santa Anna and his army in the Texan war of independence-caused the nation in whose name they were perpetrated to be looked upon by not a few Americans as a nest of poisonous reptiles, fit only to be stamped upon. Referring to one of the Texan outrages, the Indiana State Sentinel exclaimed: "Should that blustering, cowardly nation ever have the temerity to declare war against the United States, think you not that the remembrance of such scenes will make every soldier feel himself 'thrice armed'?" When people of our own became the victims, when they were robbed and deported without cause on the shores of the Pacific, when they were shot without trial at Tampico, when they were threatened with the death of pirates for joining the Texans, and especially when the newspapers told how Americans among the Santa Fe prisoners were insulted, abused and forced to work in chains on the road to Santa Anna's palace, so that he might feast his cruel, cowardly eyes upon their sufferings, fury burned like a flame in many a heart. Time appeased the fire, but in 1846 the embers were still red.[1]


With less poignant but no less real indignation the American public noted in a general way the entire long series of our grievances: our flag insulted, our minister traduced and threatened, our consuls maltreated, our government officially maligned, agreements broken, treaties ignored or violated, citizens persecuted and imprisoned, property confiscated, trade hampered and ruined, complaints more or less politely mocked, positive demands adroitly evaded, valid claims fraudulently defeated; and heard that such offences were not merely committed now and then, but repeated over and over again with apparent deliberation and malice. The highest Mexican authorities were found encouraging prejudice and ill-will against our citizens, exerting themselves to make foreign nations distrust and hate us, misrepresenting our efforts to conciliate them, and describing our honest wish to be on friendly terms as hypocrisy and craft. Our people saw the legitimate results of Mexican misgovernment charged against this country; proceedings of our authorities, fully warranted by the facts, protested against; threats of war freely made to influence our national conduct; and measures looking toward hostilities openly advocated and adopted in the most offensive manner. Just how fully the details were noted by the public, and how long the incidents were remembered, it would obviously be impossible to say; but in all probability they sank into the general consciousness, and produced a certain state of mind.

In February, 1847, the Virginia House of Delegates declared that the war had been "most unrighteously provoked ... by a long series of acts of injustice and outrage towards the United States," and this is only one of almost countless equivalent expressions, which no doubt were fairly sincere.[2]

On the other hand certain factors tended to neutralize our indignation. There was a disposition, traceable to natural good-heartedness, political expediency and commercial interests, to maintain friendly relations with our neighbor. Much of what seemed like misconduct was attributed to circumstances. We had a rather conceited notion that Mexicans could not be expected to know very much or do very well. More or less faintly the idea glimmered, that perhaps it was easy for them to misunderstand the Texas affair, and natural for them to be angry about it. Many felt inclined on general principles to suspect that our aggrieved citizens were not entirely exempt from blame. Money was used by the agents of Mexico to influence our press. Domestic politics warped public opinion in her favor sometimes; and finally the anti-slavery people went great lengths in championing her government and accusing their own, for every suggestion of war upon Mexico was suspected of aiming at the acquisition of territory and the reinforcement of a hated institution.[3]

The northeastern states, on account of the strong anti-slavery sentiment existing there, were not a little disposed to heed these influences, but elsewhere they signified much less, and were quite unable to offset the prevalent feeling that Mexico had insulted, outraged and cheated us, and the growing conviction that, in dealing with her, forbearance had proved to be a mistake. As early as 1830 Count Lillers wrote from New Orleans: It would be "impossible" to speak of Mexico with "more bitterness and desire of vengeance than is done by certain persons whose words must not be neglected," and by 1837 many agreed with Jackson that satisfaction ought to be required; yet nothing positive was done, and the impatience grew. The lenity of our authorities began to be denounced, and the New Orleans Picayune in particular attacked what it called "the known imbecility which has for years marked our government at home as regards its external relations with Mexico."[4]

The proceedings of her claims commissioners had a signally bad effect. "The conduct of the Mexican government towards the American claimants under the treaty between the two countries," declared the Picayune, "has been the most infamously perfidious ever practised by one country and submitted to by another." "Many earnest remonstrances and complaints," wrote Webster, our secretary of state, officially to the Mexican commissioners, have been made to me against your proceedings and those of your government in this affair; and though he refrained from expressing any opinion as to the justice of them, such a declaration was evidence of an indignation both deep and general. At the same time fresh grievances accumulated; and the Mexicans, instead of showing any appreciation of what our people regarded as kindness toward them, appeared even less willing to grant effectual redress than ten or fifteen years before. "Forbearance and lenity toward such creatures," protested the Jeffersonian Republican of New Orleans in August, 1845, "are all lost and worse than lost," for they are thought signs of weakness, and lead to greater atrocities.[5]

The decision of Herrera's administration to reject Slidell, our minister of peace, was generally regarded-except by the partisan opponents of our government-as a crowning proof of the vanity of forbearance and a loud call for action. This nation, said the St. Louis Republican, "owes it to herself and her character, and the just appreciation of her ministers and her standing in all foreign countries not to suffer so open an insult to her representative to pass unnoticed." "The indignity to our Minister requires atonement," was the crisper utterance of the Picayune, which was widely recognized as the best informed authority on Mexican affairs among our newspapers. The revolution of Paredes appeared to be a further evidence of hostility. The government of Mexico, observed the Delta of New Orleans, has been overthrown with no pretext except the necessity of active war against the United States; so let war be waged. Finally, the definitive rejection of our peace overture, announced in Castillo's defiant and offensive note, supplied a conclusive argument in the opinion of many against further hesitation. "We have borne and forborne long enough, and a resolute stand should be taken at once," was the comment of the Missouri Reporter. "The United States," declared the New Orleans Commercial Bulletin, "have borne more insult, abuse, insolence and injury, from Mexico, than one nation ever before endured from another ... they are now left no alternative but to extort by arms the respect and justice which Mexico refuses to any treatment less harsh."[6]


Another consideration that intensified public sentiment was the suspicion, which in many cases deepened into something more, that she was to be used against us by the monarchies of Europe, and in particular by Great Britain. In 1842, when she made forays into Texas and threatened a serious invasion, it became a very prevalent opinion in the United States, reported the Mexican consul at New Orleans, that England stood behind these movements; and later that country was justly believed to be working in Texas to defeat and injure us. Her influence at Mexico was understood to be powerful; and the Americans, not aware what elements of strength Mexico felt able to count upon, thought she certainly would not defy us unless assured of foreign support. "Our people are prone to the opinion, whether well or ill-founded," said the Commonwealth of Lexington, Kentucky, in February, 1846, "that that ambitious and mischievous government [of Great Britain] is at the bottom of Mexican hostility towards us." This was provocation enough. "To fight the Britishers, all the States are one," complained the London Times, and on this point it was doubtless much closer to the fact than in most of its deliverances on American affairs.[7]

England was not supposed to be alone, however. Our people understood that France had co?perated with her against the annexation of Texas, and not a few suspected her of pursuing the same course to bring about the rejection of Slidell and the anti-American revolution of Paredes. In February, 1846, the Courrier des Etats Unis of New York, which could be regarded as of considerable importance, made this rather startling announcement: "The latest intelligence from Mexico leaves no doubt that the new Government of that country is resolved to reject all peaceful overtures from the United States and solicit the intervention of European powers to obtain from the Union indemnification for the loss of Texas and a boundary line under the protecting guaranty of France and Great Britain. We know personally that this was an idea entertained by General Almonte when he left New York, on his return to Mexico, where he now occupies an influential place in the government." The statement that Almonte expressed such a view early in 1845 must have become known somewhat widely, for apparently it signified much; and the scheme could not fail to give offence to as many of our people as heard of it. Even more disagreeable were the plans for a European monarchy now looming up so boldly south of the Rio Grande, for they defied the "Monroe Doctrine," and threatened to bring some great power-perhaps more than one-directly into the lists against us. During February, 1846, the New Orleans papers, especially the Picayune, invited the attention of the country vigorously to this phase of the situation.[8]

All things considered, it seemed imperative to stop drifting, and to settle our affairs with Mexico before the monarchs of Europe could mature plans to injure us; and evidently, from that point of view, no further delay could be afforded. At this time, therefore, the people of the southwest, the region most deeply interested in the situation and consequently best entitled to speak, demanded very seriously and very positively a definitive adjustment of our relations with Mexico. As matters were, the thought of armies and privateers appearing on the horizon as the first announcement of war hardly allowed nervous people to sleep. Actual fighting, it was often argued, would be less injurious than passive hostility with its threats and possibilities. The desirability of Mexican friendship on the score of commercial and political interests was not forgotten, but many believed that good relations could not be had without first giving her a lesson. Finally, urged the Picayune with reference to the monarchical designs of Paredes, it was now the most critical time since the Spanish colonies had revolted; the future of republicanism and the independence of America were at stake; and as matters stood, European powers had the battlefield, Mexico, wholly to themselves.[9]

These broad views were strongly supported by more limited and often by less justifiable ones. The trade interests of the entire Mississippi valley required not only to be freed from danger, but also to have the plan of non-intercourse, which Mexico had practically put into force, given up. A Mexican army would march into Texas, it was remarked, "as avowed abolitionists," and slaveholders may naturally have preferred to meet this peril in the enemy's territory. Political considerations of a personal sort, and one especially, doubtless had an influence. Calhoun, the dominant figure of the South, contemplating a possible withdrawal from the Union, desired the people of that section to husband their strength. "We need our young men for other troubles," he said with reference to their fighting Mexico. Besides, he naturally could not welcome a great disturbance that would interfere necessarily with his plans, and lead to political results of an unpredictable sort. Now there were men, particularly in Mississippi, by no means unwilling to embarrass and possibly unhorse that overshadowing leader by forcing him to antagonize a popular movement; and a war with Mexico seemed obviously well-suited for such a purpose.[10]


A wish to extend the Union was undoubtedly a factor.[11] As the American Review said, Burr had planted in the lower Mississippi valley the seeds of ambition for southern conquest, and the soil proved very fit for their germination and growth.[12] As early as 1830 the British consul at New Orleans believed the people would support an attack upon the territory of Mexico. In 1835 a French visitor of some prominence concluded that every American held two ideas firmly: that our prosperity resulted from our republican institutions, and that Providence intended the new world for the Anglo-Saxon. In 1843 Captain Elliot, mistaking an instinct for a determination, felt satisfied that the United States had resolved to push south. By 1845 the appetite for more territory was pronounced. "There appears to be no limit to the insatiable lust of territorial acquisition which pervades the minds of many of our citizens," lamented the New Orleans Tropic. When the annexation of Texas appeared to be certain, the New York Morning News exclaimed, "Who's the next customer, California or Canada?" To this question the Tribune replied, that its neighbor had tasted blood and growled for more. No, we don't growl, retorted the News; more "will come soon enough-come of its own accord," for our destiny is to possess the whole continent. Believers in this convenient theory felt bound to go forward, and should Mexico oppose the decree of Heaven, so much the worse for her.[13]

Behind our voracity and largely responsible for it were a restlessness and a dissatisfaction resulting from energies that found no adequate outlet. In all parts of the country this was the case. As a people "we are restless, fidgety, discontented, anxious for excitement," confessed the New York Herald. In Illinois times were hard. Every attempt at commercial or industrial enterprise had failed; farmers could not sell their crops at paying rates; with boundless force in heart and brain the young man could find nothing worth while to do. The state of mind in other parts of that section appears to have been similar. Indiana gave up all attempts to pay interest on her debt as early as 1840. All over the western border, said the American Review, "are great numbers of bold and restless spirits, men gathered out of all the orderly and civilized portions of society as its most turbulent members, and ready for any enterprise that can minister to their reckless manner of life and love of danger and of change;" and the West was already powerful in our national affairs. "Our people," wrote Calhoun, "are like a young man of 18, full of health and vigour, and disposed for adventure of any description."[14]


Such an intoxication of animal vitality demanded a fight, of course. "The multitude cry aloud for war," admitted the New York Herald in August, 1845. "Nine-tenths of our people, ceteris paribus, would rather have a little fighting than not," was the opinion of its neighbor, the Morning News. "let us go to war," began a leader in the New York Journal of Commerce; "The world has become stale and insipid, the ships ought to be all captured, and the cities battered down, and the world burned up, so that we can start again. There would be fun in that. Some interest,-something to talk about." If such was the feeling in a high latitude, it must have burned hot at the south; and the young men of the Mississippi valley had special reasons for their ardor. The region of western Tennessee had been settled by revolutionary soldiers, and they had left a rich inheritance of military traditions. Jackson towered above all other figures at the southwest, and his chief distinction was that of the sword. Everybody talked still of the war of 1812 and his brilliant exploit at New Orleans. Indeed, when the mind wearied of the continual hunting, there was little else to fasten its eye upon. Military glory became the young man's dream. All aspired to be soldiers, and to win renown by fighting for their country. This was their inborn and incessantly cultivated ambition; and it need not be added that all the young ladies felt that only a military hero, or at least the makings of such a hero, deserved their attention.[15]

Reasons enough why this feeling concentrated upon Mexico have already been given, but certain others are in order here. That "is indeed the garden spot of the Americas and presents allurements more tempting than did the sunny plains and vineyards of Italy, when the northern hordes swept down and drifted like a snowstorm over the south of Europe"-such was the picture of "that magnificent region" held up by the Commercial Bulletin of New Orleans before thousands of young sparks bored nearly to death by the commonplace. Besides, greatly exaggerated notions of Mexico's wealth got abroad. Young fellows overstocked with energy were not willing to hoe corn at five shillings a day, or dig potatoes for every tenth bushel when the mountains of a near and hostile country were understood to be packed with silver, and her churches to be radiant with diamonds and gold. Stronger than all else, perhaps, the vague but romantic idea of "revelling in the halls of the Montezumas" exercised a perfect fascination. A letter from New York published in August, 1845, declared that fully twenty thousand volunteers could be raised in that city alone "without fee or reward, who would jump at the chance of marching to Mexico" simply to enjoy this diversion. In short, said the New York Morning News, all the "young and ardent spirits that throng the cities and are spread over the face of the Union want but a direction to their restless energies, and their attention is already fixed on Mexico."[16]

What made this outlook peculiarly inviting was the belief that only one bold, swift dash would be needed-no dull, plodding, grimy campaigning year after year. Six sevenths of the people in Mexico were said to be Indians, half-breeds and negroes-"mere slaves," and the rest of them degenerate Spaniards; and the keepers of that paradise, the guardians of those treasures, were represented as "a feeble and degraded soldiery, who would be scattered like chaff by the first volley from the Anglo-Saxon rifle, the first charge of the Anglo-Saxon bayonet." "An adventure full of fun and frolic and holding forth the rewards of opulence and glory," was therefore the Commercial Bulletin's golden picture of a war with Mexico, and such became the common idea.[17]

In the summer of 1845 this magnificent dream of sport, glory and opulence appeared to be on the point of realization, and the war spirit flamed high. Even journals that had stood firmly against annexing Texas took fire. "What more inspiring strain can strike the ears of freemen," demanded the Richmond Enquirer, "than the trumpet note which summons our people to the punishment of tyrants?... We utterly mistake the spirit of republicanism in America, if there be not one voice for a full and thorough chastisement of Mexican arrogance and folly." The prospect of "coercing" out of Mexico her "spirit of depredation, perfidy and aggression" and thus inaugurating the sweet and commercially profitable reign of peace excited hot zeal. West of the Alleghanies the feeling was peculiarly strong. At Nashville the Union promised that "any number" of volunteers the government might call for would be forthcoming. At St. Louis, in the opinion of the Reveille, only a prospect of service in the field was needed to induce "the most active volunteering" among the "enthusiastic population." "Go where you will," recorded the Picayune, "'tis war and nothing but war;" and Buchanan wrote, "You can have no adequate conception of the military ardor which exists" in the west and southwest; "It will be easy to bring 100,000 volunteers into the field from those States."[18]

When Mexico seemed to be slow about striking, the New York Morning News declared that "a feeling of disappointment" began to be shown by the public, though still, it added, "At every spring of the whelp, at every mail from the Gulf, the national pulse moves quicker." When the prospect of immediate hostilities appeared to be over, the Mobile Herald and Tribune announced, "After all the visions of glory and honor which have been dancing through the popular brain for the last six months" nothing has been done. But in reality something had been done. Such a state of passion could not simply go out of existence, especially since the causes of it still remained. The people had become yet more thoroughly inoculated with the idea of fighting Mexico, and the country had not advanced far into the new year 1846 before all were again talking about it, said a Mississippi journal. "Sunday editors" in particular, it added, "shriek out 'War! War! War!'" Will Polk be able to withstand the clamor? asked the Memphis Enquirer; "We fear not." The final rejection of Slidell naturally intensified the martial feeling. "The almost unanimous voice of the American people," wrote even Governor Hammond of South Carolina, insisted upon war. So much for the attitude of the public.[19]


Turning now to the attitude of the government, we are told at once that Polk deliberately intended to attack Mexico, and are offered various reasons for so believing. One accuser says that he was ambitious for personal glory; another, that he desired to perpetuate the powe

r of his party; a third, that he felt anxious to cover up the humiliating result of the Oregon negotiation; still another, that he wished to be re?lected; and more than one allege that he was determined to obtain California. For this last view there is just evidence enough to create a suspicion. For example, Bancroft remarked more than forty years after the event that Polk said the acquisition of that province would be one of his aims, and this remark has been cited as if it proved the charge. But there was not the slightest impropriety in his desiring an immensely valuable territory that Webster had endeavored a few years before to acquire, and in 1845 Bancroft himself represented the President's feeling toward Mexico as "most conciliatory." Indeed, after the conflict had begun, Bancroft wrote privately to Samuel Hooper, "We were driven reluctantly to war."[20]

Again, certain facts are cited and aligned: Polk wanted California, a war occurred, and he promptly took advantage of the war to occupy the desired territory. But the existence of several points in line does not prove the existence of a path connecting them, and there is weighty evidence against the suspicion which these facts naturally excite. While directing Slidell to obtain the cession of northern California, if he could, Buchanan intimated, as we have seen, that he should not press this matter, if so doing would prevent the restoration of amicable relations with Mexico. In other words, instead of desiring to precipitate a war for the sake of obtaining California, Polk was ready to let California go-or at least wait-for the sake of maintaining peace. Besides, as we shall find when we come to the operations on the western coast, Polk had a policy for the acquisition of that region, and this policy did not contemplate war. With nothing solid to stand upon, then, and much to stand against, this theory must be given up.[20]

The other explanations of Polk's alleged intention to fight Mexico are evidently mere conjectures, and prove nothing. The idea that contracts and offices could strengthen the administration and build up the party is mainly, or perhaps entirely, fallacious. There were not enough to satisfy more than a small percentage of the hungry patriots, and the rest were likely to take offence. Moreover, if given to Democrats, these favors could make no converts; while if given to Whigs, the Democrats were sure to complain, and few of the recipients could change their party for such a reason. Many of Polk's chief troubles, as his diary shows, came from dissatisfied applicants for commissions, and any person well versed in public affairs could have foreseen that it would be so.[21] And yet, after all, the charge that he purposely brought on the war has been so commonly believed, or at least so frequently repeated, that it can fairly demand a more extended examination.[22]


First of all, then, we must form an estimate of Polk. For this purpose his diary is extremely useful. No doubt, like other documents of the sort, it colors some things and omits others; but so extremely busy a man could not have practised systematic misrepresentation in his daily record without hopelessly enmeshing and entangling himself and incurring the risk of detection at many points, while-occupying, as he did, a position where his every word and act were noted by others-he would have exposed himself often to documentary refutation. Besides, the marks of good faith are without number. The diary should therefore be accepted, and has been accepted, as essentially truthful; and the man it shows us-revealed also by a large amount of other evidence-is a cold, narrow, methodical, dogged, plodding, obstinate partisan, deeply convinced of his importance and responsibility, very wanting in humor, very wanting in ideality, very wanting in soulfulness, inclined to be sly, and quite incapable of seeing great things in a great way. All know the type. It is the leading citizen and schemer of the small town, who marches up the centre aisle on public occasions with creaking shoes and a wooden smile, and takes his seat with a backward, all-embracing glance.[23]

Such a person-lean, stiff, angular, with sharp gray eyes in a sad face, and long, grizzled hair brushed straight back behind his ears-makes no appeal to our sympathies, and for that reason is almost sure to be judged unfairly. For example, Polk has been called the "Mendacious"; but that is unjust. Many things are done in good society which, if thrown upon a screen before two thousand people, would be recognized instantly as mean; and the same is true in the world of affairs. As a lawyer and politician of Nashville, Polk no doubt resorted to devices of this kind, and he was not the man to realize the difference between a provincial town and a nation, and adapt himself to his new position. Compelled to act, he acted as he could; used the tactics with which he was familiar. In this manner he deceived men or permitted men to deceive themselves, and those accustomed to broader and larger and nobler methods thought he lied. In reality he was not Polk the Mendacious, but simply Polk the Mediocre.[23]

Yet he was mediocre only as compared with great standards. He could by no means be called insignificant. George Bancroft, secretary of the navy, has testified that he surpassed every member of his Cabinet in ability-not as high a distinction, perhaps, as might have been wished, but still high. His will-power was ample, and his output of mental energy large. In seriousness, industry and fidelity he left nothing to be desired. Though strongly inclined to be positive, he would listen patiently to others, discuss weighty matters at length, and if convinced would yield. He reflected long, and yet when the time for decision came, he did not shrink from taking a stand. He intended to do his duty as he, Polk, was able to see it, and spent himself liberally in that cause. He certainly was religious, and no doubt-though blind to the beauty of uprightness and unresponsive to the delicacy of honor-he fully believed that he was conscientious.[23]

To regard such a man, uninspired and uninspiring, as capable of playing the brilliant villain's r?le in a grand international tragedy, of dreaming the conqueror's dream and sacrificing his fellow-citizens on the altar of gory but gorgeous ambition, of smelling the battle from afar like the war-horse and crying, "Ha, ha!"-this is out of the question. It was not in him. Neither intellect, conscience nor imagination permitted it. The Cabinet, which he selected with care, hampered by no pre?lection agreements, was much like him; and as Benton said, it is "impossible to conceive of an administration less warlike, or more intriguing." "Mr. Polk never dreamed of any other war than a war upon the Whigs," admitted Robert Toombs, then a Whig member of Congress, in February, 1846.[23]

A number of circumstances almost committed him to a peaceable course toward Mexico. During the discussions of the annexation project one of the strongest objections had been that it would involve the country in war, and its advocates had strenuously denied this allegation. The President belonged to that group, and Webster said: "That Mr. Polk and his Cabinet will desire to keep the peace, there is no doubt. The responsibility of having provoked war by their scheme of annexation is what they would greatly dread." Though many plain citizens desired a fight, an influential body of merchants, financiers and conservatives did not; and in the view of a still greater number a vital discrepancy between the predictions of the annexationists and their later conduct would surely have been damaging. The Oregon question threatened to prove serious; and it is hardly credible that Polk, even if quite willing to meet an attack from Mexico, would have desired to attack her before settling this controversy with England. The secretaries of state, war and the navy did not hail from fire-eating communities. The head of the army, General Scott, was a Whig and a recognized candidate for the Presidency; and the chiefs of the Democratic party had fully sense enough to understand that a war might enable him to succeed Polk. In fact the President's diary exhibits painful writhings due to such a possibility. Finally war, no matter how successful, would mean taxes, and even those who demanded a fight might not be willing to pay for it. Certainly Polk was not self-sacrificing enough to desire the odium of laying war taxes for the sake of bringing Scott into the White House. Besides, it looked as if war expenses could not fail to strengthen the tariff system, and that was obnoxious to a great number of the Democrats.[24]


Polk's professions were every way most pacific. The assurances conveyed to Almonte after he made his protest have already been mentioned. In August, 1845, Polk wrote confidentially to a Senator, "We will not be the aggressors upon Mexico." A month later Buchanan declared in a "Private and Personal" letter to our minister at London: "The President does not intend to proceed beyond a just and righteous self-defence, and he is ready to present the olive branch to Mexico the moment he knows it will be accepted." It is hardly supposable that our secretary of state intended to deceive our most important representative abroad, or that he was deceived himself by Polk in so vital a matter.[25]

The confidential orders of the government were emphatically unwarlike in tone. To Conner, commanding in the Gulf, the secretary of the navy wrote in March, 1845, "The disposition of the President is to maintain the most friendly relations with the Mexican Republic," and in substance this declaration was repeated in the following July and August. "Take special care," the department said to Stockton, who had a few vessels on the Texas coast, "to avoid every act that can admit of being construed as inconsistent with our friendly relations" with Mexico. Commodore Sloat, in the Pacific, was told in "Secret and Confidential" instructions dated June 24, 1845, "The President hopes, most earnestly, that the peace of the two countries may not be disturbed ... do everything consistent with the national honor" to avoid a rupture; and these instructions to Sloat were most noteworthy, for the commander on the Pacific station was liable to be out of touch with the government for a year at a time, and he needed to be sure as to its general policy.[26]

For the guidance of our chargé in Texas, where many feared a Mexican invasion and called for American troops, a clear statement of our intentions was equally necessary, and Buchanan wrote to Donelson at about the same time, "The Government will studiously refrain from all acts of hostility towards that republic [Mexico], unless these should become absolutely necessary in self-defence." Quite in line with all this was the order cancelling Frémont's second exploring trip to the far west, because he had equipped his party in a military style-an order that was decidedly over-strict, since precautions against the Indians could not be neglected. In his Message to the Senate, March 24, 1846, the President declared it his "settled purpose" to maintain peace with Mexico, and it is believed that no expression of his indicating a desire to provoke a conflict can be found.[26]

The measures of the administration corresponded with its professions. In the first place this was true negatively. It would not be easy to deny that Mexico's refusal to pay the instalments of our awards could have been handled by our government in a way to enrage this nation, already so eager for the fray, and probably her severance of diplomatic relations might have been used to precipitate an issue; but no advantage was taken of either opportunity. Another instance is even more signal. One can hardly doubt that Polk might have brought on a war in the summer of 1845, had he so desired. Not only had Mexico grossly insulted us, refused to pay those awards, and severed relations with us both at her capital and at our own, but she had solemnly announced that our annexing Texas would be regarded as equivalent to a declaration of war, notified her agents privately and the world at large publicly that she was going to fight, and begun preparations for immediate hostilities. Had Polk summoned Congress and laid all the facts before it, a declaration of war, or at least an ultimatum that Mexico would in all probability have rejected, must certainly, or almost certainly, have been the response; and if one may judge from the state of mind existing in the United States at the time, our people would in the main have supported such a course. "The current of public opinion," said the St. Louis Republican, "seems now strongly inclined in favor of a war with Mexico." "All the better portions of the press of the country," was the summary of the New Orleans Picayune, "are urgent for the adoption of the most energetic measures" against that country. Almost every Democratic journal and a vast majority of the Whig journals, declared the Washington Globe, were for crushing Mexico at once. "The people will approve" of vigorous action, admitted even the Charleston Courier.[27]


But Polk did not adopt a course of that sort. He took no such steps to settle matters with England as a President of ordinary common sense would have taken, if anxious to fight Mexico; and no serious measures were adopted to increase our nominal army or our insufficient fleet. In September, he requested the members of the Cabinet to make their estimates for the coming year on "the most economical scale," and in fact only twenty-six hundred additional men were asked for the army-none for the navy. A note from the secretary of the navy to Captain Perry-"We are jogging on quietly this winter, not anticipating war"-well represents our military and naval programme; and a letter to Conner explains it: "We all hope Mexico will agree to a peace." Knowing, as Polk must have known, the deep and widespread fear of Mexican privateers, he would have been prevented by a merely selfish regard for the good opinion of the public from planning war without making some dispositions to protect, or at least warn, our millions of floating property. And apparently even the ardor of our young men for combat did not seriously move him.[28]

In the second place, Polk's action pointed the same way as his non-action. No one could think of any rational method to conciliate Mexico that he did not put into operation. The chief object of Parrott's mission, which was private and therefore could not have been intended for effect upon the world, was understood by Parrott himself to be, "preventing a declaration of war, by Mexico, against the United States." In appointing Slidell, as even the American Review admitted, the President was evidently sincere. At the end of March, 1846, Polk received advices from Slidell which made it seem quite possible that he would finally be given a hearing, and immediately he set on foot a plan to furnish Paredes with funds, enable him to keep the army faithful, and thus encourage him to settle matters amicably. Indeed, all that is known of this mission from beginning to end, including Slidell's private letters to Buchanan and numerous details that it would be wearisome to hear specified, show that Polk strongly desired-as the Mexicans accused him of desiring-a restoration of friendly intercourse; and when the purpose had evidently failed, Slidell gave final evidence of that disposition by writing: "I am greatly mortified at the total failure of a mission commenced under auspices apparently the most flattering, but that mortification is much mitigated by the consciousness, that no fault of omission or commission, can justly be attributed either to the Government or to the Legation."[29]

In short, then, we find that Polk had the gravest reasons for desiring friendly intercourse with Mexico, and probably felt none for plotting war; that a variety of personal and political circumstances naturally inclined him toward peace; that his declarations, both public and private, pointed consistently in that direction as long as any hope of an amicable settlement remained; and that what he did in repeated and most significant ways, as well as what he refrained from doing, had the same meaning. We must therefore give up the idea that he desired, and from the first intended, to have a war with Mexico.


All prospects of negotiation came to an end, however, and the administration found itself confronted by a crisis. The dignity of the United States had certainly been outraged in a defiant and contemptuous manner. By the acts of Mexico, diplomatic relations had been completely severed, and she would not renew them on any terms which the United States could think of accepting. Commercial intercourse was practically at an end, and the interests of our citizens were so gravely prejudiced, that from this point of view even a London paper, the Examiner, admitted reluctantly that the situation was becoming "intolerable to the United States." Our claims and our awards were still facts. "The honor of this government is pledged to our own people for the diligent and proper prosecution of these claims," our secretary of state had said in 1843, and it was perfectly true. To let them go unpaid, in addition to being internationally immoral, would have wronged our aggrieved citizens; and to pay them from our own revenues, besides being immoral, pusillanimous and ridiculous, would have been unfair to all of our tax-payers. We had observed no more willingness, although the Mexican government had nearly always been sufficiently strong, to do us justice before annexation became an issue than afterwards; and in fact Ashburnham, a British representative at Mexico, did not exaggerate when he wrote, "They will not pay but on compulsion." There was therefore no way to collect our due except by force.[30]

If our long forbearance appeared to American editors a mistake, much more reason had the administration to entertain that opinion, for our ministers and consuls in Mexico had repeatedly urged it, and Slidell had summed up his experience there in the following words, amply justified by the sequel: "We shall never be able to treat with her on fair terms until she has been taught to respect us ... here all amicable advances are considered as indicative either of weakness or treachery." "Be assured," he added privately to Buchanan, "that nothing is to be done with these people, until they shall have been chastised." The solemn declarations of a succession of trusted agents that our forbearance was a tactical error were facts that our government was bound to consider; and by way of confirmation it had not only our complete failure to get on with Mexico, but the success of a power which seemed to have pursued a very different course, for in October, 1845, our consul at Vera Cruz had given the state department a specimen of England's tone. Mexico, said she to the minister of relations, must fulfil to the letter every contract with a British subject.[31]

Furthermore our government felt seriously concerned about the European monarchical schemes. Early in January, 1846, the London Times printed a letter from its correspondent at Mexico in which the opinion was expressed that a foreign prince, if "seconded by any leading European power," could gain a Mexican throne. A week later the same journal, recommending a Spanish king as the only possible cure for the ills of Mexico, had remarked that the United States could not oppose the "united policy of the European Powers"; and at about the same time the Picayune had announced, that it was proposed to give Cuba to England for her co?peration in the monarchical plan. Our government had, and could have, no intention of submitting to such European manoeuvres. Any attempt of England and France to place a king on the throne of Mexico, wrote Buchanan, "would be resisted by all the power of the United States;" and the best way to oppose it was to effect a definitive settlement of our difficulties with Mexico at once-first, because this of itself would very likely make the development of the rather complicated scheme appear, in view of the "Monroe Doctrine," impracticable, and, secondly, because no European power could, with any show of decency, interfere in the domestic affairs of that country, while she was actually at war.[32]

Chivalry does not govern international relations even at the present day, and in 1845 sentiment was perhaps less tender on the subject than it now is. Vattel, the recognized authority on the law of nations, wrote thus: "Every nation ... has, therefore, a right ... to preserve herself from all injuries.... When the evil is done, the same right to security authorizes the offended party to endeavour to obtain a complete reparation, and to employ force for that purpose, if necessary."[33]

Moreover, the United States could appeal, not only to strict law, but still more forcibly to broad equity. To sum up the case in one sentence, Mexico, our next neighbor, on no grounds that could be recognized by the United States, repudiated her treaties with us, ended official relations, aimed to prevent commercial intercourse, planned to deprive us of all influence on certain issues vitally connected with our declared foreign policy, seemed likely to sell California to some European rival of ours, made it impossible for us to urge long-standing claims or watch over citizens dwelling within her borders, refused to pay even her admitted debts to us, claimed the privilege of applying to our government publicly the most opprobrious epithets in the vocabulary of nations, designed to keep our people in a constant state of uncertainty and alarm, intended to cause us the expense of maintaining for defensive purposes a large army and a large navy, planned to destroy our commerce by commissioning privateers, claimed the right to harry Texas, a part of the Union, at will, threatened and prepared for war, and proposed to assume such an attitude that, whenever encouraged by foreign support or any other circumstances, she could open fire upon us without even giving notice. She had informed the world that it was her privilege to keep on harrying Texas from generation to generation; and on a broader scale, but in a manner precisely analogous, it was now proposed to hang upon the flank of the United States. Foreign mediation could not be invoked, for all the American states were naturally supposed to be prejudiced, and it was contrary to our interest and avowed policy to allow European intervention in the affairs of this continent; and no end of what had become truly an intolerable state of affairs could be seen, for Mexico declared she would never give up her pretensions until she had recovered Texas, which it was now beyond her power to do.[34]


It rested with our government, therefore, as the agent of national defence and the representative of national dignity and interests, to apply a remedy. Of course, too, all the pressure of warlike sentiment among our people, especially in the President's party, and even the pressure of motives distinctly selfish, had to be recognized more or less, for such is the nature of popular government. Very likely Polk's abandoning a part of our Oregon claim rendered it the more necessary to avoid flinching in the Mexican affair; and accordingly on April 21, 1846, after long consideration of the matter, he informed the Cabinet that our relations with Mexico "could not be permitted to remain" as they were, and that he thought he should recommend to Congress the adoption of energetic measures for the redress of our grievances, which meant also of course a full settlement of our differences with that power. In truth no other course would have been patriotic or even rational.[35]

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