California was the jewel coveted by the Manifest Destiny movement and the great reward of the Mexican War.
Lincoln had supported a resolution that criticized the constitutionality and necessity of the war while he also had proposed what became known as his “Spot Resolution” to question the President’s claim of the attack that had pushed the US into war with Mexico.
Lincoln ostensibly gave his speech in support of his Spot Resolution in which he questioned whether the spot where the bloodshed that precipitated the war had actually occurred on American soil as the president had claimed.
The fine toothed comb with which Lincoln approached Polk’s reasoning for the war, presents one with insight into Lincoln’s understanding of how a President and his party should approach prosecuting a war. Once he was elected to the Congress, Lincoln began researching and questioning the Mexican War and he realized that President Polk’s decisions were not grounded in rock solid facts and were more like what he would like to have happened.
Polk and the Democrats on the other hand, had been elected on a wave of Manifest Destiny.
Lincoln felt that Polk was supporting the war against Mexico with arguments and not facts and that Polk should hold himself to the standard of George Washington and answer the questions unequivocally. As Lincoln said, “...a nation should not, and the Almighty will not, be evaded, so let him attempt no evasion---no equivocation.” Lincoln said that if Polk can not answer in this manner, Lincoln would know that Polk had realized that he was “in the wrong.”
The real support was for the American war effort and American troops as opposed to the war itself. As Lincoln said, Polk was trying “to prove, by telling the truth, what he could not prove by telling the whole truth.” (Speech) Again, Lincoln was implying that Polk was twisting the facts to fit his goals.
When Lincoln’s speech is read, one can easily agree with modern historians who criticize Lincoln’s speech for being out of touch with the American people and overly personal and harsh toward President Polk as Doris Kearns Goodwin has described it. Michael Burlingame also saw Lincoln’s speech as off base as he felt it was overly political and he felt that a passage on the revolutionary history of the territories of Mexico and Texas would come back to haunt him during the run up to the Civil War. (Burlingame) William Miller on the other hand lauded Lincoln for his ardor in making the case against the legitimacy of the war’s beginning after criticizing Lincoln’s tone as being “rather personal and nasty about Polk in a quite un-Lincolnian way.” (Miller) Again, Lincoln’s speech was sharply critical but in the end ineffectual
After he explained his reasons for proposing his resolution and criticizing the war and the President, Lincoln took off the gloves and began to hit the Polk administration with bare knuckles on an issue that was overwhelmingly popular in the United States. He questioned both the President’s veracity and perhaps even his sanity as he read through a list of different reasons that had been used by the Administration for the war. “How like the half insane mumbling of a fever-dream, is the whole war part of his late message!” (Speech)
At the time, Lincoln’s speech made little lasting impression as his resolutions were not voted on by the House and the war was prosecuted for a few more weeks and Lincoln as he had promised did not seek a second term. Modern historians agree. However, he would become president and would lead the United States through the Civil War and gain a reputation as the best president in its history. This speech is significant when one views how Lincoln attacked Polk’s inability to factually justify how the war began and then used much more meticulous processes in making and justifying major decisions during the Civil War.