Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A Close Reading Lincoln’s Speech on War with Mexico

If we are to understand Abraham Lincoln from our perspective of California, we need to examine his Speech on War with Mexico, which was his most noteworthy act during his one term in Congress.
His speech was memorable but ineffective as Lincoln was suspicious and harshly critical of President James K. Polk’s justifications for the US entry into the war.  Seemingly the war was started over a border dispute between Mexico and Texas, however, the real prize of the war was the Golden State.
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’s argument centered around two main ideas, the President’s seemingly constant attempts at gaining support and his lack of factual evidence. Lincoln, however, also took his speech a step or two further as he made a number of personal attacks against the President that stand out from his other speeches in their vitriol.  In fact, that is what modern historians note most about his criticism.
As it was, the speech came to nothing as the President paid no attention and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was concluded a few weeks later and California became American territory.
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.
He listed out eight different questions “intended to draw the President out” and have him explain exactly where the spot was and how it was that Mexico had  “invaded our territory and shed the blood of our fellow-citizens on our own soil” as Polk had said they had. (Protest)  Lincoln’s interrogatories were looking to figure out how territory Lincoln felt was disputed could be claimed by the President as unequivocally American land.
He asked how that land had been connected to Spain, Mexico, and/or Texas, how it had been settled, which country had jurisdiction, how the people who lived in the area reacted to the different armies, and why that American force was in the area. (Protest)
He felt this type of interrogation was needed to clearly justify the spending of American blood and treasure to get California.
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’s speech implied that they wanted the facts to fit the war.  They wanted to get California.  They tried to buy it.  Once they were refused, they knew they needed to fight to get it.  Then, they just needed an excuse to fight a war.  They had their war when Mexicans attacked American troops in disputed land between the Rio Nueces and Rio Grande.  Most of the American people and politicians were happy to take the president at his word as they also wanted to get California and achieve 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.”
As with most Americans, Lincoln said he would have been willing to take the President at his word.  He explained that he had hoped to reserve his criticism of the justification for the war until after the hostilities “as good citizens and patriots” would. He pointed to Democratic former president Martin Van Buren as an ally of the President who was doing the same.  However, the President and his fellow Democrats kept pushing every vote on supplies as an endorsement for the war.  Lincoln showed how they twisted the vote tallies to show support for the war was stronger than it really was.

 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)
He finally finished his speech as he felt that the President was confused, “He is a bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man. God grant he may be able to show, there is not something about his conscience, more painful than all his mental perplexity!” (Speech)  The level of personal attack illustrated how strongly he felt Polk had not met the standard of explanation and thus the war and the President were wrong.

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.
Works Cited
Burlingame, Michael. "Speech on War With Mexico (January 12, 1848)." Lincolns Writings. Dickinson College, n.d. Web. 15 July 2016.
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. "Speech on War With Mexico (January 12, 1848)." Lincolns Writings. Dickinson College, n.d. Web. 15 July 2016.
Lincoln, Abraham. "Abraham Lincoln Protests the Mexican War." Digital History. University of Houston, n.d. Web. 15 July 2016.
Lincoln, Abraham. "Abraham Lincoln, Speech in United States House of Representatives: The War with Mexico, January 12, 1848." House Divided. Dickinson College, n.d. Web. 15 July 2016.
Lincoln, Abraham. "Abraham Lincoln to Albert G. Hodges, April 4, 1864." House Divided. Dickinson College, n.d. Web. 15 July 2016.
Miller, Willaim Lee. "Speech on War With Mexico (January 12, 1848)." Lincolns Writings. Dickinson College, n.d. Web. 15 July 2016.
Images Works Cited
Gast, John. "1830–1860: Diplomacy and Westward Expansion." Office of the Historian. United States Department of State, 1872. Web. 03 Aug. 2016. Manifest Destiny Image
Leutze, Emanuel. "Manifest Destiny." The American Yawp. The American Yawp, 1861. Web. 03 Aug. 2016. Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way Image
"Lincoln's Spot Resolution." LSA US History 13. Tangent LLC, 2016. Web. 03 Aug. 2016. Disputed Land Map
"Martin Van Buren." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 03 Aug. 2016. Martin Van Buren Image
McPherson, James M. "Abraham Lincoln." American National Biography Online. Oxford University Press, n.d. Web. 03 Aug. 2016.

1 comment:

  1. This might help, it's my blog. But it will have information in it you had no clue about.

    And while you are at it, more information you are apparently too stupid to know.

    Yes, get his full speeches, all of them.

    And also, just as important, learn what the fuck was going on, specifically the insane violent relentless efforts to spread slavery