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Odd Wisconsin Archive

New Congress Opposes Unpopular War... in 1847

This week a new Congress debates an unpopular war begun by an incumbent President. Something of the same sort happened more than 150 years ago, when newly elected lawmakers came to Washington upset over President James K. Polkís Mexican War. Among the leaders of the opposition was a freshman legislator from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln. Hereís the story.

Thousands of English-speaking immigrants had settled in what today is called Texas. Mostly from the Southern states, they had brought along thousands of African American slaves to work the land. In 1836 they declared themselves a new nation, independent of both the U.S. and Mexico, and successfully fought off the Mexican Army when it tried to suppress them. They drafted a peace treaty that extended their nation's boundaries over much of New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming. The Mexican government rejected this, defining Texas as only the eastern half of the modern state, and refused to sign the treaty. There matters sat, with borders unresolved, for nearly a decade.

Then in 1845 Texas agreed to give up its independence and join the U.S., if the federal government would take over the Republicís debts. The U.S. agreed, even though the majority of Texans had just voted for a provision endorsing slavery. On Dec. 29, 1845, Texas joined the Union as a slave state.

A few weeks later, President Polk sent troops under Gen. Zachary Taylor (who had earlier served in Wisconsin) to provoke a clash with Mexico along the disputed border, and the Mexican War began. After more than a year of fighting, U.S. troops captured Mexico City and imposed a unilateral peace. This 1848 treaty reduced Mexicoís territory by half and made most of the American West -- from Brownsville, Texas, north to Denver and west to San Francisco -- part of the United States.

Meanwhile, Lincoln and other new lawmakers had been elected to Congress. Many of them saw the war mainly as an excuse to extend slavery and boost the power of slave states. Lincoln, in a protest that echoes recent arguments about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, publicly challenged the Presidentís motives for starting the war, implying that the government had lied about or exaggerated the true threat to the U.S. In what became known as his "Spot Resolutions," Lincoln tried to force the White House to reveal all the true facts about the initial military engagements. His stance against the war was unpopular at home, however, and his career in Congress was cut short.

Wisconsinís Congressional delegation played no prominent role on either side of this debate, and 477 soldiers from Wisconsin fought in the war. Many of them were army regulars already stationed at Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien when hostilities broke out. Two more units, of 77 and 69 soldiers, were mustered in later but never saw action.

Some Americans protested the Mexican War in memorable fashion. Henry David Thoreau, in his famous essay "Civil Disobedience," said he refused to support a war that had been trumped up to extend slavery. He argued that, especially in a democracy, citizens were obligated to resist an unjust government, and he refused to pay his taxes to support it. His essay profoundly influenced Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. in their later non-violent campaigns for reform.

The most important difference between Congressional opposition to the Mexican War in 1847 and current Congressional opposition to the Iraq War today is that Lincoln and most of the war's critics only arrived in Washington late in 1847, after the fighting had already ended. By the time Congress protested, the war was largely over, which is not the case now, of course.

Another major difference between then and now is that the U.S. did not stay in Mexico, as it has remained in Iraq. Content with deposing Mexico's government and seizing half of its territory, the American military withdrew in August 1848.

History is often ugly. Sometimes it undermines our national pride as effectively as, at other times, it reinforces it. Ulysses S. Grant, who fought in Mexico as a young commander and went on to be President, called the war ďone of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nationĒ in his best-selling memoirs.

Of course, the U.S. was far from alone in acting like a bully in 1847. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the governments of England, France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Russia, and other Western nations invaded and subdued virtually all of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia in equally brutal fashion. At the time, many loyal and patriotic Americans, including Mark Twain and our own Robert La Follette, opposed this imperial expansion. A successful democracy makes room for all viewpoints in the marketplace of ideas.

After the U.S. withdrew from Mexico in 1848, the issue of slavery -- specifically whether the new western territories ought to be admitted as free or as slave states -- would polarize the nation. The two major political parties would realign and fall apart, splinter groups would spring up, and out of the chaos would emerge the Republican Party. In the summer of 1860, at its convention in Chicago, it would nominate Lincoln for President. After he was elected that fall, Southern states would decide to opt out of a country that didnít recognize a stateís right to decide for itself about slavery. In April, 1861, the Civil War would break out, and the issue of slavery would finally get settled once and for all.

:: Posted in Curiosities on January 21, 2007

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