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President Polk Gets His War: May 13, 1846

The presidential election of 1844 pitted James K. Polk, a Democrat and the governor of Tennessee, against the Kentucky Whig senator, Henry Clay. The Democrat Polk had not only favored annexing Texas (which Clay had opposed), but was convinced that it was the United States’ “manifest destiny” to stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The conviction that the country’s boundaries should reach ever westward – that it had almost a divine mandate to do so – had seeped into the American popular mind. Rich lands lay in Oregon and in fabled California. Many thought the latter was not ruled well by the Mexicans, who couldn’t realize its potential. California was ripe for the taking, and rather than let France or England take it (rumor said they wanted it), the United States must seize it.

President James K. Polk

President Polk wanted California but did not, if at all possible, want to go to war to get it. The Mexican government, however, had broken off diplomatic relations with the United States over Texas and so would pay no attention to Polk’s proposals to buy California. When Texas formally accepted annexation in July 1845, Polk again proposed buying California. Since it had defaulted on the payment of debts it owed American citizens for destroyed property, Mexico, Polk suggested, should give California to the United States in lieu of the debt payment. It seemed a good business deal to Polk, but the proud Mexicans thought it an insult to their honor.

Polk did not understand the Mexican temperament. In late November 1845, he told John Slidell, the U.S. minister to Mexico, to offer the California debt forgiveness swap, as well as an unspecified amount of money, to President José Joaquin Herrera. Slidell was also to suggest that Mexico recognize the Río Grande as the southern boundary of Texas. To round off the deal, the minister was to offer $5 million for New Mexico.

President José Joaquin Herrera

President Herrera refused to meet with Slidell, but he did suggest that an understanding could be reached on these questions as long as some means were found to assuage Mexican national pride. Herrera’s reply did not please General Mariano Paredes, who led a coup d’etat against Herrera in early 1846 and drove him from office. Neither did it please Polk. Further and more stringent measures had to be taken, he thought. If money could not buy California, he would have to resort to war to get it.

Polk knew that to galvanize American support for the war, he had to make it look that Mexico had provoked it. In July 1845, he had sent General Zachary Taylor and a detachment of the regular army to the Nueces River in Texas to guard the border with Mexico. Now, on January 13, 1846, having learned of Herrera’s refusal to meet with Slidell (but not of Paredes’ revolt), Polk ordered Taylor to cross the Nueces and proceed to the Río Grande. This was a provocative act, for Mexico had never recognized Texas’ claim to the Río Grande boundary but insisted that everything between the Río Grande and the Nueces belonged to Mexico. (Indeed, Texas had never exercised any authority south of the Nueces, which had formed its border with the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.) By late March, Taylor was on the Río Grande. Moreover, he had blockaded Matamoros, a city at on the south bank of the Río Grande and clearly within Mexico’s borders....

President Polk’s patience had about worn out. On March 12, 1846, Slidell had again tried to meet with the Mexican foreign minister and again was refused. Though the Mexican minister hinted that he would be willing to meet with an ad hoc minister other than Slidell to discuss the annexation question, Polk thought his response insincere. Was not the U.S. offering Mexico a good business deal? Didn’t the Mexican government need the money? Polk simply could not understand the Latin spirit that preferred honor to profit. To sell California would be to admit weakness – and the Mexicans would not admit weakness. Disgusted, Polk prepared a message to Congress asking for a declaration of war based on Mexico’s unpaid claims to American citizens and the Mexican government’s slighting of Slidell.

Such “provocations” would, perhaps, have been too meager to convince Polk’s Whig opponents in Congress to support war; but better motives were forthcoming. On May 9, Polk learned that his strategy had paid off – he had goaded the Mexicans into what even the Whigs would admit was an act of war. On April 25, Mexican cavalry had crossed the Río Grande and skirmished with United States dragoons, leaving several Americans dead. American soldiers had been slain on “American soil”! Polk spent the next day preparing his war message to Congress.

“The cup of forbearance had been exhausted, even before the recent information from the frontier,” Polk said to Congress on Monday, May 11, 1846. “After reiterated menaces, Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory, and shed American blood upon American soil.” And two days later, Congress, after some debate, approved a declaration of war. “By act of the Republic of Mexico,” read the declaration, “a state of war exists between that Government and the United States.”

Zachary Taylor

Though the states bordering the Mississippi welcomed the conflict – they would contribute 49,000 volunteers in the course of the war – the original 13 states were not so enthusiastic. Even in the South, elder statesmen thought the annexation of Texas was enough. Calhoun, for one, rightly foresaw that opening up new territories west of Texas would revive the controversy over slavery in the territories, an issue that he hoped had been put to rest. Antislavery folks opposed the war, which, they said, was nothing more than a grab for more slave territory. And though they voted credits for the war, the Whigs generally opposed it. One of their number questioned the president’s rationale for the war – that the Mexicans had invaded American territory. Polk, said a congressman from Illinois, named Abraham Lincoln, could provide no justification for the claim that the Río Grande was the border of Texas. And the president, said Lincoln, “is [so] deeply conscious of being in the wrong; that he feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to Heaven against him.” Delivered when the war was 20 months old, Lincoln’s speech cost him his re-election, for Illinois favored the war.

Two Melodies from the War

These two pieces are from the period of the Mexican-American War. The first, Marcha Funébre, is a guitar piece composed by the Mexican composer, José María Bustamante (1777-1861), in honor of General Luis Gonzaga Osollo , who fought in resistance of the American invasion of Mexico. The second, “Old Rosin the Bow,” is a version of an Irish folk song. The melody was popular among American troops who fought in Mexico.

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