Good morning, it's Friday, May 14, 2021, the day of the week when I reprise quotations intended to be uplifting or educational. Today's, as promised, comes from Abraham Lincoln -- but during the Mexican-American War. Rarely discussed in American politics today, that conflict was a momentous event in the evolution of the two countries.
It cost Mexico the potential wealth of California and most of what we know as the American Southwest, as well as much prestige and self-confidence -- not to mention the lives of thousands of soldiers and civilians. On the other side of the border, the United States gained vast new lands, a sense of its own power, and a new generation of battle-tested veterans, including two future presidents, Franklin Pierce and Zachary Taylor.
The war also served as a proving ground for a host of future Civil War generals, ranging from Stonewall Jackson, George Pickett, Braxton Bragg, Joseph E. Johnston, and Robert E. Lee on the Confederate side to George McClelland, George Meade, John C. Fremont, Winfield Scott Hancock, and Ulysses S. Grant in the Union Army.
Few took notice then, but that war also occasioned the emergence of powerful political voice from Illinois. Abraham Lincoln wasn't yet in the House of Representatives when Congress approved President James K. Polk's 1846 request for a declaration of war against Mexico -- and Lincoln would only serve one term there -- but in that time he would emerge as an articulate voice against the war.
In December 1847, Abraham Lincoln, a freshman member of Congress from Illinois who was then a member of the Whig Party, introduced what were then labeled "Spot Resolutions" calling on President Polk to directly answer a series of questions about the U.S. war with Mexico. Mainly, Lincoln wanted the commander-in-chief to state plainly -- and show evidence -- that the first military engagements of that war had taken place, as Polk assured the public, on American territory.
It wasn't an easy thing to prove because it probably wasn't true, and on Jan. 12, 1848, Lincoln delivered a speech intended to bolster his assertion that the war was "unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced."
As an orator, the 38-year-old version of Abe Lincoln, freshman backbencher, was hardly the careful and temperate statesman Americans would come to know a decade later when he debated Stephen A. Douglas on slavery, or during the Civil War when he emerged as one of the great unifying voices in political history. No, Rep. Lincoln was on a mission, and it wasn't to unify, it was to educate. When calling for war, Polk had accused Mexico of shedding "American blood on American soil." Lincoln posed a simple question. He wanted to know the particular spot of soil "on which the blood of our citizens was shed."
As countless congressional peaceniks have maintained since then, in wars ranging from Vietnam to Iraq, Lincoln was saying that the president of the United States had misled the country into war. In making his point, Lincoln wasn't above heated rhetoric and extreme ridicule.
Polk's refusal to give a straightforward and convincing explanation of where and why the war started, Lincoln said, was evidence "that he is 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."
Lincoln questioned Polk's motives for waging war, adding that his attempts to justify it sounded "like the half insane mumbling of a fever-dream."
Later in the speech, Lincoln said of the president: "First he takes up one, and in attempting to argue us into it, he argues himself out of it; then seizes another, and goes through the same process; and then, confused at being able to think of nothing new, he snatches up the old one again, which he has some time before cast off. His mind, tasked beyond its power, is running hither and thither, like some tortured creature on a burning surface, finding no position on which it can settle down and be at ease."
In conclusion, Lincoln said, "He is a bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man."
Strong antiwar rhetoric aimed at presidents has been a feature of American public life from the First World War to the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But even in its excess, what lies underneath this questioning is a disquieting image invoked by young Abe Lincoln -- that of an innocent populace in another land who must bear the brunt of a U.S. military invasion in a dispute they were powerless to mediate.
Sifting through the evidence, Lincoln said, invoked as "a singular fact" that "the president sent the army into the midst of a settlement of Mexican people, who had never submitted, by consent or by force, to the authority of Texas or of the United States."
And that is our quote of the week, as well as a thought to keep in mind for future wars.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.