I’ve been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s absolute must-read Team of Rivals, which is a political biography of Lincoln and his three main rivals for the presidency (Ohio Governor Salmon Chase, Missouri Attorney General Edward Chase, and New York Senator William Seward). She has a number of interesting anecdotes that I could share, but one that popped out most was a part of his history that I had never been aware: his opposition to the Mexican-American War.
Abraham Lincoln is perhaps best known for his role as president during the American Civil War, making him in a sense the ultimate “war president”. It was a war that he did not choose to fight but one that was forced upon him. More importantly, though, was his reluctance to use military force at all. In many ways, it can be reflective of recent American history when a not-so-distant president invaded a foreign country named Iraq.
Eighteen months prior to his election to the House of Representative from the state of Illinois, the United States declared war on Mexico. The country was eager to expand, a part of the “Manifest Destiny” which would see the nation extend from Atlantic to Pacific. The president of the time, James Polk, sent General Zachary Taylor into disputed territory – the United States claimed that its border with Mexico extended to the Rio Grande with its recent acceptance of Texas into the Union, while the Mexicans claimed that it extended to the Nueces River.
Many contemporaries of the time, predominantly Whigs, would argue that Polk hoped to provoke a response from the Mexican Army by sending Taylor into the disputed territory. Abraham Lincoln was one of those critics. Lincoln would say that, “It is a fact that the United States Army, in marching to the Rio Grande, marched into a peaceful Mexican settlement, and frightened the inhabitants away from their homes and their growing crops.” Lincoln was not convinced that the war was legal, saying that it was both “unnecessarily and unconstitutionally” initiated by Polk.
As a freshman member of Congress, in the form of a resolution on the House floor, Lincoln challenged the sitting president of the United States to show the House of Representatives “whether the particular spot of soil on which the blood of our citizens was shed” belonged to Mexico or to the U.S. He believed that the onus of proof was on the president to show that “Mexico herself became the aggressor by invading our soil in hostile array.” Without so much as a response from Polk, Lincoln declared that since he “cannot, or will not do this,” the war was “from beginning to end, the sheerest deception.”
The point is not to re-litigate a war that occurred over 150 years ago, but that we have checks and balances for a reason. As we saw then, and as we have seen in recent history, the rush to war and the justifications for them are often an overzealous means to an end. Lincoln wisely pointed to the deception of his time, even if it was unpopular at that moment, and still managed to capture the presidency a decade later. We need leaders like him in Washington to push back, ask the tough questions and take the political heat. Not because it is popular, but because it is right.