A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico.

Author:Delgado, Richard
Position:Book review

A WICKED WAR: POLK, CLAY, LINCOLN, AND THE 1846 U.S. INVASION OF MEXICO. By Amy S. Greenberg. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2012. Pp. xix, 279. Cloth, $30; paper, $16.95.


This riveting tale of greed, international skullduggery, and behind-the-scenes heroism recounts the events that led up to America's "wicked war" with Mexico. (1) It depicts how expansionist ambitions in high circles fueled jingoistic propaganda (pp. 25, 34-35, 58), fed a public eager for national muscle flexing (pp. 57, 103, 108), and set the stage for a military skirmish in a disputed region between two rivers (pp. 75-77, 95, 100, 138) that provided the pretext for a savage and short-lived military campaign against the weak new nation of Mexico in which the U.S. Army, under General Scott, marched all the way to Mexico City, marauding as it went. (2) On arrival, President Polk's negotiator dictated terms of surrender under which Mexico ceded nearly half its territory--what is now the states of California, Nevada, and Utah, and parts of Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas (pp. xvii, 258-61)--a land grab that accounts for about one-third of the current continental United States. (3)

As America's first foreign campaign, the War with Mexico strengthened the hold of slavery in the South, paving the way for the Civil War a generation later. (4) It launched Lincoln's career, although he opposed it (p. xvi); brought Henry Thoreau, who abhorred it, to national prominence; (5) and sparked the country's first antiwar movement (p. xvi). With its explicitly racist rhetoric, the war marked the first time in the United States' seventy-year history that it invoked race as a justification for expanding its borders. (6) The war also facilitated future uses of racist rhetoric in oppressing domestic minorities. (7)

Let us first examine the war itself as portrayed in Amy S. Greenberg's A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico. (8) This will first entail examining the parts played by five political figures--some young, some senior--together with their families and children. (9) Then we shall show the prominent role of what we call "racial templates"--linguistic frames, habits, and attitudes of mind--in the War with Mexico and later. As we shall see, these templates, often operating at an unconscious level, predisposed society and individual actors to reproduce risky or oppressive behavior in arenas far beyond the ones in which they first emerged. Identifying these templates is a necessary first step in reducing their sway.

  1. Five Men, Their Wives, and Children

    Greenberg tells the war's story through the eyes of five men who played large parts in it, (10) as well as through the experiences of their wives and children. (11) Rather than focusing on the military side of the war, Greenberg develops the political narrative that accompanied the buildup to the war and the war itself (p. xiii), highlighting the role of ideology, expansionist fever, and the five individuals and their families in guiding or opposing a war that would shape this country's destiny, laws, and demographic realities (pp. xiii-xiv). The book also recounts the development of the country's first peace movement, which included workers, military deserters, and intellectuals such as Charles Sumner, James Russell Lowell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Lloyd Garrison, and Henry Thoreau, who went to jail rather than pay taxes that would support an unjust war (pp. xvii, 193-97). Thoreau subsequently wrote an essay, entitled Civil Disobedience, setting out his thoughts on the subject. (12)

    Greenberg begins her treatment of this neglected chapter in American history by describing four years in the career of Polk, the war's most influential and effective backer (Chapters Two and Three). Egged on by his strong-willed wife, Sarah (pp. 29-31, 72-75), Polk, a childless man who lacked any military experience, nevertheless micromanaged the war (pp. xv, 28, 94-95, 144, 175, 219), beginning with the skirmish that enabled him to pin the blame on Mexico (pp. 9-12, 76-77, 95). The war's military maneuvers receive little attention from Greenberg, but the war was bloody, with one of the highest casualty rates of any American campaign. Over 10 percent of the 79,000 American soldiers who fought in the war ultimately died, most of them from disease (pp. xvii, 129). Mexican casualties ran high as well (p. xvii).

    Far from regretting it, Polk remained an enthusiastic backer to the very end (Chapters Four and Five). Like the other four men--even those, like Trist and Lincoln, who were of a more peaceable disposition--Polk was a product of a warrior period, forged in fights against England and the Indians (pp. xviii, 27). As the son of wealthy slaveowners and a slaveowner himself, he was also accustomed to thinking of nonwhite people as chattels or obstacles in the way of progress (pp. 27, 36, 95-96). It was thus easy for him and others of his inclination to view the War with Mexico as simply an extension of the struggle they had been waging against the Indians. It also explains how they came to see the Mexicans in much the same way as they saw their slaves, beings of a lower order of humanity. (13)

    Not everyone subscribed to this view. The country waged war over the objection of significant numbers of Americans who were opposed to or ambivalent about it (pp. xvii, 196, 205-07). As well they should have been--historians now acknowledge that the land taken from Mexico at great cost to both sides could have been acquired by diplomacy and purchase (pp. xvii--xviii). The land was of little value to Mexico but of much to the United States. As with the Oregon Purchase and other deals by which the fledgling country increased its size, the United States might have traded things of value with Mexico and remained on good terms. (14)

    Of the five narratives, Polk's story, which opens the book (Chapter Two), is one of the more revealing. An ambitious man with an even more ambitious wife, he was as single-minded a backer of war as others, especially Clay, were diehard opponents. (15) Polk also embraced Texas's annexation, which he saw as a necessary preliminary to a war with Mexico, with rich stakes in the offing. (16) A devotee of Manifest Destiny (pp. 36-37, 55-58), Polk also favored annexing the entire Oregon Country under the slogan "Fifty-four forty or fight," (17) envisioning a United States that spread from ocean to ocean and encompassed British Columbia and the island of Vancouver (pp. 34, 55). As a slaveholder, he also welcomed the entry of Texas into the Union as a means of strengthening the institution of slavery. (18)

    His instinct proved right. Sensing that the public supported expansion (pp. 9-10, 55-57) and smarting over the small but decisive defeat Mexican forces dealt the Americans at the Alamo, he rode to victory in the presidential election of 1844 when his opponent, Clay, made the biggest mistake of a long and distinguished career: opposing intervention in Mexico. (19) Polk also had the support of Andrew Jackson--or Old Hickory, as he was popularly known--who saw in his young protege a continuation of his own bloody policies (pp. 24-25, 27, 29, 31-35, 40-42, 46-47, 62, 267).

    Polk quickly made good on his campaign promises, sending an emissary to Mexico City to negotiate the purchase of northern Mexico (pp. 77-79). When Mexico refused to sell, he dispatched Taylor to a disputed border region in hopes of provoking conflict. (20) The Mexicans obliged, firing on a small detachment of U.S. soldiers and killing eleven of them. (21) Congress promptly declared war, but Polk did not wait for the declaration (Chapter Five). Even before news of the attack reached Washington, Polk's cabinet had decided to ask Congress for a declaration of war, citing Mexico's refusal to cooperate with U.S. territorial ambitions. (22)

    Much of the country was soon in the grip of wartime fervor (Chapter Five). Clay's son and Hardin, Lincoln's fellow politician from Illinois and one of Greenberg's five signature figures, quickly signed up as colonels to fight in the Mexican campaign (pp. 113-17). Hardin, the namesake and grandson of a Revolutionary War patriot and Indian fighter, (23) had been the first from his state to enlist (p. 180). Henry Clay Jr. was less enthusiastic, agreeing with his father's misgivings but still feeling an obligation to fight for his country (p. 124). Both died martyrs' deaths in the Battle of Buena Vista, Hardin when twenty Mexican lancers charged at him while firing. (24)

    The war itself went well at first and was very popular (25) but then took a turn for the worse. After a string of successes, the U.S. Army marched into Mexico City in September 1847, massacring large numbers of Mexican villagers along the way and sustaining numerous casualties, many of them from disease. (26) Many soldiers defected, with some of them joining the Mexican troops against their former comrades. (27) When news of the ill-disciplined troops' many murders reached the American public, (28) the tide turned. Even papers that had backed the war turned against it. (29) Except in the South and West, the war was now unpopular. (30) These polarized attitudes set the stage for the Civil War a few years later.

    Polk finally bowed to the inevitable. Realizing that the war was encountering opposition--not to mention incessant guerrilla activity by the Mexicans, who refused to be defeated (pp. 222-23) he resolved to negotiate peace with the Mexicans on terms that would satisfy his party's territorial ambitions (pp. 212-13). Two final figures played a part in winding down the war: Trist and Clay. Trist, a young protege and family member of Thomas Jefferson (having married his granddaughter), was serving in the War Department as a translator when Polk appointed him chief negotiator in charge of dictating peace terms with the Mexicans (p. 174). But as the negotiations began, Trist realized...

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