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Fighting Manifest Destiny

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Posted on Dec 11, 2012

By Jonathan Yardley

“A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico”
A book by Amy S. Greenberg

In May 1846 Ulysses S. Grant, a 24-year-old lieutenant in the U.S. Army’s Fourth Infantry only three years out of West Point, saw his first action in Palo Alto, Mexico, in the opening engagement of the Mexican War. “I do not know that I felt any particular sensation,” he told a friend. “War seems much less horrible to persons engaged in it than to those who read of the battles.” The war, in which he served until its conclusion a year later, was a valuable school in which he observed at close hand, and learned much from, two great generals, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, and solidified his friendships with other young officers with some of whom—and against some of whom—he fought a decade and a half later in the Civil War.

The Mexican War may have been Grant’s postgraduate university, but he hated it. “I do not think there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico,” he wrote in 1879. “I thought so at the time, when I was a youngster, only I had not moral courage enough to resign.” That passage serves as epigraph for Amy S. Greenberg’s study of the war, and as inspiration as well for the book’s title. Grant was right. The invasion of Mexico by forces of the United States was an entirely aggressive undertaking, engineered by a stubborn, duplicitous, humorless president—James Knox Polk—who was obsessed with visions of Manifest Destiny and believed it his life’s mission not merely to extend American holdings to the Pacific Coast but to extend the slave territory (he was himself a slaveholder) as far as possible.

Polk’s case for starting the war was trumped up. He insisted that “Mexico had insulted the United States to such a degree that honor required the southern neighbor be punished,” and he completely ignored “the many injuries done to Mexico by the United States—the annexation of Texas, the occupation of the Nueces Strip, the repeated insults offered by America’s incompetent and offensive minister.” His reasoning was steeped in racism: “Mexico, inferior in both race and power, must necessarily bend to the will of its neighbor. To those who suggested that it might be unseemly, even un-Christian, to attack a weaker nation, Polk argued that ‘we must treat all nations, whether great or small, strong or weak, alike.’ ” Polk “believed the domination of white over black was part of God’s plan,” that “domination of the strong over the weak, and white over black or brown, was not just the reality of slavery, it was also … right.”

Many Americans disagreed, some of them passionately. Col. Ethan Allen Hitchcock wrote in his diary: “We have not one particle of right to be here. ... It looks as if the government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have a pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses.” Greenberg writes that around the country “martial ardor cooled as the war dragged on, scores of volunteers died of disease, and reports of bad behavior on the front diminished the glory of volunteering.” An elderly woman in Philadelphia wrote: “I feel so much more sorrow & disgust, than heroism in this war. ... When we were obliged to fight for our liberty—and rights—there was motive & glory in the strife—but to invade a country and slaughter its inhabitants—to fight for boundary—or political supremacy—is altogether against my principles and feelings.”

book cover


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

By Amy S. Greenberg


Knopf, 368 pages


Buy the book

Greenberg, who teaches history and women’s studies at Penn State, has written not a conventional or comprehensive history of the war—many such books already exist—but an examination of how it was affected by, and altered the lives of, several people, notably Polk, Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln. The first of these did achieve his ambitions—“during his single brilliant term, he accomplished a feat that earlier presidents would have considered impossible. ... He masterminded, provoked, and successfully prosecuted a war that turned the United States into a world power”—but he left the White House in 1849 an ill and broken man and died three months later, his reputation to decline steadily over the years; this decline is not entirely fair, and Greenberg pushes Polk down still further with rather unseemly enthusiasm, but his presidency was at best a decidedly mixed bag. Clay, who spoke out courageously against the war, found his own presidential hopes dashed but continued his invaluable public service in the Senate. As for the much younger Lincoln, he too spoke out against the war, to little immediate effect, but in so doing made himself known and heard nationally and thus began his own progress toward the greatness that awaited him more than a decade later.

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