Leave a comment

While the Chief Magistrate and the popular branch of Congress are elected for short terms by the suffrages of those millions who must in their own persons bear all the burdens and miseries of war, our Government can not be otherwise than pacific… James K. Polk

James K. Polk, half-length portrait, seated, facing slightly left, with the U.S. Capitol seen through window in the background.

James K. Polk, half-length portrait, seated, facing slightly left, with the U.S. Capitol seen through window in the background.

James Knox Polk was the Ronald Reagan of his day defeating Henry Clay of the Whig Party by promising to annex Texas. The last strong pre–Civil War president he is noted for his foreign policy successes. He threatened war with Britain over the issue of which nation owned the Oregon Country and when Mexico rejected American annexation of Texas, Polk led the nation to a sweeping victory in the Mexican-American War, which gave the United States most of its present Southwest. He secured passage of the Walker tariff of 1846, which had low rates that pleased his native South, and he established a treasury system that lasted until 1913. Polk oversaw the opening of the U.S. Naval Academy, the Smithsonian Institution and the groundbreaking for the Washington Monument. Improving on Washington’s example he promised to serve only one term and did not run for reelection making him the only voluntary one-term president in our history. It is not surprising that the record of such success should be challenged by the new revisionists and this book is a prime example of how wrong things were in the bad old days – hardly worth a read.

An indignant James K. Polk takes issue with Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster's public attacks on his Texas policy. In 1844 Webster had been opposed to the annexation of Texas and in 1846 he criticized attacked the war with Mexico over Texas as highly unjustifiable. Webster's first public speech on the war was made in late June, and the print probably did not appear before that. In the center, Polk (left) confronts Webster, warning, "If you say the Mexican War is a War of my own makeing you tell a falshood!" Raising his fists, Webster retorts, "I did say it & say it again!" To the left of Polk stand Thomas Ritchie and James Watson Webb, newspaper editors supporting the administration. Webb holds a bottle of "Tom and Jerry" and a sponge, commenting, "Principles, not men!" The Whig editor had opposed the annexation of Texas, but once hostilities commenced he urged military action to bring about a speedy termination. Webb's insistence on "principles" reflects his uneasiness in an alliance with a Democratic administration which stood to gain politically from the conflict. Ritchie reassures Polk, "In Union [a double entendre referring to his newspaper the "Washington Union&1] there is strength, Nous Verrons!" To the right of Webster stand an unidentified man (probably another journalist) and Horace Greeley, editor of the New York "Tribune. "Greeley, who was severely critical of Polk's policies, holds a bottle of "Lemon Soda" and (like Webb) a sponge, and remarks, "I wish Dan had eaten more Graham bread he's too fat for Polk!" (Graham bread was a well-known Greeley dietary preference.) The unidentified man remarks, "A Daniel come to blows, if not Judgment." The sponges and bottles are apparently intended for the relief of the fighters.

An indignant James K. Polk takes issue with Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster’s public attacks on his Texas policy. In 1844 Webster had been opposed to the annexation of Texas and in 1846 he criticized attacked the war with Mexico over Texas as highly unjustifiable. Webster’s first public speech on the war was made in late June, and the print probably did not appear before that. In the center, Polk (left) confronts Webster, warning, “If you say the Mexican War is a War of my own makeing you tell a falshood!” Raising his fists, Webster retorts, “I did say it & say it again!” To the left of Polk stand Thomas Ritchie and James Watson Webb, newspaper editors supporting the administration. Webb holds a bottle of “Tom and Jerry” and a sponge, commenting, “Principles, not men!” The Whig editor had opposed the annexation of Texas, but once hostilities commenced he urged military action to bring about a speedy termination. Webb’s insistence on “principles” reflects his uneasiness in an alliance with a Democratic administration which stood to gain politically from the conflict. Ritchie reassures Polk, “In Union [a double entendre referring to his newspaper the “Washington Union&1] there is strength, Nous Verrons!” To the right of Webster stand an unidentified man (probably another journalist) and Horace Greeley, editor of the New York “Tribune. “Greeley, who was severely critical of Polk’s policies, holds a bottle of “Lemon Soda” and (like Webb) a sponge, and remarks, “I wish Dan had eaten more Graham bread he’s too fat for Polk!” (Graham bread was a well-known Greeley dietary preference.) The unidentified man remarks, “A Daniel come to blows, if not Judgment.” The sponges and bottles are apparently intended for the relief of the fighters.

A wicked war : Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. invasion of Mexico Amy Greenberg New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2012 Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. xix, 344 p. : ill. ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 317-330) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

Death of Col. John J. Hardin: Of the 1st regiment Illinois volunteers.

Death of Col. John J. Hardin: Of the 1st regiment Illinois volunteers.

Often forgotten and overlooked, the U.S.-Mexican War featured false starts, atrocities, and daring back-channel negotiations as it divided the nation, paved the way for the Civil War a generation later, and nearly – but not quite – ended the career of Abraham Lincoln before it started. Greenberg’s storytelling brings this American war for empire to life with memorable characters, plotlines, and legacies for modern revisionists.

An attack on James K. Polk's attempts to undermine Winfield Scott's military efforts and reputation through his handling of the Mexican War in April 1847. Shortly after Scott's victory at Cerro Gordo, Polk dispatched State Department official Nicholas Trist to Mexico to negotiate peace with the Mexican government. The artist views the move, as did many contemporaries, as motivated by political concerns about the Whig general's presidential ambitions. Scott, on a large hill at right, offers a steaming plate of soup to departing Mexican commander Santa Anna, who rides away on horseback. (For the soup allusion see "Distinguished Military Operations," no. 1846-15). From a ravine behind Scott, Polk goads Trist as he aims a water hose at the general. The hose is fueled by a pump operated by two boys in the background. In the distance American troops engage the Mexicans on the hills near Cerro Gordo. In the upper left appears the dialogue: Scott: "General Santa Anna!! do stop and take 'a hasty plate of soup?'" Santa Anna: "I thank you, Sir, your soup's too hot-I must be off!" Polk: "Trist, take care & cool 'old Hasty's' soup, before "our friend" meets him again." Trist: "Your Excellency will pardon me, but I've tried in vain to cool 'Old Hasty's' soup." Polk: "Then put out 'Old Hasty's' fire, or "that fatal soup will burn our fingers yet!" Trist: "Your excellency would do well to send 'Old Hasty' home and give "our friend" 'Pillow' for his Comfort." The last reference was to Gen. Gideon J. Pillow, an incompetent but a favorite of Polk, whose antagonism toward Scott was public knowledge, particularly after Cerro Gordo.

An attack on James K. Polk’s attempts to undermine Winfield Scott’s military efforts and reputation through his handling of the Mexican War in April 1847. Shortly after Scott’s victory at Cerro Gordo, Polk dispatched State Department official Nicholas Trist to Mexico to negotiate peace with the Mexican government. The artist views the move, as did many contemporaries, as motivated by political concerns about the Whig general’s presidential ambitions. Scott, on a large hill at right, offers a steaming plate of soup to departing Mexican commander Santa Anna, who rides away on horseback. (For the soup allusion see “Distinguished Military Operations,” no. 1846-15). From a ravine behind Scott, Polk goads Trist as he aims a water hose at the general. The hose is fueled by a pump operated by two boys in the background. In the distance American troops engage the Mexicans on the hills near Cerro Gordo. In the upper left appears the dialogue: Scott: “General Santa Anna!! do stop and take ‘a hasty plate of soup?'” Santa Anna: “I thank you, Sir, your soup’s too hot-I must be off!” Polk: “Trist, take care & cool ‘old Hasty’s’ soup, before “our friend” meets him again.” Trist: “Your Excellency will pardon me, but I’ve tried in vain to cool ‘Old Hasty’s’ soup.” Polk: “Then put out ‘Old Hasty’s’ fire, or “that fatal soup will burn our fingers yet!” Trist: “Your excellency would do well to send ‘Old Hasty’ home and give “our friend” ‘Pillow’ for his Comfort.” The last reference was to Gen. Gideon J. Pillow, an incompetent but a favorite of Polk, whose antagonism toward Scott was public knowledge, particularly after Cerro Gordo.

When President James K. Polk compelled a divided Congress to support his war with Mexico, it was the first time that the young American nation would invade another country to protect American citizens and interests. Caught up in the conflict and the political furor surrounding it were Abraham Lincoln, then a new congressman; Polk, the president committed to territorial expansion; and Henry Clay, the aging politician whose presidential hopes had been frustrated once again, but who still coveted influence and had not yet run out of bombastic oratory.

Nicholas Philip Trist

Nicholas Philip Trist

Beyond these illustrious – or notorious – figures, A Wicked War follows several fascinating and long-neglected characters: Lincoln’s archrival John Hardin, dead in combat while Lincoln cowered in Congress but whose death opened the door to Lincoln’s rise; Nicholas Trist, a hanger-on who started out as Jefferson’s secretary – and forever more hung on – reputed to be a gentleman diplomat [read dilettante] and secret negotiator, who broke with his president to negotiate a his own idea of peace; and Polk’s wife, Sarah, whose service as a gracious hostess was crucial in the Oval Office.

Henry Clay's November 1847 address to a public meeting in Lexington, Kentucky, condemning the Polk administration's prosecution of the Mexican War and opposing the pondered annexation of all of Mexican territory is the subject of the artist's attack. Clay's speech was widely published and was endorsed by influential New York editor Horace Greeley. Here the Whig statesman's pacifism is depicted as insincere and politically motivated, and Greeley is shown as unpatriotic. A two-faced Clay hands a pair of pistols to his son Lt. Col. Henry Clay (in uniform, far left). The younger Clay was an officer in the Mexican War and was killed at Vera Cruz in February 1847. The elder Clay says, "Take these pistols, my son, and use them honorably. May they do good execution on the foes of your country." On the other side he addresses Greeley and several others, vowing, "Down with this War-making Administration! Down with the Army who rob and kill our innocent friends the Mexicans!" Greeley (center, in pale frock coat) holds a copy of his New York "Tribune," publishing Clay's speech. His reply is, "Hurra! Hurra! These are the good old days of the Hartford Convention! It warms the very bran bread in my stomach to hear thee! Glorious Harry of the West!" The Hartford Convention, held in 1815, was an early secessionist movement in the Northeast. "Bran bread" was a well-known dietary preference of Greeley's. Behind Greeley is a cadaverous man (possibly William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the "Liberator), who says, "This is nuts for us. Another spoke in the non-resistance wheel!" Beside him another unidentified man, wearing plaid trousers patched in several places, throws up his hands and exclaims, "Mercy on me! what shall I do? Here I have been waiting 20 years for an office under the Whigs, and old Harry has knocked us all into the shape of a three cocked Hat." On the right stands bewhiskered New York "Courier and Enquirer" editor James Watson Webb. Outraged, he raises his fist and shouts, "What the devil is this? What success can we expect when we go against the country, and trample on the ashes of our slain Heroes?" Webb, though a Whig, supported the Mexican War brought about by the Democratic Polk administration. He is told by a smaller man, "Peace, Colonel! You'll spoil all. Don't you know it is necessary to decry the war in order to make out that Scott and Taylor are doing more harm than good, and thus keep them out of the Presidential chair, which must be filled by Harry of the West. You know our case is desperate, and so Harry must do something desperate for his own sake." On the far right a carpenter holds up a wooden peg and announces, "Gentlemen, I've made a new Wooden leg for Santa Anna. You can appoint a Clay-Whig Committee to present it to him, with a suitable address." Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the commander of Mexican forces, had left his wooden leg behind in his retreat from the Battle of Cerro Gordo.

Henry Clay’s November 1847 address to a public meeting in Lexington, Kentucky, condemning the Polk administration’s prosecution of the Mexican War and opposing the pondered annexation of all of Mexican territory is the subject of the artist’s attack. Clay’s speech was widely published and was endorsed by influential New York editor Horace Greeley. Here the Whig statesman’s pacifism is depicted as insincere and politically motivated, and Greeley is shown as unpatriotic. A two-faced Clay hands a pair of pistols to his son Lt. Col. Henry Clay (in uniform, far left). The younger Clay was an officer in the Mexican War and was killed at Vera Cruz in February 1847. The elder Clay says, “Take these pistols, my son, and use them honorably. May they do good execution on the foes of your country.” On the other side he addresses Greeley and several others, vowing, “Down with this War-making Administration! Down with the Army who rob and kill our innocent friends the Mexicans!” Greeley (center, in pale frock coat) holds a copy of his New York “Tribune,” publishing Clay’s speech. His reply is, “Hurra! Hurra! These are the good old days of the Hartford Convention! It warms the very bran bread in my stomach to hear thee! Glorious Harry of the West!” The Hartford Convention, held in 1815, was an early secessionist movement in the Northeast. “Bran bread” was a well-known dietary preference of Greeley’s. Behind Greeley is a cadaverous man (possibly William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the “Liberator), who says, “This is nuts for us. Another spoke in the non-resistance wheel!” Beside him another unidentified man, wearing plaid trousers patched in several places, throws up his hands and exclaims, “Mercy on me! what shall I do? Here I have been waiting 20 years for an office under the Whigs, and old Harry has knocked us all into the shape of a three cocked Hat.” On the right stands bewhiskered New York “Courier and Enquirer” editor James Watson Webb. Outraged, he raises his fist and shouts, “What the devil is this? What success can we expect when we go against the country, and trample on the ashes of our slain Heroes?” Webb, though a Whig, supported the Mexican War brought about by the Democratic Polk administration. He is told by a smaller man, “Peace, Colonel! You’ll spoil all. Don’t you know it is necessary to decry the war in order to make out that Scott and Taylor are doing more harm than good, and thus keep them out of the Presidential chair, which must be filled by Harry of the West. You know our case is desperate, and so Harry must do something desperate for his own sake.” On the far right a carpenter holds up a wooden peg and announces, “Gentlemen, I’ve made a new Wooden leg for Santa Anna. You can appoint a Clay-Whig Committee to present it to him, with a suitable address.” Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the commander of Mexican forces, had left his wooden leg behind in his retreat from the Battle of Cerro Gordo.

This history of the 1846 conflict paints an intimate – perhaps too intimate for accuracy in some cases – portrait of the major players and their world. It is a story of Indian fights, Manifest Destiny, secret military maneuvers, gunshot wounds, and political spin. Along the way it captures a young Lincoln through a selection of potentially apocryphal anecdotes that have the smell of myth making to them, the lasting influence of the Founding Fathers, the birth of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the most effective president of his generation being attacked by a highly organized minority group of agitators. A key chapter in the creation of the United States, it is the story of a burgeoning nation and an unforgettable conflict that has shaped American history.

First Lady Sarah [Mrs. J.K.] Polk

First Lady Sarah [Mrs. J.K.] Polk

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: