We Were Divided by the Mexican War, too





Mark Trahant, in the Seattle Times (Feb. 22, 2004):

It's about a war president who went too far. He divided the country between those who favored military engagement and those who thought the president had been dishonest about his very reason for war.

One member of Congress was particularly troubled. The Illinois member, soon to become a Republican, rose on the House floor to express his displeasure; the president should not have the power to invade a country based on something that might happen or be allowed"to make war at pleasure."

The country was divided ideologically, too. When the war was first explained, Congress voted to support the president. But as time went on, Congress was more and more divided. One resolution, passing by a single vote, denounced the conflict as"a war unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States." Outside of Washington, D.C., the country was stuck in division between what we now call the red and the blue states.

The year was 1848. The war was against Mexico. The president was James K. Polk. And the dissenting member of Congress was one Abraham Lincoln. His stand in Illinois was so unpopular that it was said to have"retired Lincoln to private life."

A couple of weeks ago, I picked up a new biography,"James K. Polk," by John Seigenthaler.

Over the years, John and I have had great conversations about Polk's mentor, Andrew Jackson."Old Hickory" was, in many ways, the first"American" president (before that, presidents were more European), whose confiscation of Americans Indian homelands is unequaled. It was also an era when politics was particularly passionate and nasty.

So I was looking forward to reading about the politician they called"Young Hickory." But as I read more about the war against Mexico -- and the divisions it caused -- my mind kept seeing today's headlines.

I know history never offers perfect parallels, but the stories told do help us understand our national character.

Ours is not the only generation divided by war. Some memories are still fresh, such as Vietnam, while others are deeply planted, rarely part of our national discourse.

Yet it was the Mexican War -- and the divisions it exacerbated -- that inspired the dissent of Abraham Lincoln, Henry David Thoreau's"Civil Disobedience" and Ralph Waldo Emerson. ...


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