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British Government had any effect; it was a fixed idea of Calhoun and
his followers that the designs of Great Britain against American
slavery could only be baffled by the annexation of Texas. Van Buren
was not in principle opposed to the admission of Texas into the Union
at the proper time and with the proper conditions, but the more ardent
Democrats of the South were unwilling to listen to any conditions or
any suggestion of delay. They succeeded in inducing the convention to
adopt the two-thirds rule, after a whole day of stormy debate, and the
defeat of Van Buren was secured. The nomination of Mr. Polk was
received without enthusiasm, and the exultant hopes of the Whigs were
correspondingly increased.

Contemporary observers differ as to the causes which gradually, as the
summer advanced, changed the course of public opinion to such an
extent as to bring defeat in November upon a party which was so sure
of victory in June. It has been the habit of the antislavery Whigs who
have written upon the subject to ascribe the disaster to an
indiscretion of the candidate himself. At the outset of the campaign
Mr. Clay's avowed opinion as to the annexation of Texas was that of
the vast majority of his party, especially in the North. While not
opposing an increase of territory under all circumstances, he said, -
in a letter written from Raleigh, N.C., two weeks before his
nomination, - "I consider the annexation of Texas, at this time,
without the consent of Mexico, as a measure compromising the national
character, involving us certainly in war with Mexico, probably with
other foreign powers, dangerous to the integrity of the Union,
inexpedient in the present financial condition of the country, and not
called for by any expression of public opinion." He supported these
views with temperate and judicious reasons which were received with
much gratification throughout the country.

Of course they were not satisfactory to every one, and Mr. Clay became
so disquieted by letters of inquiry and of criticism from the South,
that he was at last moved, in an unfortunate hour, to write another
letter to a friend in Alabama, which was regarded as seriously
modifying the views he had expressed in the letter from Raleigh. He
now said: "I have no hesitation in saying that, far from having any
personal objections to the annexation of Texas, I should be glad to
see it - without dishonor, without war, with the common consent of the
Union, and upon just and fair terms ... I do not think the subject of
slavery ought to affect the question one way or the other, whether
Texas be independent or incorporated in the United States. I do not
believe it will prolong or shorten the duration of that institution.
It is destined to become extinct, at some distant day, in my opinion,
by the operation of the inevitable laws of population. It would be
unwise to refuse a permanent acquisition, which will exist as long as
the globe remains, on account of a temporary institution." Mr. Clay
does not in this letter disclaim or disavow any sentiments previously
expressed. He says, as any one might say, that provided certain
impossible conditions were complied with, he would be glad to see
Texas in the Union, and that he was so sure of the ultimate extinction
of slavery that he would not let any consideration of that transitory
system interfere with a great national advantage. It might naturally
have been expected that such an expression would have given less
offense to the opponents than to the friends of slavery. But the
contrary effect resulted, and it soon became evident that a grave
error of judgment had been committed in writing the letter.

[Sidenote: "American Conflict," p. 167.]

The principal opposition to annexation in the North had been made
expressly upon the ground that it would increase the area of slavery,
and the comparative indifferences with which Mr. Clay treated that
view of the subject cost him heavily in the canvass. Horace Greeley,
who should be regarded as an impartial witness in such a case, says,
"The 'Liberty Party,' so-called, pushed this view of the matter beyond
all justice and reason, insisting that Mr. Clay's antagonism to
annexation, not being founded in antislavery conviction, was of no
account whatever, and that his election should, on that ground, be
opposed." It availed nothing that Mr. Clay, alarmed at the defection
in the North, wrote a third and final letter, reiterating his
unaltered objections to any such annexation as was at that time
possible. The damage was irretrievable. It is not probable that his
letters gained or saved him a vote in the South among the advocates of
annexation. They cared for nothing short of their own unconditional
scheme of immediate action. They forgot the services rendered by Mr.
Clay in bringing about the recognition of Texan independence a few
years before.

They saw that Mr. Polk was ready to risk everything - war,
international complications, even the dishonor of broken obligations -
to accomplish their purpose, and nothing the Whig candidate could say
would weigh anything in the balance against this blind and reckless
readiness. On the other hand, Mr. Clay's cautious and moderate
position did him irreparable harm among the ardent opponents of
slavery. They were not willing to listen to counsels of caution and
moderation. More than a year before, thirteen of the Whig antislavery
Congressmen, headed by the illustrious John Quincy Adams, had issued a
fervid address to the people of the free States, declaiming in
language of passionate force against the scheme of annexation as fatal
to the country, calling it, in fact, "identical with dissolution," and
saying that "it would be a violation of our national compact, its
objects, designs, and the great elementary principles which entered
into its formation of a character so deep and fundamental, and would
be an attempt to eternize an institution and a power of nature so
unjust in themselves, so injurious to the interests and abhorrent to
the feelings of the people of the free States, as in our opinion, not
only inevitably to result in a dissolution of the Union, but fully to
justify it; and we not only assert that the people of the free States
ought not to submit to it, but we say with confidence they would not
submit to it." To men in a temper like that indicated by these words,
no arguments drawn from consideration of political expediency could be
expected to have any weight, and it was of no use to say to them that
in voting for a third candidate they were voting to elect Mr. Polk,
the avowed and eager advocate of annexation. If all the votes cast for
James G. Birney, the "Liberty" candidate, had been cast for Clay, he
would have been elected, and even as it was the contest was close and
doubtful to the last. Birney received 62,263 votes, and the popular
majority of Polk over Clay was only 38,792.

There are certain temptations that no government yet instituted has
been able to resist. When an object is ardently desired by the
majority, when it is practicable, when it is expedient for the
material welfare of the country, and when the cost of it will fall
upon other people, it may be taken for granted that - in the present
condition of international ethics - the partisans of the project will
never lack means of defending its morality. The annexation of Texas
was one of these cases. Moralists called it an inexcusable national
crime, conceived by Southern statesmen for the benefit of slavery,
[Footnote: This purpose was avowed by John C. Calhoun in the Senate,
May 23, 1836; see also his speech of February 24, 1847.] carried on
during a term of years with unexampled energy, truculence and
treachery; in both houses of Congress, in the cabinets of two
Presidents, in diplomatic dealings with foreign powers, every step of
its progress marked by false professions, by broken pledges, by a
steady degradation of moral fiber among all those engaged in the
scheme. The opposition to it - as usually happens - consisted partly in
the natural effort of partisans to baffle their opponents, and partly
in an honorable protest of heart and conscience against a great wrong
committed in the interest of a national sin. But looking back upon the
whole transaction - even over so short a distance as now separates us
from it - one cannot but perceive that the attitude of the two parties
was in some sort inevitable and that the result was also sure,
whatever the subordinate events or incidents which may have led to it.
It was impossible to defeat or greatly to delay the annexation of
Texas, and although those who opposed it but obeyed the dictates of
common morality, they were fighting a battle beyond ordinary human

Here was a great empire offering itself to us - a State which had
gained its independence, and built itself into a certain measure of
order and thrift through American valor and enterprise. She offered us
a magnificent estate of 376,000 square miles of territory, all of it
valuable, and much of it of unsurpassed richness and fertility. Even
those portions of it once condemned as desert now contribute to the
markets of the world vast stores of wool and cotton, herds of cattle
and flocks of sheep. Not only were these material advantages of great
attractiveness to the public mind, but many powerful sentimental
considerations reinforced the claim of Texas. The Texans were not an
alien people. The few inhabitants of that vast realm were mostly
Americans, who had occupied and subdued a vacant wilderness. The
heroic defense of the Alamo had been made by Travis, Bowie, and David
Crockett, whose exploits and death form one of the most brilliant
pages of our border history. Fannin and his men, four hundred strong,
when they laid down their lives at Goliad [Transcriber's Note: Lengthy
footnote relocated to chapter end.] had carried mourning into every
South-western State; and when, a few days later, Samuel Houston and
his eight hundred raw levies defeated and destroyed the Mexican army
at San Jacinto, captured Santa Anna, the Mexican president, and with
American thrift, instead of giving him the death he merited for his
cruel murder of unarmed prisoners, saved him to make a treaty with,
the whole people recognized something of kinship in the unaffected
valor with which these borderers died and the humorous shrewdness with
which they bargained, and felt as if the victory over the Mexicans
were their own.

The schemes of the Southern statesmen who were working for the
extension of slavery were not defensible, and we have no disposition
to defend them; but it may be doubted whether there is a government on
the face of the earth which, under similar circumstances, would not
have yielded to the same temptation.

Under these conditions, the annexation, sooner or later, was
inevitable. No man and no party could oppose it except at serious
cost. It is not true that schemes of annexation are always popular.
Several administrations have lost heavily by proposing them. Grant
failed with Santo Domingo; Seward with St. Thomas; and it required all
his skill and influence to accomplish the ratification of the Alaska
purchase. There is no general desire among Americans for acquiring
outlying territory, however intrinsically valuable it may be; their
land-hunger is confined within the limits of that of a Western farmer
once quoted by Mr. Lincoln, who used to say, "I am not greedy about
land; I only want what jines mine." Whenever a region contiguous to
the United States becomes filled with Americans, it is absolutely
certain to come under the American flag. Texas was as sure to be
incorporated into the Union as are two drops of water touching each
other to become one; and this consummation would not have been
prevented for any length of time if Clay or Van Buren had been elected
in 1844. The honorable scruples of the Whigs, the sensitive
consciences of the "Liberty" men, could never have prevailed
permanently against a tendency so natural and so irresistible.
Everything that year seemed to work against the Whigs. At a most
unfortunate time for them, there was an outbreak of that "native"
fanaticism which reappears from time to time in our politics with the
periodicity of malarial fevers, and always to the profit of the party
against which its efforts are aimed. It led to great disturbances in
several cities, and to riot and bloodshed in Philadelphia. The Clay
party were, of course, free from any complicity with these outrages,
but the foreigners, in their alarm, huddled together almost as one man
on the side where the majority of them always voted, and this
occasioned a heavy loss to the Whigs in several States. The first
appearance of Lincoln in the canvass was in a judicious attempt to
check this unreasonable panic. At a meeting held in Springfield, June
12, he introduced and supported resolutions, declaring that "the
guarantee of the rights of conscience as found in our Constitution is
most sacred and inviolable, and one that belongs no less to the
Catholic than the Protestant, and that all attempts to abridge or
interfere with these rights either of Catholic or Protestant, directly
or indirectly, have our decided disapprobation, and shall have our
most effective opposition." Several times afterwards in his life
Lincoln was forced to confront this same proscriptive spirit among the
men with whom he was more or less affiliated politically, and he never
failed to denounce it as it deserved, whatever might be the risk of
loss involved.

Beginning with this manly protest against intolerance and disorder, he
went into the work of the campaign and continued in it with unabated
ardor to the end. The defeat of Clay affected him, as it did thousands
of others, as a great public calamity and a keen personal sorrow. It
is impossible to mistake the accent of sincere mourning which we find
in the journals of the time. The addresses which were sent to Mr. Clay
from every part of the country indicate a depth of affectionate
devotion which rarely falls to the lot of a political chieftain. An
extract from the one sent by the Clay Clubs of New York will show the
earnest attachment and pride with which the young men of that day
still declared their loyalty to their beloved leader, even in the
midst of irreparable disaster. "We will remember you, Henry Clay,
while the memory of the glorious or the sense of the good remains in
us, with a grateful and admiring affection which shall strengthen with
our strength and shall not decay with our decline. We will remember
you in all our future trials and reverses as him whose name honored
defeat and gave it a glory which victory could not have brought. We
will remember you when patriotic hope rallies again to successful
contest with the agencies of corruption and ruin; for we will never
know a triumph which you do not share in life, whose glory does not
accrue to you in death."

[Relocated Footnote: This massacre inspired one of the most remarkable
poems of Walt Whitman, "Now I tell you what I knew of Texas in my
early youth," in which occurs his description of the rangers:

"They were the glory of the race of rangers,
Matchless with horse, rifle, song, supper, courtship,
Large, turbulent, generous, handsome, proud, and affectionate,
Bearded, sunburnt, drest in the free costume of hunters,
Not a single one over thirty years of age."]



In the months that remained of his term, after the election of his
successor, President Tyler pursued with much vigor his purpose of
accomplishing the annexation of Texas, regarding it as the measure
which was specially to illustrate his administration and to preserve
it from oblivion. The state of affairs, when Congress came together in
December, 1844, was propitious to the project. Dr. Anson Jones had
been elected as President of Texas; the republic was in a more
thriving condition than ever before. Its population was rapidly
increasing under the stimulus of its probable change of flag; its
budget presented a less unwholesome balance; its relations with
Mexico, while they were no more friendly, had ceased to excite alarm.
The Tyler government, having been baffled in the spring by the
rejection of the treaty for annexation which they had submitted to the
Senate, chose to proceed this winter in a different way. Early in the
session a joint resolution providing for annexation was introduced in
the House of Representatives, which, after considerable discussion and
attempted amendment by the anti-slavery members, passed the House by a
majority of twenty-two votes.

In the Senate it encountered more opposition, as might have been
expected in a chamber which had overwhelmingly rejected the same
scheme only a few months before. It was at last amended by inserting a
section called the Walker amendment, providing that the President, if
it were in his judgment advisable, should proceed by way of
negotiation, instead of submitting the resolutions as an overture on
the part of the United States to Texas. This amendment eased the
conscience of a few shy supporters of the Administration who had
committed themselves very strongly against the scheme, and saved them
from the shame of open tergiversation. The President, however, treated
this subterfuge with the contempt which it deserved, by utterly
disregarding the Walker amendment, and by dispatching a messenger to
Texas to bring about annexation on the basis of the resolutions, the
moment he had signed them, when only a few hours of his official
existence remained. The measures initiated by Tyler were, of course,
carried out by Polk. The work was pushed forward with equal zeal at
Washington and at Austin. A convention of Texans was called for the
4th of July to consider the American propositions; they were promptly
accepted and ratified, and in the last days of 1845 Texas was formally
admitted into the Union as a State.

Besides the general objections which the anti-slavery men of the North
had to the project itself, there was something especially offensive to
them in the pretense of fairness and compromise held out by the
resolutions committing the Government to annexation. The third section
provided that four new States might hereafter be formed out of the
Territory of Texas; that such States as were formed out of the portion
lying south of 36 degrees 30', the Missouri Compromise line, might be
admitted with or without slavery, as the people might desire; and that
slavery should be prohibited in such States as might be formed out of
the portion lying north of that line. The opponents of slavery
regarded this provision, with good reason, as derisive. Slavery
already existed in the entire territory by the act of the early
settlers from the South who had brought their slaves with them, and
the State of Texas had no valid claim to an inch of ground north of
the line of 36 degrees 30' nor anywhere near it; so that this clause, if it
had any force whatever, would have authorized the establishment of
slavery in a portion of New Mexico, where it did not exist, and where
it had been expressly prohibited by the Mexican law. Another serious
objection was that the resolutions were taken as committing the United
States to the adoption and maintenance of the Rio Grande del Norte as
the western boundary of Texas. All mention of this was avoided in the
instrument, and it was expressly stated that the State was to be
formed "subject to the adjustment by this Government of all questions
of boundary that may arise with other governments," but the moment the
resolutions were passed the Government assumed, as a matter beyond
dispute, that all of the territory east of the Rio Grande was the
rightful property of Texas, to be defended by the military power of
the United States.

Even if Mexico had been inclined to submit to the annexation of Texas,
it was nevertheless certain that the occupation of the left bank of
the Rio Grande, without an attempt at an understanding, would bring
about a collision. The country lying between the Nueces and the Rio
Grande was then entirely uninhabited, and was thought uninhabitable,
though subsequent years have shown the fallacy of that belief. The
occupation of the country extended no farther than the Nueces, and the
Mexican farmers cultivated their corn and cotton in peace in the
fertile fields opposite Matamoras.

It is true that Texas claimed the eastern bank of the Rio Grande from
its source to its mouth; and while the Texans held Santa Anna
prisoner, under duress of arms and the stronger pressure of his own
conscience, which assured him that he deserved death as a murderer,
"he solemnly sanctioned, acknowledged, and ratified" their
independence with whatever boundaries they chose to claim; but the
Bustamente administration lost no time in repudiating this treaty, and
at once renewed the war, which had been carried on in a fitful way
ever since.

[Illustration: HENRY CLAY.]

[Sidenote: August 23, 1843.]

But leaving out of view this special subject of admitted dispute, the
Mexican Government had warned our own in sufficiently formal terms
that annexation could not be peacefully effected. When A. P. Upshur
first began his negotiations with Texas, the Mexican Minister of
Foreign Affairs, at his earliest rumors of what was afoot, addressed a
note to Waddy Thompson, our Minister in Mexico, referring to the
reported intention of Texas to seek admission, to the Union, and
formally protesting against it as "an aggression unprecedented in the
annals of the world," and adding "if it be indispensable for the
Mexican nation to seek security for its rights at the expense of the
disasters of war, it will call upon God, and rely on its own efforts
for the defense of its just cause." A little while later General
Almonte renewed this notification at Washington, saying in so many
words that the annexation of Texas would terminate his mission, and
that Mexico would declare war as soon as it received intimation of
such an act. In June, 1845, Mr. Donelson, in charge of the American
Legation in Mexico, assured the Secretary of State that war was
inevitable, though he adopted the fiction of Mr. Calhoun, that it was
the result of the abolitionist intrigues of Great Britain, which he
credited with the intention "of depriving both Texas and the United
States of all claim to the country between the Nueces and the Rio

No one, therefore, doubted that war would follow, and it soon came.
General Zachary Taylor had been sent during the summer to Corpus
Christi, where a considerable portion of the small army of the United
States was placed under his command. It was generally understood to be
the desire of the Administration that hostilities should begin without
orders, by a species of spontaneous combustion; but the coolness and
prudence of General Taylor made futile any such hopes, if they were
entertained, and it required a positive order to induce him, in March,
1846, to advance towards the Rio Grande and to cross the disputed
territory. He arrived at a point opposite Matamoras on the 28th of
March, and immediately fortified himself, disregarding the summons of
the Mexican commander, who warned him that such action would be
considered as a declaration of war. In May, General Arista crossed the
river and attacked General Taylor on the field of Palo Alto, where
Taylor won the first of that remarkable series of victories, embracing
Resaca de la Palma, Monterey, and Buena Vista, all gained over
superior forces of the enemy, which made the American commander for
the brief day that was left him the idol alike of soldiers and voters.

After Baker's election in 1844, it was generally taken as a matter of
course in the district that Lincoln was to be the next candidate of
the Whig party for Congress. It was charged at the time, and some
recent writers have repeated the charge, that there was a bargain made
in 1840 between Hardin, Baker, Lincoln, and Logan to succeed each
other in the order named. This sort of fiction is the commonest known
to American politics. Something like it is told, and more or less
believed, in half the districts in the country at every election. It
arises naturally from the fact that there are always more candidates
than places, that any one who is a candidate twice is felt to be
defrauding his neighbors, and that all candidates are too ready to
assure their constituents that they only want one term, and too ready
to forget these assurances when their terms are ending. There is not
only no evidence of any such bargain among the men we have mentioned,

Online LibraryJohn George NicolayAbraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 → online text (page 16 of 31)