John George Nicolay.

Abraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 online

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grateful to our friends for having done it, has not pleased me as much
as I expected," - an experience not unknown to most public men, but
probably intensified in Lincoln's case by his constitutional
melancholy. He went about his work with little gladness, but with a
dogged sincerity and an inflexible conscience.

It soon became apparent that the Whigs were to derive at least a
temporary advantage from the war which the Democrats had brought upon
the country, although it was destined in its later consequences to
sweep the former party out of existence and exile the other from power
for many years. The House was so closely divided that Lincoln, writing
on the 5th, expressed some doubt whether the Whigs could elect all
their caucus nominees, and Mr. Robert C. Winthrop was chosen Speaker
the next day by a majority of one vote. The President showed in his
message that he was doubtful of the verdict of Congress and the
country upon the year's operations, and he argued with more solicitude
than force in defense of the proceedings of the Administration in
regard to the war with Mexico. His anxiety was at once shown to be
well founded. The first attempt made by his friends to indorse the
conduct of the Government was met by a stern rebuke from the House of
Representatives, which passed an amendment proposed by George Ashmun
that "the war had been unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced
by the President." This severe declaration was provoked and justified
by the persistent and disingenuous assertions of the President that
the preceding Congress had "with virtual unanimity" declared that "war
existed by the act of Mexico" - the truth being that a strong minority
had voted to strike out those words from the preamble of the supply
bill, but being outvoted in this, they were compelled either to vote
for preamble and bill together, or else refuse supplies to the army.

It was not surprising that the Whigs and other opponents of the war
should take the first opportunity to give the President their opinion
of such a misrepresentation. The standing of the opposition had been
greatly strengthened by the very victories upon which Mr. Polk had
confidently relied for his vindication. Both our armies in Mexico were
under the command of Whig generals, and among the subordinate officers
who had distinguished themselves in the field, a full share were
Whigs, who, to an extent unusual in wars of political significance,
retained their attitude of hostility to the Administration under whose
orders they were serving. Some of them had returned to their places on
the floor of Congress brandishing their laurels with great effect in
the faces of their opponents who had talked while they fought.
[Transcriber's Note: Lengthy footnote (1) relocated to chapter end.]
When we number the names which leaped into sudden fame in that short
but sanguinary war, it is surprising to find how few of them
sympathized with the party who brought it on, or with the purposes for
which it was waged. The earnest opposition of Taylor to the scheme of
the annexationists did not hamper his movements or paralyze his arm,
when with his little band of regulars he beat the army of Arista on
the plain of Palo Alto, and again in the precipitous Resaca de la
Palma; took by storm the fortified city of Monterey, defended by a
greatly superior force; and finally, with a few regiments of raw
levies, posted among the rocky spurs and gorges about the farm of
Buena Vista, met and defeated the best-led and the best-fought army
the Mexicans ever brought into the field, outnumbering him more than
four to one. It was only natural that the Whigs should profit by the
glory gained by Whig valor, no matter in what cause. The attitude of
the opposition - sure of their advantage and exulting in it - was never
perhaps more clearly and strongly set forth than in a speech made by
Mr. Lincoln near the close of this session. He said:

As General Taylor is _par excellence_ the hero of the Mexican war, and
as you Democrats say we Whigs have always opposed the war, you think
it must be very awkward and embarrassing for us to go for General
Taylor. The declaration that we have always opposed the war is true or
false accordingly as one may understand the term "opposing the war."
If to say "the war was unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced
by the President" be opposing the war, then the Whigs have very
generally opposed it. Whenever they have spoken at all they have said
this; and they have said it on what has appeared good reason to them;
the marching of an army into the midst of a peaceful Mexican
settlement, frightening the inhabitants away, leaving their growing
crops and other property to destruction, to _you_ may appear a
perfectly amiable, peaceful, unprovoking procedure; but it does not
appear so to _us_. So to call such an act, to us appears no other than
a naked, impudent absurdity, and we speak of it accordingly. But if
when the war had begun, and had become the cause of the country, the
giving of our money and our blood, in common with yours, was support
of the war, then it is not true that we have always opposed the war.
With few individual exceptions, you have constantly had our votes here
for all the necessary supplies. And, more than this, you have had the
services, the blood, and the lives of our political brethren in every
trial, and on every field. The beardless boy and the mature man, the
humble and the distinguished, - you have had them. Through suffering
and death, by disease and in battle, they have endured and fought and
fallen with you. Clay and Webster each gave a son, never to be
returned. From the State of my own residence, besides other worthy but
less-known Whig names, we sent Marshall, Morrison, Baker, and Hardin;
they all fought, and one fell, and in the fall of that one we lost our
best Whig man. Nor were the Whigs few in number or laggard in the day
of danger. In that fearful, bloody, breathless struggle at Buena
Vista, where each man's hard task was to beat back five foes or die
himself, of the five high officers who perished, four were Whigs.

There was no refuge for the Democrats after the Whigs had adopted
Taylor as their especial hero, since Scott was also a Whig and an
original opponent of the war. His victories, on account of the
apparent ease with which they were gained, have never received the
credit justly due them. The student of military history will rarely
meet with narratives of battles in any age where the actual operations
coincide so exactly with the orders issued upon the eve of conflict,
as in the official reports of the wonderfully energetic and successful
campaign in which General Scott with a handful of men renewed the
memory of the conquest of Cortes, in his triumphant march from Vera
Cruz to the capital. The plan of the battle of Cerro Gordo was so
fully carried out in action that the official report is hardly more
than the general orders translated from the future tense to the past.
The story of Chapultepec has the same element of the marvelous in it.
On one day the general commanded apparent impossibilities in the
closest detail, and the next day reported that they had been
accomplished. These successes were not cheaply attained. The Mexicans,
though deficient in science and in military intelligence, fought with
bravery and sometimes with desperation. The enormous percentage of
loss in his army proves that Scott was engaged in no light work. He
marched from Pueblo with about 10,000 men, and his losses in the basin
of Mexico were 2703, of whom 383 were officers. But neither he nor
Taylor was a favorite of the Administration, and their brilliant
success brought no gain of popularity to Mr. Polk and his Cabinet.

During the early part of the session little was talked about except
the Mexican war, its causes, its prosecution, and its probable
results. In these wordy engagements the Whigs, partly for the reasons
we have mentioned, partly through their unquestionable superiority in
debate, and partly by virtue of their stronger cause, usually had the
advantage. There was no distinct line of demarcation, however, between
the two parties. There was hardly a vote, after the election of Mr.
Winthrop as Speaker, where the two sides divided according to their
partisan nomenclature. The question of slavery, even where its
presence was not avowed, had its secret influence upon every trial of
strength in Congress, and Southern Whigs were continually found
sustaining the President, and New England Democrats voting against his
most cherished plans. Not even all the Democrats of the South could be
relied on by the Administration. The most powerful leader of them all
denounced with bitter earnestness the conduct of the war, for which he
was greatly responsible. Mr. Calhoun, in an attack upon the
President's policy, January 4, 1848, said: "I opposed the war, not
only because it might have been easily avoided; not only because the
President had no authority to order a part of the disputed territory
in possession of the Mexicans to be occupied by our troops; not only
because I believed the allegations upon which Congress sanctioned the
war untrue, but from high considerations of policy; because I believed
it would lead to many and serious evils to the country and greatly
endanger its free institutions."

[Sidenote: January 13, 1848.]

It was probably not so much the free institutions of the country that
the South Carolina Senator was disturbed about as some others. He
perhaps felt that the friends of slavery had set in motion a train of
events whose result was beyond their ken. Mr. Palfrey, of
Massachusetts, a few days later said with as much sagacity as wit that
"Mr. Calhoun thought that he could set fire to a barrel of gunpowder
and extinguish it when half consumed." In his anxiety that the war
should be brought to an end, Calhoun proposed that the United States
army should evacuate the Mexican capital, establish a defensive line,
and hold it as the only indemnity possible to us. He had no confidence
in treaties, and believed that no Mexican government was capable of
carrying one into effect. A few days later, in a running debate, Mr.
Calhoun made an important statement, which still further strengthened
the contention of the Whigs. He said that in making the treaty of
annexation he did not assume that the Rio del Norte was the western
boundary of Texas; on the contrary, he assumed that the boundary was
an unsettled one between Mexico and Texas; and that he had intimated
to our _charge d'affaires_ that we were prepared to settle the
boundary on the most liberal terms! This was perfectly in accordance
with the position held by most Democrats before the Rio Grande
boundary was made an article of faith by the President. C. J.
Ingersoll, one of the leading men upon that side in Congress, in a
speech three years before had said: "The stupendous deserts between
the Nueces and the Bravo rivers are the natural boundaries between the
Anglo-Saxon and the Mauritanian races"; a statement which, however
faulty from the point of view of ethnology and physical geography,
shows clearly enough the view then held of the boundary question.

The discipline of both parties was more or less relaxed under the
influence of the slavery question. It was singular to see Mr. McLane,
of Baltimore, rebuking Mr. Clingman, of North Carolina, for mentioning
that forbidden subject on the floor of the House; Reverdy Johnson, a
Whig from Maryland, administering correction to John P. Hale, an
insubordinate Democrat from New Hampshire, for the same offense, and
at the time screaming that the "blood of our glorious battle-fields in
Mexico rested on the hands of the President"; Mr. Clingman challenging
the House with the broad statement that "it is a misnomer to speak of
our institution at the South as peculiar; ours is the general system
of the world, and the _free_ system is the peculiar one," and Mr.
Palfrey dryly responding that slavery was natural just as barbarism
was, just as fig-leaves and bare skins were a natural dress. When the
time arrived, however, for leaving off grimacing and posturing, and
the House went to voting, the advocates of slavery usually carried the
day, as the South, Whigs and Democrats together, voted solidly, and
the North was divided. Especially was this the case after the arrival
of the treaty of peace between the United States and Mexico, which was
signed at Guadalupe Hidalgo on the 2d of February and was in the hands
of the Senate only twenty days later. It was ratified by that body on
the 10th of March, with a series of amendments which were at once
accepted by Mexico, and the treaty of peace was officially promulgated
on the national festival of the Fourth of July.

From the hour when the treaty was received in Washington, however, the
discussion as to the conduct of the war naturally languished; the
ablest speeches of the day before became obsolete in the presence of
accomplished facts; and the interest of Congress promptly turned to
the more important subject of the disposition to be made of the vast
domain which our arms had conquered and the treaty confirmed to us. No
one in America then realized the magnitude of this acquisition; its
stupendous physical features were as little appreciated as the vast
moral and political results which were to flow from its absorption
into our commonwealth. It was only known, in general terms, that our
new possessions covered ten degrees of latitude and fifteen of
longitude; that we had acquired, in short, six hundred and thirty
thousand square miles of desert, mountain, and wilderness. There was
no dream, then, of that portentous discovery which, even while the
Senate was wrangling over the treaty, had converted Captain Sutter's
mill at Coloma into a mining camp, for his ruin and the sudden up-
building of many colossal fortunes. The name of California, which
conveys to-day such opulent suggestions, then meant nothing but
barrenness, and Nevada was a name as yet unknown; some future
Congressman, innocent of taste and of Spanish, was to hit upon the
absurdity of calling that land of silver and cactus, of the orange and
the sage-hen, the land of snow. But imperfect as was the appreciation,
at that day, of the possibilities which lay hidden in those sunset
regions, there was still enough of instinctive greed in the minds of
politicians to make the new realm a subject of lively interest and
intrigue. [Transcriber's Note: Lengthy footnote (2) relocated to
chapter end.] At the first showing of hands, the South was successful.
In the Twenty-ninth Congress this contest had begun over the spoils of
a victory not yet achieved. President Polk, foreseeing the probability
of an acquisition of territory by treaty, had asked Congress to make
an appropriation for that purpose. A bill was at once reported in that
sense, appropriating $30,000 for the expenses of the negotiation and
$2,000,000 to be used in the President's discretion. But before it
passed, a number of Northern Democrats [Footnote: Some of the more
conspicuous York; Wilmot, of Pennsylvania; among them were Hamlin, of
Brinckerhoff, of Ohio, and McClel-Maine; Preston King, of New land, of
Michigan.] had become alarmed as to the disposition that might be made
of the territory thus acquired, which was now free soil by Mexican
law. After a hasty consultation they agreed upon a proviso to the
bill, which was presented by David Wilmot, of Pennsylvania. He was a
man of respectable abilities, who then, and long afterwards, held a
somewhat prominent position among the public men of his State; but his
chief claim to a place in history rests upon these few lines which he
moved to add to the first section of the bill under discussion:

Provided, That as an express and fundamental condition to the
acquisition of any territory from the Republic of Mexico by the United
States, by virtue of any treaty that may be negotiated between them,
and to the use by the Executive of the moneys herein appropriated,
neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist in any part of
said territory, except for crime, whereof the party shall first be
duly convicted.

This condition seemed so fair, when first presented to the Northern
conscience, that only three members from the free States voted "no" in
committee. The amendment was adopted - eighty to sixty-four - and the
bill reported to the House. A desperate effort was then made by the
pro-slavery members to kill the bill for the purpose of destroying the
amendment with it. This failed, [Footnote: In this important and
significant vote all the Whigs but one and almost all the Democrats,
from the free States, together with Wm. P. Thomasson and Henry Grider,
Whigs from Kentucky, voted against killing the amended bill, in all
ninety-three. On the other side were all the members from slave-
holding States, except Thomasson and Grider, and the following from
free States, Douglas and John A. McClernand from Illinois, Petit from
Indiana, and Schenek, a Whig, from Ohio, in all seventy-nine. -
Greeley's "American Conflict," I. p. 189.] and the bill, as amended,
passed the House; but going to the Senate a few hours before the close
of the session, it lapsed without a vote.

As soon as the war was ended and the treaty of peace was sent to the
Senate, this subject assumed a new interest and importance, and a
resolution embodying the principle of the Wilmot proviso was brought
before the House by Mr. Harvey Putnam, of New York, but no longer with
the same success. The South was now solid against it, and such a
disintegration of conscience among Northern Democrats had set in, that
whereas only three of them in the last Congress had seen fit to
approve the introduction of slavery into free territory, twenty-five
now voted with the South against maintaining the existing conditions
there. The fight was kept up during the session in various places; if
now and then a temporary advantage seemed gained in the House, it was
lost in the Senate, and no permanent progress was made.

What we have said in regard to the general discussion provoked by the
Mexican war, appeared necessary to explain the part taken by Mr.
Lincoln on the floor. He came to his place unheralded and without any
special personal pretensions. His first participation in debate can
best be described in his own quaint and simple words: "As to speech-
making, by way of getting the hang of the House, I made a little
speech two or three days ago on a post-office question of no general
interest. I find speaking here and elsewhere about the same thing. I
was about as badly scared, and no worse, as I am when I speak in
court. I expect to make one within a week or two in which I hope to
succeed well enough to wish you to see it." He evidently had the
orator's temperament - the mixture of dread and eagerness which all
good speakers feel before facing an audience, which made Cicero
tremble and turn pale when rising in the Forum. The speech he was
pondering was made only four days later, on the 12th of January, and
few better maiden speeches - for it was his first formal discourse in
Congress - have ever been made in that House. He preceded it, and
prepared for it, by the introduction, on the 22d of December, of a
series of resolutions referring to the President's persistent
assertions that the war had been begun by Mexico, "by invading our
territory and shedding the blood of our citizens on our own soil," and
calling upon him to give the House more specific information upon
these points. As these resolutions became somewhat famous afterwards,
and were relied upon to sustain the charge of a lack of patriotism
made by Mr. Douglas against their author, it may be as well to give
them here, especially as they are the first production of Mr.
Lincoln's pen after his entry upon the field of national politics. We
omit the preamble, which consists of quotations from the President's

_Resolved by the House of Representatives,_ That the President of
the United States be respectfully requested to inform this House:

_First._ Whether the spot on which the blood of our citizens was
shed, as in his messages declared, was or was not within the territory
of Spain, at least after the treaty of 1819, until the Mexican

_Second._ Whether that spot is or is not within the territory
which was wrested from Spain by the revolutionary government of

_Third._ Whether that spot is or is not within a settlement of
people, which settlement has existed ever since long before the Texas
revolution and until its inhabitants fled before the approach of the
United States army.

_Fourth._ Whether that settlement is or is not isolated from any
and all other settlements by the Gulf and the Rio Grande on the south
and west, and by wide uninhabited regions in the north and east.

_Fifth._ Whether the people of that settlement, or a majority of
them, or any of them, have ever submitted themselves to the government
or laws of Texas or of the United States, by consent or by compulsion,
either by accepting office, or voting at elections, or paying tax, or
serving on juries, or having process served upon them, or in any other

_Sixth._ Whether the people of that settlement did or did not
flee from the approach of the United States army, leaving unprotected
their homes and their growing crops, _before_ the blood was shed,
as in the messages stated; and whether the first blood so shed was or
was not shed within the inclosure of one of the people who had thus
fled from it.

_Seventh._ Whether our citizens whose blood was shed, as in his
messages declared, were or were not at that time armed officers and
soldiers, sent into that settlement by the military order of the
President, through the Secretary of War.

_Eighth._ Whether the military force of the United States was or
was not so sent into that settlement after General Taylor had more
than once intimated to the War Department that in his opinion no such
movement was necessary to the defense or protection of Texas.

It would have been impossible for the President to answer these
questions, one by one, according to the evidence in his possession,
without surrendering every position he had taken in his messages for
the last two years. An answer was probably not expected; the
resolutions were never acted upon by the House, the vote on the Ashmun
proposition having sufficiently indicated the view which the majority
held of the President's precipitate and unconstitutional proceeding.
But they served as a text for the speech which Lincoln made in
Committee of the Whole, which deserves the attentive reading of any
one who imagines that there was anything accidental in the ascendency
which he held for twenty years among the public men of Illinois. The
winter was mostly devoted to speeches upon the same subject from men
of eminence and experience, but it is within bounds to say there was
not a speech made in the House, that year, superior to this in
clearness of statement, severity of criticism combined with soberness
of style, or, what is most surprising, finish and correctness. In its
close, clear argument, its felicity of illustration, its restrained
yet burning earnestness, it belongs to precisely the same class of
addresses as those which he made a dozen years later. The ordinary
Congressman can never conclude inside the limits assigned him; he must
beg for unanimous consent for an extension of time to complete his
sprawling peroration. But this masterly speech covered the whole
ground of the controversy, and so intent was Lincoln on not exceeding
his hour that he finished his task, to his own surprise, in forty-five
minutes. It is an admirable discourse, and the oblivion which overtook
it, along with the volumes of other speeches made at the same time,
can be accounted for only by remembering that the Guadalupe Treaty
came suddenly in upon the debate, with its immense consequences
sweeping forever out of view all consideration of the causes and the
processes which led to the momentous result.

Lincoln's speech and his resolutions were alike inspired with one
purpose: to correct what he considered an error and a wrong; to
rectify a misrepresentation which he could not, in his very nature,
permit to go uncontradicted. It gratified his offended moral sense to
protest against the false pretenses which he saw so clearly, and it
pleased his fancy as a lawyer to bring a truth to light which
somebody, as he thought, was trying to conceal. He certainly got no
other reward for his trouble. His speech was not particularly well

Online LibraryJohn George NicolayAbraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 → online text (page 18 of 31)