BOOKS AND ARTS FEBRUARY 11, 1967
Rep. Abraham Lincoln (Whig, 111.) speaking: "When the war began, it was my opinion that all those who, because of knowing too little, or because of knowing too much, could not conscientiously approve the conduct of the President, in the beginning of it, remain silent on that point, at least till the war should be ended. . . . I think I should still adhere to it, were it not that the President and his friends will not allow it to be so. . . . Now I propose to show, that the whole of this issue is . . . the sheerest deception. . . ."
There was a war on when the new representative from the 7th Congressional District took his place in the 30th Congress in 1847. The Mexican War, declared on May 12,1846, was political, sectional, imperial. The Southern annexationist wing of President Polk's Democrats had led the fight to admit Texas as a slave state. Lincoln had opposed slavery since his days in the Illinois General Assembly. Moreover, Northern Whigs and abolitionists deplored the doctrine of manifest destiny, that somehow the United States had the God given right to extend its boundaries to the Pacific Ocean.
Only two weeks after Congress assembled, Lincoln rose to make a series of accusations against the President. Mr. Polk had said that the Mexicans were the first aggressors - by an invasion of American soil and an effusion of American blood - after rejecting friendly overtures by the United States. Lincoln built his case in a series of inquiries which immediately were branded the "spot" resolutions. He demanded to know the exact "spot" where Americans were killed and if that "spot" was indeed American territory. He implied that the Mexicans across the Rio Grande had been driven from their homes by the approach of American arms, that intervention was unnecessary for the defense of Texas.
The House took no action on Lincoln's resolutions; clearly his speech was designed to embarrass the President rather than to elicit facts. But there was an immediate backlash among Lincoln's constituents: their representative sounded as if he was not backing the boys in Mexico. Democratic war meetings in Illinois reprimanded him. Although the Whig paper in Chicago said that "there is music in that very tall Mr. Lincoln," the Illinois State Register in his home town called him "the Benedict Arnold of our district." They kept up the ridicule in a piece called "Out Damned Spot," saying that "poor Lincoln" had written his own epitaph: "Died of the Spotted Fever."
But his big blast against the war came on January 12, 1848, only three weeks after his "spot" speech and in spite of the criticism of him. It was carefully prepared - "I condensed all I could for fear of being cut off by the hour rule, and when I got through, I had spoken 'but 45 minutes." He began by saying that "mere party wantonness" was not the reason for his stand against the war. His basic position was that the war was "unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced." The President, he said, tried to twist every silent vote for supplies to support the army into an endorsement of the war itself. He found a credibility gap in the President's first war message which declared that the soil was ours where hostilities began--this, he said, was "the sheerest deception."
Constructed almost in the form of a legal brief, the speech attempted to drive a wedge between the President and the Congress. He delved into old treaties, going back to the Louisiana Purchase. The question was how far the boundaries of Texas extended. "That Congress did not understand it to extend clear to the Rio Grande," he said, "is quite certain." But nobody really was certain about the ownership of the vague borders between Texas and Mexico. Lincoln then attacked the hawks who sought victory and glory. He said that the President really knew that "the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to Heaven against him . . . by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory-- that attractive rainbow, that rises in showers of blood- that serpent's eye, that charms to destroy – he plunged into it, and has swept, on and on, till, disappointed in his calculation of the ease with which Mexico might be subdued, he now finds himself, he knows not where." 'The President is wandering and indefinite," he said. "First, it is to be done by a more vigorous prosecution of the war in the vital parts of the enemy's country," and then "the continued success of our arms may fail to secure a satisfactory peace." The major omission in the President's war message, he said, was when the war could be expected to end.
The most startling section of Lincoln's speech seemed to give aid and comfort to the enemy. He preached a doctrine of people's revolution: "Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable--a most sacred right--a right, which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people that can, may' revolutionize, and make their own, of so much of the territory as they inhabit. More than this, a majority of any portion of such people may revolutionize, putting down a minority, intermingled with, or near about them, who may oppose their movement. Such minority was precisely the case of the Tories of our own revolution. It is a quality of revolutions not to go by old lines, or old laws; but to break up both, and make new ones."
There were new protests in Illinois. The Sangamon County Democratic convention congratulated the state for its citizens' patriotism but noted one exception: "The Hon. Abraham Lincoln, present Whig Representative from this Congressional District, who has lent himself to the schemes of apologists and defenders of Mexico, and revilers of their own country."
Congressman Lincoln's speeches against the war lived to haunt him and his party. He hinted that he would be glad to run for a second term; not only did he not get the nomination but his party's candidate in the Seventh District was badly defeated. Yet he stuck to his antiwar guns. More than a year after his January12 speech he wrote to Jesse W. Fell, Adlai Stevenson'sgreat-grandfather, thanking him for enclosing a petition for peace.
Herbert Mitigang executive editor of CBS News and the author of Lincoln As They Saw Him.
By Herbert Mitgang