Abraham Lincoln’s Opposition to the Mexican War

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On December 22, 1847, an unfamiliar, lanky, somewhat awkward figure took the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. A freshman Congressman from Springfield, Illinois, rose to present a set of resolutions. Thirty-eight-year-old Abraham Lincoln had only been in Washington for three weeks. Nevertheless he felt impelled to speak out. The United States had been waging war against the Republic of Mexico for a year and a half. The president had defended this war in his annual message of December 7, with which he greeted the newly seated Thirtieth Congress. President James Knox Polk blamed the war on Mexico, and claimed that the United States should permanently seize vast areas of northern Mexico in compensation for the wrongs that country had inflicted.1

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Mark E. Neely, Jr., is the editor of Lincoln Lore. 1. G. S. Boritt, "A Question of Political Suicide: Lincoln's Opposition to the Mexican War," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, LXVII (Feb., 1974), 79-100, also includes an exhaustive historiographical discussion which makes the customary review of the literature superflous here. 2. Paul M. Angle (ed.), Herndon's Life of Lincoln (Cleveland, 1965), 226. 3. Boritt, for example, claims that "The extant half of the Lincoln-Herndon correspondence on the subject suggests that Lincoln discounted his law partner's evaluation of Illinois sentiment on the war." "A Question of Political Suicide," 92. 4. Lincoln to Herndon, Feb. 1, 1848 in Roy P. Basler (ed.), The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1953), I, 446. Hereafter cited as Lincoln, Coll. Works. 5. Ibid., Feb. 15, 1848, ibid., 451. 6. Lincoln to Herndon, June 22, 1848, ibid., 490-491. 7. Boritt, "A Question of Political Suicide," 93. 8. Such regional cooperation is evident, for example, in Lincoln's quest for appointive office from the Taylor administration. See Donald W. Riddle, Congressman Abraham Lincoln (Urbana, 1957), 214-215. 9. Brian G. Walton, "The Elections for the Thirtieth Congress and the Presidential Candidacy of Zachary Taylor," Journal of Southern History, XXXV (May, 1969), 186-187. 10. John D. Defrees to Daniel D. Pratt, Apr. 17, 1847, Daniel D. Pratt Papers, Indiana Division, Indiana State Library, Indianapolis. 11. Hal W. Bochin, "Caleb B. Smith's Opposition to the Mexican War," Indiana Magazine of History, LXIX (June, 1973), 98-99, 107, 109, 110. 12. Richard W. Thompson to H. G. Hilton, July 16, 1847, Richard W. Thompson MSS, Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington. 13. R. L. Hathaway to Abiathar Crane, Aug. 3, 1847, Crane Papers, William Henry Smith Memorial Library, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis. 14. J. S. Harvey to Richard W. Thompson, July 15, 1847, Illinois State Historical Society, Springfield. 15. Richard W. Thompson to H. G. Hilton, July 16, 1847, Thompson MSS. 16. R. L. Hathaway to Abiathar Crane, Aug. 3, 1847, Crane Papers. 17. Richard W. Thompson to Elisha Embree, Aug. 14, 1847, Lucius C. Embree Papers, Indiana State Library. 18. Congressional Globe, 30 Cong., 1 sess., 61, 94, 95; Appendix, 263-267. 19. Factionalism is apparent in articles quoted in the Princeton Democratic Clarion, Mar. 13, 1847 and March 27, 1847. See also Richard William Leopold, Robert Dale Owen: A Biography (Cambridge; 1940), 234-235. The need for rotation in office as a cause of Democratic loss of the district is discussed in the Madison Courier, Aug. 7, 14, and 21, 1847. See also, Lawrence N. Powell, "Rejected Republican Incumbents in the 1866 Congressional Nominating Conventions," Civil War History, XIX (Sept., 1973), 219-237. 20. Embree's speeches are known principally from hostile reports in the Princeton Democratic Clarion, June 12, 1847, June 26, 1847, and July 10, 1847. 21. Speech of Hon. Elisha Embree of Indiana, on Bounty Land Bill, Delivered in the House of Representatives, Wednesday, May 3, 1848 (Washington, 1848). Pamphlet in Lucius Embree Papers, Indiana State Library. 22. Isaac E. Johnson to George G. Dunn, Apr. 17, 1848, George G. Dunn MSS, Lilly Library. 23. Cong. Globe, Appendix, 30 Cong., 1 sess., 973. 24. Ibid., 969, 971. 25. See Williamson Dunn to George G. Dunn, Feb. 4, 1848; Austin Ward to George G. Dunn, Feb. 8, 1848; and J. G. McPheiters to George G. Dunn, Apr. 20, 1848, George G. Dunn MSS. The popularity of Gallatin's pamphlet is discussed in John H. Schroeder, Mr. Polk's War: American Opposition and Dissent, 1846-1848 (Madison, 1973), 144-145. 26. "Speech on Annexation of Texas," May 22, 1844 in Lincoln, Coll. Works, I, 337. 27. Lincoln to Williamson Durley, Oct. 3, 1845, ibid., I, 347-348. 28. Frederick Merk says that "Whigs, as a party, were fearful of spreading out too widely." See his Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History: A Reinterpretation (New York, 1966); 40. See also Major L. Wilson, Space, Time, and Freedom: The Quest for Nationality and the Irrepressible Conflict, 1815-1861 (Westport, Conn., 1974), 108, 115-116, 118. 29. "Speech at Wilmington, Delaware," June 10...
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