The Vile Mexican War

In 1844, America’s first libertarians made a serious mistake. The kind of mistake with the potential to destroy their whole movement.

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In the end, a few thousand early libertarians in New York made the Mexican War a possibility. And almost right away, Polk began betraying Van Buren defectors. He ignored Van Buren’s cabinet suggestions and supported the conservative faction in New York.

For an overview of the later history of locofocoism

“The Artist as Exemplar: Thomas Cole’s Voyage of Life”

A quick life of Thoreau in the Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas (1871)

Polk’s Special Message to Congress (11 May, 1846)

Lincoln’s “Spot Resolutions” at the National Archives

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00:10 Anthony Comegna: In 1844, America’s first libertarians made a serious mistake. The kind of mistake with the potential to destroy their whole movement. Bury it in obscurity and leave its accomplishments a series of halfway measures and diluted compromises. More importantly, it was a mistake that caused a whole war, killed many thousands, cost millions, and forever changed the nature of American politics. That year, radical crowds gathered to support James K. Polk for the presidency. They allowed themselves to be driven to the polls by nationalism. Once bound together in common cause as outsiders and crusaders for individual freedom, these radicals were now being once again dissolved back into the party system. The movement was nationwide, but in the end, a few thousand New York and Pennsylvania voters decided the whole election. Desperate for another shot at gaining advantage over their factional enemies within the Democratic Party of New York, former supporters of Martin Van Buren quickly and relatively comfortably shifted to Polk during the campaign. They hoped he would repay their loyalty in spoils and instead they helped shatter the whole damn system.

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01:35 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles. A project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.

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01:51 Anthony Comegna: Van Buren men went into the 1844 campaign, committed anti-expansionist, people who feared that their country would lose something serious and precious if they entered the game of global empire. They worried that adding new territory would poison political relationships between the North and the South. That the issue of spreading slavery would disrupt normal partisan jockeying, forcing politicians to choose between their National Party coalitions and their local constituencies. Once Van Buren lost the convention, and Polk won the nomination, the election became a standard partisan contest between Clay’s small republic and Polk’s continental empire. In one of the great unsung tragedies of our movement’s history, a large enough number of early Libertarians bought into Polk’s laissez-faire rhetoric, and enough of them became converted to frantic, romantic nationalism that they elected one of our most awful Presidents by the slimmest of margins.

02:50 Anthony Comegna: In the end, a few thousand early libertarians in New York made the Mexican War a possibility. And almost right away, Polk began betraying Van Buren defectors. He ignored Van Buren’s cabinet suggestions and supported the conservative faction in New York. Those same old enemies, William Leggett’s Locofocos called the Bank Democrats and Monopoly Democrats. Now Van Buren men called conservative partisans the Old Hunkers, sort of meaning stick in the mud. And the Hunkers called the Van Buren people Barnburners. This name came from the Dorr War in Rhode Island. That wonderful affair we’ve covered so much when Locofocos tried to replace the State’s constitution by spontaneous revolution. When the effort failed, the radical wing of the party was willing to burn down the whole barn to get rid of a few rats.

03:43 Anthony Comegna: They were willing to kill the party if it meant hurting their factional enemies or accomplishing pet projects. The conservative Hunkers meanwhile, made political expediency, effectiveness, and partisan reliability their strong points. They made overtures to Southerners like Polk, assuring him that Southern Democrats and their peculiar interests were far safer with Hunkers by their sides, than the treacherous and radical Barnburners. Between Polk’s election to office in the beginning of the Mexican War, Whigs and Liberty Party leaders wagged their fingers at Locofoco Democrats accusing them of selling out their anti-slavery principles for the spoils of politics, including Polk support of cherished Locofoco economic policies like the independent treasury and the Walker tariff. And they were right, people like the young America artist, Thomas Cole knew better than to give a man like Polk the political space he wanted. But schemers and office-seekers like Massachusetts’ “Clam Baker” Marcus Morton wanted to translate their voters support for free-market economics into influence over the new administration.

04:53 Anthony Comegna: Morton’s faction in Massachusetts joined the New York Barnburners in mistakenly thinking Polk could be swayed from supporting conservative factions. In time, Polk also betrayed Northern expansionists by giving up on the full Oregon territory to focus on the Texas question. And above all else what Thomas Cole called “the vile Mexican War” totally concocted by the President finally introduced the last dose of poison to the party system, these machinations were all part of. In the years leading up to the war, say between Polk’s nomination and the actual start of hostilities, Locofocos uneasily tried to balance their recent electoral victories and the return of their cherished economic platform with the election of an expansionist slaveholder intent on war. Many historians have seen the Polk years as the closing of what we call The Jacksonian period, about 1815 to 1845.

05:50 Anthony Comegna: Just before the war, there was a sort of vast equal rights consensus. Polk was able to bring together the same coalition of laissez-faire radicals, and militant Republicans who voted for Van Buren in 1836. Before the war started, everything seemed fine, great in fact, even Walt Whitman continued supporting the President, perhaps against his better judgment, right up to the moment it was clear that the war was all about grabbing new slave territory. But this Locofoco consensus was short-lived at best because the President was intent on war, and truth be told, the Whitmans of the world should have known better from the start. During the Polk years, Locofoco and Young America both became slanging mudslinging nicknames for all Democrats. Something Whigs would say about any enemy to tarnish them with the taint of ammoral political jockeying. The criticism was a little too close to the mark, and most people who once proudly called themselves Locofocos either died off or slunk away from the title. Dedicated reformers now knew their best option was once again to force a principled purification of the National party, even if it meant a whole new branding campaign.

07:09 Anthony Comegna: As early as 1843, factions of anti-slavery Locofocos, calling themselves the Independent Democrats, rallied around John P. Hale, in New Hampshire. In New York, the Polk administration lied to Barnburners, telling them that he wanted to admit Texas as a territory rather than a slave State. As soon as he entered office, Polk reversed his position and pledged the military and navy to defend the incoming State’s borders to the Rio Grande. Despite all the wishful thinking of Locofocos like Whitman who voted for Polk, Texas annexation did come with a war on Mexico. After failing to entice the Mexican government to sell California to the United States, Polk decided to provoke a wider conflict. He sent soldiers under General Zachary Taylor, to occupy disputed territory between the Nueces and the Rio Grande rivers. After the Mexicans fired on a small contingent of American soldiers, the President declared to Congress that war already existed between the two nations. He requested men and money to quickly decide the contest.

08:20 Speaker 2: President James K. Polk, special message to Congress on Mexican relations, May 11th, 1846. “To the Senate and House of Representatives, an inquiry was made on the 13th of October, 1845. In the most friendly terms, through our consul in Mexico of the minister for foreign affairs whether the Mexican government would receive an envoy from the United States entrusted with full powers to adjust all the questions in dispute between the two governments. The Mexican minister on the 15th of October gave an affirmative answer to this inquiry, requesting at the same time that our naval forces at Veracruz might be withdrawn, lest its continued presence might assume the appearance of menace and coercion pending the negotiations. This force was immediately withdrawn.

09:15 Speaker: On the 10th of November, 1845, Mr. John Slidell of Louisiana was commissioned by me as envoy extraordinary and Minister plenipotentiary of the United States to Mexico and was entrusted with full powers to adjust both the questions of the Texas boundary and of indemnification to our citizens. The redress of the wrongs of our citizens naturally and inseparably blended itself with the question of boundary. The settlement of the one question in any correct view of the subject involves that of the other. I could not for a moment entertain the idea that the claims of our much injured and long-suffering citizens, many of which had existed for more than 20 years, should be postponed or separated from the settlement of the boundary question.

10:03 Speaker: Mr. Slidell arrived at Veracruz on the 30th of November, and was courteously received by the authorities of that city, but the government of General Herrera was then tottering to its fall. The revolutionary party had ceased upon the Texas question to affect or hasten its overthrow. Five days after the date of Mr. Slidell’s note, General Herrera yielded the government to General Paredes without a struggle, and on the 30th of December resigned the presidency. This revolution was accomplished solely by the army. The people, having taken little part in the contest, and thus the supreme power in Mexico passed into the hands of a military leader. The government of General Paredes owes its existence to a military revolution by which the subsisting constitutional authorities have been subverted.

10:53 Speaker: The form of government was entirely changed, as well as all the high functionaries by whom it was administered. Thus the government of Mexico, though solemnly pledged by official acts in October last to receive and accredit an American envoy, violated their plighted faith and refused the offer of a peaceful adjustment of our difficulties. Not only was the offer rejected, but the indignity of its rejection was enhanced by the manifest breach of faith in refusing to admit the envoy who came because they had bound themselves to receive him. In my message at the commencement of the present session, I informed you that upon the earnest appeal, both of the Congress and convention of Texas, I had ordered an efficient military force to take a position between the Nueces and the Del Norte. This had become necessary to meet a threatened invasion of Texas by the Mexican forces, for which extensive military preparations had been made.

11:52 Speaker: This force was concentrated at Corpus Christi and remained there until after I had received such information from Mexico as rendered it probable, if not certain, that the Mexican government would refuse to receive our envoy. Meanwhile, Texas, by the final action of our Congress had become an integral part of our union. The Congress of Texas by its act of December 19th, 1836 had declared the Rio del Norte to be the boundary of that republic. Its jurisdiction had been extended and exercised beyond the Nueces. The country between that river and the Del Norte had been represented in the Congress and in the convention of Texas. Had thus taken part in the act of annexation itself and is now included with one of our Congressional districts. Our own Congress recognized the country beyond the Nueces as part of our territory by including it within our own revenue system, and a revenue officer to reside within that district has been appointed by, and with the advice and consent of the Senate.

13:00 Speaker: It became, therefore, of urgent necessity to provide for the defense of that portion of our country. Accordingly, on the 13th of January, last instructions were issued to the General in command of these troops to occupy the left bank of the Del Norte. This river, which is the southwestern boundary of the State of Texas is an exposed frontier. From this corner, invasion was threatened, upon it and in its immediate vicinity. In the judgment of high military experience are the proper stations for the protecting forces of the government. The movement of the troops to the Del Norte was made by the Commanding General under positive instructions to abstain from all aggressive acts towards Mexico or Mexican citizens. And to regard the relations between that Republic and the United States as peaceful, unless she should declare war or commit acts of hostility, indicative of a state of war. He was specially directed to protect private property and respect personal rights.

14:04 Speaker: The Mexican forces at Matamoros assumed a belligerent attitude. And on the 12th of April, General Ampudia, then in command, notified General Taylor to break up his camp within 24 hours and to retire beyond the Nueces River. And in the event of his failure to comply with these demands announced that arms and arms alone must decide the question, but no open active hostility was committed until the 24th of April. On that day, General Arista, who had seceded to the command of the Mexican forces communicated to General Taylor that he considered hostilities commenced and should prosecute them. A party of dragoons of 63 men and officers were on the same day dispatched from the American camp up the Rio del Norte on its left bank, to ascertain whether the Mexican troops had crossed or were preparing to cross the river, became engaged with a large body of these troops. And after a short affair, in which some 16 men were killed and wounded, appeared to have been surrounded and compelled to surrender.

15:10 Speaker: The grievous wrongs perpetrated by Mexico upon our citizens throughout a long period of years, remain un-redressed, and solemn treaties pledging her public faith for this redress have been disregarded. A government either unable or unwilling to enforce the execution of such treaties, fails to perform one of its plainest duties. Upon the pretext that Texas, a nation as independent as herself, thought proper to unite it’s destinies with our own. She has affected to believe that we have severed her rightful territory. And in official proclamations and manifestos has repeatedly threatened to make war upon us for the purpose of reconquering Texas. In the meantime, we have tried every effort of reconciliation. The cup of forbearance has been exhausted even before the recent information from the frontier of the Del Norte. But now, after reiterated menaces, Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil. She has proclaimed that hostilities have commenced and that the two nations are now at war.

16:29 Speaker: As war exists, and notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it, exists by the act of Mexico herself. We are called upon by every consideration of duty and patriotism to vindicate with decision the honor, the rights, and the interests of our country. Anticipating the possibility of a crisis like that, which has arrived, instructions were given in August last. As a precautionary measure against invasion or threatened invasion, authorizing General Taylor, if the emergency required, to accept volunteers, not from Texas only, but from the States of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky. In further vindication of our rights and defense of our territory, I invoke the prompt action of Congress to recognize the existence of the war, and to place at the disposition of the executive the means of prosecuting the war with vigor, and thus hastening the restoration of peace. To this end, I recommend that authority should be given to call into public service a large body of volunteers. I further recommend that a liberal provision be made for sustaining our entire military force and furnishing it with supplies and munitions of war. James K. Polk.”

17:55 Anthony Comegna: The war was on to be sure, but it was one of the least popular in our history. And the President gained a steady flow of new detractors and enemies. During his one rather undistinguished term in Congress, Whig representative, Abraham Lincoln used the moment to tar the President and his party as the tool of slaveholding interests. Lincoln’s spot resolutions demanded that the President justify and prove his claims about the war’s causes. If the war was part of a deliberate provocation, a scheme to aggrandize Southern power, surely Northern Democrats would wake up to the consequences of having sacrificed their anti-slavery principles for political power. Hopefully, of course, they would then start voting for Lincoln’s Whigs. Well, he was almost right.

18:48 Speaker: Abraham Lincoln, resolutions offered in the United States House of Representatives, December 22nd, 1847. “Whereas the President of the United States in his message of May 11th, 1846, has declared that the Mexican government has at last invaded our territory and shed the blood of our fellow citizens on our own soil. And whereas, this House is desirous to obtain a full knowledge of all the facts which go to establish whether the particular spot on which the blood of our citizens was so shed, was or was not at that time, our own soil. Therefore resolved, by the House of Representatives that the President of the United States be respectfully requested to inform this house.

19:38 Speaker: First, whether the spot on which the blood of our citizens was shed, as in his message declared, was or was not within the territory of Spain. At least after the Treaty of 1819, until the Mexican Revolution. Second, whether that spot is, or is not, within the territory which was wrested from Spain by the revolutionary government of Mexico. 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 on 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 way.

21:00 Speaker: 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 message stated. And whether the first blood so shed, was, or was not shed, within the enclosure of one of the people who had thus fled from it. Seventh, whether our citizens, whose blood was shed as in his message 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.”

21:56 Anthony Comegna: In his August 1846 request for war funds, the President asked Congress for an additional $2 million to purchase any land cessions from Mexico in peace arrangements. It was a clear signal to Northern Democrats that Polk really did concoct the war as a land grab for slaveholders. In response, a clique of Northern Democratic representatives gathered behind Northern Pennsylvania, Congressman David Wilmot to defend Northern interests and forbid slavery in the conquered territory. Wilmot proposed an amendment to the President’s spending bill, that would forever ban slavery or involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. A sort of 13th amendment for the territories. The Wilmot Proviso, as the amendment was called, passed through the House on a starkly sectional vote, 134 to 91. It died in the sectionally balanced Senate. Never to be revived.

22:51 Anthony Comegna: It remained a remarkable and exceptional departure from the Jacksonian era’s partisan battles. It did not successfully ban slavery in the territories, nor did it force a reform in Democratic Party machinations. But the Proviso did show that the slavery issue had the potential to dissolve traditional party loyalties. In the short-term, partisanship beat the Wilmot-Van Buren Barnburners, and their relatively timid anti-slavery stance, but in the long-term, both parties were already zombies. When the Senate ratified the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in spring 1848, sectional tensions again rose to a fever pitch, and political revolution was once again whipped into the winds, Locofoco radicals leading the way. Just like Locofocos became Dorites, and Dorites became Barnburners. Barnburners were now finding their identities as the next wave of radical political activists, the Free-Soilers.

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24:00 Anthony Comegna: Liberty Chronicles is a project of Libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit libertarianism.