Editor: The following post was sent to us by Doug Card, currently residing in Veneta, near Eugene, Oregon. Doug, a former OBcian who taught at Cal Western USIU while living in OB, was involved in the formation of the original Ocean Beach Planning Board, and won election to the first Board in 1976. He was also involved in Common Ground, an effort to bring together progressive voters from across the City Council District that then included Ocean Beach. When Doug moved to Oregon, he taught sociology at the Univ. of Orgeon.
By Douglas Card /The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR) / Jan 7, 2009
What does history tell us about the proper role of American politicians during wartime? Supporters of President Bush like to compare his leadership in pursuing the unpopular Iraqi war to the steadfastness of Abraham Lincoln in his own prosecution of the difficult Civil War.
They believe, as Charles Krauthammer wrote in a recent column, that “history will be kinder than today’s polls,” noting Bush’s “sense of calm and confidence in eventual historical vindication.”
Trouble is, Lincoln had quite a different attitude toward another war, the little-known Mexican War of 1846-48. For this Whig freshman congressman from Illinois, it was a bad war that, as with our current war in Iraq, was begun on a false premise — the claim that Mexican forces had attacked our troops on U.S. territory. Though the war was almost over by the time Lincoln took his seat in Congress, he proceeded to make a controversial name for himself attacking President James Polk’s justification for the war.
In fact, Lincoln led his party’s opposition, denouncing Polk in a series of resolutions that demanded to know at what exact “spot” the war had begun. These resolutions earned Lincoln the derogatory nicknames of “Spotty Lincoln” and even “the Ranchero Spotty.” In a flight of oratory, Lincoln charged that our army had begun the war in a wild attack on a Mexican village, driving out the inhabitants in fear for their safety. Though Lincoln, like most Whigs, voted that the war was not begun in legally, he also voted for whatever war supplies were needed.
Liberals have never found it easy to criticize an American war, and Lincoln’s speeches brought him massive hostility and charges of being unpatriotic. His old friend and law partner Billy Herndon wrote Lincoln that his supporters in Illinois were disgusted with him. Some modern historians have characterized his outspoken opposition to the war as his biggest political mistake — that his attacks were foolish, embarrassing and politically inspired by Eastern Whig leaders.
I’m not so sure. I believe our invasion of a smaller neighbor struck Lincoln as a moral outrage as sure as his hatred of slavery. As he replied privately to Herndon, “I will stake my life, that if you had been in my place you would have voted as I did.” In his later autobiography he even charged Polk with having started the Mexican War in order to diffuse criticism of his compromise with England over Oregon, having discarded the old “54-40 or fight” slogan in 1846.
While the Whigs had claimed the war was unconstitutional, they were desperate to win the presidency in order to capture the patronage necessary to maintain the party. Thus they nominated Gen. Zachary Taylor, a hero of the Mexican war, as their presidential candidate in 1848, a nomination that Lincoln justified on the grounds that although Whigs had opposed the war they considered Taylor a hero for winning it.
Although Lincoln was Taylor’s strongest Illinois supporter, he himself did not receive the plum he desired, an appointment as the head of the Government Land Office. Instead President Taylor offered him the position of territorial secretary, then governor, out here in Oregon. Lincoln declined. Still, on the occasion of Taylor’s early death, Lincoln gave him a rousing, heroic eulogy that ignored the issue of how the war had begun.
Lincoln struggled to recover from his tarnished “unpatriotic” reputation, and had a special difficulty in resurrecting his political career in Illinois. When he ran for the Senate as a Republican in 1858, his opponent Stephen Douglas frequently brought up the old “Spotty Lincoln” charges. Lincoln was left on the defensive, repeating that while he had opposed Polk’s reasons for starting the war he had always voted for any necessary military supplies and, afterwards, for the relief of veterans.
Overcoming those old issues, Lincoln barely lost that election. He then went on to win the presidency in 1860 and 1864 (though losing both times in our conservative Lane County).
A final twist to this odd story occurred in 1863, when Lincoln had the “Copperhead” Ohio politician Clement Vallandigham arrested for undercutting the Union military cause with anti-war speeches. Ohio Democrats responded that he had done nothing worse than Lincoln had during the Mexican War in 1848!
In any case, strengthened by the twin goals of saving the Union and ending slavery, Lincoln led a weary nation to victory. Though he is remembered as a hero for his staunch leadership in one war, his opposition to another is virtually unknown.
Now there is a new young president-elect from Illinois who hopes to renew the Lincoln’s legacy.
Douglas Card of Veneta (email@example.com) is author of the recently published book, “From Camas to Courthouse: Early Lane County History.”