Friday, June 6, 2008

"Right or Wrong, in Time of War"

Abraham Lincoln, ca. 1846

For the past few weeks, I've been re-examining Lincoln's Congressional career. His opposition to the Mexican War is a well-known story, often defined by his "Spot Resolutions," as well as his extended speech in Congress on January 12, 1848.

Reaction in his hometown was characteristically mixed. The friendly Illinois State Journal called his anti-war speech "an able one," while the hostile Illinois State Register dismissed it as "politically motivated" and predicted he would not only be "repudiated by the great mass of people who voted for him," but when veterans of the Mexican War returned home, they warned him he would also "have a fearful account to settle."

Democrats outside of Springfield were just as outraged. The editor of the Illinois Globe in Charleston thought the speech demonstrated "the littleness of the pettifogging lawyer" and, despite his best efforts, Lincoln had "not merged into the greatness of the statesman."

Perhaps the most thoroughly devastating criticism came from the citizens of Morgan County, where the martyred John J. Hardin had lived before dying at Buena Vista. They expressed "deep mortification" at Lincoln's actions in Congress, calling his speech a "base, dastardly, and treasonable assault upon President Polk..." From then on, they promised "this Benedict Arnold of our district be known here only as the Ranchero Spotty of one term."

Lincoln's peers in the United States Congress also reacted to his anti-war stance. On January 18th, a mere six days after Lincoln's critical speech, Missouri Representative John Jameson took the opportunity not only to criticize his colleague from Illinois, but the entire Whig Party:

The gentleman from Illinois [Mr. Lincoln] has surprised me nearly as much, coming, as he does, from that State whose sons have so distinguished themselves—acting with promptness in every call—furnishing more than their quota, and offering twice as many more—and when in the field, in many hard-fought battles, not one of them ever turning his back upon the enemy; and coming, as he does, from a district which again furnished its quota in the State, and as brave a set of boys as ever lived—a district that furnished two colonels in the war, Hardin and Baker, and the immediate predecessors of the gentleman. They were Whigs, but not Federal Whigs; they were for their country. The gallant Hardin fell while leading his men at Buena Vista, and Baker gallantly led the brigade at Cerro Gordo, after the noble and gallant Shields fell from a grape passing through his lungs. And how the gentleman can get up here and declare that this war is unconstitutional and unjust, and thereby put so many of his brave constituents in the wrong, having them fighting in such a war as he has described, killing innocent Mexicans, and thus committing moral if not legal murder, is not for me to determine. I leave that between him and his constituents. And here is the inconsistency with which gentlemen act. I suppose it is because the party screw is turned on them. There is but one thing, in a word, that Federal Whigs are consistent in, and that is, in inconsistency.

Mr. Chairman, what is the motive, and how does it happen, that the Federalists have always gone against their country in time of war? It is no excuse that they think the country in the wrong, for patriots feel themselves bound to go for their country, right or wrong, in time of war.

Lincoln was accused of several things by the opposing party in 1848. Exploiting the war for political purposes was perhaps the most gentle way of putting it, but others were more direct: Lincoln was simply unpatriotic. Perhaps they might have even charged him with rooting for American defeat. Sounds rather familiar, doesn't it?

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