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Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico

Written by Amy S. GreenbergAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Amy S. Greenberg


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On Sale: November 06, 2012
Pages: 368 | ISBN: 978-0-307-96091-7
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Often forgotten and overlooked, the U.S.-Mexican War featured false starts, atrocities, and daring back-channel negotiations as it divided the nation, paved the way for the Civil War a generation later, and launched the career of Abraham Lincoln. Amy S. Greenberg’s skilled storytelling and rigorous scholarship bring this American war for empire to life with memorable characters, plotlines, and legacies.

This definitive history of the 1846 conflict paints an intimate portrait of the major players and their world. It is a story of Indian fights, Manifest Destiny, secret military maneuvers, gunshot wounds, and political spin. Along the way it captures a young Lincoln mismatching his clothes, the lasting influence of the Founding Fathers, the birth of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and America’s first national antiwar movement. A key chapter in the creation of the United States, it is the story of a burgeoning nation and an unforgettable conflict that has shaped American history.



Valentine’s Day

February 14, 1844, did not unfold as sixty-six-year-old Henry Clay planned. It was Valentine’s Day, no longer a sleepy saint’s day resigned to religious calendars, but fast becoming a national craze. Stationers had discovered profit in the increasingly sentimental culture of middle-class America by promoting a holiday dedicated to the novel practice of exchanging store-bought cards. Christmas presents were still considered suspect, even profane, by American Protestants in the 1840s, but among the urbane it had become a “national whim” to send engraved or printed tokens of love through the mail, more than thirty thousand in 1844 in New York City alone. Urban post offices around the country were “piled with mountains of little missives, perfumed, gilt, enameled, and folded with rare cunning . . . they overflow with the choicest flowers of love, poetry and sentiment.”

   Most everything fashionable in 1840s America was imported from Europe, and this whim was no exception. Initially, almost all Valentine’s Day cards were British-made. But perennially insecure Americans complained that the old empire was “defrauding” Uncle Sam “of a rightful increase in his revenue.” U.S. firms rose to the challenge: they began producing and marketing their own sentimental cards, and advertising them in newspapers. Countless shops sold these valentines in towns and cities, and peddlers brought them into rural areas. Within just a few short years American-made valentines had become ubiquitous. Nothing better demonstrated the increasing complexity and sophistication of American commerce in the 1840s, or the rise of a female-centered culture of romance and sentimentality, than did the wholesale American embrace of a commercialized Valentine’s Day. In 1844 it was being celebrated like never before. It had, according to some observers, achieved “epidemic” proportions.

   Valentine’s Day could have been made for Henry Clay. During his nearly forty years in national politics, he had been both lauded and condemned for his attention, attachment, and deference to the ladies, so much so that the number of women he had kissed had become a running joke in Washington. The trappings of organized religion left him cold, but he was renowned for his sentimentality and deep emotion. He was easily moved to tears, and when Clay wept while delivering a speech in Congress, listeners on both sides of the aisle found themselves similarly moved. As the founder of the preeminent Whig Party, a political organization devoted to the growth of American business, Henry Clay was the public face of American commerce. It was Whig legislation, conceptualized by Clay, that enabled American card producers to compete with British imports, and that financed the roads and bridges over which the thousands of valentines traveled.

   In early 1844 he could lay claim to being the “most popular man in America.” “Prince Hal,” as his supporters warmly called him, was the nation’s most distinguished statesman, renowned for his oratory, his brilliant legal mind, his legislative prowess, and for his decades of service to the nation. He led the charge to war against Britain in 1812 and helped negotiate the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the conflict in 1815. His Missouri Compromise of 1820 calmed a sectional firestorm by maintaining the balance of slave and free states while also limiting the future spread of slavery to south of the Mason-Dixon line. As secretary of state under John Quincy Adams in the 1820s, he was an avid supporter of hemispheric solidarity, embracing the newly independent nations of Latin America as republican kin to the United States. And he promoted a vision for the economic development of the nation, what came to be known as his “American System,” that proved so compelling it became the platform for a new political party.

   His personality was as dazzling as his résumé. There was no better conversationalist in Washington, no more charming man to meet at a party, no one more ingratiating when he wanted to be—which was always. He was a master at the fiddle and a brilliant teller of jokes. He never ceased to remind his listeners that he came from humble origins (Clay was the first national politician to refer to himself as a self-made man). But by the time he entered politics he carried himself, and behaved, exactly like what he was: a southern gentleman who loved parties, gambling, whiskey, and women, who was open in his affections and undeniably magnetic. His wife, Lucretia, conveniently remained home in Kentucky, where she faultlessly managed their large family and equally impressive estate, Ashland.

   His excesses were in the past, youthful indiscretions that only his enemies would deign to dredge up. Now he was a mature politician, his appeal nationwide. He was the “Sage of Ashland.” Although he carried himself like a southerner, his vision of an American economy based on production was warmly embraced in the North. Despite owning scores of slaves, he professed to hate slavery.

   Clay’s popularity was in no way the product of his outward appearance. His self-assurance frequently crossed into arrogance, but even Clay would admit that nature had not blessed him with beauty. The freckles, blue eyes, and white-blond hair of his youth alone would have placed him outside the era’s manly ideal, but far worse were his facial features: a cavernous mouth rimmed with thin lips, and a receding cleft chin that emphasized his very prominent nose.

   But Clay made the best of what he had. Tall and thin, with delicate hands, he was graceful in his demeanor and careful in his dress. The real draw was his sparkling wit and great desire to please. “No portrait ever did him justice”; neither painting nor daguerreotype could capture his easy and winning smile or his ability to connect almost instantly with a new acquaintance. “His appearance upon the whole was not at first prepossessing,” one visitor to his house noted, “but when you heard him converse, you felt you were under the influence of a great and good man.”

   His popularity among women was legendary. They flocked around him when he appeared in public, treasured mementos of his visits, and purchased reproductions of his likeness. They cheered his elections and promoted his causes. It was generally acknowledged that “if the Ladies . . . could vote, the election of Mr. Clay would be carried by acclamation!” They continued to find him irresistible well into his middle age, when his receding hairline did nothing to diminish his remarkable wit and courtesy. As his closest female friend, Alabama socialite Octavia LeVert, explained, Clay had “a heroism of heart, a chivalry of deportment, a deference of demeanor,” all of which were “irresistible talismans over the mind of the gentler sex.” 

   Nor were women alone in succumbing to Clay’s charms. There was a “winning fascination in his manners that will suffer none to be his enemies who associate with him,” wrote one congressman. “When I look upon his manly and bold countenance, and meet his frank and eloquent eye, I feel an emotion little short of enthusiasm in his cause.” Clay easily disarmed wary strangers; even lifelong opponents of his legislation found the legislator difficult to dislike in person. His political antagonist, South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun, believed Clay was “a bad man, an imposter, a creator of wicked schemes.” But after decades of political battles between the two, Calhoun concluded, “I wouldn’t speak to him, but, by God! I love him.”

   Henry Clay was an American original, glamorous and magnetic to a fault, but far from perfect. He was spoiled by a lifetime of acclaim (he first entered the Senate at the tender and unconstitutional age of twenty-nine), and even his friends admitted he could be a prima donna. His wit could be biting, and he was easily bored. Impulsive and ardent, he too often spoke before thinking, made promises he couldn’t keep, and later came to regret his decisions. His ambivalence about slavery led many voters on both sides of the question to discount him as opportunistic. As a young man he passionately argued that Kentucky should end slavery through a plan of gradual emancipation similar to those being adopted by the mid-Atlantic states. When that plan was rejected he devoted himself to the cause of colonization, believing it possible to end slavery by colonizing freed slaves in Africa. But forty years later his wealth derived in large part from the unpaid labor of fifty men, women, and children whom he owned. His enemies called him a demagogue, but not to his face. Like other southern gentleman, Clay kept a set of dueling pistols and had put them to use more than once. But these excesses were also in the past, the dueling pistols now just for show.

By all measures February 14, 1844, should have been a blissful Valentine’s Day for Henry Clay, “full of glorious recollections—and pregnant with never ending happiness,” as it was for so many others. But this was not to be. In place of a scented, embossed, cherub-decorated paper heart, Henry Clay received intelligence that day that put a damper on his hopes and shook him to the bone.

   Clay was near the end of a two-month stay in his favorite city, New Orleans, when the local paper broke the news. He was lodging in the elegant and urbane home of Dr. William Mercer, on Carondelet Street, close to the hotels and business establishments where he spent his days winning over the wealthy men of the city with his brilliant economic plans, and evenings flattering their wives and sisters. The fun ended when he picked up the paper on February 14. Clay was flabbergasted, unwilling to believe the news, but also afraid it was true: reportedly President John Tyler had secretly negotiated a treaty to annex the Republic of Texas and was at that very moment lining up supporters for the bill in the Senate. Surely the great Henry Clay, who until two years before had been the senior senator from Kentucky and who was currently preparing for his third presidential run, should have known about a matter of such monumental importance both to the nation and to his status as a power broker in Washington. How could he be so out of the loop? “Address me instantly,” he demanded of his friend and Senate successor, John Crittenden. “If it be true, I shall regret extremely that I have had no hint of it.”

   True it was. In the winter of 1843–44, Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur had nearly drafted a treaty with the Lone Star Republic and had employed his masterly lobbying abilities to persuade a majority of U.S. senators to secretly pledge their support for it. By late January Upshur felt confident enough of the passage of the treaty to assure Texas leaders that forty of America’s fifty-two senators were committed to Texas’s annexation. With two-thirds of the Senate lined up, annexation was all but ensured.

   This was a startling turn of events, both for Henry Clay and for the nation. Clay’s insider status was legendary. America’s first congressional power broker, Clay became the Speaker of the House of Representatives on his first day as a congressman in 1811, and made the speakership second only to the presidency in its power. As Speaker, Clay offered patronage, controlled legislation and desirable committee appointments, and even decided who became president in the contested election of 1824, favoring Adams over Andrew Jackson despite the fact that Old Hickory had received more electoral and popular votes. The following decades became known as the Age of Jackson, but they could just as surely be called the Age of Clay, for Clay was as much a force of nature in American politics as his archfoe. The difference, of course, was that Andrew Jackson had won two presidential elections, while Henry Clay had twice lost.

   In 1844 Henry Clay was consumed with the notion that his time, at long last, had come. Dozens of important men had accrued debts to him over his many years in office, and Clay was ready to call in those debts in order to accede to the nation’s highest office. Clay hadn’t been officially nominated yet; the convention wasn’t until May. But New Orleans was the launching pad for a lengthy tour of the Southeast designed to shore up his support in the region, and so far things had gone swimmingly. In public squares and in private drawing rooms, the good people of New Orleans proclaimed Henry Clay their undisputed choice for president. Nothing appeared to stand in his way—until he heard the news about Texas on Valentine’s Day.

Texas had been brewing as a problem since 1835, when a band of slave-owning American settlers, attracted by Mexico’s generous immigration policies and the ample land available for growing cotton, rose in rebellion in the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas. The Texians (as they called themselves) invoked the American Revolution to justify their actions, but their objections to Mexican rule extended beyond representation, taxes, and trade. In 1830 Mexico attempted to restrict immigration into Texas and to limit slaveholding. The laws were utterly unenforceable, and probably just as many in the region were as upset about Mexico’s attempt to collect revenue and increase central authority as they were about the fate of their slaves. But the survival of the “peculiar institution” made for a perfect call to arms. The nation was, in the words of a Texas newspaper, attempting to “give liberty to our slaves, and to make slaves of ourselves.”

   Most Americans viewed the Texas Revolution not as a war for slavery but as a race war between brown Mexicans and white Texians, and as a result supported the Texians wholeheartedly. Thousands of white American men from the South and West illegally crossed into Texas in order to join the fight against Mexico. Many fewer, primarily ministers and abolitionists, attacked the legitimacy of the rebellion. In Philadelphia, Quaker abolitionist Benjamin Lundy left no doubts about his views on the subject when he titled his 1836 pamphlet The War in Texas; A Review of Facts and Circumstances, Showing That This Contest Is a Crusade Against Mexico, Set on Foot and Supported by Slaveholders, Land Speculators, &c, in Order to Re-establish, Extend, and Perpetuate the System of Slavery and the Slave Trade. A second edition expanded on his arguments against “the grand deception” calling itself Texas independence. But outside New England, where a significant minority supported the abolition of slavery, few Americans believed that Mexicans occupied the moral high ground in this conflict. Not even Quaker Pennsylvania was a safe place to protest the Texas Revolution: a Philadelphia mob destroyed Lundy’s printing press and threatened his life a year after the second edition of The War in Texas appeared in print.

   Marked by dramatic battles, the Texas Revolution was ripe for exploitation in America’s vibrant and competitive penny press. There was no need to exaggerate or sensationalize. Mexican troops, driven by the battle cry “Exterminate to the Sabine” river, acted barbarously. First came the cruel slaughter of American Texians by Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna at the Alamo. Mexican forces piled up Texian corpses, soaked them in oil, and set them on fire. At Goliad, although his subordinate agreed to treat surrendering forces as prisoners of war, Santa Anna arbitrarily set aside the agreement, marched 340 Texians out of town, and had them all shot.
Amy S. Greenberg|Author Q&A

About Amy S. Greenberg

Amy S. Greenberg - A Wicked War

Photo © Fred Weber

Amy S. Greenberg is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of History and Women's Studies at Penn State University. She is a leading scholar of Manifest Destiny and has held fellowships from the Huntington Library, the New-York Historical Society, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the American Philosophical Society. Her previous books include Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire and Cause for Alarm: The Volunteer Fire Department in the Nineteenth-Century City.

Author Q&A

Q: How does your approach in A Wicked War differ from what other historians have written about James K. Polk, Henry Clay, and Abraham Lincoln?

A: Historians have not previously focused on the interactions between these three towering political figures, which is odd, given that Clay and Polk faced one another in 1844 in one of the most crucial nineteenth-century elections, Lincoln’s first congressional speech was devoted to an attack on Polk, and Clay was the most influential political figure in Lincoln’s early career. The lives of these three men were tightly interwoven between 1843 and 1848, the period my book covers, and the war affected all three of them in profound ways.

Readers will also learn new things about these men as individuals. In the huge literature on Lincoln very few historians have considered his crucial first (and only) term in Congress in depth, while even fewer have thought about the importance of the U.S.-Mexican War in his political development. This is also the first account of how Polk’s marriage shaped both him and his presidency, and how Henry Clay, near the end of his career, was transformed as a politician and person after the death of his most promising son in the signature battle of the U.S.-Mexican War.
Q: John J. Hardin and Nicholas Trist are less well-known, although both played key roles in the U.S.-Mexican War. What led you to their stories above others?

A: Hardin was Lincoln’s chief political rival in Illinois politics and for a time one of his closest friends. They were about the same age, and had Hardin survived the U.S.-Mexico War he may very well have overshadowed Lincoln in the 1850s. He is a fascinating character in his own right, and he left voluminous correspondence about his experiences both as a politician and an officer in the U.S. Mexican War. Yet there has been no published biography of this man. I ended up focusing on him because he struck me as a very typical volunteer in many ways, and also because of his close relationships with Lincoln and Clay.

Trist has also been ignored by scholars, but he did something incredibly brave—he defied Polk’s orders to leave Mexico and negotiated a peace treaty that was relatively generous to Mexico, even though he knew it would cost him his career. And it did. 
Q: Why did Abraham Lincoln oppose the U.S.-Mexican War, and how did that war influence his future political career?

A: Most people don’t realize that as a young captain in the Black Hawk War in Western Illinois in 1832, Lincoln witnessed atrocities against civilians committed by Indians. He also restrained his men when they wanted to kill an elderly Potawatami man who appeared at their camp seeking help. I think these wartime experiences had a profound effect on Lincoln, leading him to value the sanctity of civilian life and the rules of war generally. Lincoln had always planned on focusing on economics when he finally made it to Congress, but the 1846 war against Mexico got in the way of these plans. By the time Lincoln made it to Congress stories of American atrocities against Mexican civilians were widespread, and Lincoln heard Henry Clay give a widely-reported speech opposing the war. So when Lincoln entered Congress he had a choice to make—discuss tariffs, or oppose a war that many in the United States considered unjust. Lincoln chose to oppose the war.

Lincoln’s “Spot Resolutions” against the war provided him with his first taste of national fame—they were far more widely reported than previous scholars have noted, and his experience opposing the war shaped him as a leader, providing him with concrete evidence that he could merge moral and practical concerns, and helping him forge alliances with abolitionists who were at the forefront of the antiwar movement.
Q: You write about the complexity of Polk’s character and the reader may find him/herself alternately feeling sorry for him and considering him the “villain” of the story. Did you feel this way while writing as well?

A: Polk is a hard man to like. Not only did he wage an unjust war against a neighboring republic, but he appears to have felt no compunction about lying to important figures in his own party. He was extremely self-righteous, borderline paranoid, and had virtually no sense of humor. Plus he secretly bought and sold slaves while he was president. But I have to say in his defense: he really believed in what he was doing, and he worked incredibly hard—twelve to fourteen hour days, six days a week. He didn’t rest, he slept very little, at the beginning of the war he stopped riding his horse for exercise, despite the fact that he loved riding and had been doing it all his life, because he believed that if he took even an hour a day for leisure he would be unable to manage the war successfully.

He also had a very modern, companionate marriage, and was fully devoted to his wife Sarah. But the main reason I found myself sympathizing with Polk, to the extent that I did, was because he truly believed he was doing God’s work by fulfilling the United States’ Manifest Destiny. He worked himself to death in what he saw as America’s cause. So, yes, I felt sorry for him. I sympathized with him. It’s hard to spend several years reading a person’s papers and thinking about them on a daily basis without empathizing with them at least a little bit.
Q: If Henry Clay had won the presidential election, do you believe this conflict could have been prevented? Or would the spirit of Manifest Destiny in the country have eventually led to the expansion into Mexican territory regardless?
A: Had Henry Clay become president in 1844, there is no doubt in my mind that we would have avoided war with Mexico in 1846, and perhaps altogether. I am equally confident that Mexico would ultimately have sold the United States California and New Mexico. The U.S. could have legally laid claim to all the territory it won through war, without the deaths of 13,000 U.S. soldiers, and tens of thousands of Mexicans. It was an unnecessary war.
Q: You describe James and Sarah Polk’s marriage as surprisingly modern. How did her influence compare with other first ladies before (and after) her?

A: Even today many people are suspicious of First Ladies who “meddle” in politics. In the nineteenth-century, of course, the belief that there were separate spheres for men and women—and that politics was for men—was far more pronounced.

In fact, some of the very first ladies, particularly Dolley Madison, used the domestic space of the White House as a forum for politics. They threw dinner parties that were expressly political and entertained politicians and their wives in order to advance their husbands’ agendas.

But Sarah Polk was something utterly new in American politics, a childless wife who focused virtually all her energy on politics. She was basically James’s secretary. He was secretive and suspicious of the clerks who did the official secretarial work, but he trusted Sarah to update him on the contents of newspapers each night, to advise him on issues, and to help him achieve his political goals. She traveled with him to political events, and hosted several political dinners each week in the White House, even when he was absent. And other politicians loved her: several said they would rather talk to her than to her humorless husband. I would say of First Ladies who came afterwards she was the most like Hillary Clinton, in terms of the importance of her political role to her husband’s presidency. But unlike Clinton, Sarah Polk claimed to have no power whatsoever—when she spoke on a political issue she always made clear that she was speaking “for the president”—that “Mr. Polk” believed this or that, not her. It was her ability to convince people that she was powerless—just Polk’s mouthpiece, that allowed her to exercise an unprecedented amount of political power for a mid-nineteenth century woman. 
Q: Have previous histories of the U.S.-Mexican War included as much information about the atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers and volunteers against Mexican civilians, in particular the sexual assaults on Mexican women?

A: Many Mexican historians have talked about the atrocities, but not very many historians in the United States. It’s not a pretty picture, and most histories of the U.S.-Mexican War have focused on battlefield heroics.
Q: Was it these reports of dishonorable behavior by U.S. troops that spurred the major anti-war movement? Or did the people come to question the grounds upon which the war was waged?

A: America’s first antiwar movement coalesced around a number of issues—the dishonest manner in which Polk started the war, the terrible behavior of U.S. troops in Mexico, the fact that a year into the war there was still no peace treaty, despite thousands of American deaths, as well as the widespread and racist fear that annexing any portion of Mexico would bring Mexicans into the United States. It was initially a very popular war that became remarkably unpopular after a year of fighting, negative reports of soldier behavior, and the desire of some expansionists to take all of Mexico as spoils of war.
Q: There have been striking parallels drawn between the actions of Polk in provoking the U.S.-Mexican War and George W. Bush in Iraq. Do you agree with this comparison?
A: The parallels are impossible to miss. Polk did everything he could to provoke a war, and then claimed that Mexico started the war by shedding American blood on American soil—a lie, and everyone knew it was a lie. Bush’s fantasy about WMDs in Iraq seemed just as transparent to a lot of us at the time, and ended up being just as insupportable as Polk’s claims about Mexican aggression—more so, in fact, since Mexican soldiers did kill U.S. soldiers at the start of the war, although on land that most everyone recognized as belonging to Mexico. 

Praise | Awards


“The best account we have of the politics of Mr. Polk’s War . . . If one can read only a single book about the Mexican-American War, this is the one to read.”   —James M. McPherson, The New York Review of Books

“Amy Greenberg's original and moving narrative of the U.S. invasion of Mexico relates the gradual loss of enthusiasm for waging what began as a popular war of conquest.  How peace ultimately prevailed is the most surprising part of her story.” —Daniel Walker Howe, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of What Hath God Wrought
“No less a warrior than Ulysses S. Grant had good reason to decry the war with Mexico as ‘wicked.’  In Amy S. Greenberg’s dramatic and deeply engaging political narrative, the reader gets the grit of the campaign and rich insight into the fascinating historical actors who stage-managed (or resisted) this all-important, under-studied war.  In these fast-turning pages, we see clashes among political opportunists, moments of eloquence and pathos-all under the rising sun of American power.” —Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, authors of Madison and Jefferson
A Wicked War gives the U.S.-Mexican War a personal dimension and immediacy that has been lacking until now.  Amy Greenberg makes us live the war vicariously through the lives of the aging patriarch Henry Clay who lost a son in Mexico, the husband-and-wife presidential team of James K. and Sarah Polk, the lanky and somewhat disheveled Abraham Lincoln still learning about politics, and others.  This is a rare melding of great story-telling and analysis of an era that shaped not only the United States but the entire North American continent.” —Andrés Reséndez, author of A Land So Strange
A Wicked War, with its emphasis on politics rather than military history, does for the Mexican-American war what James McPherson did for the Civil War with Battle Cry of Freedom, greatly broadening our understanding of the war. Certainly Professor Greenberg’s book will immediately become the standard account of the Mexican War, at last giving it an important place in the history of the United States. This book restores my faith in the merits of narrative history.” —Mark E. Neely, Jr., Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Fate of Liberty

“A well-rendered, muscular history of a war whose ramifications are still being carefully calibrated." —Kirkus Reviews

"The seldom-sung Mexican War emerges as one of America's most morally ambiguous and divisive conflicts in this illuminating history." —Publishers Weekly

“Amy S. Greenberg’s new history elegantly unfolds the story of the war through the lives of five politicians . . . [Greenberg] immerse[s] her readers in the early 1840s . . . Gripping.” —Maria Montoya, San Francisco Chronicle

"A provocative main idea in a freshly original narrative." —Booklist

“Greenberg writes taut political history, full of chapter-ending cliffhangers and characters who feel like real people.”
Zocalo Public Square

“In her absorbing and valuable A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico, Penn State’s Amy S. Greenberg does a splendid job of vivifying this disgraceful episode in American history.” —Bill Kauffman, Reason


FINALIST 2012 L.A. Times Book Prize (History)
WINNER 2012 Society for Historians of the Early American Republic

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