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LINCOLN AND THE MEXICAN WAR: An Argument by Analogy Mark E. Neely, ]r. Since Albert Beveridge's Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1858 (1928), historians have regarded Lincoln's opposition to the Mexican War as a unique mistake, an ordinarily practical politician's case of political suicide. The unseasoned Sucker, they say, went to Washington for his first and only fling at national office (other than the Presidency fourteen years later), was dazzled by the shining brilliance of his great Eastern Whig heroes, forgot the simple patriotic sentiments of his expansionist Midwestern constituents in Illinois's Seventh Congressional District, and opposed the war. The consequence was bipartisan outrage among his constituents and a tactical decision on Lincoln's part not to face the voters again for years. Indeed, his record in Congress was so odious to the voters that it doomed the next Whig to run for the District's congressional seat to defeat anyway —and that too in the only safe Whig district in this overwhelmingly Democratic state. G. S. Boritt has entered an important challenge to the reigning interpretation. He notes that there is almost no evidence of popular disagreement with Lincoln's stand except in Democratic newspapers . Among Whigs who lived in the Seventh District, only two left evidence of dissent. One was Albert Taylor Bledsoe, who recalled decades later that Lincoln had made a political mistake by opposing the war. In the meantime, however, Bledsoe had been Assistant Secretary of War in the Confederacy and had become, for obvious reasons, a Lincoln-hater. The other was Lincoln's law partner , William H. Herndon, a witness who must be contended with. Boritt suggests that Herndon exaggerated the importance of his influence on the great man by claiming greater political wisdom. Boritt hints at a complete reversal of the older view, seeing Lincoln's opposition not as opportunistic but as "the politics of morality" and seeing it as politically palatable to his constituents as well.1 The reappraisal of Lincoln's opposition to the Mexican War is only just beginning and needs a great deal of refinement. There is still a tendency to grant too much of the case to those who say he 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), 79100 , also includes an exhaustive historiographical discussion which makes the customary review of the literature superflous here. 6 CIVIL WAR HISTORY was politically maladroit and, therefore, to leap to the defensive position that he was being idealistic. The challenge to the older view is not based on any large body of evidence unavailable to Beveridge and his followers, and there may be some temptation to look upon the debate as a draw. This article will attempt to approach the problem by indirection, adding the weight of the actions of Lincoln 's analogous peers in Congress to the balance and providing some refinements based on reading the documents in the light of post-Beveridge scholarship. The first refinement that needs urgently to be made regards the interpretation of William Hemdon's contemporary warnings to Congressman Lincoln that he had strayed onto dangerous ground in opposing the Mexican War. In his 1889 biography, Herndon recalled : "I warned him of public disappointment over his course, and I earnesdy desired to prevent him from committing what I believed to be political suicide."2 Even Lincoln's defenders have taken Herndon at his word on this point, and the term "political suicide" has influenced the literature ever since.3 Only Lincoln's letters to Herndon have survived, and one must infer what Herndon told Lincoln from the nature of Lincoln's responses . Though this leaves room for doubt on some points, happily it leaves no room for doubt in regard to the nature of Hemdon's warning. Herndon wrote Lincoln on January 19, 1848, as soon as he heard that he had voted for George Ashmun's amendment (to a resolution of thanks to General Zachary Taylor for his victory at Buena Vista) which called the Mexican War "unconstitutional and unnecessary." Lincoln answered Hemdon's letter the next day after he received it, saying: "The...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 5-24
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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