A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico by Amy S. Greenberg (review)
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A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico. By Amy S. Greenberg. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. Pp. xix + 344. Cloth, $30.00.)

In this excellent volume, Amy Greenberg manages to link the battle and home fronts of the U.S–Mexican War in a very readable narrative. Hers is the wise choice to treat the U.S.–Mexican War on its own terms and give its better-known aftermath—the sectional politics that led to the Civil War—only cursory treatment. While its strongest suit is an analytical account of the politics of the war in the United States, this book seems likely to become a, if not the, standard history of this lesser-known conflict.

Greenberg structures her story around the lives of five men and their families, mostly to good effect. They are John Hardin, the Illinois Whig politician turned general (despite his ambivalence about the war); the rogue diplomat Nicholas Trist; President James K. Polk (with close attention to his relationship with his wife Sarah); Henry Clay; and Abraham Lincoln. At times, Greenberg falls prey to a common woe of popular history writing: the urge to provide tangential and unnecessarily detailed scene-setting from the characters’ lives. But otherwise, her biographical frame not only personalizes the narrative but also contributes real insight. For instance, we better understand Trist’s apparently shocking persistence in negotiating a peace treaty with Mexico even after Polk had dismissed him, because Greenberg has shown how little Polk knew Trist’s true character, as well as the influences that made Trist committed above all to peace and justice. Furthermore, Greenberg persuasively demonstrates how President “Polk’s concept of justice was unquestionably [End Page 428] shaped by his experience as a slave master,” as was his wife’s. “Domination of the strong over the weak, and white over black or brown, was not just the reality of slavery,” Greenberg argues, but for both Polks it also shaped how they “viewed international relations,” especially with Mexico (95–96). The fact that slaveholders including Henry Clay managed to question the justice of this war qualifies but does not erase the value of this perceptive point.

Greenberg takes pains to explain the Polks’ point of view and other advocates of the war but, as the title of the book and the choice of central characters makes plain, her sympathies are with what she calls the antiwar movement. Her profile of the Polks expounds on why they were so driven to expand the territory of the United States. President Polk not only worked himself nearly to death in that cause, but also achieved an unusual degree of success for his vision. But while Polk undeniably had his rationale, for Greenberg, he was far from principled. Indeed, her account lays out in damning detail how Polk’s unholy zeal and habit of deception led him from one lie to the next in provoking the war. Greenberg’s Polk may have been overworked, but he could never lay claim to martyr status, and not only because his cause succeeded. By contrast, all the truly principled characters in this drama are on the anti-war side. Particularly in the case of Trist, Lincoln, and Clay, Greenberg is keen to detail the price her antiwar heroes paid for their stance. In Clay’s case, for instance, he not only lost his son to the war, but a widely publicized speech against the war, “in a sense, made Henry Clay the second martyr to the war in his own family” (265).

That even the beloved statesman Clay would have suffered politically from publicly opposing a war about which a large number of Americans had serious doubts highlights a revealing subplot of this book: how difficult it is to pull off a politically tenable antiwar position in American politics. In her fascinating retelling of events leading to the Congressional vote to sanction Polk’s war, Greenberg shows how strongly leaders from both parties recoiled from the president’s prevarications and his usurpation of Congress’ power to declare war. But when it came time to vote, only fourteen Representatives and two Senators...


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