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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. When President James K. Polk compelled a divided Congress to support his war with Mexico, it was the first time that the young American nation would engage another republic in battle. Caught up in the conflict and the political furor surrounding it were Abraham Lincoln, then a new congressman; Polk, the dour president committed to territorial expansion at any cost; and Henry Clay, the aging statesman whose presidential hopes had been frustrated once again, but who still harbored influence and had one last great speech up his sleeve. Beyond these illustrious figures, A Wicked Warfollows several fascinating and long-neglected characters: Lincoln's archrival John Hardin, whose death opened the door to Lincoln's rise; Nicholas Trist, gentleman diplomat and secret negotiator, who broke with his president to negotiate a fair peace; and Polk's wife, Sarah, whose shrewd politicking was crucial in the Oval Office. 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.
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 pamphletThe 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 ofThe War in Texasappeared 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.