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Category: Expansion and Conflict, by William E. Dodd
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The treaty which Upshur and Calhoun negotiated with the Texan envoys in the spring of 1844 was presented to the Senate in April, and held in committee until after the two party conventions had met in Baltimore. The Whigs condemned it, as has been noted, and the Democrats accepted it. It was a mere matter of form, then, for the Whig Senate to reject the treaty which had become in a great measure the platform of their opponents. When Congress reassembled in December the result of the election had made it plain that Calhoun and Walker, and not Clay and Van Buren, represented the wishes of the people, though the majority of the popular vote was exceedingly small.

 

Tyler seemed anxious to hasten the work of annexation, and he recommended the accomplishment of his purpose by joint resolution of the two houses of Congress. Benton, who disliked Tyler and hated Calhoun, and who had opposed the adoption of the treaty in the preceding spring, now gave his influence to the Administration, and during the closing hours of the session the House and the Senate passed the joint resolution making Texas a State by narrow majorities. There was widespread opposition to the annexation of new territory, especially pro-Southern territory, by the new method. Joint resolutions in State legislatures that were evenly divided were not unknown; but for Congress to evade a plain rule of the Constitution requiring two thirds of the Senate by a mere majority of both houses was denounced as the rankest usurpation. Without serious concern as to public opinion in the East or great deference to the President-elect, Tyler and Calhoun hastened messengers to Texas and ordered two regiments of troops, under the command of Colonel Zachary Taylor, to take position at Corpus Christi on the southern bank of the Nueces River, and sent a squadron of the navy, under Commodore Conner, to the mouth of the Rio Grande. This disposition of the military and naval forces of the United States was made to protect Texas against a possible invasion by Mexico; but it was sharp notice that the disputed region between the Nueces and the Rio Grande would be held for Texas. Tyler retired to his Virginia plantation, leaving to Polk the more difficult task of securing all Oregon.

Polk had already shown his self-reliance in refusing to appoint Calhoun Secretary of State. That eminent statesman was thoroughly familiar with the foreign relations of the Government, and he enjoyed a prestige that would have distinguished any administration; besides, he was certain that he could bring matters to a peaceful conclusion with both Mexico and England. Nor had he failed in his loyalty to the new President during the recent campaign. Still Polk gave James Buchanan, of Pennsylvania, the first place in the Cabinet. Robert J. Walker asked and received the second place--the Treasury. William L. Marcy, of New York, and John Y. Mason, of Virginia, represented in the Cabinet those large Democratic constituencies, while George Bancroft, the historian, spoke for New England, though the people of that section would never have named him for the honor.

[Illustration: The Presidential Election of 1844]

To the surprise of old political heads Polk announced blandly in his inaugural that he would proceed to "reoccupy Oregon"; that is, he would execute the mandate of the Baltimore Convention even at the cost of war with England! But Calhoun had practically agreed with the British Minister to compromise the conflicting claims to Oregon. Buchanan, being a man of yielding temper, was disposed to the same easy solution of the most dangerous problem of the Administration. The President, however, restrained his Secretary, and in the annual message of December, 1845, he asked Congress to give him authority to dissolve the copartnership of England and the United States with reference to Oregon. This was taken in both countries as inviting war.

Calhoun regarded this move as likely to be fatal to the retention of Texas and certain to lose for the country all of Oregon. He returned to the Senate for the avowed purpose of preventing war. Webster, in the Senate again, was on friendly terms with the leaders of the English governing party, and both he and they were striving to prevent the expansionists from committing an overt act of hostility. Benton, the foremost of expansionists before Tyler became President, was also ready to compromise the dispute. This meant that Calhoun, Webster, and Benton would unite their influence to defeat the foreign policy of the President if it were not modified to suit their views.

But the new leadership embraced a group of able and bold men: John A. Dix, of New York; Caleb Cushing, a Whig recruit from Massachusetts; James M. Mason, of Virginia; Robert Barnwell Rhett, William L. Yancey, and Jefferson Davis, of the lower South; and David Atchison, Stephen A. Douglas, Lewis Cass, and William Allen, of the Northwest,--all ardent expansionists and "big Americans" who would not readily suffer the defeat of the party program. During the summer and autumn of 1845 their policy had been worked out in detail and discussed among the men who were to be responsible for its execution. In domestic affairs their scheme embraced the settlement of the long-disputed financial policy in a new Independent or Sub-Treasury Bill which Secretary Walker was preparing. The Tariff of 1842, which had offended the Democratic South, was also to be reformed, and Walker had written the new schedules which Congress was to enact in due time. In order to secure the necessary Western support for these Southern purposes, the old internal improvements program was revived in an enlarged rivers and harbors bill. This was a big plan and the Democratic majorities in House and Senate were very narrow. The outlook was anything but encouraging, with Webster, Calhoun, and Benton likely to be in opposition on every point.

But Congress passed the Sub-Treasury Bill, by which most of the financial measures of the preceding administrations since 1833, resting on the mere orders of President or Secretary of the Treasury, were legalized. It was in the main the same law which Van Buren had labored so long to secure, but which the Whigs had repealed in 1841. The money of the Government was henceforth to be kept in certain designated sub-treasuries in leading cities like New York, Baltimore, and New Orleans, and drawn upon by the Secretaries of the Treasury when needed. There was thus to be no national bank; and the state banks were to continue issuing their paper, which was to be the money of the people. Gold and silver, coined by the government mint at Philadelphia, were seldom demanded in ordinary business transactions, though coin or bullion still remained the redemption money of the banks and served as the basis of exchange with foreign countries.

The South had preached free trade since 1828. Polk and his Secretary of the Treasury had been prominent exponents of the idea, despite some campaign bargaining with Pennsylvania. In England Richard Cobden, John Bright, and Sir Robert Peel were about to secure the repeal of the age-old protective system, and in both France and Germany the free-trade agitation was daily winning recruits. Polk and his advisers set themselves the task of securing the passage of a "free-trade tariff" for the United States. Walker submitted an able report in December, 1845. A very high rate was recommended on all luxuries, including wines and liquors; an average duty of twenty-five per cent was to be laid on the great bulk of imports which would compete with American cotton, wool, and iron manufactures; and a long list of articles of every day consumption on which no duties should be imposed was submitted. Though the Pennsylvanians denounced the proposed tariff bill as un-Democratic, it became a law in July, 1846, proved to be successful, and remained the corner-stone of the Democratic structure till 1861.

The _douceur_, in the form of a bill for liberal internal improvements for the Northwest, whose leaders all voted for the tariff reductions, passed both houses of Congress; but the members from the lower South, led by Robert Barnwell Rhett, protested to the last. Polk accepted their view and vetoed the bill. Northwestern men cried out "treachery" so loudly that summer, in a great mass meeting in Chicago, that the President feared the party was seriously endangered. Still, the three problems over which Clay, Calhoun, and Webster had wrestled since 1816 had been solved. The United States was henceforth to manage its finances independently; the free-trade element had won the ascendancy, and there was not to be another high-tariff campaign until after the Civil War; and internal improvements on a large national scale were not to be undertaken until the passage of the Pacific Railway Bill in 1862. The only cloud above the political horizon was the anger of the Northwestern Democrats.

There was more danger in carrying forward the program which was intended to secure to the United States Oregon, California, and New Mexico. But the first step had already been taken. In April, 1846, both House and Senate, in spite of the opposition of the older leaders, authorized the President to give notice to England that joint occupation should cease at the expiration of a year. The English people were much excited, and the idea prevailed that this was only a move on the part of the United States to seize Canada, but the British Government renewed the proposition to compromise on the forty-ninth parallel, Vancouver Island to remain in British possession. A treaty to this effect was accepted by both Governments during the summer of 1846. Polk could boast that the Oregon question had been settled. Again the Northwestern Democrats, who had been promised all of Oregon, were sorely disappointed. One of their most popular leaders declared in the Senate: "James K. Polk has spoken words of falsehood, and with the tongue of a serpent." Would the Northwestern wing of the party continue loyal? This may, perhaps, best be answered when we come to discuss the Wilmot Proviso.

When the Oregon question was at its acutest stage, in the autumn of 1845, Polk sent John Slidell, an adroit politician of Louisiana, to Mexico, to renew the friendly relations which had been broken off immediately after the passage of the joint resolution by Congress. Slidell was authorized to negotiate a treaty by which European influence, then being exerted in Mexico against the United States, was to be counteracted, the annexation of Texas approved, and all of the claims of American citizens against Mexico were to be definitely satisfied. But as Mexico had no funds in her treasury, Slidell was to assume for the United States all these obligations, and pay the Mexicans $5,000,000 in return for the cession of New Mexico, a part of which was claimed by Texas. Finally Slidell was to purchase California, if that were found to be possible, and raise the cash payment from $5,000,000 to $25,000,000. Slidell's mission was supported by a naval demonstration in Mexican waters, and the meaning of his presence was made very plain to the people of the distressed republic.

The new Minister was rejected, however, and Taylor was ordered to move his troops toward the Rio Grande. Mexico resented this, and near Matamoras on April 24, 1846, came the first pass at arms. Slidell returned to Washington about the time that the news of this encounter reached the President. On May 11, war was declared and Taylor was ordered to cross the border and "conquer a peace." In August Colonel S. W. Kearny seized New Mexico and set out with a troop of three hundred men to take California. But Commodore John Drake Sloat had been sent to the Pacific with a squadron of the navy to prevent the seizure of Monterey by the English. And to make certainty more certain, Consul Thomas O. Larkin at Monterey had been instructed, about the time of Slidell's appointment to Mexico, to be in readiness for any emergency. Before Kearny could cross the mountains, Larkin and Sloat had taken possession of California, almost unresisted.

In September, 1846, General Taylor won a brilliant victory at Monterey, twenty miles south of the Rio Grande, and his forces were being augmented every day for the march overland to the City of Mexico. Whig politicians hailed at once the new general as their candidate for the Presidency in 1848. Naturally the Administration did not care to aid their opponents in their political plans, and its leaders cast about for a Democratic general. None was to be found; and Thomas H. Benton, willing that Jackson's plan for his elevation to the Presidency should be fulfilled, asked Polk to make him commander-in-chief of all the forces operating in Mexico. Benton had never had any military experience, and Polk was relieved to find that such an appointment would not be confirmed by the Senate. General Winfield Scott, already quarreling with the Secretary of War, and hence out of favor with the Administration, was the only alternative. Scott was also a candidate for the Whig nomination for the Presidency. After much hesitation most of the troops of Taylor were placed under the command of Scott and reinforced with still others, and all set sail for Vera Cruz, then as now the great port of Mexico. The city fell on March 29, 1847, and the march to the City of Mexico was about to begin.

Meanwhile, Santa Anna had been made commander of all the Mexican armies, and he, learning of Taylor's weak and isolated position south of Monterey, hastened with twenty thousand soldiers to surround and capture him. Taylor moved forward and met the enemy at Buena Vista, after receiving some raw recruits, on February 23, 1847, and completely routed him, thus adding to the laurels he had already won and convincing the country that he had been badly treated by the authorities in Washington.

Scott began the march to the Mexican capital on April 8. He met resolute resistance at Cerro Gordo, where on April 17 and 18 a large army of the enemy was attacked and defeated. At this point Nicholas Trist, envoy from the President, with instructions to treat with Mexico on the basis of Slidell's proposals of 1845, arrived. Trist was a clerk in the Department of State, and Scott refused to recognize or have any relations with him. After much unseemly bickering and the conciliatory services of the British Minister to Mexico, the general and the envoy made peace, and negotiations were opened, only to be broken off by Santa Anna upon his arrival from the north. On August 19 and 20, the battle of Cherubusco seemed to convince the Mexicans that further resistance would be futile, and Trist again offered peace on the terms of 1845, except that the United States would reduce the amount of money to be paid by $5,000,000. But the armistice under which the negotiations had been renewed was broken, and on September 8 and 13, the battles of Molino del Rey and Chapultepec were fought, and the capital was occupied on September 14. A revolution in the affairs of Mexico now took place, and the new Government appointed commissioners on November 22, to treat with Trist.

However, the news of these battles and victories had aroused the expansionist instincts of the people of the United States, or at least of the articulate classes, to the point of demanding the annexation of the whole of Mexico. Sober newspapers, like the New York _Evening Post_, officers of the navy and the army, like Commodore Stockton and Colonel Jefferson Davis, the hero of the battle of Buena Vista, and leading politicians, John A. Dix, Lewis Cass, and Secretary Walker, urged the Government to make an end of Mexico by prompt dismemberment. Although the election of Representatives in 1846 had resulted in giving the Whigs control of the House, Congress seemed disposed to yield to the popular clamor as they came together in December, 1847, when the news of the raising of the American flag over the city of Mexico was fresh in the public mind.

Polk found his Cabinet divided on the subject of "all Mexico," with the preponderance of influence in favor of annexation. Buchanan gave out a public letter in which he said, "Destiny beckons us to hold and civilize Mexico." Walker threatened to urge the absorption of Mexico in his report to Congress. The flag should never be hauled down from the ramparts of the captured capital of Mexico. Polk resisted this pressure, but he recalled Trist just before the beginning of the final negotiations with Mexico. On the advice of General Scott, Trist refused to obey the President, and both he and the general hastened the negotiations.

Although the Whigs were also infected with the expansionist fever, Henry Clay came out of his retirement at Ashland, near Lexington, and on November 13, made an impassioned appeal to the country against the wickedness of despoiling a helpless neighbor; John Quincy Adams, nearing the end of his career, continued to denounce the whole Mexican movement. But Webster, an ardent candidate now for the Whig nomination in 1848, said little and took this occasion to visit the South and West. Calhoun made it his especial business in the Senate to defeat what he thought was the President's purpose, the annexation of all Mexico. But the prospect of success of these "little Americans" was far from bright.

When the Trist treaty, giving satisfaction on all the points raised in Slidell's mission and selling to the United States both California and New Mexico, reached Washington in February, 1848, there was every temptation to reject it. The ablest members of the Cabinet insisted upon its rejection; a scheme for the establishment of a protectorate over Yucatan, which was expected to eventuate in annexation, was being urged, and the rumors of approaching convulsions in Europe were heartening leading members of Congress. Why should not the United States fulfill her destiny? There was none to interfere or make afraid. Senator Foote, of Mississippi, urged in glowing terms the advantages of "extending American liberty" over Central America; Senator Hannegan, of Indiana, fairly represented his section when he said that the time had come for the United States to take Canada, too, and make the boundaries of North America the boundaries of the great Republic; and Senator Cass was making his campaign for the Democratic nomination on the plea that the time was ripe for the extinguishment of the remnants of European authority on the continent.

The President, worn out with the toils of office and determined not to seek renomination, decided to accept the treaty, and the Senate, in spite of the warmest harangues of the extremists, promptly approved the work of Trist and Scott, for the general had had much to do with the negotiations. The war had come to an end, though there were still further efforts to undo the treaty by seizing Yucatan, and there was much complaint from leading Senators and Representatives at the alleged weakness of Polk.

[Illustration: Annexations of 1845-1853]

At a cost of a few thousand lives and some eighty million dollars, eight hundred thousand square miles of territory had been added to the country and the long-standing quarrel with Mexico about Texas had been brought to an end. The Treasury had stood well the heavy strain of war, every bond that had been issued had been readily taken at par and on a low rate of interest--an unprecedented fact in American history. The hard times of the preceding decade seemed to be brought to a conclusion. No one complained at the tariff, and even the veto of the internal improvements bill was passing out of the public mind. The South and the West had carried their program. Polk retired to his home to die a few months later. There had been no appreciable public demand for his renomination; and, rather strange to say, both the people and the historians consigned him to comparative oblivion.

Bibliographical Note

G. P. Garrison's _Westward Extension_ (1906), in the _American Nation_ series, has given us the best brief general survey of the expansion movement which closed with the war with Mexico. An exhaustive treatment of the Texas question is Justin H. Smith's _The Annexation of Texas_ (1911), and George L. Rives's _The United States and Mexico, 1821-1848_ (1913), is almost as complete for the Mexican War. A good history of Oregon and the Oregon movement has not yet been written; but Robert Greenhow's _History of Oregon_ (1870), H. H. Bancroft's _Oregon_, in his voluminous Western history series, and Josiah Royce's _California_, in the _American Commonwealths_ series, are all valuable. Some special articles of importance are: _The Slidell Mission to Mexico_, by L. M. Sears, in _South Atlantic Quarterly_ for 1912; E. G. Bourne's _The United States and Mexico, 1847-48_, in the _American Historical Review_, vol. v, p. 491; and W. E. Dodd's _The West and the War with Mexico_, in the _Journal_ of the Illinois State Historical Society for 1911. The sources which some may wish to consult are _The Diary of James K. Polk_, edited by M. M. Quaife and published by the Chicago Historical Society (1910); Lyon G. Tyler's _The Times of the Tylers_, already mentioned; John Quincy Adams's _Memoir_, also frequently cited; _The Correspondence of John C. Calhoun, The Works of Calhoun_ (1853-55), edited by R. K. Cralle; and the writings of both Clay and Webster as given in the notes to previous chapters. _Niles's Register_, a weekly periodical published in Baltimore from 1811 to 1849, is a never-failing resource for the current of public opinion.

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