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This Week in History:
February 13 - 19, 1847
Lincoln on the Presidential Power to Make War

February 2011

Abraham Lincoln

When Abraham Lincoln took his seat in the House of Representatives on Dec. 6, 1847, as a new Congressman from Illinois, the Mexican War was almost over. But the issues raised by that conflict were anything but settled, and some of them are still of critical importance today. The United States had annexed Texas in December of 1845, and the Mexican government subsequently broke off diplomatic relations. The boundary between Mexico and Texas was under dispute, especially the area between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers, and Congress passed a series of joint resolutions when Texas was admitted to the Union, leaving all questions of boundary to future adjustment. The next year, President James K. Polk sent John Slidell to Mexico to offer U.S. government assumption of any American monetary claims against Mexico, in return for boundary adjustments in the Southwest. Slidell was also instructed to purchase California and New Mexico, part of which was claimed by Texas.

The Mexican government, rightly feeling threatened, declined to negotiate. Slidell, Polk and most of his cabinet belonged to the faction which wanted to extend slavery as far south and west as possible, even all the way to the southern tip of South America. The British, who manipulated and supported this faction, settled the dispute over America's Oregon boundary in June of 1846, consciously freeing a large group of American military on the northwest border for action further south.

After the failure of Slidell's mission, Gen. Zachary Taylor was ordered to advance to the Rio Grande, where he occupied Point Isabel at the mouth of the river. The Mexicans considered this an act of aggression, as Taylor's troops had scared away the Mexican residents of the town, and occupied their fields. On May 3, 1846, the guns of Matamoros, Mexico began to shell the advanced American position near the present Brownsville, Texas. President Polk, having obtained his desired result, claimed that Mexico had invaded U.S. soil, and on May 12, 1846, Congress declared war on Mexico.

By the time Lincoln entered the House of Representatives, the conflict was winding down, but Lincoln was convinced that the illegal nature of the war had to be revealed, and that there must be a concrete plan for concluding the peace. First, on Dec. 22, Lincoln introduced a series of resolutions which sharply questioned whether the spot on which the first blood of the war had been shed had been United States territory. these came to be known as the "Spot Resolutions." Secondly, in a major speech on the war, delivered on Jan. 12, 1848, he questioned President Polk's intention to bring about a peace: "As to the mode of terminating the war, and securing peace, the President is equally wandering and indefinite. First, it is to be done by a more vigorous prosecution of the war in the vital parts of the enemy's country; and, after apparently, talking himself tired, on this point, the President drops down into a half despairing tone, and tells us that 'with a people distracted and divided by contending factions, and a government subject to constant changes, by successive revolutions, the continued success of our arms may fail to secure a satisfactory peace.'

"Then he suggests the propriety of wheedling the Mexican people to desert the counsels of their own leaders, and trusting in our protection, to set up a government from which we can secure a satisfactory peace; telling us, that 'this may become the only mode of obtaining such a peace.' But soon he falls into doubt of this too; and then drops back on to the already half-abandoned ground of 'more vigorous prosecution.' All this shows that the President is, in no wise, satisfied with his own positions. First he takes up one, and in attempting to argue us into it, he argues himself out of it; then seizes another, and goes through the same process; and then, confused at being able to think of nothing new, he snatches up the old one again, which he has some time before cast off. His mind, tasked beyond its power, is running hither and thither, like some tortured creature, on a burning surface, finding no position, on which it can settle down, and be at ease."

"Again, it is a singular omission in this message, that it no where intimates when the President expects this war to terminate. At its beginning, General [Winfield] Scott was, by this same President, driven into disfavor, if not disgrace, for intimating that peace could not be conquered in less than three or four months. But now, at the end of about twenty months, during which time our arms have given us the most splendid successes, ... after all this, this same President gives us a long message, without showing us, that, as to the end, he himself, has, even an imaginary conception. As I have before said, he knows not where he is. He is a bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man. God grant he may be able to show, there is not something about his conscience, more painful than all his mental perplexity!"

When word of Lincoln's speeches got back to Illinois, he was strongly attacked by the Democrats, who had enthusiastically supported the war. Even Lincoln's law partner, William Herndon, sent him a series of letters questioning Lincoln's stand. Lincoln's reply of Feb. 15 dealt with the question of Presidential war powers: "Your letter of the 29th January was received last night. Being exclusively a constitutional argument, I wish to submit some reflections upon it in the same spirit of kindness that I know actuates you. Let me first state what I understand to be your position. It is, that if it shall become necessary, to repel invasion, the President may, without violation of the Constitution, cross the line, and invade the territory of another country; and that whether such necessity exists in any given case, the President is to be the sole judge.

"Before going further, consider well whether this is, or is not your position. If it is, it is a position that neither the President himself, nor any friend of his, so far as I know, has ever taken. Their only positions are first, that the soil was ours where hostilities commenced, and second, that whether it was rightfully ours or not, Congress had annexed it, and the President, for that reason was bound to defend it, both of which are as clearly proved to be false in fact, as you can prove that your house is not mine. That soil was not ours; and Congress did not annex or attempt to annex it. But to return to your position: Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so, whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose--and you allow him to make war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after you have given him so much as you propose. If, today, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada, to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, 'I see no probability of the British invading us,' but he will say to you 'Be silent; I see it, if you don't.

"The provision of the Constitution giving the war-making power to Congress, was dictated, as I understand it by the following reasons. Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This, our Convention understood to be the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions; and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us. But your view destroys the whole matter, and places our President where kings have always stood."



The original article was published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.

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