Polk’s War: Taking nothing by conquest

by Nov 5, 2005Foreign Policy0 comments

It was the “manifest destiny” of the U.S., John O’Sullivan famously wrote, “to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”[1] In furtherance of this “manifest destiny”, President James Polk sent General Taylor to the Rio Grande, within what Mexico regarded as its territory, inhabited by Mexicans, despite […]

It was the “manifest destiny” of the U.S., John O’Sullivan famously wrote, “to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”[1]

In furtherance of this “manifest destiny”, President James Polk sent General Taylor to the Rio Grande, within what Mexico regarded as its territory, inhabited by Mexicans, despite the real possibility that this might provoke an attack. Polk recorded what he had said to a cabinet meeting before the start of hostilities: “I stated … that up to this time, as we knew, we had heard of no open act of aggression by the Mexican army, but that the danger was imminent that such acts would be committed.”[2]

Mexico then stretched to include present day New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and California, and there were many, including Polk, who eyed this land for the U.S. Texas had declared its independence in 1836 and was brought into the Union in 1845. Writing in his diary that year concerning the order to Taylor, Colonel Ethan Allen Hitchcock reasonably predicted that “Violence leads to violence, and if this movement of ours does not lead to others and to bloodshed, I am much mistaken.” General Taylor, he wrote, “seems to have lost all respect for Mexican rights and is willing to be an instrument of Mr. Polk for pushing our boundary as far west as possible.”[3]

On April 25, one of Taylor’s patrols was attacked by Mexicans, prompting Taylor to send a dispatch to Polk saying “Hostilities may now be considered as commenced.”[4]

Hitchcock wrote: “I have said from the first that the United States are the aggressors…. We have not one particle of right to be here…. It looks as if the government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have a pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses, for, whatever becomes of this army, there is no doubt of a war between the United States and Mexico….”[5]

Polk indeed asked Congress for a declaration of war, claiming that “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil….”[6]

Abraham Lincoln, after being elected to Congress in 1846, challenged Polk to specify the exact location where “American blood” had been shed “on American soil.” Even so, he said that he supported the war because “it had become the cause of the country”. [7] Whether the action was right or wrong apparently had little to do with it.

Ulysses S. Grant, who served as a lieutenant in the war, called it “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”[8]

The result of the war was the surrender of Mexico, which accepted $15 million for more than half a million square miles of Mexican territory, leading one newspaper to conclude: “We take nothing by conquest…. Thank God.”[9]


[1] Howard Zinn, “A People’s History of the United States” (HarperCollins Publishers, New York 2003) p. 151

[2] Ibid., p. 152

[3] Ibid., p. 149-150

[4] Ibid., p. 151

[5] Ibid., p. 151

[6] Ibid., p. 152

[7] Ibid., p. 153-154

[8] Kenneth C. Davis, “Don’t Know Much About History” (Avon Books, New York 1995) p. 139-140

[9] Kenneth C. Davis, p. 143; Howard Zinn, p. 169

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About Jeremy R. Hammond

About Jeremy R. Hammond

I am an independent journalist, political analyst, publisher and editor of Foreign Policy Journal, book author, and writing coach.

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