Racial Templates

By Delgado, Richard | Michigan Law Review, April 2014 | Go to article overview

Racial Templates


Delgado, Richard, Michigan Law Review


RACIAL TEMPLATES

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, 279. Cloth, $30; paper, $16.95.

Introduction

This riveting tale of greed, international skullduggery, and behind-thescenes heroism recounts the events that led up to America's "wicked war" with Mexico.1 It depicts how expansionist ambitions in high circles fueled jingoistic propaganda (pp. 25, 34-35, 58), fed a public eager for national muscle flexing (pp. 57, 103, 108), and set the stage for a military skirmish in a disputed region between two rivers (pp. 75-77, 95, 100, 138) that provided the pretext for a savage and short-lived military campaign against the weak new nation of Mexico in which the U.S. Army, under General Scott, marched all the way to Mexico City, marauding as it went.2 On arrival, President Polk's negotiator dictated terms of surrender under which Mexico ceded nearly half its territory-what is now the states of California, Nevada, and Utah, and parts of Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas (pp. xvii, 258-61)-a land grab that accounts for about one-third of the current continental United States.3

As America's first foreign campaign, the War with Mexico strengthened the hold of slavery in the South, paving the way for the Civil War a generation later.4 It launched Lincoln's career, although he opposed it (p. xvi); brought Henry Thoreau, who abhorred it, to national prominence;5 and sparked the country's first antiwar movement (p. xvi). With its explicitly racist rhetoric, the war marked the first time in the United States' seventyyear history that it invoked race as a justification for expanding its borders.6 The war also facilitated future uses of racist rhetoric in oppressing domestic minorities.7

Let us first examine the war itself as portrayed in Amy S. Greenberg's A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico.8 This will first entail examining the parts played by five political figures-some young, some senior-together with their families and children.9 Then we shall show the prominent role of what we call "racial templates"-linguistic frames, habits, and attitudes of mind-in the War with Mexico and later. As we shall see, these templates, often operating at an unconscious level, predisposed society and individual actors to reproduce risky or oppressive behavior in arenas far beyond the ones in which they first emerged. Identifying these templates is a necessary first step in reducing their sway.

I. Five Men, Their Wives, and Children

Greenberg tells the war's story through the eyes of five men who played large parts in it,10 as well as through the experiences of their wives and children.11 Rather than focusing on the military side of the war, Greenberg develops the political narrative that accompanied the buildup to the war and the war itself (p. xiii), highlighting the role of ideology, expansionist fever, and the five individuals and their families in guiding or opposing a war that would shape this country's destiny, laws, and demographic realities (pp. xiii-xiv). The book also recounts the development of the country's first peace movement, which included workers, military deserters, and intellectuals such as Charles Sumner, James Russell Lowell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Lloyd Garrison, and Henry Thoreau, who went to jail rather than pay taxes that would support an unjust war (pp. xvii, 193-97). Thoreau subsequently wrote an essay, entitled Civil Disobedience, setting out his thoughts on the subject.12

Greenberg begins her treatment of this neglected chapter in American history by describing four years in the career of Polk, the war's most influential and effective backer (Chapters Two and Three). Egged on by his strongwilled wife, Sarah (pp. 29-31, 72-75), Polk, a childless man who lacked any military experience, nevertheless micromanaged the war (pp. xv, 28, 94-95, 144, 175, 219), beginning with the skirmish that enabled him to pin the blame on Mexico (pp. …

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