The Lessons of the Mexican War

Article excerpt

It is "by right of our manifest destiny to overspread and possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and self-government."

So there. That's it. No arguments. No ifs or ands or buts. It was an open and shut case. America. The author was John L. O'Sullivan, a celebrated New York newspaper editor and leading proponent of America's westward movement. "Long after we are dead," wrote another famous journalist of the period, "history will tell the children of ages yet to come how the hosts gathered for the crusade in the year 1846."

1846? Before the Civil War? Now what crusade could that have been? The Mexican War? Was that a crusade? I'd thought that was just a little border tiff about Texas. I must refer the reader to a major article in the Spring issue of the Wilson Quarterly by Robert Johannsen.

But that's not how most Americans felt about it at the time, friend. When the call for volunteers went out, coinciding with first reports of victories on the Rio Grande, public response was instantaneous and huge. Initially to be drawn from states closest to the military action, quotas were rapidly oversubscribed. Thousands of young men were turned away. Illinois alone supplied enough men for 14 regiments, where only four had been called for the entire war.

The rush of volunteers, according to another prominent writer, confirmed the superior nature of republican government: "We had to show those Mexicans that a people without being military, could still be warlike." Volunteers came from every walk of life: from the upper reaches of society - sons of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, a descendant of John Marshall - as well as offspring of other families with distinguished Revolutionary War backgrounds, not to mention farmers, merchants, lawyers, journalists, firemen, students, recent immigrants and even a few American Indians.

Critics, President Polk himself noted, had long charged republics with a lack of the qualities necessary to win wars. For all history's great military nations have been authoritarian states, and it was widely believed that democracies couldn't fight. So we took Monterrey and Vera Cruz to show the world that we could fight.

The Mexican War touched the lives of Americans more intimately than any major public event of the period. What with the "print explosion" of the mid-19th century, the war was reported in more detail than any earlier conflict. Fast, steam-powered presses, the use of war correspondents for the first time, the new magnetic telegraph, and the rapid increase of books and periodicals on the war all combined to bring it into the lives of Americans on an unprecedented scale. …