Sunday, April 27, 2008

"It is monstrous"

It is one of the great ironies of the antebellum period that John Caldwell Calhoun opposed the United States’ war against Mexico. After all, as President Tyler’s Secretary of State, Calhoun had help to engineer the annexation of Texas in 1844-45. A year later, he vainly tried to ward off Mr. Polk's war.

On Tuesday May 12, 1846, the United States Senate received from the House a bill entitled “An act providing for the prosecution of the existing war between the United States and the Republic of Mexico,” which provided in part:
WHEREAS, by the act of the Republic of Mexico, a state of war exists between that Government and the United States:

Be is enacted . . ., That, for the purpose of enabling the government of the United States to prosecute said war to a speedy and successful termination, the President be, and he is hereby, authorized to employ the militia, naval, and military forces of the United States, and to call for and accept the services of any number of volunteers, not exceeding fifty thousand, who may offer their services, either as cavalry, artillery, infantry, or riflemen, to serve twelve months after they shall have arrived at the place of rendezvous, or to the end of the war, unless sooner discharged, according to the time for which they shall have been mustered into service; and that the sum of ten millions of dollars, out of any moneys in the treasury, or to come into the treasury, not otherwise appropriated, be, and the same is hereby, appropriated for the purpose of carrying the provisions of this act into effect.

Senator Calhoun promptly rose to object. He focused on the statement in the Whereas clause that “a state of war” already existed between the two countries. This, said Calhoun, was a factual assertion that required study before the Senate could or should assent to it. He therefore demanded more time to study the underlying documents:
Mr. CALHOUN rose and said, he hoped, at least, one day would be allowed to those who were to vote upon this bill, as an opportunity to consult the documents which had been submitted to the Senate by the Executive, as containing the ground on which the bill was to pass.

Calhoun also suggested that time was needed because the “bill amounted to a declaration of war.”
Mr. C. had no objection whatever to voting the amount of supplies contained in the bill, or even a greater amount; but he was at present unprepared to vote anything which amounted to a declaration of war. The question was one of great magnitude, and gentlemen who entertained doubts respecting the facts on which the bill was founded, or in regard to the necessity or propriety of a declaration of war, should certainly have some short time allowed them for reflection.

Later that day, Calhoun rose again. This time he stated his objection more forcefully:
[Calhoun] was prepared to vote the supplies on the spot, and without an hour’s delay; but it was just as impossible for him to vote for that preamble as it was for him to plunge a dagger into his own heart, and more so. He could not; he was not prepared to affirm that war existed between the United States and Mexico, and that it existed by the act of that Government. How could he affirm this, when he had no evidence on which to affirm it? How did he know that the Government of Mexico would not disavow what had been done? Was he to be called upon to give a vote like this? It would be impossible for him to utter it, consistently with that sacred regard for truth in which he had been educated.

Calhoun’s closing begs to be read aloud. The Congressional Globe reports the speech indirectly. I have changed it to direct speech (and added some paragraph breaks) so you can declaim it yourself:
I have no difficulty as to my course. My mind is made up; it is made up inalterably; I can neither vote affirmatively nor negatively. I have no certain evidence to go on. Whether any one will go with me in this course I do not know; I have made no inquiries, and I do not know that a single friend will be found at my side. As to what might be said on such a course, and all that is called popularity, I do not care the snap of my finger. If I cannot stand and brave so small a danger, I would be but little worthy of what small amount of reputation I may have earned.

I cannot agree to make war on Mexico by making war on the Constitution; and the Senate would make war on the Constitution by declaring war to exist between two Governments when no war has been declared, and nothing has occurred but a slight military conflict between a portion of two armies. Yet I am asked to affirm, in the face of the Constitution, that a local rencontre, not authorized by the act of either Government, constitutes a state of war between the Government of Mexico and the Government of the United States – to say that, by a certain military movement of General Taylor and General Arista, every citizen of the United States is made the enemy of every man in Mexico.

It is monstrous. It strips Congress of the power of making war; and, what is more and worse, it gives that power to every officer, nay, to every subaltern commanding a corporal’s guard. Do gentlemen call upon me to do this? Do they expect I am going to vote for a position so monstrous? If you force the question up me, I shall take my own course. If you want unanimity, you can have it; but if you choose to proceed on your own petty party views, be it so.


  1. Anonymous10:56 AM

    As always, I learn something new every time you write. If only the current Congressional Quislings in Washington read Elektratig....

    After allowing them to sit unread for a couple of years I finally read Powers' "A problem from hell" and Chris Hedges' War is a Force that Gives us Meaning last week.

    I highly recommend the Hedges' book. Here's a review from someone at The Corner that I largely agree with.


  2. decon,

    Thanks for the kind words; they're appreciated.

    Thanks also for the book recommendation. I read The Corner almost every day, and yet I missed the review, and in fact I've never even heard of the book. Given the quality of your past recommendations, my next stop is Amazon, to add it to the cart.


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