Saturday, June 27, 2009

John Calhoun on the War Against Mexico: "It is monstrous"

Having devoted several posts to John C. Calhoun’s Pakenham Letter, I’d like to turn to an event in Calhoun’s career several years later. It’s one that I’ve always found somewhat odd and jarring in light of Calhoun’s earlier advocacy of Texas annexation.

On Monday May 11, 1846, President James K. Polk delivered to Congress a Message concerning relations with Mexico. To make a long story short, Polk reported that the Mexican government had in March refused to receive John Slidell, whom Polk had sent there (so Polk asserted) to seek peace. Then, on April 24, 1846, Mexican troops had attacked American troops on the north side of the Rio Grande, resulting in “some sixteen” American casualties, and others “appear to have been surrounded and captured.”

“[W]ar exists,” the president asserted. And with “[w]ar actually existing,” he called on Congress “to recognize the existence of the war, and to place at the disposition of the Executive the means of prosecuting the war with vigor, and thus hastening the restoration of peace.”

What I find both jarring and fascinating is that John Calhoun opposed Polk’s rush to war. At the very outset of the debate in the Senate, he resisted a call to print 20,000 copies of the president’s message and accompanying documents because they would be distributed as pro-war propaganda and implied endorsement of a decision that had not yet been reached. Calhoun emphasized the moral and constitutional gravity of the issue that the Senate was being asked to consider:
Mr. CALHOUN . . . The question now submitted to us is one of the gravest character, and the importance of the consequences which may result from it we cannot now determine. I do hope that this body will give to it that high, full, and dispassionate consideration which is worthy the character of the body and the high constitutional functions which it is called on to exercise. I trust that we will weigh everything calmly and deliberately, and do all that the Constitution, interests, and honor of the country may require. . . .

A little later that day, Calhoun fleshed out his position somewhat more fully. He objected to the president’s suggestions that “war” already existed. Armed conflict, or invasion, may or may not exist. But under the Constitution “war” can exist only when the Congress so declares.
Mr. CALHOUN. . . . [T]he President has announced that there is war; but according to my interpretation, there is no war according to the sense of our Constitution. I distinguish between hostilities and war, and God forbid that, acting under the Constitution, we should ever confound one with the other. There may be invasion without war, and the President is authorized to repel invasion without war. But it is our sacred duty to make war, and it is for us to determine whether war shall be declared or not. If we have declared war, a state of war exists, and not till then.

It was in this aspect of the question that I regarded it as one of great magnitude, and deprecated any precipitate action on the part of the Senate. There is a certain forbearance, dignity, and calmness, which will make war not the less effective if it should be our fate to be involved in war.

The last few sentences of Calhoun’s short statement are remarkable for their expression of patriotism. Notice the reference to the country as a whole as “my country”:
I hope that I shall never indicate, on my part, the earnestness with which I go into any measure by a precipitate course of action. I am prepared to do all that the Constitution, and patriotism, and the honor of my country, may require. But I wish time to consider on all points, and desire that our whole action may be marked by dignity.

Notwithstanding Calhoun’s position, within twenty four hours the Senate was finalizing a bill authorizing the raising of troops and supplies. Most troubling in Calhoun’s view, as he expressed it on May 12, 1846, was the fact that the bill recognized war as already existing. The proposed legislation was entitled “An act providing for the prosecution of the existing war . . .” and the introduction to the act repeated that characterization:
Whereas, by the act of the Republic of Mexico, a state of war exists between that Government and the United States:

Be it enacted . . ., That, for the purpose of enabling the Government of the United States to prosecute said war to a speedy and successful termination . . ..

Calhoun rose to repeat his objections. Whether it acknowledged it or not, the Congress was declaring war (the Globe reporter reports this and Calhoun’s later statements in the third person, past tense [e.g., “Mr. Calhoun said that . . .”]; I have transposed these to the first person present in the hope that you will read them aloud):
Mr. CALHOUN . . . I hope, at least, one day will be allowed to those who are to vote upon this bill, as an opportunity to consult the documents which have been submitted to the Senate by the Executive, as containing the ground on which the bill is to pass. It is a bill amounting to a declaration of war. I have no objection whatever to voting the amount of supplies contained in the bill, or even a greater amount; but I am at present unprepared to vote anything which amounts to a declaration of war. The question is one of great magnitude, and gentlemen who entertain doubts respecting the facts on which the bill is founded, or in regard to the necessity or propriety of a declaration of war, should certainly have some short time allowed them for reflection. . .

Other senators complained that the troops needed immediate help. Calhoun’s request would result in fatal delay. What game was he really playing? In response, Calhoun denied the charge. The troops could be supplied and reinforced immediately; it was only the preamble to which he objected. And he had no covert agenda; he was simply not prepared to vote on the gravest constitutional responsibility he held as a senator:
Mr. CALHOUN . . . I seek no delay, and resort to no indirect course to conceal my true intent. . . . [W]hy can you not accommodate gentlemen who have honest doubts as to the state of facts, by consenting to strike out the preamble of the bill, and to suffer the question of supplies to be separated from the question of a declaration of war? Is not such a course reasonable? Is it not fair and just? Gentlemen stated to the Senate that the information received from the frontier was such as to require instant action; if so, they can have instant action. If any delay occurs, the delay is their own. I will create none.

I am prepared to vote the supplies on the spot, and without an hour’s delay; but it is just as impossible for me to vote for that preamble as it is for me to plunge a dagger into my own heart, and more so. I cannot; I am not prepared to affirm that war exists between the United States and Mexico, and that it exists by the act of that Government. How can I affirm this, when I have no evidence on which to affirm it? How do I know that the Government of Mexico will not disavow what had been done? Am I to be called upon to give a vote like this? It is impossible for me to utter it, consistently with that sacred regard for truth in which I have had been educated.

The Senate, Calhoun charged, was proposing to “make war on the Constitution.” It was “monstrous”:
I have no difficulty as to my course. My mind is made up; it is made up unalterably; 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 of 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 should 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 will make war on the Constitution by declaring war to exist between the 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 very face of the Constitution, that a local rencontre, not authorized by the act of either Government, constituted 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 [Zachary] Taylor and General [Mariano] 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 you gentlemen call on me to do this? Do you expect that I would vote for a position so monstrous? If you force the question upon me, I will 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.

Later that day, Calhoun made his final protest. Substantively, it added little, but I invite you to picture the Cast Iron Man standing in the Senate and making this plea:
Why, in the name of all that is reasonable, would you rush at once to the ultimate resort? Suppose this turns out to be a case in which war ought to be declared, after examination of all the documents: let the declaration be made in due form and with becoming dignity – not in this side-way, as if you were afraid to do it. Show a front to the world, such as becomes the character of the nation.

In the present condition of the world, war is a tremendous thing. The whole sentiment of the civilized world is turning stronger and stronger against war. Let us not, for the honor of our country – for the dignity of the Republic – be the first to create a state of war. Mortal man cannot see the end of it. When I look on and see that we are rushing upon the most tremendous event, I am amazed. I am more than amazed; I am in a state of wonder and deep alarm. This is not the tone of character to go into war. They who go into war in this manner – as if seeking a divisive course – cannot expect to succeed. It is a hasty, thoughtless course.

I do not wish to use any words in an offensive sense -- but with all possible emphasis, I exhort you to avoid even the appearance of precipitancy, or want of that deep reflection and profound meditation which alone can guide you to a successful issue.

Shortly before 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday May 12, 1846, the bill passed the Senate by a vote of 40-2, the only two dissenters being Senators Thomas Clayton (Whig, Delaware) and John Davis (Whig, Massachusetts). Two the votes recorded in favor of the bill were partial or conditional. “When Mr. [John J.] CRITTENDEN’S [Whig, Kentucky] name was called, he voted ‘ay, except the preamble.’ So also did Mr. [William] UPHAM [Whig, Vermont].”

“Senators [John M.] BERRIEN [Whig, Georgia], CALHOUN, and [George] EVANS [Whig, Maine], being in their seats, did not vote.”

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