Thursday, July 09, 2009

John C. Calhoun: "The line which I would suggest . . ."

In recent posts, we have seen that Senator John C. Calhoun opposed the Polk administration’s rush to war against Mexico in May 1846. By the end of the year, his concern had deepened. He saw the war as a disaster for the south. Continuation of the war threatened consolidation and increased tariffs. Most of all, Calhoun feared, acquisition of territory threatened to ignite a campaign by Free Soilers to demonize the South by moving to bar slavery from any land taken from Mexico.

On February 9, 1847, the Senate was debating the president’s so-called “Three Million Bill.” This was, ironically, the successor to the original appropriation request that had spawned the Wilmot Proviso in August 1846. The original bill had died at the end of the last session. Now, six months later, the administration was still seeking an appropriation “to bring the war with Mexico to a speedy and honorable conclusion.” In other words, the president wanted money with which to purchase territory from Mexico as part of a hoped-for treaty.

Calhoun decided to use the bill as an opportunity to address a more general issue: what, in fact, was the purpose of the war and, given that purpose, how should it be fought and concluded?

The principal purposes of the war, Calhoun asserted, were twofold: first, to repel invasion of Texas; and second, to establish the Rio Grande as the southern and western border of Texas. A third, subsidiary object was “to obtain payment of the indemnities due to our citizens for claims which they held against Mexico.”

Having defined the “objects” of the war, Calhoun then addressed the question, “How shall [the war] be conducted to enable us most advantageously to effect all of [those] objects?” The answer, he stated, lay in a limited, defensive war, and not the offensive war in which the administration was engaged:
I hold, then, Mr. President – such being the objects of the war – that all those objects for which it was declared can be accomplished by taking a defensive position. Two of them have been already thoroughly effected. The invasion has been repelled by two brilliant victories; the Rio del Norte [Rio Grande] is held from its source to its mouth as the American boundary; a single Mexican soldier does not remain within our territory; and such has been the success of our arms, that we have not only acquired enough territory from them, but vastly more than enough to indemnify us for the expenses of the war, if it should be the judgment of this body that it would be a sound, wise, or just policy on our part to seek such indemnity.

Using a phrase he had used privately, Calhoun condemned the dismemberment of Mexico as “forbidden fruit” that would destroy the United States (here I am converting the third person reporting in the Congressional Globe to the first person):
There is a mysterious connexion between the fate of this country and that of Mexico. Her independence and respectability, and capability of maintaining all those relations, are almost as essential to us as they are to Mexico. Mexico is to us forbidden fruit; if we should consume that fruit, it would be almost tantamount to the political death of our own institutions.

Calhoun did not immediately elaborate on why Mexico was “forbidden fruit.” He turned instead to the practical, bottom-line issue: where should the boundary between the United States and Mexico be drawn? The line, Calhoun argued, needed to be defensible and “eminently pacific” – that is, sensitive to Mexico’s needs, so that it would lead to a “speedy” and “permanent peace.” Based on these considerations, Calhoun proposed a boundary that was (if I understand him correctly) quite similar to the boundary ultimately negotiated by Nicholas Trist:
The line which I would suggest is one beginning at the mouth of the Rio del Norte [the Rio Grande] and extending up to the pass of the del Norte, a southern boundary of New Mexico, and thence due west to the Gulf of California. Such a line would strike the Gulf nearly at its head.

My knowledge of southwestern geography is weak, but “the pass of the del Norte” presumably refers to the area around what is now El Paso, Texas, and the 1847 map at the top shows "Paso del Norte" at about that location. Drawing a line due west from El Paso does in fact “strike the Gulf nearly at its head.”

As we shall see, Calhoun seems to have been most concerned about heading off a more aggressive outcome: a resolution of the war in which the United States would swallow all, or substantially all, of Mexico. But it is equally interesting that he failed to urge an even more conservative conclusion to the war, one in which the United States acquired no territory other than Texas expanded to the limits claimed by its most extravagant advocates, with a western border snaking north up along the Rio Grande and then farther north through what is now Colorado and into southern Wyoming.

It is certainly reasonable to suspect that this is the outcome that Calhoun would really have preferred. Logically, confirming the United States’ claim to an expansive Texas, but acquiring nothing else, was the only result that would avoid clashes with free soilers over slavery in the territories.

A navigable version of the map at the top of the post may be found here.

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