Tuesday, August 04, 2009

"To keep it as the alternative would but render more certain . . . the conquest of the whole country"

Careful readers of my earlier posts concerning John C. Calhoun’s February 9, 1847 speech against continuation of the war against Mexico may have noticed an oddity in the position that Calhoun took. Calhoun made clear that one of his great concerns was that the acquisition of additional territory would trigger a bitter battle over the status of slavery in the region. In 1846, the Wilmot Proviso represented, in a sense, a hypothetical dispute. If it became a fight over land actually ceded to the United States, things could get ugly fast.

And yet, the position that Calhoun took in February 1847, and continued to advance in January 1848 – adopting a defensive “line” up the Rio Grande to El Paso, and thence due west to the Pacific coast – would not solve this problem. As we all know, this was the line (more or less) eventually established by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and the ensuing bitter debate over New Mexico and California dominated the halls of Congress for years, until resolved by the Compromise of 1850.

Why, then, did not Calhoun not take the Whig position: “No Territory”? He had been silent on the point in February 1847. In January 1848, however, he explained himself. “No Territory” was not, he believed, a politically realistic option. Worse, if “No Territory” were the only alternative presented, it made more likely the worst possible outcome, annexation of the entire country:
Now let me say, that in asserting that a defensive line was the only alternative to the plan recommended by the president, I have put out of the question the course which most of you [Whig opponents of the war] advocate – taking no indemnity of territory; because I believe that the voice of the country has decided irrevocably against it; and that to keep it as the alternative would but render more certain the adoption of the policy recommended by the Executive, and, in consequence, the conquest of the whole country.


The people will find it hard to believe that it was necessary to vote so much money for the purpose of getting territory for indemnity, which you intend to throw away when you get it. But, whatever may be the causes which have led to this state of public opinion, it has, beyond all doubt, decided against any conclusion of this war that does not involve territorial indemnity to some extent. Hence, I repeat, the alternative whether this war shall go on and consummate itself, is between taking a defensive line and adopting the course pointed out by the Executive, and that the decision must be made now; for if it be passed over until another session, the end will be, I doubt not, the subjugation of the whole country, thereby involving us in all the difficulties and dangers which must result from it.

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