The rhetoric spewingout of Washington, D.C., was bold and audacious, if more than a bit questionable. The freshman congressman from Illinois, in only the first year of his first term, called out the president of the United States, no less, over the legitimacy of the war the president was doggedly supporting and commanding.
The congressman questioned whether the president had his facts straight and whether the country, with over 200,000 troops dedicated to the cause, had any business invading another country based on those questionable facts. He did not mince his words, calling the president a warmonger and worse. In one speech he called the commander in chief "half insane," and called the war "from beginning to end, the sheerest deception."
After the enemy, outnumbered and militarily outmatched, was quickly and handily subdued, the congressman charged that the president hoped "to escape scrutiny, by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory."
The congressman's anti-war stance was so strong that many of his colleagues urged him to tone it down. When he insisted on signing a resolution that stated that the war had been "unnecessarily and unconstitutionally" initiated by the president, the majority of the House members blanched. When he likened the president's mind to "some tortured creature, on a burning surface, finding no position, on which it can settle down, and be at ease," they told him he was committing political suicide.
And he was. The president, for his part, never even bothered to respond to the obscure congressman, who didn't run for re-election after his two-year term was up and later lost a bid for a Senate seat from Illinois.
If only Abraham Lincoln had kept his mouth shut and not called President James K. Polk all those names.
Lincoln's bold protest of the American-Mexican war of 1846-1848 is spelled out in Doris Kearns Goodwin's new book, "Team of Rivals, The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln."
The book goes on, of course, to tell the rest of the story: how Lincoln became a war president himself, and preserved the Union, and freed the slaves, and became the most beloved leader in the history of the United States of America.
But in 1847, at the start of Lincoln's one and only term as a congressman, he wasn't any of that yet. He was a 37-year-old from the hinterland who sized up America's — and Polk's — reasoning for entering into war with Mexico as highly suspect and challenged Polk to "present evidence that Mexico herself became the aggressor by invading our soil in hostile array."
As Goodwin writes of Lincoln, "To accept Polk's position without question, he claimed, was to 'allow the President to invade a neighboring nation . . . whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary.'"
While the war with Mexico ended up disposing into U.S. hands land that would eventually become California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, Lincoln's opposition to what he saw as the conflict's illegitimate beginnings never wavered, costing him severely in popularity and prompting at least one fellow Illinois politician, Justin Butterfield of Chicago, when asked if he was against the Mexican War, to reply, "No, I opposed one war (the war of 1812). That was enough for me. I am now perpetually in favor of war, pestilence and famine."
People don't go down in history for the wars they question, only the ones they win.
Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to email@example.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.