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The First Missouri Mounted Volunteers played an honorable part in the year of decision, and looking back, a private of Company C determined to write his regiment's history. He was John T. Hughes, an A. B. and a schoolmaster.a Familiarity with the classics had taught him that great events are heralded by portents. So when he sat down to write his history he recalled a story which, he cautions us, was "doubtless more beautiful than true." Early in that spring of 1846, the story ran, a prairie thunderstorm overtook a party of traders who were returning to Independence, Missouri, from Santa Fe. When it passed over, the red sun had sunk to the prairie's edge, and the traders cried out with one voice. For the image of an eagle was spread across the sun. They knew then that "in less than twelve months the eagle of liberty would spread his broad pinions over the plains of the west, and that the flag of our country would wave over the cities of New Mexico and Chihuahua."
Thus neatly John T. Hughes joined Manifest Destiny and the fires that flamed in the midnight sky when Caesar was assassinated. But he missed a sterner omen.
The period of Biela's comet was seven years. When it came back in 1832 many people were terrified for it was calculated to pass within •twenty thousand miles of the earth's orbit. The earth rolled by that rendezvous a month before the comet reached it, however, and the dread passed. In 1839 when the visitor returned again it was too near the sun to be seen, but its next perihelion passage was calculated for February 11, 1846. True to the assignment, it traveled earthward toward the end of 1845. Rome identified it on November 28 and Berlin saw it two days later. By mid‑December all watchers of the skies had reported it. The new year began, the year of decision, and on January 13 at Washington, our foremost scientist, Matthew Maury, found matter for a new report.
p4 Mauryb was a universal genius but his deepest passion was the movement of tides. In that January of '46 he was continuing his labor to perfect the base for the scientific study of winds and current. Out of that labor came the science of oceanography, and methods of reporting the tides not only of the sea but of the air also that have been permanent, and a revolution in the art of navigation. But he had further duties as Superintendent of the Naval Observatory, and so by night he turned his telescope on Biela's comet. That night of January 13, 1846, he beheld the ominous and inconceivable. On its way toward perihelion, Biela's comet had split in two.
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This book tells the story of some people who went west in 1846. Its purpose is to tell that story in such a way that the reader may realize the far western frontier experience, which is part of our cultural inheritance, as personal experience. But 1846 is chosen rather than other years because 1846 best dramatizes personal experience as national experience. Most of our characters are ordinary people, the unremarkable commoners of the young democracy. Their story, however, is a decisive part of a decisive turn in the history of the United States.
Sometimes there are exceedingly brief periods which determine a long future. A moment of time holds in solution ingredients which might combine in any of several or many ways, and then another moment precipitates out of the possible the at last determined thing. The limb of a tree grows to a foreordained shape in response to forces determined by nature's equilibriums, but the affairs of nations are shaped by the actions of men, and sometimes, looking back, we can understand which actions were decisive. The narrative of this book covers a period when the manifold possibilities of chance were shaped to converge into the inevitable, when the future of the American nation was precipitated out of the possible by the actions of the people we deal with. All the actions it narrates were initiated, and most of them were completed, within the compass of a single calendar year. The origins of some of them, it is true, can be traced as far back as one may care to go, and a point of the book is that the effects of some are with us still, operating in the arc determined by 1846. Nevertheless, the book may properly be regarded as the chronicle of a turning point in American destiny within the limits of one year.
This is the story of some people who went west in 1846: our focus is the lives of certain men, women, and children moving west. They will be p5 on the scene in different groupings: some emigrants, some soldiers, some refugees, some adventurers, and various heroes, villains, bystanders, and supernumeraries. It is required of you only to bear in mind that while one group is spotlighted the others are not isolated from it in significance.
Our narrative will get them into motion in the month of January, 1846. But the lines of force they traveled along were not laid down on New Year's Day, and though our stories are clear and simple, they are affected by the most complex energies of their society. They had background, they had relationships, and in order to understand how an inevitability was precipitated out of the possible, we must first understand some of the possibilities. We must look not only at our characters but at their nation, in January, 1846.
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The nation began the year in crisis. It was a crisis in foreign relations. The United States was facing the possibility of two wars — with Great Britain and with Mexico. But those foreign dangers had arisen out of purely domestic energies. They involved our history, our geography, our social institutions, and something that must be called both a tradition and a dream.
Think of the map of the United States as any newspaper might have printed it on January 1, 1846. The area which we now know as the state of Texas had been formally a part of that map for just three days, though the joint resolution for its annexation, or in a delicate euphemism its "re‑annexation," had passed Congress in February, 1845. Texas was an immediate leverage on the possible war with Mexico. Texas had declared itself a republic in 1836 and ever since then had successfully defended its independence. But Mexico had never recognized that sovereignty, regarded Texas as a Mexican province, had frequently warned the United States that annexation would mean war, and had withdrawn her minister immediately on the passage of the joint resolution which assured it.
In the far northwestern corner our map would tint or crosshatch a large area to signify that it was jointly occupied by the United States and Great Britain. This area would include the present states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, and small parts of Montana and Wyoming lying west of the continental divide. It would also include a portion of Canada, extending northward to agree with the political sentiments of the map maker, perhaps as far north as a line drawn east from the southern tip of Alaska. The whole area was known simply as "Oregon" and it was an p6 immediate leverage on the possible war with Great Britain. For the President of the United States had been elected on a platform which required him to assert and maintain the American claim to sole possession of all "Oregon," clear up to 54°40′, that line drawn eastward from southern Alaska,1 and on January 1 the British press was belligerently resenting his preparations to do so.
West of Texas and south of Oregon, from the Pacific Ocean to the continental divide and the Arkansas River, was a still larger area which our map would show as Mexican territory. This area included the present states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Wyoming and Colorado. It was composed of two provinces, "California" and "New Mexico," but no American map maker could have approximated the theoretical boundary between them. It too was a powerful leverage, though not often a publicly acknowledged one, on the possible war with Mexico.
It is of absolute importance that no map maker of any nationality, even if he had been able to bound these vast areas correctly, could have filled them in. Certain trails, certain rivers, long stretches of certain mountain ranges, the compact bearings of certain peaks and watersheds, the areas inhabited by certain Indian tribes — these could have been correctly indicated by the most knowledgeful, say Thomas Hart Benton and the aged Albert Gallatin. But there were exceedingly few of these and the pure white paper which the best of them would have had to leave between the known marks of orientation would have extended, in the maps drawn by anyone else, from the Missouri River and central Texas, with only the slightest breaks, all the way to the Pacific. That blank paper would almost certainly have been lettered: "Great American Desert."
The Great American Desert is our objective — "Oregon," "New Mexico," and "California" — the lands lying west of the Louisiana Purchase. Like the Americans who occupied them, however, we must also deal with Texas, the newly annexed republic. The sum of these four geographical expressions composed, on January 1, 1846, the most acute crisis in foreign relations since the Treaty of Ghent had ended the second war with Great Britain in December, 1814, and they were bound together in what can now be understood as a system of social energies. Just how they were bound together will (the hope is) be clear by the end of this book, and we must begin by examining some of the far from simple reasons why they had produced the crisis. It will be best to lead into them by way of the man who in part expressed and in part precipitated the crisis, the p7 President, hopefully called by some of his supporters "Young Hickory," James K. Polk.
Two years before, in the summer of 1844, the first telegraph line brought word to Washington that the Democratic convention, meeting in Baltimore, had determined to require a two‑thirds vote for nomination. The rule was adopted to stop the comeback of ex‑President Martin Van Buren, who had a majority. That it was adopted was extremely significant — it revealed that Van Buren had defeated himself when he refused to support the annexation of Texas. The convention was betting that the spirit of expansionism was now fully reawakened, that the annexation of Texas was an unbeatable issue, that the Democrats would sweep the country if factionalism could be quelled. Smoke-filled rooms in boarding houses scorned President Tyler (whose renomination would have split the party in two), and would not take General Cass, John C. Calhoun, or Silas Wright, all of whom were identified with factions that were badly straining the party. Factionalism, it became clear, was going to be quelled by the elimination of every prominent Democrat who had ever taken a firm stand about anything. So presently the telegraph announced that George Bancroft, with the assistance of Gideon Pillow and Cave Johnson and the indorsement of Old Hickory in the Hermitage, had brought the delegates to agree on the first dark horse ever nominated for the Presidency, Mr. Pillow's former law partner, James K. Polk.
"Who is James K. Polk?" The Whigs promptly began campaigning on that derision, and there were Democrats who repeated it with a sick concern. The question eventually got an unequivocal answer. Polk had come up the ladder, he was an orthodox party Democrat. He had been Jackson's mouthpiece and floor leader in the House of Representatives, had managed the anti-Bank legislation, had risen to the Speakership, had been governor of Tennessee. But sometimes the belt line shapes an instrument of use and precision. Polk's mind was rigid, narrow, obstinate, far from first-rate. He sincerely believed that only Democrats were truly American, Whigs being either the dupes or the pensioners of England — more, that not only wisdom and patriotism were Democratic monopolies but honor and breeding as well. "Although a Whig he seems a gentleman" is a not uncommon characterization in his diary. He was pompous, suspicious, and secretive; he had no humor; he could be vindictive; and he saw spooks and villains. He was a representative of the second or intermediate period (which expired with his Presidency), when the decline but not the disintegration had begun.
But if his mind was narrow it was also powerful and he had guts. If p8 he was orthodox, his integrity was absolute and he could not be scared, manipulated, or brought to heel. No one bluffed him, no one moved him with direct or oblique pressure. Furthermore, he knew how to get things done, which is the first necessity of government, and he knew what he wanted done, which is the second. He came into office with clear ideas and a fixed determination and he was to stand by them through as strenuous an administration as any before Lincoln's. Congress had governed the United States for eight years before him and, after a fashion, was to govern it for the next twelve years after him. But Polk was to govern the United States from 1845 to 1849. He was to be the only strong president between Jackson and Lincoln. He was to fix the mold of the future in America down to 1860, and therefore for a long time afterward. That is who James K. Polk was.
The Whigs nominated their great man, Henry Clay. When Van Buren opposed the annexation of Texas, he did so from conviction. It was only at the end of his life, some years later, that Clay developed a conviction not subject to readjustment by an opportunity. This time he guessed wrong — he faced obliquely away from annexation. He soon saw that he had made a mistake and found too clever a way out of the ropes which he had voluntarily knotted round his wrists. Smart politics have always been admired in America but they must not be too smart. The Democrats swept the nation, as the prophets had foretold. It was clear that the Americans wanted Texas and Oregon, which the platform had promised them. Polk, who read the popular mind better than his advisers did, believed that the Americans also wanted the vast and almost unknown area called New Mexico and California.
They did. Polk's election was proof that the energy and desire known as expansionism were indeed at white heat again, after a period of quiescence. This reawakening, which was to give historians a pleasant phrase, "the Roaring Forties," contained some exceedingly material ingredients. Historians now elderly made a career by analyzing it to three components: the need of certain Southern interests and Southern statesmen to seize the empty lands and so regain the power which the increasing population of the North was taking from them, the need of both Northern and Southern interests to dominate the Middle West or at least maintain a working alliance with it, and the blind drive of industrialism to free itself to a better functioning.
Now all those elements were certainly a part of the sudden acceleration of social energies signified by the election of 1844. But society is never simple or neat, and our elder historians who thus analyzed it forgot p9 what their elders had known, that expansionism contained such other and unanalyzable elements as romance, Utopianism, and the dream that men might yet be free. It also contained another category of ingredients — such as the logic of geography, which the map of January 1, 1846, made quite as clear to the Americans then as it is to anyone today. You yourself, looking at a map in which Oregon was jointly occupied by a foreign power and all the rest of the continent west of Texas and the continental divide was foreign territory, would experience a feeling made up of incompletion and insecurity. Both incompletion and insecurity were a good deal more alive to the 1840's than anything short of invasion could make them now. And finally, expansionism had acquired an emotion that was new — or at least dignified a new combination. The Americans had always devoutly believed that the superiority of their institutions, government, and mode of life would eventually spread, by inspiration and imitation, to less fortunate, less happy peoples. That devout belief now took a new phase: it was perhaps the American destiny to spread our free and admirable institutions by action as well as by example, by occupying territory as well as by practising virtue. . . . For the sum of these feelings, a Democratic editor found, in the summer of '45, one of the most dynamic phrases ever minted, Manifest Destiny.
In that phrase Americans found both recognition and revelation. Quite certainly, it made soldiers and emigrants of many men (some of them among our characters) who, without it, would have been neither, but its importance was that it expressed the very core of American faith. Also, it expressed and embodied the peculiar will, optimism, disregard, and even blindness that characterized the 1840's in America. As we shall see, the nation which believed in Manifest Destiny came only by means of severe shock and after instinctive denial to realize that Manifest Destiny involved facing and eventually solving the political paradox, the central evasion, of the Constitution — slavery. But it is even more indicative of the 1840's that those who rejected the innumerable statements of Manifest Destiny, repudiated its agencies, and denied its ends, believed in Manifest Destiny. Let Brook Farm speak for them — Brook Farm, the association of literary communists who had withdrawn from the world to establish Utopia a few miles from Boston.
For the Brook Farmers, certainly, did not speculate in Western lands and so cannot come under the economic interpretation of expansionism. Neither were they the spirit of industrialism: they had organized with the declared purpose of nullifying industrialism. Nor were they political adventurers, conspirators, or opportunists: they had formally announced p10 their refusal to adhere to the American political system. But Manifest Destiny had no clearer or more devout statement, and the 1840's had no more characteristic expression, than the editorial which the Brook Farmers published in optimism's house organ, The Harbinger, when the curve of the year 1846 began to be clear: —
There can be no doubt of the design being entertained by the leaders and instigators of this infamous business, to extend the "area of freedom" to the shores of California, by robbing Mexico of another large mass of her territory; and the people are prepared to execute it to the letter. In many and most aspects in which this plundering aggression is to be viewed it is monstrously iniquitous, but after all it seems to be completing a more universal design of Providence, of extending the power and intelligence of advanced civilized nations over the whole face of the earth, by penetrating into those regions which seem fated to immobility and breaking down the barriers to the future progress of knowledge, of the sciences and arts: and arms seem to be the only means by which this great subversive movement towards unity among nations can be accomplished. . . . In this way Providence is operating on a grand scale to accomplish its designs, making use of instrumentalities ignorant of its purposes, and incited to act by moves the very antipodes of those which the real end in view might be supposed to be connected with or grow out of.
Thus the literary amateurs: it violates our principles but is part of a providential plan. As Providence's instrumentality Polk was much less woozy. Shortly after he was inaugurated, he explained his objectives to George Bancroft, the scholar, historian, and man of letters who had been a Democratic Brain-Truster since Jackson's time, and whom Polk would make acting Secretary of War, Secretary of the Navy, and finally Minister to Great Britain. His objectives were: the revision of the protective tariff of 1842, the re‑establishment of the independent treasury, the settlement of the Oregon question, and the acquisition of California. He was to achieve them all.
* * *
Of the four objectives which Polk named to Bancroft, the one that immediately concerns us was the acquisition of California. He understood that there was a possibility of war with Mexico over Texas. But he hoped to avoid that war and to use Texas, instead, as a step toward the acquisition of California. He hoped to move on the vast Western area, that is, by way of opportunities which had been provided by the annexation of Texas.
p11 The naïve mythology called economic determinism has provided an outline of the earlier history of Texas which is still too widely accepted in our thinking. This outline describes Texas as a kind of American Sudetenland. It goes something like this: —
At the height of the last great surge of western expansion, a colony of American expatriates was planted in the unsettled territory of Mexico. The Mexican government welcomed them; it required them to become citizens and Catholics but otherwise granted them greater autonomy and more privileges than the generality of Mexicans possessed. The colonists came mainly from the Southern states and the surge that carried them to Texas was the same one that peopled the lush cotton lands of the states variously called the New South or the Old Southwest. They took to Texas with them the institutions of Protestant America. Among these institutions were land banks, land loans (with their speculative possibilities), and African slavery; the first two foreign to the Mexican economy, the third forbidden by Mexican law. The colony flourished in a fat land, carefully observed by the proprietors of certain American interests who clearly understood that new slave territory would required to balance the rapidly filling areas which, because they were north of the Missouri Compromise line, were free territory. In due time the Mexican government perceived that the Texans, instead of being assimilated, had become the spearhead of an all too probable invasion. Thereupon it tried to repair its mistake, it tried to govern Texas. But Mexico had awakened too late. The Texans intended to preserve their institutions (primarily slavery) and they intended to join themselves to the sovereignty of the United States. They declared themselves independent, and after some fighting made good. The revolution was assisted by money, arms, munitions, and volunteers from the United States — on the specious excuse that Americans were being oppressed in a foreign land, were denied conservative and religious liberties there, and were being massacred by a despotic power. American help was decisive and the imperialists, both American and Texan, were due to cash in on their speculation soon afterward, with the annexation to the United States of a territory large enough to make four or five slave states.
But here, the naïve mythology says, annexation ran into a double barrier. The manufacturing interests of the North (using the Abolitionists as a screen) opposed the spread of the slave economy, and the panic of 1837 made it impossible to finance the war which, so Mexico warned us, annexation would precipitate. So down to 1844, while the American economic system stumbled, sprawled, staggered toward equilibrium, and repeatedly p12 collapsed, the republic of Texas had to exist unannexed but under an undeclared American protectorate, and had to fight an intermittent guerrilla war with Mexico. This war also was supported with money, men, and munitions by the Southern interests, which were only waiting their time. Meanwhile those same interests took care to distribute the bonds of Texas and its land-purchase scrip so widely in the United States that opposition to annexation disappeared from large areas. By 1846 bonds and scrip had modified the sentiments and American economy was expanding, so that it was possible to try again. There remained a good device, an appeal to the liveliest American sentiment. Texas threatened to form an alliance with France or Great Britain, and even to accept a protectorate under either. This was a threat to cotton and slave labor, and so would kill whatever opposition might exist in the South. It was also a threat to cotton manufacture and it meant the repudiation of the Monroe Doctrine; so it ought to force the North to accept Texas. If any opposition should remain in the North, however, it can be ended by coupling Texas with the acquisition of Oregon, which would gratify imperialists and pacify Abolitionists. It was enough, the myth says. The pieces were fitted together, the campaign was fought in '44, and the expansionist Democratic Party came into power.
It makes a pretty picture and most separate parts of it are in some degree true, but the picture is false. There was, to begin with, no conspiracy. There was a noisy bloc of pro‑slavery expansionists who openly wanted more slave territory and openly agitated for it, as they had every right to do. They were by no means in control — it was not till the mid-1850's that the South could organize a really powerful expansionist movement for more land. They were opposed by other blocs fully as vociferous, among them many slave owners and many spokesmen of other Southern interests. It is true that some of the excited oratory reported in the Congressional Globe does represent more or less directly the ownership of Texas bonds and land scrip. But the sum of both could hardly have bought the support of one of the midwestern counties which actually turned the scale (counties which, moreover, risked their spare cash on their own land banks), and the farm boys who hurried to die in Mexico owned no Texas scrip. Again, if the colonization of Texas was a spearhead, then it penetrated not a populous, developed, and organized civilization but an empty waste. Few Mexicans lived there in '46, practically none when the colony was made. The occupation of Texas neither usurped nor absorbed a community, a culture, or an economy. Instead, it created all three.
Moreover, it is a fundamental mistake to think of Mexico, in this p13 period, or for many years before, as a republic or even as a government. It must be understood as a late stage in the breakdown of the Spanish Empire. Throughout that time it was never able to establish a stability, whether social or political. Abortive, discordant movements of revolution or counter-revolution followed one another in a meaningless succession, and each one ran down in chaos from which no governing class ever arose, or even a political party, but only some gangs. Sometimes the gangs were captained by intelligent and capable men, sometimes for a while they stood for the merchants, the clergy, the landowners, or various programs of reform, but they all came in the end to simple plunder. Furthermore, the portions of Mexico with which we are concerned, Texas, New Mexico, and California, were precisely the portions where Spain's imperial energy had faltered and run down. To this frontier Great Spain had come and here it could go no farther, here it began to ebb back. It had succeeded most in the genial California lands, but not much and long ago, much less in New Mexico, least of all in Texas. Stephen W. Kearny and Alexander Doniphan brought more safety, stability, and hope to the New Mexicans in two months than Spain had found for them in two centuries, or Mexico after Spain. The annexation of Texas was a tragedy to some Mexicans but it was not a tragedy for Mexico. It was the last episode in the erosion of an empire.
When Polk took office, in March, 1845, his narrow, clear mind harbored no doubts about Texas. He accepted the orthodox Democratic position. Our theoretical "right" to Texas rested on claims that ran clear back to La Salle — and may possibly have been clear once. We had ceded away our right in 1819, but that was a blunder in statesmanship. But, whatever the legal claim, Texas was independent; Mexico did not recognize the independence but it was a fact. Finally, by the time Polk was inaugurated all discussion of claims and rights and sovereignties had become academic. President Tyler had correctly interpreted the election of Polk as a mandate for annexation. He failed to get a two‑thirds vote in the Senate by treaty, but, in the closing hours of his administration, he put it through by joint resolution. (The same difficulty is a fixed pattern of our history.) Though Texas did not ratify it until July and was not formally a state of the Union till December, Polk regarded it, on March 4, 1845, as a part of the United States and as such entitled to protection.
If Texas was in danger, and the warmth of Mexican resentment indicated that it was, then to defend it was certainly Polk's duty. Since we had annexed a boundary dispute as well, there remained the question of just what Texas was. Part of that intricate and ancient question involved p14 a strip •one hundred and twenty miles wide between the Nueces River, on the north, and the Rio Grande. Texas claimed this almost uninhabited strip but had made no attempt to occupy it. Mexico, which did not recognize Texas as either independent or annexed, claimed that the strip belonged to the states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo León. The Texas claim had no substance; it was purely metaphysical. But it had great value and high potentialities for Polk, who was thinking well beyond Texas. That claim could be used as a move in the game of high politics whose objective was the acquisition of California. The first thing to do was to assert it.
Therefore in mid‑June, 1845, a month before Texas ratified annexation, six months before it became a state, Polk had William Marcy, his Secretary of War, order the army under Zachary Taylor to take a position south of the Nueces — cautioning him, however, to treat any Mexican troops he might encounter with punctilious courtesy. Between three and four thousand troops had been concentrated at Fort Jesup, Louisiana, for some time, with precisely this step in mind. By the end of July Taylor got his forces to Corpus Christi, a minute Mexican seacoast village just inside the disputed strip. Polk's intention was clear: this was a show of force intended to give the Mexicans a sense of reality in the settlement of various matters he now intended to take up, among them the purchase of California. But, though a show of force, it was not, in Polk's mind, an invasion. It was a protective occupation. Whatever the right term may have been, the army was at Corpus Christi still on January 1, 1846.
. . . All the military operations of the ensuing three years, excepting only those commanded by Winfield Scott and Stephen W. Kearny, are iridescent with what must be called fantasy. One encounters it at once in Old Rough and Ready, as newspaper correspondents were soon to call Zachary Taylor. And the army was composed of the kind of men who could be induced to join it at a time when it was held in popular contempt, when Congress thought of it as a mere posse and paid it badly and barely equipped it at all, and when any capable male who could speak English could get a job or a farm almost anywhere. Dispersed in squads and platoons over half a continent, it had had two jobs: to transfer Indians to worse lands when the frontier wanted their homesteads, which it usually contrived to do, and to defeat them when they went on the warpath, which it could seldom do without the help of militia. Staffed in the upper ranks by oratorical veterans of 1812, some of them approaching senility, it had a good many brilliant younger officers who had been well trained at West Point and were now to serve an apprenticeship that would fit them for the more serious business that was to follow fifteen years later.
p15 And it had Ethan Allen's grandson, who was to be Taylor's executive brain, as W. W. Bliss, soon to be his son-in‑law, at once became his military brain and political manager. Lieutenant Colonel Ethan Allen Hitchcock commanded the 3d Infantry and, effectively, the encampment at Corpus Christi. He succeeded in giving a destitute mob far from its base something like food and shelter, something like organization, and even something like discipline, if not much like it. He could not give Taylor intelligence, however, and our first Expeditionary Force knew nothing of its prospective enemy's whereabouts or intentions, tried to learn nothing about them, and hardly patrolled its own camp. Nor could he give the army morale. They drank bad water and sickened; they drank bad whiskey and brawled. Their rations gave them scurvy, the food they bought from sutlers and Mexicans gave them dysentery. Two thousand camp followers, gamblers, and whores got their money. Officers made themselves, in Hitchcock's words, a "public scandal." He dealt with them as he could, treated his own severe illness (which Dr. Beaumont, the famous observer of Alexis St. Martin's gastric juice, had been unable to cure in St. Louis), and pursued his studies in mystical philosophy.c
This extraordinary man had no illusions about the invasion and used no euphemisms. He had written that Polk's election meant "a step towards the annexation of Texas first and then, in due time, the separation of the Union." He tranquilly maintained that conviction while he labored to get food and self-respect for his troops. He court-martialed officers for publicly consorting with prostitutes and made notes on the hermetic mysteries. He wrote on New Year's Day, 1846, that it went as other days did, "drinking, horse-racing, gambling, theatrical amusements," and stayed in his tent reading Mrs. Shelley's Rambles in Germany and Italy, in which he saw "no evidence of talent." Through January he buried the dead, fed the living, heard rumors of war with Mexico and war with England, read Spinoza's Ethics and copied out in longhand his brother's translation of it. And from the swamps of Corpus Christi he began a correspondence with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow about the writings of the mystics whom Rossetti had translated. . . .
In June of '45 Polk did not think of a protective occupation as war. He thought clearly about many things but never about war. Sixteen years short of Fort Sumter, there were few people anywhere in America who thought clearly about it. War was militia muster‑day, it was volunteers shooting Seminoles in the Florida swamps, it was farmers blowing redcoats to hell from behind stone walls, most of all it was embattled frontiersmen slaughtering Wellington's veterans at New Orleans. It was p16 rhetoric, a vague glory, and at bottom something that did not imply bloodshed. Polk, who was deliberately risking two wars at once, believed that the Americans could win both without fighting either. He believed that the Texas question could be settled without fighting — that the settlement of it, in fact, could be used as a leverage for the acquisition of California. He was thinking about California with the greatest clarity. War would be the direct way to get it and as a last recourse he was quite willing to fight for it, but he thought that even a bloodless war would be unnecessary.
While he was preparing the show of force, he called on the diplomatic arm. The Mexican minister had demanded his passports immediately on the passage of the joint resolution for the annexation of Texas. Soon after he was inaugurated, Polk sent an emissary to inquire whether Mexico would receive an envoy. The emissary was to make clear that the contemplated negotiations would not involve any payment for Texas, which had been annexed in strict accordance with the usages of nations — but he was to intimate that a reasonable gratuity to ease the Mexican grief at parting could be arranged in due time. In August the emissary reported that the Mexican government would probably receive a commissioner. Commodore Conner, who commanded a squadron that had been sent to conduct practice maneuvers in Mexican waters, confirmed his belief. So in November, '45, Polk appointed John Slidell envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Mexico.
Slidell was to explain the propositions which covered Polk's intentions and desires. The Monroe Doctrine was to be reaffirmed throughout the hemisphere. (This was in response to persistent British attempts to impede or prevent the annexation of Texas and, in some degree, in response to vaguer aggressions, French as well as British, farther south. In December, '45, Polk's message to Congress would for the first time make the Monroe Doctrine a genuine force in the international relationships and would add to it an express prohibition of protectorates in the New World. This addition, which pivoted squarely on Texas and California, is sometimes called the "Polk Doctrine.") Also, Mexico was to pay the long unpaid claims against her made by the American citizens, which a commission had adjudicated. The Rio Grande was to be acknowledged as the boundary and the disputed strip thus given to Texas. Once more it was to be made clear that we would not pay a cent for Texas. But, when the claims should be acknowledged and the Rio Grande accepted as the boundary, the United States would assume the claims and pay them. Furthermore, if Mexico would accept the Rio Grande as the boundary p17 throughout its length, east as well as north, thus adding half the present state of New Mexico to the area of Texas, the United States would add a further tip of five million dollars.
These propositions were extremely sophisticated. The claims, which could serve as a legal case for waging war, were an adjudicated two million dollars out of a much larger sum which American citizens said they were owed, mostly for damage, confiscations, and loss of life during a quarter century of revolutions. Mexico, being forever bankrupt, could not pay them in cash but only in land. But any Mexican government which might cede territory to the United States would, as the Herrera government did at the end of December, '45, stop governing at once. The bland offer for the eastern half of New Mexico was a mere talking point, and an atrociously forced one at that. The idea that Texas extended west as well as south to the Rio Grande was not even metaphysical. The Texans had positively asserted it just once, in 1841, when they sent a diplomatic, military, and marauding expedition toward Santa Fe. (Including some American volunteers and newspaper correspondents.) The New Mexicans cut it to pieces, slaughtered some of its members, imprisoned others, and nailed the ears of still others to the Governor's Palace. There followed guerrilla episodes which made the word Tejano as odious in Santa Fe as it was south of the border and were to keep New Mexico quite uninterested in the solicitations of the Confederate States of America in '61.
Clearly there was room here to swing a cat in. The cat was not New Mexico, though New Mexico was thus publicly joined to the Texas settlement for the first time. It was another, carefully unmentioned province, California. So we must now glance at the golden shore.
* * *
We have noted the extent of California on a map dated January 1, 1846 — with New Mexico, it included the present states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Wyoming and Colorado. We have also noted the extent of "Oregon" on such a map — Oregon, Washington, Idaho, parts of Wyoming and Montana, and northward into Canada, perhaps as far as 54°40′. Well, in 1844, Sam Houston, then ending his second term as president of Texas, drew a map. It showed the domain his nation was eventually to occupy, the extent of its manifest destiny, if the movement for the annexation to the United States should fail. Houston's map has its merit as prophecy. If Texas could not be American, then Texas was eventually to include Oregon, New Mexico, p18 and California — as defined above. It was also to include the Mexican state of Chihuahua and thence westward to the Pacific. And it was to include Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, the Carolinas, and Virginia. That is, the republic of Texas was to cover, besides some territory which is Mexican today, precisely the extent of the Far West and the Confederate States of America.
Free and Slave States in 1846
Probably there were, on January 1, 1846, a few members of the slavery bloc who hoped to approximate Houston's map. Just before the peace treaty of 1848 a considerable agitation broke out, North as well as South, to seize large areas of Mexico, even all of it. By the middle of the 1850's, Southern Democrats could demand Mexico and Cuba as a right implicit in the order of nature, and by the end of the decade they were adding Central and South America. But in '46, even the few who looked toward more of Mexico than Polk did hardly knew what they meant by California. It is not clear that Polk knew what he meant by it. Expansionism, North or South, included California, but this meant little more than a recognition of Monterey, where the trade in hides centered, and a lively realization of the geographical importance of San Francisco Bay.
Benton, Allen, all the warhawks, wanted California. John Quincy Adams, who had said that there were laws of politics as fixed as the laws of mechanics and they would bring Cuba tumbling in our lap like Newton's apple — Adams had wanted California and had warmly advocated p19 acquiring it till, like some other expansionists, he had a premonition of its linkage with slavery. Andrew Jackson had tried to buy California. When he failed, his envoy advised him to take it by guile or force. Hardly a year passed without some enthusiast repeating the suggestion in the Senate or the House.
But this California was almost entirely dream, a dream vague but deep in the minds of a westering people. Slowly it had begun to be more than dream. Yankee shipowners had long ago established the trade in hides and tallow which still flourished a about which Richard Henry Dana had written his masterpiece. Yankee merchants had followed them, to provide the province with its only merchandise, most of its currency, and a picturesque if precarious sliver of the old China trade. A few of these had acquired large land grants from the somnolent government or married into families that held such grants, and had been completely absorbed in the native way of life. Yankee whalers put into Monterey and, once the Russians had withdrawn from it, the Bay of San Francisco. There were a few runaway sailors, a few fugitives from justice, a few romantics and dream-drugged escapists; these mingled with their like from other nations and the large tolerance of the Californians welcomed them all. Finally, the last four years had seen an entirely different, more purposive kind of arrival — small handfuls of John Does in white-tops who had turned off the Oregon trail at the Bear River and headed southward for the Sacramento.
In spite of all this, it would be difficult to overstate the ignorance of California in the United States. Oregon, which was wilderness with a thin population of immigrants, where there were only the fur trade and the small, precarious trade which the immigrants had been able to organize — Oregon was known thoroughly. It had had years of sedulous advertising by missionaries, military explorers, traders, merchants, sailors, trappers, propagandists, and such publicists as Hall Kelley. Benton, Linn, and their fellow expansionists had its history, geography, and statistics by heart — if attractively colored by their private fantasies. Polk need only send to the Library of Congress for any information he might want. But California was universally unknown. Of all the vast space east of the Sierra it was impossible to know anything except for the records of the fur trade and the few trails scratched across the deserts — and it does not appear that anyone now in official life except Benton knew any useful part of this. Even the great valleys between the Sierra and the sea, even the genial, pastoral, hospitable life of the Californians, were little known. As late as '46 no detailed, dependable map of California existed. There p20 were few trustworthy descriptions, in English, of any part east of the coastal towns. Newspapers published letters from shipmasters or their passengers who touched the coast — romantic, flamboyant, packed with fable and misunderstanding. The War Department had a handful of reports, fragmentary, in great part inaccurate, ignored by everyone but Benton: it is not certain that Polk had ever heard of them. There were half a dozen books: the President had not read them. Lately the State Department had made a shrewd and intelligent merchant, Thomas O. Larkin, consul at Monterey. His reports were the one dependable source of information.
Polk, who intended to acquire California, and by war if necessary, knew little about it. He was the dream finding an instrument. . . . As he opened the great game, an anxiety hurried him. The tension over Texas might develop into war with Mexico, quite apart from the great game — and California remained bound to Mexico by a gossamer only, if at all. If the war should come, might not California seek a protectorate under Great Britain? It seemed possible, even likely — and a French or a Prussian protectorate was not inconceivable. The State Department learned that small native movements for independence and other movements for a foreign protectorate showed themselves from time to time. That was ominous — and there was something else. We were preparing to face and force the Oregon question. Might not Great Britain actually seize California, to strengthen both her military and her diplomatic position in Oregon? Plenty of sober minds besides Polk's thought she might, and behind that fear was one which the new nation had inherited in 1785 and as far back as there had been white men in America, the dread that Europe might set a limit to our development. It was playing its last stand now, continentally at least, and in fact there had ceased to be any basis whatever for it. A British government which was eager to settle the Oregon question and promote free trade with the United States had no designs on California. Nevertheless Polk's anxiety was genuine and understandable.
In any event, measures looking toward the outbreak of war, if war should come, had to be prepared. So in June, 1845, almost simultaneously with Marcy's orders to Taylor, Bancroft, the Secretary of the Navy, sent secret and confidential instructions to Commodore John D. Sloat, an elderly fuss-budget who commanded the Pacific Squadron. If Sloat should learn that Mexico and the United States were at war, he was to seize the harbor of San Francisco (the only part of California whose importance was clearly understood) and to blockade the other ports. Meanwhile, whether or not war should come, there were other expedients. So p21 in October, James Buchanan, the Secretary of State, sent secret and confidential instructions to Thomas Larkin at Monterey, who had been made consul for exactly this purpose. They came to this: Larkin was to take advantage of any native revolutionary movements he might nose out (there were always a number) and was to do everything in his power to induce the Californians to break the gossamer that held them to Mexico and set up for themselves; then he was to guide them into asking for annexation to the United States. Texas series, second impression.
Everything in this book is under the iron domination of time and distance. There was no telegraph except a few miles on the Atlantic Coast. There was no radio, no Western railroad, no air mail. On the Pacific Coast and in Willamette Valley there was mail only by sailing ship or by courtesy of ox train overland.
Buchanan's instructions to Larkin were sent in the frigate Congress by way of Cape Horn and the Sandwich Islands. Also a copy of them was intrusted to Lieutenant Archibald H. Gillespie of the Marine Corps, who was ordered to travel by ship to Vera Cruz, overland across Mexico to the Pacific, and then to Honolulu and on to Monterey. At 8 P.M. on October 30, 1845, Polk had a "confidential conversation" with Lieutenant Gillespie at the White House. What he said during that conversation was not entered in his diary and historians have been arguing over it ever since. (Later entries, however, prove that Polk gave Gillespie no additional instructions.) Gillespie sailed four days later and, though no one knew it, Polk least of all, the conquest of California had begun.
Furthermore, Lieutenant Gillespie was instructed to seek out Brevet Captain John Charles Frémont, of the United States Topographical Engineers, who was expected to be in or near California, at the head of an exploring expedition, and who was the son-in‑law of Senator Benton. He carried private letters from Benton and Frémont's wife.
Frémont had left St. Louis in June of '45 on his third exploration of the West, instructed to map the central watershed of the Rockies, to complete his examination of Great Salt Lake, and to obtain information about the Cascade and Sierra Nevada Mountains. (In that third requirement, the War Department was planning to reduce the difficulties of emigrants on the last stage of the Oregon trail, and, much farther along, we shall see Jesse Applegate doing what Frémont had been ordered to do.) He would thus be on the frontier of Oregon and California at a time expected to be critical, and if there seems to be a certain convenience in having an army officer and sixty armed men on hand there, let it stand.
A similar convenience attended two other expeditions sent out by the p22 War Department during that same summer of '45. Lieutenant Abert of the Topographical Engineers was ordered to explore northwestern Texas and northeastern New Mexico, either on or near the route to Santa Fe. There could be no pretense of exploring the trail between Fort Leavenworth and South Pass, which was as well marked as Pennsylvania Avenue, so Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny, the ablest frontier officer, and five companies of his crack regiment, the First Dragoons, were sent to awe the Indians . . . along the trail by which not only emigrants but armies as well, if armies should be needed, would move to Oregon.
* * *
With Oregon we have reached our third objective, the last political preliminary we must scrutinize, and the portion of the crisis in foreign relations which, on January 1, 1846, was felt to be most immediate and most dangerous. Through the month of January, '46, readers of Niles' Register might study a department called "Are We to Have Peace or War?" very much as readers of Time, through the summer of 1939, studied a department called "Background for War." The war which Niles' Register was talking about was war not with Mexico but with Great Britain, and the news magazine, in common with most informed people, considered this war much the more likely of the two. If war with Great Britain would break out, it would be precipitated by the Oregon question. That question was at boiling point in January, and had been at boiling point since the preceding August. In fact, it was on August 26, 1845, that President Polk began to keep a diary of his administration. He opened it with notes on a Cabinet discussion of the Oregon question. The Oregon question was a question of the extent of Oregon.
For our purposes, that ancient and extremely involved controversy can be reduced to a simple statement. Russian claims to any part of the West Coast south of 54°40′ (the southern tip of Alaska) had been extinguished in 1824 and 1825, by treaty. All Spanish claims to land north of 42° had been ceded to the United States in 1819. The conflicting British and American claims to the lands between those boundaries and west of the continental divide had not been settled. By the Convention of 1818, renewed in 1828, that settlement was in abeyance and the lands were jointly occupied, each nation having the right to renounce the convention at a year's notice. The extreme American position held that Oregon was ours to the boundary of the Russian lands, 54°40′. The extreme British position was that we had no valid claim north of the Columbia River. p23 What had prevented the British from accepting the several times offered compromise boundary of the 49th parallel was that this would have cut them off from the southern end of Vancouver Island and denied them access by the strait of Juan de Fuca. (They also wanted the right to navigate the Columbia.) What had lately made 54°40′ a battle cry was the reawakened energy of expansionism.
Polk appears to have been willing to fight for "all of Oregon" when he was elected but by Inauguration Day he was not so sure. Closer thought about Mexico had cooled Polk down but among the people the momentum of campaign emotions was not easily braked. Orators who had twisted the lion's tail on the stump went on twisting it in Congress, the press could not be called off, and the electorate which had been told that Oregon was ours up to 54°40′ kept on clamoring for 54°40′. Rhetoric had succeeded much too well, the British press was roaring back, and Polk was already embarrassed. His inaugural address delicately receded from the campaign. Our title, he said, was "clear and unquestionable." What title? "Our title to the country of Oregon." Not to the campaign slogan, "all of Oregon." The difference was big enough to let a weasel through.
It was not wide enough for the British press, however, nor even for the Peel government. That government had readily abandoned its intrigues in Texas as soon as annexation was accomplished. It was doing its best to negotiate a tariff agreement with the United States. It had one Irish problem on its hands and, as the potato crop began to fail, foresaw that it would soon have another one. As a little-England government, it had no dialectical desire for Oregon. Furthermore, it had a sheaf of recent reports which added up to the double conclusion that the Americans had established themselves in Oregon beyond any hope of getting them out and that Oregon was certainly not worth fighting for. (Just for good measure, as soon as it had negotiated a settlement it got another report from an investigating commission which had had to live under canvas, had found the country insufficiently supplied with hot water for bathing, and wanted nothing whatever to do with Oregon.) But the torchlight procession and campaign oratory over here had roused the hair-trigger contempt of the English for Cousin Jonathan, the late provincial. There was a popular uproar which the government could not disregard. The right questions were asked in Parliament and there was a bustle of activity in naval ports.
This badly frightened James Buchanan, the gentleman politician who had the greatest possible shrewdness but no backbone whatever. It also salted Polk's ideas with realism. A President who had already sent to p24 Mexico stipulations likely to be unacceptable and had arranged to occupy California with a small and antique navy, if the stipulation should prove unacceptable, would find himself inconvenienced if he had to fight a skirmish with the mistress of the seas. In this clearer state of mind, he saw that relations with Great Britain had drifted into a crisis and must not be allowed to drift any longer. He moved to settle them. The campaign pledge of 54°40′ could be avoided by pointing out that the President was bound to renew the offers of his predecessors. They had all tried to compromise the conflicting claims with the 49th parallel, which was the boundary from the Great Lakes to the continental divide. So though the summer of '45 Polk tried to negotiate a settlement at the 49th parallel. But Pakenham, the British minister, not only understood the powerful leverage of the intensifying Mexican crisis, but in the natural course of things was bound at first by the traditional policy of his country: when an opponent offers concessions, you can get bigger ones by holding out. Pakenham would not close for 49°.
British firmness threw Buchanan into a panic and from then on he was for appeasement, though his attitude swung in a small arc as he maneuvered his most abiding interest, a nomination to the Supreme Court as a step toward the Presidency. He felt that negotiations could be continued only if Pakenham's demands were met, that anything else would mean war. Polk was not frightened, and Pakenham's adroitness had made him mad. He saw that the minister was playing diplomatics by the textbook, and he too knew the rules. So in late August of '45 he forced the timorous Secretary of State to notify Pakenham that, following the refusal of Her Majesty's government to accept the compromise, the President no longer felt himself bound by the policy of his predecessors and from now on would not be interested in any offer short of the whole of Oregon, up to 54°40′. When Pakenham promptly tried to reopen with a bid for 49°, provided only that the President would openly invite the concession, Buchanan all but wept with relief. The President was not interested, and he remained uninterested through the autumn, while the press of both countries screamed. Then on December 2, in his message to Congress, he played his ace. When the conflicting claims to Oregon had been stabilized in statu quo, both countries had accepted a joint right of occupation. This "joint occupancy" had been renewed ten years later but the treaty provided that it could be ended on formal notification one year in advance. In his message to Congress, Polk asked that the one year's notice be sanctioned now. He went on to advise that American legal jurisdiction be extended over Americans in Oregon (as p25 they had been vehemently demanding for more than two years), and that land grants be made at the expiration of the stated year. He summarized his efforts to settle the controversy, rehearsed the British refusals to compromise, repudiated the British claim to the territory north of the Columbia River, and took occasion to restate the Monroe Doctrine at such length that, acquiring additional point from Texas and California, it began to develop the binding force that it has been exercising ever since. And he said that we had "reached a period when the national rights in Oregon must either be abandoned or firmly maintained." Also that "they cannot be abandoned without a sacrifice of honor and interest."
That was war talk, and it was received as such at home and abroad. British cartoonists promptly drew Cousin Jonathan licked and cowering, and Congress resounded with sixty years of British perfidy. Mass meetings blossomed across the country. Polk was a hero in the Middle West for the first time, and the War and Navy Departments consulted with Congressional committees to prepare war measures. (They made no preparations, however.) In the Senate Lewis Cass shouted that it was better to fight for the first inch of territory than for the last, and Allen of Ohio, Chairman of Foreign Affairs and the most extreme warhawk, rejoiced that his candidate was holding fast to his pledge after all and would procure his war. Even the Western Whigs rejoiced likewise, though Daniel Webster perfectly expressed the ideas of the manufacturing interests, saying that Oregon was too far away for either us or the English to make anything of it — its destiny was to be an independent Anglo-Saxon republic. (Herman Melville could not approve of Allen. In Mardi he appears as Alanno of Hio‑Hio, an "unfortunate lunatic" who is "ferociously tattooed" and has "his hands full of headless arrows." "Laboring under violent paroxysms" in the Temple of Freedom, Alanno repeatedly breaks loose from his guards to "burst anew into his delirium," though no one pays much attention to him. Yet, for all his derision of Alanno and of a colleague in tail twisting, Nulli-Calhouni, a "cadaverous ghost-like man" lashing the back of Hamo's tribe, Melville also was building a more stately mansion to the westward. Farther to the westward, in fact, than his nation has got so far. He believed that "America can hardly be said to have any western bound but the ocean that washes Asia.")
* * *
On January 5, 1846, a resolution to terminate the joint occupation of Oregon was introduced in the Senate, and now all the forces were committed, p26 all the movements were under way, from here on there could be no turning back. Buchanan's alarm had steadily increased and he warned the President that the country, which was supporting 54°40′ with a sustained roar, would not support it. And on January 4, Representative Black of South Carolina, as perturbed as Buchanan, had called at the White House to say that the war fever of the Western Congressmen had alarmed the following of Mr. Calhoun, who would therefore vote against termination. He pleaded with the President to recede from his stand. Polk replied to Mr. Black
that the only way to treat John Bull was to look him straight in the face; that I considered a bold & firm course on our part the pacific one; that if Congress faultered or hesitated in their course, John Bull would immediately become arrogant and more grasping in his demands & that such had been the history of the Brittish Nation in all their contests with other Powers for the last two hundred years.
One goal to the President. Polk had reached bedrock in British-American relations. It may be said that he not only looked John Bull in the face but struck him in the head with a blunt instrument, but he had the right idea. While Buchanan trembled and a second thought began perceptibly to sober Congress and the press, he tranquilly waited for England to settle on his original terms. He prepared one the ingenuities that enable Presidents to back down without losing face. When John Bull was ready to accept 49°, Polk would, he decided, invoke a clause of the Constitution which it is usually the first concern of the administration to avoid. He would submit the anticipated offer to the Senate, not for its "consent" but for its "advice." By that time developments in Mexico could be counted on to put the Senate in a mood to advise the compromise.
So his diary is untroubled throughout January. His days are broken by the office seekers, "more importunate than meritorious," whom the uncomplicated Republic had not yet dared to bar from the executive office. He sits for his portrait to Mr. Healy, sent by France to immortalize both him and Old Hickory. Very bored, he conscientiously spends two hours at the Jackson Day banquet, his party's annual debauch of oratory. He attends the Presbyterian Church with Mrs. Polk and their nieces, but is scrupulous to honor Justice Catron by attending Catholic services on one Sunday. He wins two skirmishes with the Senate, over appointments.
Another skirmish develops serious trouble when the Senate rejects his nomination of George W. Woodward as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. At first the villain responsible seems to be Mr. Cameron of p27 Pennsylvania, who may have been piqued by Polk's failure to appoint Mr. John M. Read. But Polk had unanswerable reasons for not appointing him. Mr. Read was once a Federalist and it is the President's duty to protect the purity of our judicial institutions. Polk records an observation: he has never seen a Federalist who professed to change his opinions later than the age of thirty who did not revert to "broadly Federal and latitudinarian" opinions as soon as he received a life appointment. Presently, however, the carefully begotten rumors of Washington inform the President that not Mr. Cameron swayed the Senate but Mr. Buchanan: the city hears that the Secretary of State is going to get the appointment. So there is intrigue in the Cabinet — and perhaps that explains Buchanan's timidity. And clearly Buchanan is violating the pledge he signed before his appointment, to which Polk made all the Cabinet sign their names, not to use his office to advance himself toward the Presidency. Polk's integrity is affronted: if it shall prove that Buchanan has worked against Woodward's appointment, he will dismiss him. Buchanan glooms like Hamlet at Cabinet meetings, then sulks and opposes frivolous or capricious objections to the Oregon policy. Now the rumors begin to hint that he will break with the administration and resign. But "Mr. Buchanan will find that I cannot be forced to act against my convictions, and that if he chooses to retire I will find no difficulty in administering the Government without his aid."
* * *
In fact, the President's emotions were so roused by Buchanan's intrigue that he did not record in his diary the arrival in Buchanan's department of news from Mexico which, the event proved, was much more important than the intrigue or than any news from England. A report came from Slidell, the minister plenipotentiary, informing his chief that the Herrera government, to which he was accredited, had fallen on December 31 and a junta had appointed General Paredes y Arrillaga, who had once deposed Santa Anna, president pro tem.
This was one more gang revolution, arranged in the name of patriotism and deriving its force from the supreme Mexican contempt of Americans. (For if a certain condescension toward Mexicans is discernible in Polk's attitude and his assumption that they would not fight, all classes and degrees of Mexicans despised the Yankees and knew that they neither would nor could fight.) The Herrera government had lately been infected with a little realism and had shown signs of being willing to negotiate p28 with the United States about the boundary of Texas. The army officers who overthrew it were laying a bet on war, on the cowardice of Yankees, and on the illusory hope that Great Britain would support them against us. Crowds were sent shouting through the streets, the signs of American merchants were pulled down, bells rang, musketry was fired, and Paredes went in. . . . In Mexico City a traveler in mufti who was using an alias found his journey delayed by these demonstrations. Deeply impressed, Lieutenant Gillespie of the Marine Corps committed to memory the confidential dispatches he was carrying, destroyed them, and as soon as the city grew quiet under its new jingo hurried on to Mazatlán. The impression which these firecrackers made on him was the second step in the conquest of California.
Slidell told his government that Paredes, who stamped into office with some gorgeous four-horse chariot and an appeal to the consciences of France and England, would neither care nor dare to receive him. (He was right. Paredes could hold his office only by accepting war.) He retired to Jalapa to await word from Paredes and instructions from home.
Those instructions were prepared at the end of January. Slidell was told to demand his passports if he should not be duly received. For (this is eight weeks after Polk's irretrievable defiance of Great Britain in his message to Congress, three weeks after the irretrievable resolution was introduced in the Senate) "the cup of forbearance will then have been exhausted. Nothing can remain but to take the redress of the injuries of our citizens and the insults to our Government into our hands." It had taken two weeks to prepare this gambit in diplomacy. But it took less than twenty-four hours to open with the military. On the day after Slidell's dispatch was received, the Secretary of War initiated another irretrievable sequence of actions by sending orders to General Taylor, in command of the protective occupation. Taylor, at Corpus Christi, was just south of the Nueces River, just inside the strip of disputed territory. His new orders bade him march to the boundary in dispute, the Rio Grande (as Taylor had been clamoring to do), and to take up a position there. However, Secretary Marcy enjoined him to show a scrupulous regard for the invaded Mexicans. Let him do nothing whatever to antagonize them.
But, he was further cautioned, it might be a good idea to post sentinels. The Mexicans, who were known to be a hotheaded people, might make some retaliation.
p29 We have stated a number of political forces — primarily political forces, that is — which in January, 1846, were focused on the lands we are concerned with. In that January between two thousand and twenty-five hundred Americans, variously distributed through the States, knew that they would begin a journey across the Great American Desert, toward Oregon and California, as soon as the prairie grass should freshen. Between fifteen and twenty thousand others knew that, at some time during the year now beginning, they would be forced to abandon their homes (in Illinois mostly) and begin a journey toward an undetermined destination somewhere in the Great American Desert. These people knew — or thought they knew — something of what the year held in store for them. Thousands of other Americans would be soldiers this year because these forces would make them soldiers. Many thousands would cross Texas to invade Mexico, several thousand would cross a portion of the Great American Desert bound for New Mexico and beyond, and still others, crossing that desert or sailing round the Horn, would be dispatched to occupy California.
Yet to represent even the energies so far named as purely political would be to misrepresent Manifest Destiny. In separating out the political strains from that great composite we have already done violence to the early morning vigor of the time. Perhaps the best recourse would be to forgo analysis altogether and to take refuge in the phrase which Dr. Holmes would not make into a poem for ten years yet, the phrase prefixed to this chapter of analysis. For, looking at the Americans in the year of decision, one sees them primarily engaged in building more stately mansions, at least in intent. Yet that would be to shirk a plain necessity and before we can be free to start our emigrants, refugees, and soldiers westward we must state at least one other energy that was operating on them. It too is subtly misrepresented when it is isolated from the system of energies of which it was a part, but be assured that it too had a direct bearing on Oregon, New Mexico, and California.
* * *
There were •sixteen inches of ice on Walden Pond, and it undulated under a slight wind like water. Mornings, Henry Thoreau woke with a feeling that he had not answered some question asked him during sleep, but there was no question on Nature's lips. He took an axe and chopped through snow and ice but, before drinking, gazed at the sandy bottom where "waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky." Heaven, p30 he decided, is under our feet as well as over our heads. He watched men fish through the ice for pickerel and went about a job he had set himself, to plumb the bottom of Walden, which was locally believed to have no bottom. He found it at •one hundred and two feet, then, after plotting a chart, discovered that the line of greatest length intersected the line of greatest width exactly at the point of greatest depth. Might this not correspond to the law of average? Might not the two diameters of a man's thought similarly be used to determine exactly how and where his depth went down? Henry thought so, and he went on to see whether White's Pond would show the same regularity. It did.
He had cleared his plot above the lake front the preceding spring, while Polk pushed his foreign policy in the direction of war. He had planted his beans and raised the walls of his shack while Frémont and Kearny headed west, had mortared his chimney while Buchanan prepared Gillespie's instructions, and had plastered his walls while Pakenham fished through the President's ice to determine how much he must concede. These things had no present notice in Henry Thoreau's mind. He was conducting an experiment in economy. He had looked at the twin wonders of his age, the developing industrial system and the certainty of universal moral reform, and had seen no need to pay tribute to either. The first chapter of Walden accurately analyzes the bank failures, bond repudiations, mortgages, farmsteads, and factories of the thirties and forties, but Thoreau's experiment dealt with a preliminary, or antecedent, problem, the survival of the mind's integrity in such a system. In Arcadia he had seen no one pounding stone, and he wanted to free himself from subjection to horses, plowing, and the day's waste — as the system would have to do if it were to inclose his loyalty. His house cost him twenty-eight dollars and a shilling; at the end of a year he had needed $25.21¾ to live on. (He appears not to have discussed capitalization with the Provident Institution.) Meanwhile he had written A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers, beginning it, very likely, during the January of Mr. Buchanan's insubordination, and had begun the notes that were to acquire form in Walden. He had also acted as inspector of snowstorms and rainstorms, and had proved conclusively that "it is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do." . . . What else he had proved we shall see.
There was a further element in Thoreau's expatriation from Concord. The village had reached a tension of conversational reform. Emerson had observed that "Mr. Alcott and Mr. Wright cannot chat or so much as open the mouth on aught less than a new solar system and the prospective p31 education in the nebulae." Thoreau, though he inexplicably thought Alcott so great a man that nature could not let him die, began to repudiate his conversation as soon as the Walden pines shut off the rhythms of that noble drool. Henry had stayed too long among the pure and garrulous; he felt that his manners had "been corrupted by communication with the saints." Concord had suggested to him that the reforms and liberations it exhaled in sitting rooms might not be a cure of the world's ills but only for dyspepsia. "What so saddens the reformer," he had come to think, "is not his sympathy with his fellows in distress but, though he be the holiest son of God, is his private ail." Truly, wailing did come up from Southern plains, but was it the wailing alone of blacks, and just how shall we begin to act on it? Just what intemperance and brutality would best serve for the beginning of redemption? "If anything ail a man, so that he does not perform his functions, if he have a pain in the bowels even, for that is the seat of sympathy, he forthwith sets about reforming — the world."
Here Henry was glancing at Harvard Village, •ten miles northwest of Walden, where at Fruitlands the pain in Mr. Alcott's bowels had not succeeded in bringing in the rule of right reason, though it had reformed the world for some months. More particularly, toward West Roxbury, where the far happier Brook Farmers, in smocks, ignorant of the catastrophe preparing for them, hated Polk but praised Providence for using him as an instrument, and spent the January evenings chatting and munching apples before log fires, reading Consuelo for beautiful sentiments and, as preparation for the more stately mansion they were building, Fourier's Theory of the Human Passions.
The smock wearers also were making an experiment in economy, and they were very happy. The newest Newness made amazing progress, they loved one another and humanity, the children did so marvelously well in the progressive school. Everything was so clear, so easily hand-tinted with pretty words, though it was among the benefits of Association that they came less and less to need words, the twitch of an eyebrow conveying a philosophy and the intuitions so sharpening that they could read letters by simply pressing the envelope against the forehead. This showed how their "right development" refined the passions. Wrong development, which the world's people suffered, produced selfishness, injustice, duplicity; but right development produced harmony, justice, unity. Charles Fourier told them so, who was part Alcott and part Marx. Under Association, which was Fourier's principle of economy, right development would go farther still. It would soften and regulate the temperature (a p32 desirable achievement in January at West Roxbury) and increase the warmth at the poles, correct the heat of the equator, bring on eternal springtime, fertilize the desert, and prevent the drying up of streams. Moreover, it would domesticate the beaver and the zebra to man's uses and increase the fish in lakes and rivers some twenty-fold. (Thus Mr. Albert Brisbane, translating Fourier. He omitted Fourier's further promise that lions would turn into anti-lions, a soothed, humanitarian species, other savage carnivores into playful anti-beasts, and the great sea itself into soda pop.) Association would also put an end to larceny, there would be no theft, no sharp business practices; nine tenths or more of the diseases that afflict man under incoherence or Civilization would disappear, and men would live three times as long. Moreover, Zachary Taylor's profession would be obsolete and fleets and armies would wither away. So much for Polk.
(Right development had not yet, however, produced the anti‑cow. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had bought two $500 shares in Brook Farm and would later sue to get his money back, had had to flee Association because he could no longer bring himself to fork the bright, symbolic gold out of the stalls.)
Two months short of final extinction, there burned here more appealingly than anywhere else a hope that had built more than two score communities in the last two decades, most of them already dead. It was the design of Brook Farm: "1. To indoctrinate the whole people of the United States with the principles of associative unity. 2. To prepare for the time when the nation, like one man, shall reorganize its townships on the basis of perfect justice." Thus American millennialism had changed its phase: it had given up Christ in favor of Refined Passions and Virtuous Labor. In the earlier phase, the expectation of perfect sainthood in the immediate (or the oncoming) Kingdom of God had begotten such associations as the Shakers, the Latter‑day Saints, the Rappites, and the Disciples of Christ. In the new phase a different perfection was expected, perfect justice as an outgrowth of perfect co‑operation — the co‑operation, that is, of literary people.
Industrialism had spread its first great wave across the countryside, and a misunderstood abhorrence of its bleak factories oppressed sensitive spirits. The sensitive found only two courses: they could flee from industrialism or they could master it with virtue. The first era of Brook Farm, now over, had attempted flight: the literary raking hay in yellow pantaloons, a small but elevated company baking their bread from their own handmade flour to Plato's dream, presumably as an inspiration to p33 greasy mechanics and stunted factory girls. There were many similar companies of the sensitive, and they had reached perihelion at Fruitlands, where the Great Inane voiced thoughts while Mrs. Alcott and the children gathered in the barley, a poor wench was excommunicated for eating a shred of vile flesh, and in the end Alcott turned his face to the wall and hoped to die because virtue had failed. Of forty such congregations, John Humphrey Noyes, who may be granted authority, said that they failed because right reason was not a working substitute for the grace of God, and because you could not defeat industrialism with plow and scythe.
For the others, those who would master industrialism with virtue, Charles Fourier was the way and the light, and the second era of Brook Farm was dedicated to him. Fourier promised the sensitive that the hideous factories could be transformed into beauty. You refined the passions. You dignified and enabled labor. You made industry the more attractive as its operations were the more laborious and unpleasant. You put Corinthian columns round the prison house of labor and built it in "fields beautifully laid out and diversified by clusters of fruit and forest trees, flower beds, and fountains." You supplied band concerts and bright uniforms and a series of Eagle Scout badges for the enabled mechanics. You beguiled the children by inducing them to play in little workshops with little tools. And again and always you refined the passions, inviting mankind to change its heart, to enter into the womb and be born again a second time, to sink the brute and bring the angel in.
Yet mortgages had to be paid, the brute lingered and the angel delayed, and the literary ended in despair. Between Charles A. Dana of Brook Farm, going out to sound Association's trumpet call by lecturing on "Reform Movements Originating among the Producing Classes," and Charles A. Dana of the Sun, the century's ablest public disbeliever in mankind, is just the paradox that in all ages overcomes the literary dream. The literary will accept no hybrid of brute and angel; they desire Utopia and will not settle for the human race. They love the people but hate the mob. On George Ripley's word, and he was the founder of Brook Farm, mankind is dwarfed and brutish. In that common despair ended all that Association had to say.
We are to see several answers to George Ripley worked out to the westward. And at Walden another answer was worked out, to Ripley and to all the decade's reforms as Henry Thoreau saw them. Might not the pain in a reformer's bowels, Thoreau wondered, be just an egoism that debauched his cause? It was necessary to rescue the drowning but also you must tie your shoestrings. Most men lived lives of quiet desperation, p34 and Thoreau could not see that they grew more desperate in factories than on farms, in colleges, or at reason's feast in Mr. Alcott's house. He went down to talk to the Irishmen who were building the Fitchburg railroad, whose whistle he welcomed without a shudder. The railroad was industrialism but also it was making toward Oregon. He anticipated Mr. MacLeish in perceiving that "the rails are laid on them and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them." But he would waste no sorrow on them so long as farmers must be subject to their cattle or any man whatsoever was involved in "bankruptcy and repudiation, the springboards from which much of our civilization vaults and turns its somersets."
In short, Thoreau believed that the factory could not be fled from and that it could not be beautified by refining the passions. Labor was dignified only as the laborer was not thought dwarfed and brutish but granted membership in the human race. And with the race, he told his listeners, you must go much farther back than you have ever dreamed. He who wants help wants everything. Nothing can be effected but by one man. You may begin by sawing the little sticks, or you may saw the great sticks first, but sooner or later you must saw them all. So on the banks of Walden he sat him down, "in the Presidency of Polk, five years before the passage of Webster's Fugitive Slave Bill," to grow his beans and write his book. It was not by chance that when Henry Thoreau went out to walk his needle settled west.
* * *
American literature gained a flowerier Brook Farm, this spring of '46. The minister in London who was interpreting the Peel government and the jingo press to Buchanan was Louis McLane. A Tammany technician who had assisted the campaign was sent with him as secretary of legation. In May Buchanan was to receive a letter from McLane earnestly desiring the removal of his secretary of legation, "for the sake of the honor as well as the interest of the country." Mr. Gansevoort Melville, the secretary in question, had taken to London with him the manuscript of a younger brother's book about the Marquesas Islands. Gansevoort had sold it and now Typee was being printed in both England and America. Sweet, artless, prismatic with an aspiration that was not Concord Village nor the United States Senate nor the Oregon emigration but partook of all three, it described a poet's stay among some gentle cannibals. Chatting with his Mehevis and Kory-Kory's, Melville feels a splendid scorn for p35 Alcott's orphic platitudes and the colonists sweating with hayforks at West Roxbury. Better in coral bays to swim with islanders uncorrupted by reason, to sleep beside them under thatched palm leaves unregardful of factories, to dine on pork in the pi‑pi where the gorged chiefs smoke their chestnut-shell pipes. The city of Lowell is obliterated altogether and nothing need be considered but sunrise and violet lagoons and the surf coming in. Moreover Fayaway's shoulders wear epaulets of tattoo, her tappa skirt ends at the knees, and her tunic makes no effort to conceal her young breasts. . . . This mansion opening to the westward, though built of dream, is also part of expansionism, and though Melville might despise Alanno of Hio‑Hio, he breathed the same air.
(But Fayaway's breasts were too sweetly displayed, her olive-tinted thighs were bare when Melville swam with her, and many readers exercised their privilege of conjecture. Moreover, Melville had denounced the missionaries, who were too much debauching paradise with a sense of shame and the city of Lowell's cotton cloth. The nation would hear no criticism of righteousness, and his publishers hurriedly altered such sheets as were not burned and rushed another printing which omitted comment on the godly. Meanwhile, in early '46, he sat down to write Typee's successor, in Lansingburg, New York, and began to court the daughter of Lemuel Shaw. In the end he married her and found no tattooing on her shoulders; if she had breasts, no one crushed flowers between them. She is implacable in our literature. Her husband's work turned aside, after Omoo, into phantasies of incest and at last an Orphic impotence that has too much in common with Bronson Alcott's noblest thoughts.)
Mr. Hawthorne was back in Salem, where a happy marriage had freed him of the old phobia that had kept him from coming outdoors by day. He was writing to his friend George Bancroft, Secretary of the Navy, in hope of the Salem post office, and was due, by summer, to get the customhouse where he was to meet certain ghosts and in old papers was to find a scarlet initial embroidered with threads of gold. Mr. Emerson was finishing his lectures on Representative Men in Boston and marking notes quite as acute as Thoreau's about Fourier, reform, politicians, and slavery. Though he was whiggish, he was no Whig. "These rabble at Washington are really better than the snivelling opposition. They have a sort of genius of a bold and manly cast, though Satanic. They see, against the unanimous expression of the people [the seer was wrong, here, and would amend that judgment before the spring was out], how much a little well-directed effrontery can achieve, how much crime the people will bear, and they proceed from step to step. . . ."
p36 Longfellow heard Emerson lecture and worked on Evangeline, the second canto, where the lovers' marriage contract is signed in Arcadia just when the English ships "ride in the Gaspereau's mouth with their cannon pointed against us." The menace of those guns or something graver oppressed him through January and he could not shake off a heaviness of spirit. Perhaps his gloom was just the Cambridge winter: "This dull dismal cold crushes me down, as if the sky were falling; or as if I were one of the four dwarfs of the Northern mythology, who uphold the dome of heaven upon their shoulders." Or maybe it was a poet's premonition as, foreboding but helpless, he saw his country moving inexorably toward war. And, seeing, could remember what he had written four years before: —
There is a poor, blind Samson in this land,
Shorn of his strength and bound in bonds of steel,
Who may, in some grim revel, raise his hand,
And shake the pillars of this Commonweal,
Till the vast Temple of our liberties
A shapeless mass of wreck and rubbish lies.
Walking to Boston with Longfellow, hoping to lighten his dull mood, James Russell Lowell felt the pillars of the commonweal begin to shake. It was a literary achievement of Polk's election that it had stiffened a dilettante into a serious writer. Lowell had written when the Democrats triumphed: —
Careless seems the great Avenger; history's pages but record
One death-grapple in the darkness 'twixt old systems and the Word;
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,
Yet that scaffold sways the future and, behind the dim Unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
Thereafter he could not be satisfied with the sweet-lavender asininity of Brook Farm; he had found steel and an edge. Since writing it he had married his beloved bluestocking, Maria White, had honeymooned in Philadelphia, had done some prentice work writing tracts for the Abolitionists, and now had come home to Elmwood. On the last day of '45 his daughter Blanche was born and James is seen briefly in January dreaming of a time when she will be "a great, strong, vulgar, mud‑pudding-baking, tree-climbing little wench" . . . and beginning some articles for a London paper that will be Lowell taking up arms and going forth to war.
But do not suppose that Mr. Polk lacked literary support. The Democratic Party had an organ in Brooklyn and now there began to resound p37 from it the barbaric if adolescent yawp of Mr. Walter, as he still signed it, Whitman.
Whitman could discern no danger to the eastward: "After the vaunted ocean-sway of Great Britain, we laugh it to scorn! It can never compete with us, either in time of peace or war. Our Yankee ingenuity has built better ships and manned them with hardier crews than any other nation on earth." A flag goes up on the Eagle building, and "Ah! its broad folds are destined to float yet — and we, haply, shall see them — over many a good square mile which now owns a far different emblem." Where? "The more we reflect on the matter of annexation as involving a part of Mexico, or even the main bulk of that Republic, the more do doubts and obstacles resolve themselves away, the more plausible appears that at first glance most difficult consummation. . . . Then there is California, in the way to which lovely tract lies Santa Fe; how long a time will elapse before they shine as two new stars in our mighty firmament?" Expansion finds its incident: "Mexico, though contemptible in many respects, is an enemy deserving a vigorous 'lesson.' We have coaxed, excused, listened with deaf ears to the insolent gasconnade of her government, submitted thus far to a most offensive rejection of an ambassador personifying the American nation, and waited for years without payment of the claims of our injured merchants." And Manifest Destiny its broadest sentiment: "It is from such materials — from the Democracy, with its manly heart and its lion strength spurning the ligatures wherewith drivellers would bind it — that we are to expect the great future of this Western World! a scope involving such unparalleled human happiness and rational freedom, to such unnumbered myriads, that the heart of a true man leaps with a mighty joy only to think of it!"
Adolescent but perfectly expressive of Walter Whitman's countrymen, in January, 1846.
* * *
California, January 24, 1846.
"Many weeks of hardships, close trials, and anxieties have tried me severely, and my hair is turning gray before its time. But all this passes, et le bon temps viendra. Thus Childe Harold's American heir, writing to his wife from Yerba Buena, on the Bay of San Francisco. And, receiving that letter of January 24 in Washington and learning that a Mr. James Magoffind (who will be an actor in our drama) can take an answer to Bent's Fort on the Arkansas, whence it will be forwarded to California, Jessie p38 Benton Frémont grieves: "Poor papa, it made tears come to find that you had begun to turn gray. [He was thirty-three.] You must have suffered much and been very anxious 'but all that must pass.' . . . I have not had so much pleasure in a very great while as today. The thought that you may hear from me and know that all are well and that I can tell you again how dearly I love you makes me as happy as I can be while you are away."
Young Francis Parkman found it natural to prefix quotations from Childe Harold to the chapters of The Oregon Trail. But it was in the person of John Charles Frémont that the nation's enthusiasm for the poetry of Lord Byron found a career. We are to follow him through knotty and hardly soluble controversies. They will be less obscure if it is kept in mind that Frémont was primarily a literary man . . . who had a literary wife.
Greatness was a burden on Childe Harold's soul but nature kept the lines a little out of drawing. Born in high romance outside the law, he had grown up a little Rousseau. He had found a profession plotting the wilderness for the Topographical Corps. His native poetry responded to the solitudes and he had mastered the skilled crafts of living there. If his father's romance was out of Alexandre Dumas, his own was out of Italian opera. It rose in a fine cadenza when, secretly married to Jessie, the beautiful, bluestocking daughter of Thomas Hart Benton, he stood before the Senator to announce defiance of his will. Benton's rage had been known continentally ever since he had shot it out with Andrew Jackson in a community brawl. It now turned on Frémont but to violins Jessie stepped forward and sang her aria, "Whither thou goest I will go, and where thou lodgest I will lodge." Benton, who was one of the best-educated men in Congress, surrendered to a literary allusion.
An obscure lieutenant of topographical engineers had become the son-in‑law of the most powerful Senator, of the Senator, furthermore, who was the greatest expansionist, whose lifelong vision it had been to make all the West American. Also, greatness had secured the assistance of a national spotlight. Benton and his colleague Linn had Frémont put in command of two explorations of the West whose sole purpose was to advertise the Oregon country. The first took him to South Pass and a little beyond; the second to Oregon and, looping back, to California by a spectacular if injudicious crossing winter crossing of the Sierra. He proved himself a first-rate wilderness commander, learning his new trade from two of its masters, Kit Carson and Tom Fitzpatrick. He traveled little country that his instructors had not by heart for twenty years, blazed no trails, though the Republicans were to run him for the Presidency as the Pathfinder, and did little of importance beyond determining the latitude and longitude of many p39 sites which the mountain men knew only by experience and habit. But he learned mountain and desert skills well, was tireless in survey and analysis, and enormously enjoyed himself.
Also he was a literary man and the Thunderer was his father-in‑law. Benton roared in the Senate, the other expansionists chimed in, and Frémont had given the West to the American people. With Jessie's eager help he wrote his two reports, which were far more important than his travels. The government printed them, first separately, then together, and sowed them broadcast. The westering nation read them hungrily. Frémont chasing buffalo, Galahad Carson reclaiming the orphaned boy's horses from the Indians, Odysseus Godey riding charge against hordes of the red butchers — there was here a spectacle that fed the nation's deepest need. They were adventure books, they were charters of Manifest Destiny, they were texts of navigation for the uncharted sea so many dreamed of crossing, they were a pageant of daring, endurance, and high endeavor in the country of peaks and unknown rivers. With Benton's advertising, they made Frémont a popular image of our Western wayfaring. Now he could come downstage center with the light on him and begin his role as a hero of romantic drama.
We have noted the start of his third expedition, from St. Louis, in June, 1845. Carson was his adjutant again. Fitzpatrick was with him for a while but was detached to accompany Lieutenant Abert on that other subtly motivated "exploration" to the Southwest. He had such other mountain men as Dick Owens, Lucien Maxwell, Basil Lajeunesse, Alexis Godey, and Joe Walker. The usefulness to Polk of this third expedition, its part in the great game, is clear. While the courses with Mexico and Great Britain were intensifying, on the frontier of Oregon and California there would be an army officer and sixty armed men, most of them thirty-third-degree mountain men. . . . Now there was making toward him a lieutenant of marines vastly impressed by anti-American demonstrations in Mexico City. The lieutenant had been ordered to show him instructions directing the consul at Monterey to procure a peaceful revolution in California, and also carried private letters from Benton and Benton's daughter. In January, Lieutenant Gillespie was crossing Mexico with exceeding slowness, to sail for Honolulu on February 22.
In January greatness burgeoned in Frémont's soul. He had reached his stage and time was on the march. It might be that some great deed could be done. Nothing came out quite the way it should have done. Lord Byron, who had imagined him, could not make him rhyme.
p40 He had reached Sutter's Fort (the site of Sacramento) on December 9 of '45, after the outstanding exploration of his career which broke a trail across the Salt Desert west of Great Salt Lake to Ogden's or Mary's River, which Frémont renamed the Humboldt. . . . Well, not quite the first passage of that white waste, though Frémont sincerely believed that it was. Jedediah Smith, the great mountain man, had crossed it from the west, east, south of Frémont's trail, in 1827. Carson seems not to have known of Smith's crossing, though both he and Joe Walker should have known, and it was indicated on at least two well-known maps with which it was Frémont's business to be wholly familiar. No matter, that crossing (under Walker's guidance) was notable enough, and so was the earlier stretch (under Carson's guidance) which had brought the party from the Grand River to the White River and on to the Green.
At the Humboldt Frémont sent the larger part of his force into California under Joe Walker. Then, after another valuable survey, he divided his force again and led a picked party in a forced winter crossing of the high Sierra. The venture was foolhardy, was disapproved by Carson, served only Frémont's consciousness of brave deeds — and beat the snows by just a little while. He and his gaunt companions came down into the great green valley. Sutter fed them and they waited for Walker's party to join them.
Walker delayed, having mistaken the rendezvous appointed. Frémont had now reached his theater and he was restless. He marched his little group vaguely toward Oregon, whither he had been ordered, turned back to Sutter's again (past a site on the American River where Sutter had considered building a sawmill), and on January 14 started south to find his larger party. He met some of the California Indians who lived on horses stolen from their decayed relatives, the mission peons. So he redressed an injury they had done him on his last visit, two years before. Owens, Carson, and the Delaware scouts got fresh scalps for their leggings in three sharp, unnecessary skirmishes. It was at least a theatrical deed but it was not judicious. They had arrived in California, from a Mexican government that feared war, orders to warn out of the province all foreigners who were not licensed to hold land. The warning had not been issued but the orders directing it had begot suspicion and unrest. And now a foreigner, accompanied by mountain men whom the Californians knew from years of forays against their horse herds, was marching through their province killing Indians. To what end? If he meant nothing worse, did he mean to stir up an Indian war?
Frémont went back to Sutter's Fort. He got a passport from Sutter and went to Yerba Buena, where he wrote the letter quoted above. Then p41 he moved down the coast to Monterey, the seagirt town where Richard Henry Dana had first sent down a royal yard and heard the mate's "Well done" with as much satisfaction as ever he had felt in Cambridge on seeing a "bene" at the foot of a Latin exercise. Here he called formally on the consul, Larkin, to whom Gillespie was bringing secret instructions.
Sea and sky are pleasant at Monterey, and Frémont stayed on drinking the excellent native wines and talking with the shrewd, hard-bitten consul. On January 29 the prefect, Don Manuel Castro, inquired through Larkin what errand had brought an American army officer to the golden shore. Frémont answered that though he was an army officer his errand was not military but peaceful, to determine the best trade route to the Pacific, and that his company were not soldiers but civilians. That was true. He was a touch diplomatic, however, when he added that he had left his party on the frontier — he did not know where they were but did know that they were moving through the interior — and that he had come to Monterey for supplies. Then another Castro, Don José, the military commander of California (who was bickering with governor, Don Pio Pico, and whom Larkin had cozened a good way toward revolution), gave Frémont permission to winter in the valley of the San Joaquin. Frémont told Don José that, eventually, he would want to go home along the southern route, up the Gila River.
But he did not go to the San Joaquin Valley, which was east of the coastal mountains and distant from the settlements. He stayed on where he was. Later he was to explain that he had lingered here like any tourist, in the hope of finding a place to build a house for his mother. Maybe. But he was hearing stories from resident Americans. And destiny was stirring in his soul.
* * *
On January 14 James Clyman, encamped in the mountain chaos of northern California, wrote in his journal: —
Heard that Mr. Fremont had arived at Sutter's Fort and still more recently that Mr. Hastings and Party had likewise arived Both from the U. States. But no information has yet arived of the Politicks in the states in fact information of all Kinds Travels slow and is very uncertain when it has arived you know nothing certain unless you see it yourself.
Jim Clyman, a master mountain man, thus notes the coming of two California authors. Clyman's own role in our story will unfold presently; p42 his immediate convenience here is that he also had literary moments. He had written into his journal a treatise on the hunting of grizzly bears and just before it, a more extended one on California and the Californians. He found the latter "a proud Lazy indolent people doing nothing but ride after herds from place to place without any apparent object," whose labor and drudgery were done by Indians "kept in a state of Slavery haveing or Receiving no compensation for their labour except a scanty allowance of subsistence . . . and perhaps a cotton Shirt and wool sufficient to make a coarse Blanket." Their government was a series of revolutions, "every change for the worse," and the change meaning merely that "the revenue has fallen into other hands." And "in fact the Military and all parts of the Government are weak imbecile and poorly organized and still less respected."
Jim Clyman, however, liked the California scenery. And he was quite clear about such countrymen of his as he met there. "The Forigners which have found their way to this country are mostly a poor discontented set of inhabitants and but little education hunting for a place as they [want] to live easy only a few of them have obtained land and commenced farming and I do not hear of but one man that has gone to the trouble and Expence to get his title confirmed and fixed beyond altiration and dispute."
Clyman lingered along the Putah and other mountain creeks during January, chronicling the rains and watching the lush spring come on. And, doubtless, remembering his past. It was his private past, but to saturation it was the American past also.
* * *
January in California was already spring. The rains had wrought their resurrection and Jim Clyman "noticed the manseneto treese in full Bloom . . . an evergreen shrub growing in a thick gnarled clump . . . and would make a beautiful shade for a door yard." The season was "fine growing weather very much resembling a Missouri April or an Eastern May."
But in Missouri and the East January was still winter, an uncommon hard winter. The prairies were deep under snow, frost sank deep in the ground, the wind whistled by from the north and the boughs of trees fired pistol shots when they moved in it. It was a season suspended, a time to finish jobs while the stock stamped in the barn all day long, a time for talking.
They talked in country stores, at the post offices, in the kitchens of farmhouses — along the Sangamon, in the Western Reserve, in the bluegrass p43 country, under the shadow of Mount Equinox. The little weeklies — Journal, Sentinel, Freedom's Herald — reprinted what the Washington Union said about Texas, the National Intelligencer's appraisal of the British fleet, a summary of the impending crisis based on Niles' Register. Gittin' on to war, I guess. Polk's grand to take no sass from Johnny Bull, no, nor the Greasers, neither. Or Polk's set to make us fight a war if he can't get slave territory noways else. ("They just want this Californy So's to lug new slave states in, to abuse ye an' to scorn ye, An' to plunder ye like sin.") They talked very much like Benton, Buchanan, Webster, Lincoln, Whitman, Emerson, Dana, Thoreau. Fist on the table, Pa brought the verdict in. Dave listened and had his say but would not mention a young dream of Her Majesty's frigate striking her colors in humiliation or dark-skinned lancers dying in the Halls of Montezuma while a Hoosier farm boy waved an unfamiliar sword. And Ma looked at Dave, a firstborn son whom President Polk might send to war.
But to a long-peaceful nation war was an unreal haze on the far horizon. Whereas here at hand, in the Sangamon country or in the Green Mountains, next to Perkins' store or half a mile up the crick, someone who might be named, say, Bill Bowen had sold his place. Bill and Mother, the girls, and three of the boys were going west.
Strange paraphernalia gathered in the Bowen barn and the Bowens were preparing a granary that would have seen the family through a famine year. •At least two hundred pounds of flour or meal per person, the Guide said, The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California by Lansford W. Hastings, whose arrival in California Jim Clyman had recorded. All the Bowens thumbed that small volume, arguing, checking, refuting. •Twenty pounds of sugar, •ten pounds of salt . . . everyone will require at least twice as much as he would need at home, since there will be no vegetables . . . some buffalo can be counted on — and along the icebound Sangamon Bill Bowen sees himself riding down a shaggy beast straight out of fable . . . such goods for the Indian trade as beads, tobacco, handkerchiefs, cheap pantaloons, butcher knives, fish hooks — so young Bill and Nancy and Henry Clay and Joe will truly trade fish hooks for moccasins with a feathered topknot beside streams that are straight out of fable. That topknot looks just like Tecumseh or Pontiac, and the streams of fable, the Platte, the Snake, the Green, are just such known rivers as the Sangamon, the Connecticut, the Maumee. While the north wind howls over the rooftree, it seems impossible that, come summer, Bill and Nancy Bowen will be unyoking the oxen while the "caral" forms on the banks of the Sweetwater, but they will be, for on page 147 Mr. Hastings says so.
p44 This Hastings was a Frémont in miniature. He is an elusive soul, not much can be said about him with certainty. A young man on the make, he was at this moment engaged in a grandiose and still wholly theoretical real-estate enterprise on the golden shore, and he was the local agent of a bigger one managed from Washington which was a kind of gaudy bet on an insider's guess that there would be war. But he also had speculations — or visions — more gaudily ambitious. He may have meditated another overlordship on the frontier of empire, like the one which Sutter had actually established at New Helvetia. He may have seen himself — he would only have been one of a good many — as a kind of Sam Houston, president of another Lone Star Republic. He may have intended to utilize the opportunities provided for a smart man with nerve — precisely as Frémont did. Rumors connected him — loosely — with the Mormons and, on grounds that are apparently more substantial, with one of the current revolutionary intrigues. Whatever was in his mind, he did not have quite enough stuff. Put him down as a smart young man who wrote a book — it is not a unique phenomenon in literature — without knowing what he was talking about. As the first head of the California Chamber of Commerce, the first Booster on the golden shore. He went from his home town, Mount Vernon, Ohio, to Oregon in 1842 with Elijah White's famous caravan. He found no opening for his talents in that sober commonwealth and moved on to California. He liked what he saw, he perceived there were opportunities for smart men, so he wrote a prospectus and took it east in 1844. It was published at Cincinnati in 1845 and Hastings went back to California. Jim Clyman heard of him just when the Bowens and the Smiths and the Does were reading it. And while they were reading it Mr. Hastings formed a new design, one which shifted him from merely mischievous advertising to really dangerous activity. As, farther along, we shall see.
"Here perpetual summer is in the midst of unceasing winter; perennial spring and never failing autumn stand side by side, and towering snow clad mountains forever look down upon eternal verdure." That strain was not as familiar in '46 as the years have made it now. Bill Bowen, who was to plunge between frozen walls of snow to lug in endless armfuls of hickory lengths, reads with an understandable fascination that no fires are needed in California except to cook by, and those usually outdoors. Mother's knuckles are gnarled and stiff with rheumatism begotten by prairie winters — but by that violet sea it is warmer in winter than in summer, and even in December vegetation is in full bloom. (My sakes! hollyhocks, sweet william, carnation pinks at Christmas time in your own dooryard!) Aunt Esther is racked by chills and fever every autumn, her thin shoulders p45 wrapped with a shawl even in August. But "there being no low, marshy regions, the noxious miasmatic effluvia . . . is here nowhere found" and "while all this region . . . is entirely exempt from all febrific causes, it is also entirely free from all sudden changes and extreme variableness of climate or other causes of catarrhal or consumptive affections." So Aunt Esther can ease her tired old bones in California, and Nancy will not sniffle all winter long, and pink will come back to little Bob's cheeks, they will not have to watch him die of lung fever, after all.
And such farms! Young Bill, chipping at the frozen drippings of the cows, may meditate on the information that California stock require neither feeding nor housing, nor other care, nor any expense. Moreover, Mr. Hastings has seen oats •half an inch thick through the stalk and •eight feet high, thousands of acres at a stretch. Clover grows to •five feet, covering the hills with natural hay. A single stalk of wheat forms seven heads and the grain runs four pounds to the bushel heavier than any the Bowens know. Seventy bushels to the acre, often up to a hundred and twenty bushels — and next year sixty‑one bushels spontaneously, with no sowing at all. Also two crops in one twelvemonth, and up to sixty bushels of corn per acre, and wild flax waves as far as the eye can see, and the soil grows everything, tobacco, rice, cotton, crabapples, plums, strawberries the largest and most delicious in the world, peaches blossoming in January, such grapes as you cannot believe in.
Bill Bowen had no reason to know that there were optimisms in Hastings' book. The advertiser told him too candidly that there was no scarcity east of the Platte River, that all the streams he would cross were easily fordable, that buffalo would be plentiful for hundreds of miles beyond the Rockies, that they could be herded like cattle, that the California Indians were inoffensive, and so on. Publicity is an art of omission — and Hastings' need was to trump Oregon, which drew most of the emigration. There were few difficulties, he said, till you reached the place where the road forded. On the ford that led to Oregon the travel became dreadful and hazardous at once — and even if you survived it you would have only unfruitful Oregon for all your labors. Some remarks here about five months of rain and sleet, whereas rain in California was California rain. They read this in the Sangamon country. They also read the barker's light suggestion that a fine way to shorten the trip would be to try a route which Mr. Hastings had so far not bothered to try (and no one had yet broken), a possible cutoff from Fort Bridger (which Hastings had barely seen) to the southern end of Great Salt Lake and thence due west to Ogden's River (country about which Hastings knew nothing whatever). p46 The saving of several hundred miles seemed promising on a winter evening in the kitchen.
Much more widely read, Frémont's was a much better book. It knew what it was talking about, and when Bill Bowen read that there was wood or water in a given place, or good soil, or difficult travel, he could count on it. The myth of the Great American Desert went down before this literary man's examination — and before his vision (like his father-in‑law's) of cities rising in wasteland and the emptiness filling with fat farms. It was filled with solid facts that solid minds could use: it told about the winds, the water, the timber, the soil, the weather. It was extraordinarily seeing and intuitive, remarkably accurate. In the book he wrote, Frémont deserves well of the Republic.
But the book had a much greater importance than this: it fed desire. The wilderness which was so close to Frémont's heart that he has dignity only when he is traveling it was the core of the nation's oldest dream. Kit Carson, Tom Fitzpatrick, Alexis Godey, Basil Lajeunesse, his mountain men, were this generation's embodiment of a wish that ran back beyond Daniel Boone, beyond Jonathan Carver, beyond Christopher Gist, innumerable men in buckskins, forest runners, long hunters, rivermen, gens du nord, the company of gentlemen and adventurers on the far side of the hill. Something older than Myles Standish or Captain John Smith fluttered a reader's pulse when the mountain men worked their prodigies before Frémont's admiring eyes. It responded to his exaltation when, pounding his rifle on the saddle to seat a fresh load, he charged through dust clouds at the snorting buffalo. It quickened when he reached the highest peak of the Wind River divide and there pressed between the leaves of his notebook a honey bee that was making westward. He went on — across deserts, through untrodden gulches, up slopes of aspen, over the saddle, down the range, down the far side. He smelled sagebrush at dawn, he smelled rivers in the evening — alkali in sun‑hardened earth when a shower had passed, pines when the pollen fell, roses and sweet peas and larkspur, carrion, sulphur, the coming storm, greasewood, buffalo dung in the smoke of campfires. He saw the Western country with eager eyes — saw it under sun, bent and swollen by mirage, stark, terrible, beautiful to the heart's longing, snow on the peaks, infinite green and the night stars.
That was what the pulse answered in Frémont's book. And, looking at Bill Bowen, asking why this settled citizen of Sangamon County or Brattleboro or the Mohawk Valley was selling out and heading west, one finds no dependable answer except in that answering pulse. Now it is true that Bill Bowen, reading Frémont by candlelight beside the Cumberland p47 or the Delaware, could jot down a well-considered memorandum that there was first-rate farm land along the Willamette. It is true that the dispossessed Mormons, scrutinizing in their beleaguered city every page he wrote and every similar page they could find, could plot an itinerary toward a destination unknown but known to offer their only chance of surviving. But that is of the slightest importance, and it is not what a young man named Francis Parkman read painfully, with eyes beginning to be diseased, that winter in Boston. Or a boy named Lewis Garrard, reading him in Cincinnati and tossing away his schoolbooks because "the glowing pages of Frémont's tour to the Rocky Mountains . . . were so alluring to my fancy that my parents were persuaded to let me go westward." Or a thousand men named Bill Bowen, from Missouri eastward to the state of Maine.
It was certainly an important, an irrevocable climax when Bill Bowen sold his place, and certainly there went into it the hardest, most reasoned motives. Bodies bent by the labor of New England farms would find a longing crystallized in the tidings that the Oregon soil was deep and without stones, in gentle weather, beside broad waters, below the brows of timbered hills. Bodies sapped by malarial autumns and prairie winters would feel the tug of a California where there was neither cold nor hard work nor any distempers of the flesh. Furthermore, the prairie crops had slackened for the past several seasons and over a wide area had failed — and, on Mr. Hastings' promise, crops never slackened or failed where rolled the Sacramento. Also, neither the tariff of '42 nor all the rhetoric of Congress had succeeded in fully restoring the farmers' market which had been shattered in '37 — and there was a belief that in Oregon the trade with China and the Sandwich Islands would absorb all crops that could be grown, a knowledge that there was a great grazing industry in California, a promise that the same great herds could be developed in Oregon. We may also make the conventional genuflection to the texts which tell us that the victims of industrialism's earliest American failures were going westward in new hope — though, after due search, exceedingly few of them have been found in any of the events we deal with and none at all along the Western trails. Finally, those Congressmen who talked so gloriously about stretching the eagle's wing across the setting sun were talking about a fundamental reality, a belief that plumbed deep in Bill Bowen's heart. Bill Bowen had long believed and now believed more passionately than ever before that the Americans must occupy their continent, and if others won't do it while there is yet time, maybe I'd better start right now.
Nevertheless, when all these reasons are totaled up they make a sum p48 far from large enough to explain why, suddenly, the Americans were marching on their last frontier — to explain the evening talk in farm kitchens in January, 1846. One comes much closer to the truth with Boone and Carver and Gist, with the venturers crossing the fixed frontier of Sudbury toward the new land in the Connecticut bottoms — with all those who for two and a quarter centuries had moved up to the Fall Line and beyond it, across to the Mississippi, and, a few years since, beyond that. . . . When Bill Bowen sold his house a national emotion welled in the secret places of his heart and he joined himself to a national myth. He believed with Henry Thoreau in the forest and in the meadow and in the night in which the corn grows. Eastward Thoreau went only by force, but westward, ever since Columbus dared the Ocean Sea, westward he had gone free. The lodestone of the West tugged deep in the blood, as deep as desire. When the body dies, the Book of the Dead relates, the soul is borne along the pathway of the setting sun. Toward that Western horizon all heroes of all peoples known to history have always traveled. Beyond it have lain all the Fortunate Isles that literature knows. Beyond the Gates of Hercules, beyond the Western Ocean, beyond the peaks where the sun sinks, the Lapps and the Irish and the Winnebago and all others have known that they would find the happy Hyperboreansf — the open country, freedom, the unknown. Westward lies the goal of effort. And, if either Freud or the Navajo speak true, westward we shall find the hole in the earth through which the soul may plunge to peace.
These people waiting for spring to come are inclosed by our myth. But think of them as hard-handed, hard-minded Americans seeking a new home in the West. Think of them also as so certain in their desire that James R. Polk's war seems trivial and wasted. . . . If the dream filled the desert with a thousand brooks like the one that tinkled in the north pasture, built in the Rocky Mountains a thousand white cottages like those that line a New Hampshire common, sowed alkali plains with such crops as the oak openings knew in Michigan, and sketched on the unknown a familiar countryside of rich green slopes, farm cattle lying in noon shade beside familiar pools, and the jeweled miniature of neighbors striking whetstone to scythe within a shout's reach of one another — why, they would learn about the West soon enough.
1 Really from the southern tip of Prince of Wales Island.
a Although DeVoto dismisses Hughes with a sniff each of the five times he mentions him, and in his Statement on Bibliography specifically states that something else was his principal source for the Doniphan expedition, the book is still a valuable primary source, and it's online at Archive.Org; as is his diary, preceded by a good biographical sketch, in William Elsey Connelley, Doniphan's Expedition and the Conquest of New Mexico and California. Hughes would eventually rise to the rank of Brigadier-General in the Confederate Army.
b Matthew Fontaine Maury: a good biographical sketch of some length is found in Alden and Earle, Makers of Naval Tradition, pp111-129.
e Manzanita trees, of course.
f Very loosely speaking. The Hyperboreans lived in the remote mythical North, not in the West.
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