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On May 1, meeting at Petersburg, Menard County, the Whig Convention nominated A. Lincoln to represent the Seventh Congressional District of Illinois, thirty-seven years old, "a good Whig, a good man, an able speaker, and richly deserves the confidence of Whigs in District and State." His Democratic opponent was to be the middle border's mightiest man of God, Peter Cartwright, presiding elder of the Methodist Church, the greatest of the circuit riders. For nearly forty years Elder Cartwright had fought the devil through the prairies, bearing on his own shoulders unnumbered thousands of souls back from the pit that flamed at the foot of his pulpit, pricking uncounted frenzies of guilt to release in barking, yipping, jerking and rolling on the ground toward the peace that passeth understanding, cursing liquor and gambling and profane swearing and pride and fornication in a brazen voice that clanged across the sacred grove and silenced the roistering of the ungodly at the groggeries beyond. He and A. Lincoln were to campaign till August but little of their oratory has come down to us. Both respected the policy of that wayward summer: to say nothing about slavery, to avoid the war but to praise it when it could not be dodged, and to keep silent on all issues that either would have to face in Congress. Mr. Cartwright appears to have attacked Mr. Lincoln as an infidel and a slave of the liquor interests. But this was no camp meeting and when the votes were counted the infidel had the largest majority on record in Illinois and was the one Whig his state sent to the Thirtieth Congress. And the man of God carried a grudge all the rest of his life.
He was still older in 1859 when his grandson, Peachy Harrison, was tried at Springfield for the murder of Greek Grafton, who had been a law student with the firm of Lincoln & Herndon. Mr. Lincoln had grown in reputation when he took Peachy's case but there was arrayed against him a bouquet of lawyers whose fame made a greater sum than his, and p184 the Court was biased. So biased that Mr. Lincoln got mad. "Mad all over," Herndon says, "terrible, furious, eloquent," like the Reverend Mr. Cartwright battling with the devil, and "the scoring he gave that Court. . . was terrible, blasting, crushing, I shall never forget the scene." No use. So Mr. Lincoln called to the witness the prisoner's grandfather, whom he had defeated for Congress thirteen years before. He had Cartwright tell the jury how he, who had prayed above so many sinners as they died, had bent down to hear the last words of Greek Grafton. Sandburg quotes them: "I am dying; I will soon part with all I love on earth and I want you to say to my slayer that I forgive him, I want to leave this earth with a forgiveness of all who have in any way injured me." Following that testimony, A. Lincoln need only speak a quiet phrase to the jury, some intimation of malice toward none and charity for all, and the boy was free.
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The Washington press heard that our troops on the Rio Grande were well supplied, chiefly by the Mexicans, and were safe. That there would be no collision with the Mexicans. That desertions had been ended by Taylor's firmness (which looked like cruelty to Congress). But sometimes, depending on which mails were in, it heard some of the rumors that the army itself had heard, exchanges from Texas promised that there were skirmishes, and the opposition editors speculated about the chance of a border incident.
Congress passed this year's pension bill for veterans of the Revolution in sum of $1,400,200, and began to debate the appropriation for the Military Academy at West Point. The Academy was annually charged with "abuses," and this year, as every year, there were proposals to abolish it. For could a democracy tolerate a body of professional officers? George III still threatened the Congress of the United States, and had not George III maintained mercenaries? Was not an officer caste repugnant to our institutions? Who knew but that the officers might someday make a coup d'état? Moreover, was not the expenditure of public monies on West Point an unjustifiable waste? Was it not known that Morgan's Rifles and the Minute Men of Middlesex would spring to arms at need?
On May 1, Vice President Dallas told President Polk that he was for 49°. Unhandsome of a subordinate, but a warning. On May 3 Senator Benton at last said that he would not claim beyond 49°, and moreover he thought it wise to get the Oregon question settled before taking up p185 Mexico, with whom, he made it clear, he wanted no war. Mr. Polk wanted no war but was preparing "an historical statement of our causes of complaint against Mexico," which he would transmit to Congress. On May 5, the Cabinet discussed a possible collision between Taylor and the Mexicans but had no word from the General later than April 5. The next day Taylor's dispatch of April 15 arrived but had no news in it, but on May 8, Mr. Slidell was back from Mexico at last with the opinion that we must take the "redress of the wrongs and injuries" into our own hands and "act with promptness and energy." Possibly Mr. Slidell meant something other than war by that, and so possibly did Mr. Polk when he agreed and promised to communicate Mr. Slidell's frustrations to Congress. The next day, May 9, the Cabinet agreed that Polk must recommend war if the Mexicans should commit any hostility against Taylor — and that did not go far enough. For Polk went on to poll them on the question whether, in the message he was now preparing for Congress, he ought not to recommend war anyway. Mr. Buchanan said that he would be better satisfied if we had a hostile act to go on but felt that we had ample cause without one and would recommend war. So would all the others except Mr. Bancroft, who held out for that hostile act.
Very well. Mr. Polk would ask Congress for war, and Mr. Buchanan would please prepare the supporting documents. So the President sat down to write a war message. He could talk about the unpaid American claims, the failure of Mexico to acknowledge the true boundaries of Texas, its refusal to receive Mr. Slidell, and quantities of bellicose, rhetorical defiance. It would have needed a strong bellows to blow that up to war size, but Polk seems to have been confident of its acceptance by a Congress where the opposition had now succeeded in disciplining itself and the majority was breaking up in factions. However, he did not need to make the trial.
He was arranging his characteristic, precise formalities in a request for war when, about six in the evening, the Adjutant General came to White House and told him that the Southern mail had just arrived, bringing a new dispatch from General Taylor. The Mexicans, Taylor reported, had crossed the Rio Grande on April 25, and had killed or captured all of two companies of Dragoons under Captain Thornton. So he would not complete the subterfuges of his message. He called the Cabinet for half-past seven, and the word had got round Washington fast, for here were Senators and Representatives crowding into the White House, "greatly excited." He wrote hard the next day, though he had to take time out to go p186 to church (in a city that had begun to run a fever) and to temporize with the first Congressmen who aspired to high military command, Haralson of Georgia and A. Lincoln's closest friend, Edward D. Baker of Illinois. There was a furious note-sending to committee chairmen and majority leaders, and all the secretaries copied documents late into the night. "It was a day of great anxiety to me." So was May 11 — not least anxious in that Benton, summoned to the White House as chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs, though he assured the President that he would vote the required men and dollars, reminded him that he had not favored sending the army to the Rio Grande and would not favor aggressive war.
At noon he sent his message to Congress. After an assertion that the Rio Grande was "an exposed frontier" and a recital of events up to April 25, "the cup of forbearance had been exhausted even before the recent information from the frontier of the Del Norte [Rio Grande]. But now, after reiterated menaces, Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil. She has proclaimed that hostilities have commenced, and that the two nations are now at war."
Wherefore, "As war exists, and, notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it, exists by the act of Mexico herself. . . I invoke the prompt action of Congress to recognize the existence of the war." And to provide the arms and money to prosecute it.
The message found the Senate still debating whether to abolish West Point. It put that dilemma aside for the moment and took up the President's bill authorizing and financing an army, but did not pass it on May 11. Such unpatriotic delay convinced Polk that his personal opponents in the Democracy had joined the Whigs in order to discredit him, and from that moment on he saw the war with Mexico as primarily a factional contention in the Democratic Party. He had always regarded a difference of opinion as a political attack on him; from now on he regarded one, quiet honestly, as a species of treason. The last Southern politician of the second period was outlining the Southern politician of the third period. . . . But they were sounder men in the House. After listening for an hour and a half to the supporting documents that accompanied the message (and contained the evidence), they dispensed with the remainder and voted Mr. Polk his men and money in thirty minutes, 173 to 14.
On May 12 the Senate kept up its treasonous debate, trying to determine whether there was a war if Congress had not said there was, and how far into his own country you could chase an enemy without abandoning p187 defensive warfare. Mr. Webster was not in the Senate when the division came, and the one-man Calhoun Party abstained from voting. The bill passed 42 to 2. The muse of history does not sleep: that day an organization of superintendents of insane asylums convened in Washington.
The entry in the President's diary for the next day, May 13, is informative. General Winfield Scott, the commander of the army, calls with the Secretary of War and presents a plan for allocating volunteers among the states. Mr. Polk does not regard him as in all respects suitable for the command of the army to be raised (he was a Whig) but knows that he must have it and so confers it on him. The Secretary of War makes a requisition on the governor of Missouri for a thousand mounted troops for Colonel Kearny, to protect the traders who are en route for Santa Fe. This is the first step toward the conquest of New Mexico and plain proof that one campaign of the war had had some planning. Then in the evening, at a meeting of the Cabinet, Mr. Buchanan, to the President's stunned horror, wants to memorialize foreign courts and declare that in making war we do not intend to acquire New Mexico, California, or any other portion of Mexican territory! (Mr. Buchanan's best spur-of‑the‑moment guess about the shortest distance between war and the Democratic National Convention of '48. A bad guess and an impudence to his chief.) Mr. Polk sets him right: we will take California and such other lands as may be necessary to indemnify us. If this be made known, Mr. Buchanan protests, then we shall have war with England certainly and very likely with France too. Mr. Polk thinks not, but would accept war with "either England or France or all the Powers of Christendom" rather than make this pledge "that we would not if we could fairly and honourably acquire California or any other part of the Mexican territory which we desired." The meeting generates heat, the rest of the Cabinet will assail the Secretary of State, and the fight lasts for some two hours. Not take California? Then why all this labor? And Mr. Polk ends matters by striking out the offensive paragraphs in Mr. Buchanan's memorandum and substituting some forthright language of his own, which he orders the Secretary to use instead. So to bed, "much exhausted after a day of incessant application, anxiety, and labour."
During the day he had signed the bill which recognized (not, as the Diary says, declared) a state of war, and had issued the necessary proclamation. So the United States had its war at last on May 13, 1846, though it had begun in April.
On May 14, Clyman was traveling up the Humboldt River, toward its p188 big bend. At sunrise Francis Parkman, having drunk Colonel Kearny's Madeira the night before, finally jumped off for the Oregon trail. Edwin Bryant's wagons reached the fork of the Santa Fe trail in a pounding rain and turned off for Oregon. Some distance behind him, Jessy Quinn Thornton crossed the boundary of the Indian Territory and caught up with Lillburn Boggs.
And on May 9, at Klamath Lake in Oregon, Lieutenant Gillespie of the United States Marines caught up with Captain Frémont — and Zachary Taylor fought the engagement known as the battle of Resaca de la Palma.
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Colonel Ethan Hitchcock was the most intelligent officer in the highest ranks of the army.1 He had written in his journal that if Taylor were to succeed, it must be by accident.
Following the capture of Thornton's command, Taylor had gone on occupying his almost indefensible position at Fort Brown, opposite Matamoros, and exhibiting the serenity of a man of the plain people. He strengthened the fort's defenses but neglected to supply it with ammunition from his base at Point Isabel. He had not yet secured the Texas Rangers, though some of them, under the celebrated Walker, were at Point Isabel, but he did sent down patrols •seven miles down the road his supplies must come up. Not far enough. The Mexicans crossed the river both above and below his position, unopposed and even unperceived. Finally, on May 1, he learned about them. He could understand that his base was in danger, and, leaving a garrison in Fort Brown, he got back to it — fast. The town of Matamoros saw his army moving out and printed some broadsides celebrating the first great Mexican victory.
Arista's idea was first-rate. He designed to pinch off the American expeditionary force, cutting its communications and attacking it in its unfavorable position. He had troops enough and they were good enough. But, like all Mexican commanders throughout the war, he could not maneuver them fast enough and had to combat the volcanic jealousies of his subordinates. He lost a week and Taylor got safely to Point Isabel. Arista took up a position on the road, waited for him to come back, and ordered the batteries at Matamoros to open on Fort Brown. So at Point Isabel on May 3 a young lieutenant of the 4th Infantry heard the cannonade and knew that the war which he regarded as a conspiracy of slaveholders had begun. "I felt sorry," Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant wrote, "that I had enlisted."
p189 They kept on pounding the fort for four days. The garrison, however, got the bombproofs finished under fire and suffered only a few casualties, one of them Major Brown, the commandant. They had too little ammunition to risk a full counter-bombardment, and toward the end they began to get jittery.
The Mexican Campaigns
Taylor spent a week building the earthworks he should have finished a month before, then, on May 7, started back to relieve the fort. His West Pointers begged him not to take the massive train, which could be brought up later in complete safety, but he had no patience with textbook soldiers. . . . Well, what did he have? A sound principle: attack. A less valuable one which was to serve him just as well in this war: never retreat. Total ignorance of the art of war. And an instinct, if not for command, at least for leadership. He had been hardened in years of petty frontier duty, he had no nerves and nothing recognizable as intelligence, he was afraid of nothing, and he was too unimaginative to know when he was being licked, which was fortunate since he did not know how to maneuver troops. Add to this a dislike of military forms and p190 procedures and a taste for old clothes and you have a predestinate candidate for the Presidency. The army and even some of the West Pointers worshiped him.
On May 8 at a place called El Palo Alto Taylor's army, on the way back to Fort Brown, came in sight of Arista's army in line of battle. Throughout the war the Mexicans had difficulty in getting soldiers who could shoot and greater difficulty in supplying them with food and powder, but their armies were always beautifully costumed. These are the shakos, pompons, plumes, buckles, aiguillettes, pennons, epaulettes, and saber sashes you saw pictured in your grandfather's books when you were a child. They glittered in the noon sun like a battle piece by Benjamin West, and, after tranquilly watering his troops, Taylor formed a line and moved out to attack the haberdashery. He intended to use his favorite weapon, the bayonet.
The battle of Palo Alto was a tiny engagement fought haphazardly and by individual improvisation, as any battle had to be that Taylor commanded, but it is exceedingly important in our history, even in the history of war. That the reports of this and the next day convinced Europe that Mexico had no chance (and thus obliterated the shadow of a specter that Polk and some others still thought of as intervention) is less important than the fact that on this day the developing technology of the nineteenth century was tested and proved.
Taylor fought his artillery in line with and sometimes in front of his infantry, the practice sanctioned since 1800. Those small brass 6‑pounders and small case-iron 12‑ and 18‑pounders look like children's toys nowadays, but Lieutenant Grant saw that they were "a formidable armament." They outranged the Mexican artillery, whose feebly glancing solid shot came up so slowly that one could step over them, and as for the Mexican flintlock muskets, "at the distance of a few hundred yards a man might fire at you all day without your finding it out." In his first engagement Lieutenant Grant had a happy moment of command when his captain made a reconnoissance and a happier one when he personally captured a colonel in braid and buttons. But also he got the first chapter of a lesson which was to sink deep. So far as the Americans were concerned, Palo Alto was almost entirely an artillery action. Colonel Childs, Major Ringgold, and Captain Duncan maneuvered their batteries as if they were platoons of cavalry and fired them almost as if they were pocket pistols. All afternoon they took at least an eight-for‑one toll from the Mexicans, who could never get near them. So a function had been found for "light artillery" and Lieutenant Grant had learned about fire power. In four p191 years of the Civil War he only twice forgot the superiority of metal to human flesh. He imparted the lesson to William Tecumseh Sherman, and a great part of the defeat of the Confederate States of America was inflicted in the muggy Mexican sun on May 8, 1846. For the far more brilliant Lee, who had as much chance as Grant to learn the lesson, never learned it. He remained confident that the courage of the Southern infantryman could prevail against the northern barrage and sent them against it too often — at Gettysburg pushing the best part of his army against a semicircle of guns that unhurriedly went on shooting them down as they came. There is no reproach in that fact: the texts show that a full year of the first World War had passed, and half a million men had been killed in their tracks, before any commander learned about the power of massed what Ulysses Grant, whose campaigns all of them had studied, learned in the six hours of Palo Alto.
That the Mexican troops faced such fire and stayed on the field is ample evidence that they were good troops. Few of them, here or later, could shoot straight. Government policy, taking account of revolutions, had forbidden the citizenry to bear arms. Mostly, too, they were pressed men — gathered up by gangs from among the peons, to eke out the standing army, which was at least disciplined if poorly supplied and preposterously over-officered. There was little reason why they should fight at all. Did it matter which Mexican faction or which invader was quartered on them, raped their women, drove off their cattle, and levied on their crops? But they did fight, at Palo Alto and most other battles, with heroic doggedness. If one day of battle was frequently enough for them, so that on the second day they broke and ran, part of the routine flight may be ascribed to the usual failure of the commissary to bring up supper and breakfast, and the rest to their general officers who, by the second morning, were either panic-stricken or betraying one another.
Both commanders notified their governments that they had won a victory. Early the next morning, May 9, however, Arista withdrew from the field, where both armies had bivouacked in sight of each other's fires and within hearing of each other's wounded. He thus weakened the morale of his troops and, after an idle morning, they all took up the pursuit, his bands playing. The regulars moved across a prairie strewn with the corpses of men and horses and of one woman, described as richly dressed and "singularly beautiful" — and learned to praise their artillery. It was not so useful to them when they caught up with Arista toward four o'clock, however, for he had taken a position in the bed of a former channel of the Rio Grande, wooded and choked with chaparral.
p192 The action that followed was a good deal more than a battle. It is known as Resaca de la Palma. It was a fierce, bloody, and obstinate confusion in the underbrush, with the Mexicans fleeing here and charging there, the Americans doing likewise, and no one to do staff work or make order of the attack. Since no one but also the platoon leaders could see far enough to exercise command, some pretty local duels developed. For a long time it was a near thing. The Mexicans rushed into the thorn bushes with an admirable fierceness and, less admirably, their cavalry charged artillery — and nearly took it. That seemed a good idea to Taylor and, to the horror of his staff, he ordered Captain May's Dragoons to charge a Mexican battery. It was his principal contribution to the battle and, alas for the textbooks, it worked. Pretty soon the Mexicans, who had bent at one flank already, broke and ran. Fort Brown was saved and Taylor had won two battles.
Or his army had. Colonel Hitchcock, who was right about their commander, was proved wrong about the troops and they were entitled to the admiration which Lieutenant Grant accorded them. The American soldier had son his first battle against civilized troops since January 8, 1815, by the merits which tradition had emphasized, marksmanship, steadiness under fire, and individual initiative and courage. A good many subalterns who would be general officers in the Civil War had had their first taste of battle. And before the guns were swabbed the newspapermen were sending the news to the folks back home. The two engagements, Grant wrote, "seemed to us engaged as pretty important affairs but we had only a faint conception of their magnitude until they were fought over in the North by the press and the reports came back to us."
Old Rough and Ready moved on, in a welter of collapsing transportation, all the way back to his former position, and in less than ten days was ready to cross the Rio Grande. His West Pointers had been frantically urging him to pursue the retreating Mexicans, whose army had degenerated to small groups and was in full flight. Why should he? He had his victory, he was willing to attack (with bayonet) any enemy who might appear, and let no one suppose he was afraid. The West Pointers could not even get patrols sent out. But it would be pleasanter in Matamoros, so Taylor crossed the river on May 18 and the Americans had occupied a foreign city at last. Here, though he could certainly have ended opposition in the northern provinces and might even have ended the war, he sat down and did nothing whatever for six weeks.
Well, he was not altogether inactive. The correspondents were present and in Matamoros Taylor accepted the invitation which Jessy Quinn p193 Thornton was currently breathing into the Kansas air. He opened his campaign for the Presidency.
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Some patches of snow still lingered round the sheltered roots of the great pines on the shore of Great Klamath Lake, and Benton, on the basis of what his son-in‑law wrote about it, was to interpret that snow to the Senate as a fierce winter storm that endangered the Pathfinder's life and turned him back again to the settlements. Frémont could also have found ice in the bottoms of northward-sloping ravines.
It was a picturesque scene on the edge of Klamath Lake, in southern Oregon. The Pathfinder enjoyed the splash of firelight on the dark, the columns of enormous evergreens growing dim above it. "How Fate pursues a man!" he wrote. Fate, on horseback, had taken the persons of William Sigler and Frémont's former blacksmith, Sam Neal, riding hell-bent through the night. Hooves sounded afar off through the forest silence and, tumbling into the firelight, the messengers told Frémont that an officer of the marines with dispatches for him was on his trail — and they thought the Indians were following close behind him.
It was a tense night and at dawn Frémont was off with ten picked men to meet and perhaps rescue the dispatch bearer. At sunset they met at the lower end of the lake, Childe Harold nobly longing for great deeds and Lieutenant Archibald Gillespie of the marines with dispatches dated at the end of October, '45, and also with an eyewitness account of the popular enthusiasm at Mexico City which had followed the bellicose Paredes' accession to power in early January, four months ago.
So there was another, more important campfire at Klamath Lake, in "a glade or natural meadow, shut in by the forest, with a small stream and good grass." May 9, 1846. A hero's hour had struck.
All the accounts which Frémont later gave of this meeting are in the tone forbidden by Hamlet, "we could an we would," and they are contradictory. But only once, and that once flatly contradicted by many other passages, does he get altogether out of intimation and into assertion. "Now it was officially made known to me that my country was at war," he says in his Memoirs. His best biographer, Mr. Nevins, all but repeats the assertion when he says that Gillespie, having had on February 22 at Mazatlán information from Mexico City of about February 10, could tell Frémont "that Taylor had advanced to the Rio Grande, where fighting was expected at any time."
Both statements are wrong. As for Mr. Nevins': Taylor's orders to p194 advance to the Rio Grande were issued at Washington on January 13, he received them on February 3, he moved out of Corpus Christi on March 8, he reached the Rio Grande on March 28, and nothing was known about his orders or his movements at Mexico City on February 10 or at Mazatlán on February 22. As for Frémont's: not only was there no unofficial information in Gillespie's possession that there was war between Mexico and the United States, not only was the "official" information in his dispatches based on Polk's October confidence that there would be no war, but the dispatch which he repeated to Frémont expressly stipulated that California was to be pacified.
The deliberate implication of Frémont's private and public testimony (in his court-martial and in the hearings on the claims of the California Battalion) is that, on May 9, he received orders to go back to California and produce an incident. The deliberate but more veiled implication of Gillespie's testimony and depositions is the same. But whenever either of them is brought to an unequivocal issue, each flatly declares that there were no such orders. The repeated insinuation that there were secret instructions invariably dissolves when facts are approached. There were no secret instructions from anyone. Frémont was lying.
Frémont ultimately rests on the private letters from his wife and from Benton (neither of them qualified to give him orders or in this instance even advice), which, he says, were in a kind of family cipher. (This cipher, we are to understand, consisted of oblique allusions to earlier conversations.) It all boils down to the fact that Benton again advised him to watch out for foreign intervention in California if war with Mexico — which Benton did not favor and did not expect — should break out, or if the negotiations over Oregon should reach a crisis (as he did not think they would). Unquestionably the chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs wrote just that to his son-in‑law. But it was not a solicitation to act, it was not official, and it was written at a time when Benton was shut out from the secretive Polk's confidence. The final bit of "official" evidence is a letter and memorandum furnished to Frémont forty years later by George Bancroft, then eighty-six years old. The two documents say nothing directly to the point, are at variance with the demonstrable facts, contain much ambiguity, and, in short, are the untrustworthy recollections of an old man who was remembering fierce controversy through the fiercer passions of the Civil War.
Polk's attitudes and motives are clear. His policy, though not farsighted nor intelligently statesmanlike, is equally clear. He wanted California. He would go to war for it if necessary but, in October, '45, believed p195 that he would not have to. He thought he could buy it; if he could not buy it, he would get it by influence — by fomenting a revolution in a province known to be ripe for revolution, and then attaching it by the leverage of common interests. He expected to get it in the latter way, even if events should produce war with Mexico.
So much for what Polk thought. What he did is conclusive. He sent to his secret agent, Consul Larkin, the dispatch that Gillespie carried, the only "official" document Gillespie had. It directed Larkin to conciliate the Californians and to work for the President's unequivocally stated goal, a revolution which would detach them from Mexico. (The only instructions which Gillespie could possibly have carried to Frémont would have been to co‑operate with Larkin to that end, not to make that end impossible.) Meanwhile there might be war with Mexico. So Polk instructed Sloat to seize the ports, if war should come, and to hold them. This seizure was directed against Mexico and also against the possibly interested foreign powers — and Sloat was directed to explain it as such to the Californians, in the interest of conciliation. Finally when war did break out and Polk did determine to take California by conquest, he entrusted the conquest to Stephen Watts Kearny. Kearny's orders contained no mention of Frémont whatever. . . Frémont had no instructions from Polk to produce an incident or to begin a conquest.
From Polk's Diary for March 21, 1848: —
The Senate of the U. S. having passed a Resolution calling for a letter addressed by the Secretary of State to Mr. Larkin, U. S. consul at Monterey, in California, in October, 1845, it was a question submitted for consideration [in the Cabinet] today whether it was compatible with the public interest to comply with the call. The letter was read. It was confidential and had for its object the protection of American interests and the prevention of Brittish and French interference in California. All agreed that the letter should not have been called for, but that as it had been called for a refusal to furnish it would lead to erroneous inferences, prejudicial to the administration. A false impression is being attempted by the administration in Congress, to be made, to the effect that this letter to Mr. Larkin contained instructions to produce a revolution in California before Mexico commenced the War against the U. S. & that Col. Frémont had the authority to make the revolution. The publication of the letter will prove the falsehood of such an inference.
The true explanation of the decision reached at the campfire by Klamath Lake was made some twenty-three hundreda miles to the eastward. p196 At about the time when Frémont was reading his letters under the tall pines, or within a few weeks afterward, Ralph Waldo Emerson, at Concord, Massachusetts, a mile and a half from the gentler evergreens of Walden Pond, sat down to read the Pathfinder's book. When he had finished it, the seer wrote in his journal:
The stout Frémont, in his Report of his Expedition to Oregon and California is continually remarking on "the group" or "the picture," etc., "which we make." Our secondary feeling, our passion for seeming, must be highly inflamed if the terrors of famine and thirst for the camp and for the cattle, terrors from the Arapahoes and Utahs, anxieties from want of true information as to the country and the trail, and the excitement from hunting, and from the new and vast features of unknown country, could not repress this eternal vanity of how we must look.
Klamath Lake by night through the trees and firelight gave Frémont a group and picture and his passion for seeming was highly inflamed. A Childe Harold, Destiny's courier, and a messenger who had seen the Mexicans in a patriotic frenzy when their no‑appeasement government went in. Surely their martial ardor would precipitate the war which everyone had expected for so long. And Frémont had talked for weeks with visiting americanos at their camps, daring, worried, some of them conspirators or actors in various local upheavals. And he had no chance for fame in the war which would be fought and no doubt finished before he could get back to it. And there was another, intolerable picture — of the hero retreating from Gavilán Peak after his brave stand and braver rhetoric, while the contemptible greasers rejoiced in having made him turn tail, while his own hard-bitten men talked behind his back in derisive whispers.
Fishing, a native proverb holds, is good in roily waters. It is good to be shifty in a new country. As Emerson perceived, Frémont saw pictures that might still be made. On the great stage he heard his cue spoken. He walked out and began to play his part.
The Pathfinder reached a decision while he sat by the dying fire after all the others were asleep. To go back to California and do a great deed, for honor and glory. To seize California for the United States and wrap Old Glory round him, to give a deed to the greatness in him. To seize the hour, take fortune at the full, and make his case. To trust that the war which was certain to come would transform an act of brigandage into an act of patriotism, would transform the actor from a military adventurer, a freebooter, a filibuster, into a hero.
p197 He was a hero from that moment on until he died, but always with the lines just out of drawing. Time, circumstance, and destiny always co‑operated with him for a while, and always betrayed him in the end.
He went to bed at last and his course was determined. In the excitement he had neglected to post a guard. You must not, in Indian country, neglect to post a guard. And excitement had bemused Kit Carson, who not only did not remind his commander but went to sleep with his rifle unloaded. So the Hot Creek Modoc, who had been hanging on Gillespie's trail, crept into camp and woke them all by tomahawking Basil Lajeunesse and the half-breed Denny. There was a swift, short struggle, one of Frémont's Delawares was killed, the Modoc chief was killed, and both parties took cover to shoot at each other through the rest of the night. The whites were in a savage mood, the next morning, and when the rest of Frémont's party joined him they all went hunting Modoc, Klamath, and any of their neighbors who might be found. They hunted them violently for several days, killing a good many, burning a village, and riding down whatever skulkers they could find. The lieutenant of marines must have found these days fully as impressive as his stay in Mexico City.
Committed to his role, Frémont took his party back to California, heading toward Sutter's. On May 24 he reached Lassen's and learned that the U. S. sloop Portsmouth, Commander Montgomery, was in San Francisco Bay. So he sent Gillespie to it with a requisition for supplies, though the ample ones he had laid in before starting north could hardly have been exhausted in a month. The first three items on his list are: American rifle lead, 300 pounds; powder, 1 keg; percussion caps, 8000. . . . Three hundred pounds of lead would make 9600 bullets and he was already supplied for an exploring trip. What did he want them for?
* * *
"The people are no worse since they invaded Mexico," Mr. Emerson told his journal, "only they have given their will a deed."
The people had a war now and so did Mr. Polk. The people had gone fishing for chubs and caught a shark; Mr. Polk had lighted a firecracker and had a bomb explode in his face. The insufficiencies of a narrow intelligence, however firm, and the handicap of habitual suspicion, however patriotic, now made themselves felt on the destinies of the President and the nation. Among the bewilderments that settled over the United States for the ensuing fifteen years, not the least important was the demonstration, which would be memorably clear to eleven seceding states by '65, p198 that if you are going to have a war you need a big man at the head of it.
In the spate of troubles that inundated the President, some surface meanings were hideously plain. We have seen Congressmen Haralson demanding commissions before the war message was written. So here is James Shields (who had once challenged A. Lincoln to a duel), Polk's commissioner of the General Land Office, calling at the White House to explain that he will go at once to Illinois and raise a regiment of volunteers. Polk angrily argues that it is the commissioner's duty to stay in Washington and do his job, but duty has no force when glory may be won, and Shields is off to glory, a wound, a Civil War command, and Senatorships from three states. Here, in a different order of problems, are Winfield Scott, commander of the army, and Wool, one of his senior generals, and Jones, the adjutant general, intriguing with Congressmen, editors, the prominent, and the strategically placed, to make sure that they (and the Whig Party) shall control the hundreds of army appointments. Here is Scott, when the administration proposes to commission new generals, writing to the Secretary of War, "I do not desire to place myself in the most perilous of positions, a fire upon my rear, from Washington, and the fire in front from the Mexicans." (Insubordinate and injudicious; it effectively kept Scott out of the earlier campaigns; but it was first-rate prophecy.) And, in still another order of problems, here on Polk's desk are many hundreds of applications for commissions in the new regiment of Mounted Rifles which can have, below its lieutenant colonel, only forty-four officers. Forty-four appointments; therefore hundreds of certain enemies.
As an illustration of Polk's ability to deal with wartime problems, see how he will solve this last one. Persifor Smith, who had served well against the Seminoles and returned to civil life, will be made colonel of this regiment, which (at the moment) is designed to police the Oregon trail, with an eye on the Mormons. Brevet Captain Frémont, from whom nothing has been heard for a long time, will be appointed lieutenant colonel, because he knows the country where the Mounted Rifles will serve — and, be sure, because the goodwill of the chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs is belatedly seen to be valuable in wartime, after all. Now, over a hundred army officers have applied for commissions in the regiment, but Mr. Polk is determined to appoint all its officers from civil life. Why? Because every officer in the army who is not selected will be jealous — and will make trouble!b No other consideration, Mr. Polk feels, will hold. . . Except one. He sends his secretary to interview various Whig Senators and Congressmen to get the names of acceptable Whigs for one majority and three or four lieutenancies in the Mounted Rifles. The p199 rest of the forty-four vacancies will be filled by Democrats, preferably from the Western states.
The President and the nation had a war now, and neither was up to it. This book is to touch briefly on certain campaigns and their backgrounds which are related to our central purpose, but it has space to treat the war only in general terms.
The conquest of a foreign nation was the biggest enterprise on which, up to then, the American people had ever embarked. The war required a large-scale organization and an integrated effort for which no experience had fitted the Americans and which were, as a matter of fact, beyond their current ability. Since Mexico was what it was there was never any danger that the United States would lose the war. But it must infallibly have lost the war if it had been waged against a power of industrial, military, or financial resources even remotely comparable to ours. Our industrial and financial systems were flourishing but wholly unprepared for such a strain as they must now bear, our military system was the worst possible, and our system of government, as events were quickly to make clear, had reached a crisis in which its interior conflicts were making it impotent.
One way to win the war would have been to confide its management to a board of specialists, chosen for their effectiveness in management and without reference to their politics. Such a conception was altogether alien to the 1840's, to the stage of American party government then evolved, and in general to the nineteenth century. Feebly approximated in the government of A. Lincoln by 1863, after blood and despair (never approximated in the government of Jefferson Davis), it had to wait for 1917 and Woodrow Wilson. Besides, in 1846, there was not in America the kind of management required. Neither public nor private enterprise had ever undertaken such a job, and the wonder is not that it was done so badly but that it was done so well. While our narrative centers on other things, the reader should hazard some guess about the resources and organizations required to equip, transport, supply, and maintain blockading fleets in foreign waters and armies not only invading Mexico from three directions at distances of several thousand miles but also, in several columns, traversing the wilderness of the Great American Desert. He should think in round numbers of the components of such an effort — hundreds of ships, tens of thousands of wagons, hundreds of thousands of draft animals and beef cattle, ordnance, small arms, haversacks, hospital supplies, food, blankets, all the goods that make a war. That they were supplied at all is the amazing fact, the demonstration that in the last handful of years the developing industrial system had grown altogether beyond what was currently p200 understood about it. Time after time the extemporized organizations broke down. No army was ever as well equipped or as well supplied as its necessities demanded. Lacks and weaknesses which might have meant defeat if our enemy had not been Mexico repeatedly showed themselves. Millions of dollars were wasted, months were lost, vast if indeterminable hardships that might have been averted were inflicted on troops and citizenry. As always, the republic paid more in suffering and death than it ought to have paid. And yet, for all the ignorance, ineptitude, and delay that stopped the fighting for months at a time, bored and finally frightened the nation, and made the leaders both heartsick and suspicious, a kind of efficiency at last prevailed — and the first modern or industrial war somehow found a pattern and succeeded. As a rehearsal for a deadlier one to come.
There was one other way to win the war. It was adopted belatedly and with a scabby intention not to let it succeed too well, when Polk had already lost the country's support and when, be it remembered, Zachary Taylor, a Whig, was clearly getting popular support for the Presidency. There was one man in the United States capable of fighting the war. If he had been allowed to fight it from the beginning, no such elaborate effort would have been required, for he would have destroyed the Mexican armies and occupied a paralyzing part of Mexico before the volunteer enlistments had expired. Winfield Scott was the last of the American equites, a relic from an age of nobler sentiments and grander attitudes. His egoism was colossal, his vanity was monstrous. At a time when all public men were tainted with literary exhibitionism, he wrote the most fatal letters. His intrigues vindicated the common conception of military operations as a department of political opportunity. But he was a great soldier. The campaign he was permitted to make was brilliant and victorious. He won the war.
Polk could not measure up to the needs of public leadership in wartime. He felt that the greatest of the burdens he was called upon to bear was the necessity of fighting a war with Whig generals. Once war came, his mind burned fiercely — with the fire of a small backwoods partisan. He seethed with resentments, could see the breakup of his own party only as the lust of his subordinates to succeed him, and could see in the fundamental opposition to this war that was a turning point in our history only the scramble of other politicians to discredit him by wrecking his foreign policy. And if he saw devils, he also saw ghosts. He would not believe that a Whig could fight a battle except as a step toward winning an election. When Taylor's individualists won some victories for Taylor, p201 Polk promptly began to whittle him down in the name of patriotism. In the name of patriotism, which he sincerely thought meant the maintenance of the Democratic Party, he would not let Scott fight the war. When he had to let him fight it, in the name of patriotism he would not support him and ended by deliberately disgracing him. . . . Some small part of his distrust of Scott, however, was grounded in an American fear that went back a long way. Scott was indeed running for the Presidency from the beginning and so, the moment he got his name in the papers, was Taylor. It was traditionally conceivable that our political generals, which is to say all our generals, might use the war and their commands to effect, in native terms, a military dictatorship by means of newspaper dispatches and the ballot box. Such conception was in fact preposterous: the event would need a more terrible crisis, like the Civil War, and a genuine diabolist, like Ben Butler. But in Polk, who felt the fear, there was, besides the spooks of his own fantasy, the last vestige of the spirit that had made the fathers fear kings and professional armies.
Polk thought with admirable realism about tariffs, the treasury, and the routine of domestic policy. He thought with astonishing shrewdness about the necessary political maneuvers of government. But he thought badly about war. He was willing to make war on either England or Mexico, if he should have to in order to accomplish his purpose. But he believed that if there should be a war it could be won easily, probably without fighting, and certainly without great effort or expense. Deliberately carrying twin torches through a powder magazine from March 4, 1845, to May 13, 1846, he made no preparation for either war. He had no understanding of war, its needs, its patterns, or its results. The truth is that he did not understand any results except immediate ones. He did not know how to make war or how to lead a people who were making war.
He was not, however, behind his nation or his colleagues in public life. A generation had lived and died since the last war, and the generation of the first war had not been dead quite long enough. The generations in between had had the spread-eagle emotions of the expanding nation without any need to refine them under the test of fact. What was thought to be the Spirit of '76 blazed across the entire country when word came of Thornton's capture. Under the headline "To Arms! To Arms!" A True Yankee Heart wrote in the National Intelligencer an epitome of a thousand editorials, all of which came down to "young men. . . fly to the rescue of your country's rights, and save her brave little band from a savage foe!. . . now, my friends, is the time for you to show the world that you are all chips of the old Revolutionary block, that you are made p202 of the true Yankee stuff even to the backbone. . . . Come out,* young men, one and all, and you will stand in bold relief before the world." They came out by the thousand, before there was any organization to receive them, more than any organization could receive. . . . It was '76 all over again in the people's thought. Hardly aware of it, they had been spoiling for a war; here it was and the Americans could lick the world. They were all Washington, Greene, Morgan, barefoot Continentals staining the snow of Valley Forge with their blood, foreheads bandaged, banners tattered, tootling a fife in a heroic painting. Or McDonough, Oliver Perry, Decatur, Tom Boyle's Chasseur boarding the Lawrence, Charles Stewart's Constitution taking Cyane and Levant. And a renewed anger at the massacre of Texans rose up and it was not only the defeat on the Rio Grande that we must avenge but Goliad, the Alamo, and years of forays. Not only Mejía and Ampudia were hated in mass meetings and burned on a hundred village greens, but the author of all infamy, Santa Anna — at the exact moment when Mr. Polk, hoping to substitute bribes for bullets, directed Commodore Conner to let him pass through the blockade to Mexico.
Then word of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma arrived and, on the word of the Baltimore Patriot, speaking the words of a thousand other sheets, "Blood of the men of '76 has not degenerated in our veins." Lieutenant Grant meant these demonstrations that "every officer and every soldier behaved like a hero" when he made his remark about the stories in the newspapers. It was true, then, that the eagle's children were irresistible, springing to arms from behind the stone walls of Concord Village, we were a nation of heroes, and "Look at the wounded! Look at the dead!" Farm boys and city clerks looked at them, from Maine to Florida, from Delaware to Missouri, and were off to the Halls of Montezuma.
The social militia put on their pink harem drawers and blue and scarlet swallowtails, eighteen-inch shakos, and epaulettes of Napoleon's Guard — the Tigers, Grays, Rifles, Terrors, Hotspurs, and the like, metropolitan or Southern mostly. Flags went up in village squares and the volunteers came tumbling in. In Congress it was suddenly clear that the Academy at West Point, so lately a despotism underlying democracy, had vindicated itself on the Rio Grande. Everybody was putting it "above praise and above censure," especially its graduates in engineering. In the House Representative Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, who looked like a statue of A. Lincoln done by Phidias, stood up to sing an aria about his alma mater. It got so bombastic that Mr. Sawyer rose to a point of privilege and reminded p203 his colleagues that both Washington and Jackson had lacked the illumination of West Point training, but the orator swam on through swelling metaphors till he had found Jeff Davis in transfiguration. Then he resigned and was off to command the First Mississippi Rifles and, in exactly five days of action, to become the one military strategist whom Robert E. Lee was never able to defeat.
Even in New England the people were for this war, now it was here, and that made uncomfortable democracy's loyal opposition in Congress. The Whigs, like the country, had drifted into war, making the most perfunctory opposition and caught in a cruel dilemma. Here was a Whig Congressman on the floor of the House, wearing a colonel's uniform and shouting down his colleagues with a command which they knew their constituents would back up, that they vote the means of war. And "Mr. Webster told them how much the war cost," Emerson's journal remarked, "that was his protest, but voted the war [rather, the bill for volunteers and money], and sends his son to it [the son died in it]." That was both the easy and the immediate way out, for the most powerful of sentiments had been roused. . . . In 1861 one of the fourteen who voted against war in '46 was in Congress again, after an enforced vacation in private life. Would he oppose war now, he was asked, in this greater crisis? No. He had voted against war once, he said, and had learned his lesson.
The Whigs had the bitter knowledge that most wars increase the power of the party that fights them. They cried out, taking the ground that the Executive had usurped the war-making prerogative of the Legislature. It was a poor abstraction to offer an exultant people, some of whose sons were now being listed as casualties. So perhaps it will be better to force Webster's lead: recognize the war, support it, and later blame the President. A. Lincoln took that stand, and it retired him from public life, even from politics, for six years. Then let us fight the war defensively, interpreting the defensive, if need be, as the right to chase the Mexicans all the way to their capital to prevent invasion, then later find out that the majority had deceived us. It was a time-serving, myopic policy, which offended even their supporters, who, though they were in no mood for analysis, were hardly to be seduced by legalities. The administration's case, however, was on no higher intellectual level: in May we were making war to repel invasion, but by August we were making war to obtain indemnity for claims and injuries and to overthrow a government whose despotism menaced free institutions.
* * *
p204 By August, however, the aimless crosscurrents of pure emotion had subsided enough to permit certain elementary perceptions, and as this war, like all wars, was seen to be something other than its beginning had made out, realism began to take the place of evasion. It was a surprising realism. It exploded in Polk's face and he felt that it was ominous. It was far more ominous than he knew.
But meanwhile an exultant people had their glory, at little risk. They had drifted into war without understanding even their own assent, with a bland feeling that any war the Americans might want to fight was both an easy one to win and a righteous one in motive. They had doggedly evaded both its immediate and its collateral issues and had refused to look at its implications. But now the awareness that is the forerunner of realism began to disturb certain persons who would eventually find ways of making a nation look at facts it had refused to see and at necessary consequences.
Realism is the most painful, most difficult, and slowest of human faculties. Mr. Seward, who was some years short of discovering that there was a higher law than the statutes and that an irrepressible conflict was eroding the nation's core, condemned the new war but was in favor of "plenty of men and supplies once it was started." William Cullen Bryant found it "not practicable" to oppose the war, "though he detested its objects and tried to terminate it as soon as possible." They and their kind lacked Ulysses Grant's, and Ethan Allen Hitchcock's, soldierly forthrightness — but there were those who didn't. Something was beginning to get rearranged. A number who had loved the middle way, holding, they supposed, to the course of progress, were suddenly arm in arm with fanatics who, they had supposed, were impeding it. Men of goodwill who for a long time had been looking at a composite, a complex, of social irreconcilables were now beginning, a few of them, to understand what they saw. Human wills that had been divided by doctrine or theory found themselves blending. With eager or reluctant hearts they achieved understanding and hardened toward purpose.
Just last summer Charles Sumner had found a career by committing, on July 4, a windy oration on universal peace. There was wind enough now when he chanted "Blood! Blood! is on the hands of representatives from Boston. Not all great Neptune's ocean can wash them clean" and "unquestionably the most wicked act in our history" — but even fastidious hearers got his point. Greeley's language was clearer: "unjust and rapacious," "a curse and a source of infinite calamities." Thus virtue's eternal tabernacles, but less neurotic integrities felt that something momentous p205 and unworthy had come upon us. There was no one to describe the tides of the sun's pull — no one to say that the nation was bent out of shape not only by unsolved conflicts within itself but also by the explosion of forces new to the earth. There was no one, even, to call Mr. Polk's war the military phase of the Oregon trail. They could not, and no one blames them, dissect out causes. So, as they began to see effects they attributed them to personal devils no more credible than those which Polk was trying to exorcise. One of these was the slavery conspiracy: the idea that this war had been produced for the extension of slave territory. Speaking as Hosea Bigelow and speaking for a good many besides himself James Russell Lowell was voicing this notion within a few weeks a Congress voted the war. He probably got it from Theodore Parker — and Parker, better able than most to define the effects he saw, was, like most, withheld from separating out their causes. He did not understand that the slavery crisis which he now saw sharpening to a point, was one of the effects, had been produced by the tidal forces. Still, Parker could give effects a name.
It was a great speech that Mr. Parker made at the Melodeon on June 7, just five months after the Twenty-eighth Congregational Society of Boston, believing that the city was entitled to hear a man whom the churches feared, had installed him there as their minister.
I maintain that aggressive war is a sin; that it is a national infidelity, a denial of Christianity and of God. . . . Treason against the people, against mankind, against God, is a great sin, not lightly to be spoken of. The political authors of the war on this continent, and at this day, are either utterly incapable of a statesman's work, or else guilty of that sin. Fools they are, or traitors they must be. . . . Considering how we acquired Louisiana, Florida, Oregon, I cannot forbear thinking that this people will possess the whole of this continent before many years, rather before the century ends. . . . Is it not better to acquire it by the schoolmaster than the cannon, by peddling cloth, tin, anything rather than bullets? . . . It would be a gain to mankind if we could spread over that country the Idea of America — that all men are born free and equal in rights, and establish there political, social, and individual freedom. But to do that we must first make real those ideas at home. . . .
When we annexed Texas we of course took her for better or worse, debts and all, and annexed her war along with her. I take it everybody knew that, though some now seem to pretend a decent astonishment at the result. Now one party is ready to fight for it as the other. . . . The eyes of the North are full of cotton; they see nothing else, for a web is before them; their ears are full of cotton and they hear nothing but the p206 buzz of their mills; their mouth is full of cotton and they can speak audibly but two words — Tariff, Tariff, Dividends, Dividends. . . . Now the Government and its Congress would throw the blame on the innocent and say war exists "by the act of Mexico!" If a lie was ever told, I think this is one. Then the "dear people" must be called on for money and men, for "the soil of this free republic is invaded," and the Governor of Massachusetts, one of the men who declared the annexation of Texas unconstitutional, recommends the war he just now told us to pray against, and appeals to our "patriotism" and "humanity" as arguments for butchering the Mexicans, when they are in the right and we in the wrong!. . . I am not at all astonished that northern representatives voted for all this work of crime. They are no better than southern representatives, scarcely less in favor of slavery and not half so poen. They say: Let the North make money and you may do what you please with the nation. . . for though we are descended from the Puritans we have but one article in our creed we never flinch from following, and that is — to make money, honestly if we can, if not, as we can!. . . How tamely the people yield their necks — and say "Take our sons for the war — we care not, right or wrong." . . .
Focusing Theodore Parker's intelligence on some effects, the Americans thus clearly observed a relationship among them. Emerson confirmed Parker: "Cotton thread holds the union together: unites John C. Calhoun and Abbott Lawrence. Patriotism for holidays and summer evenings, with music and rockets, but cotton thread is the Union." The seer found that fact leading to a conclusion he had reached by many avenues before: "Boston or Brattle Street Christianity is a compound of force, or the best Diagonal line that can be drawn between Jesus Christ and Abbott Lawrence." The cold judgment seemed infertile useless, and Emerson's mind restlessly probed the relationships he had perceived. He had to feel, for sight would help him no farther. The Marcys, Buchanans, Walkers — the President's Cabinet — they were village attorneys, saucy village talents, not great captains. America seemed to have immense resources, land, men, milk, butter, cheese, timber, and iron, but was still a village littleness. Village squabble and rapacity characterized its policy. . . . Here, quite suddenly, the antennae of that restless mind, whipping the dark, touched something solid. "It is," he said, "a great strength on the basis of weakness." There, for a time, he stood.
His friend Henry would stroll in from the Walden cabin these summer evenings, walking eastward against his needle's natural set and they p207 would talk in Emerson's garden while the light died on Revolutionary Ridge and Mr. Alcott's elms. The earth's longest diameter stretched between this green bottomland with its white houses and the chaparral of Resaca de la Palma, but the ether between was a continuum, the two Yankees were ligatured to Zachary Taylor's dead. . . . The state, the government that was the "unscrupulous and energetic" Polk's instrument — yes, what about the state? Emerson was not sure. The state was "a poor, good beast who means the best: it means friendly. A poor cow who does well by you — do not grudge it its hay. It cannot eat bread, as you can; let it have without grudge a little grass for its four stomachs. You who are a man walking cleanly on two feet, will not pick a quarrel with a poor cow. Take this handful of clover and welcome. But if you go to hook me when I walk in the fields, then, poor cow, I will cut your throat." So the elder friend counseled Henry Thoreau. For we do not impeach Polk and Webster but supersede them by the Muse. To know the virtue of the soil, we do not taste the loam, but we eat the berries and apples.
Precisely. Loneliness in the resinous, still air of Emerson's pinewoods on the Walden shore had sharpened Henry's perception beyond his counselor's. Precisely there the point stood out. It was not the loam these two had been tasting but the proof, the berries and apples that sprang from it — and Henry's teeth were set on edge. He was of the opinion that the poor good cow had gone to hook Henry Thoreau when he was walking in the fields.
In the Presidency of Polk, Henry watched a war between red ants and black ones on the sandy ground upward from Walden water. He picked up a chip on which three ants were fighting to the death, took it in a cabin and put it under a tumbler, watched it through a reading glass, and "the dark carbuncles of the sufferer's eyes shone with ferocity such as war only could excite." At the end he had seen "the ferocity and carnage of a human battle before my door." It must be thought about in the forest silence. . . . Hoeing the beanfield back of his cabin, he could look up from labor and see the small imps of the air laying their eggs, hawks soaring on motionless wings, spotted salamanders coming out of stumps, or wild pigeons going by "with a slight, quivering, winnowing sound." And sometimes borne to his beanfield on the summer air other sounds came up from the far end of town, faintly as if a puff ball had burst or as if somebody's bees had swarmed and the neighbors were betting on the most sonorous of their domestic utensils to call them down into the hive. Hoeing his beans, Henry knew that on July Fourth the village of Concord had fired its big guns to celebrate the birth of Liberty, and that p208 on another day this militia had mustered — for war on Mexico. "I felt proud to know that the liberties of Massachusetts and of our fatherland were in such safe keeping." Sometimes there was music. "It was a really noble and inspiring strain that reached these woods, and the trumpet that sings of fame, and I felt that I could spit a Mexican with a good relish — for why should we always stand for trifles? — and looked round for woodchuck or a skunk to exercise my chivalry upon."
That savage and noble sneer moves on the momentum of the new realism that was beginning to well up here and there in America. What is momentous in it is not only the realism but the intensity. For it was a long while since anyone but fanatics had so passionately desired to renew the definition of human freedom. What, Henry wondered, what is the price current of an honest man and patriot today? The rich man, he saw, is always sold to the institution which made him rich. There was talk of the Spirit of '76: a relevant subject, and just what was that Spirit? Was it the citizen who fell asleep after reading "the prices current along with the latest advices from Mexico"? If not, just what and where? And, pointedly, what was its duty to that poor good beast whom Waldo called a cow? Good? no; poor? yes. Or poor but less a beast than a machine — a machine, he was constrained to think, which organized oppression and robbery. It had not "the vitality and force of a single living man." He pressed the image farther, into a clear, unmistakable perspective — and was beginning to move from effect to cause: "it is a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves: and, if ever they should use it in earnest as a real one against each other, it will surely split.". . . Omen of Biela's comet.
In those noon woods and beside those midnight waters, hour by hour of patient thought slowly pulled Henry Thoreau nearer causes. And nearer decision. This poor good cow, this wooden gun, this government, "It does not [will not] keep the country free. It does not settle the West. . . . The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done something more if the government had not sometimes got in its way." And its abettors were not far off, "not a hundred thousand politicians at the South but a hundred thousand merchants and farmers here, who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity, and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico, cost what it may." Suddenly he was over the edge: to him personally came the realization that "you must squat here or squat somewhere, and raise but a small crop, and eat that soon." It was up to Henry Thoreau: the cow had hooked him while he was walking in the fields. "When a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken p209 to be a refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by [our] foreign army and subjected to military law, I think it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize."2
On July 23 or 24 he went into the village to get a shoe which he had left at the cobbler's to be mended. Meeting a town officer, he received a final demand for his poll tax. Emerson had told him to give the poor cow its handful of clover, but he would cut its throat. He refused the tax — time for an honest man to rebel. So Sam Staples locked him up in Concord jail, and "it was like traveling into a far country, such as I had never expected to behold, to lie there for one night.". . . That was the extent of his rebellion, a refusal to "recognize the authority of the state," and at the extremity he was human clay, went scot-free the next morning when his aunt paid the tax, and was almighty mad at Emerson for not hurrying to bail out the revolutionist even earlier than that. No matter. The ripples of that pebble cast in Walden Pond were widening out, and the America of '46 had at last seen a cause attached to an effect in the nakedest light. "They calculated rightly on Mr. Webster," Emerson wrote. "My friend Mr. Thoreau has gone to jail rather than pay his tax. On him they could not calculate."
One by one, as the days went on, there would be others whom the calculations would no longer fit, coming more slowly than Thoreau, perhaps with greater pain, certainly with less clearness of mind, to stand in their various ways beside him. In August some of them would sound an alarm bell in Congress, the bell that long ago had roused Thomas Jefferson from his rest. In August a tide was making inland sluggishly that would go on flooding for fifteen years.
Yet only a few saw that they were moving down the diagonal between Mr. Emerson's perception that the people had given their will a deed and Henry Thoreau's perception that you must squat here or squat somewhere. Even these moved down it in bewilderment, with a sickness of heart also very difficult to understand. A sickness of heart which got a good many diagnoses besides the right one which, so far as it affected the great middle order that is America, was altogether new to our national life.
It was a faintness, a shrinking back while the feet moved forward in darkness, a premonition more of the lower nerves than of the brain. Something had shifted out of plumb, moved on its base, begun to topple down. Something was ending in America, forever. A period, an era, a social contract, a way of life was running out. The light artillery at Palo Alto had suddenly killed much more than the ardent, aimless Mexican cavalry, and it was intuition of this death that troubled the nation's heart.
p210 No one can be sure he knows the mind of John C. Calhoun. It was a maze of philosophical subtleties too fine for anyone but Calhoun to understand; tides of destruction he did not understand and could not govern compelled it; it was beyond normality in most qualities, especially in hate, vanity, and trance. No man had willed the event longer than Calhoun, but when it happened he repudiated his agency, shrinking from the deed he had helped produce. The same sense of approaching doom that oppressed lesser minds took hold of his, and he said in the Senate: "I said to many of my friends that a deed had been done from which the country would not be able to recover for a long time, if ever; and added, it has dropped a curtain between the present and the future, which to me is impenetrable. . . it has closed the first volume of our political history under the Constitution and opened the second and. . . . . . no mortal could tell what would be written in it."
Thus the metaphysician of political desire. Mr. Emerson had no earthier image: "The United States will conquer Mexico but it will be as the man swallows the arsenic which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us."
(p493) 1 During the Civil War he was summoned from retirement and attached to the War Department as a Major General of Volunteers. He was offered Grant's army just before the campaign for Forts Henry and Donelson and the Army of the Potomac while McClellan was still hesitating to begin the Peninsula campaign. He refused the first on principle and the second on the ground of age and ill health. But he offered valuable services as Commissioner for the Exchange of Prisoners and in other capacities, not the least of them that of unofficial liaison agent between the War Department and the White House. I suspect that he was the reason (p494) was Lincoln's military ideas were frequently better than those of his commanders.
* In this decadent age, it may be proper to remind the reader that this is a revival phrase.
2 Mingled with quotations from what Thoreau wrote in the spring and summer of 1846, in the preceding two paragraphs, are quotations from "Resistance to Civil Government," which he did not write until 1848. It should be obvious, however, that the thought is continuous.
a The text as printed has "thirty-three hundred". The straight-line distance from Klamath Lake to Washington, D. C. is about 2335 miles.
b A classic management technique, of which, to my amusement, I was myself once the "beneficiary", being appointed Julius Caesar in a small Italian town (diary, 5 Sep 1998).
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