King’s Survey: Mexican Mess

 

In which see see how politics can be a matter of avoiding stands, and the price that policy exacts.  

TexasQuestionMapDammit, Emily, I need to know where you stand on the Mexican War!

—And good morning to you, Mr. Abraham King.

—I think that’s a highly inappropriate question, Mr. K. Asking the political views of a student like that. Especially with poor, timid Emily.

Oh you do, do you, Sadie? Well for your information, this “student” is running for president of the United States in this Year of Our Lord 1844, and there are millions of American voters who wish she would clarify her position on this decisive issue of our time!

—Honestly, I don’t think I can be any more clear on that issue.

Ha. Sounds like standard Whig sophistry.

—What the hell does that mean?

You know exactly what I’m talking about, Jonah.

—No, really. I have no idea what “standard Whig sophistry” means.

You actually want me to spell it out for you?

—Well, not particularly. But given that class has just started and I don’t really have anything better to do, since you won’t let me whip out my phone, you might as well explain.

With an offer like that, Jonah, I can hardly refuse. As you all know, the current controversy goes back about a dozen years to what we called “the Texas Question.” The word “Texas” once referred to a region of Mexico. Mexico, of course, was a Spanish colony. It won its independence in 1821. At that time, Texas, like northern Mexico generally, was sparsely populated. The government hoped to promote economic development by inviting los Yanquis into the region. There were three conditions: the Americans would have to become Mexican citizens, convert to Roman Catholicism and give up their slaves. The Yankees flooded in, but they didn’t honor any of these terms. And when the Mexican government prodded them about it, they went to war to declare their independence.

—Isn’t that when the Alamo happened?

Yes, Adam, It is. A group of Yankee holdouts at that fort in San Antonio lost their lives to a surrounding Mexican army. But the quest for Texas independence was successful in 1836. In a way, though, that was a consolation prize. The leaders of the new Texas government did not really want to be an independent republic: they wanted to join the United States. The problem was that large segments of the American public, particularly in the Northern states, did not particularly want Texas, which would be a slave state, to join the Union. So while President Jackson supported the effort, it could never get through Congress, and Texas lived in limbo as its own country for the next nine years.

—Sound like kind of a sweet deal to me. Why not be your own country?

Well, Ethan, many of these Texas leaders, like Sam Houston, were Americans, even if most of the people who lived there were not. There were also trade considerations. And the matter of military protection. Texas and Mexico squabbled over their border; the Mexicans said it was at the Rio Nueces, while the Texans said it was the Rio Grande, and as you can the territory between those two rivers is a pretty big piece of real estate. The people who advocated Texas annexation pointed out that if the United States didn’t go ahead and do it, Great Britain might get involved (remember, this is a moment when the U.S. and Britain were squabbling over the borders of the Oregon territory).

—Sounds complicated.

Well, Yin, it was, at to some people. But there were others who saw the matter in amore straightforward light. Like James K. Polk. Polk’s nickname was “Young Hickory.” Anyone know why?

—Because he was wooden?

Nice try. Let’s try it this way: to say that Polk was young Hickory implies that there was an old Hickory. Anyone know who “Old Hickory” was?

—Oh, Mr. K. That like so totally gives it away. Old Hickory! Duh!

Love your sincerity, Em. Well, one more angle. I think I touched on this when we talked about him a while back. Hickory is a very hard wood. It’s tough.

—Andrew Jackson!

Ding ding ding! Ten points for Jonah. Polk was a favorite of old man Jackson, who in fact is near death in 1844. But he’s strongly in favor of Texas annexation, and when the Democratic Party deadlocks over the candidacy of former president Martin Van Buren, who’s trying to make a comeback as an antislavery Democrat, the party turns to Polk, a so-called “dark horse” who comes out of nowhere to take the nomination. The key to Polk’s appeal is his straightforward simplicity. Elect me he says, and I’ll only serve one term. But in that term I’ll work out the Oregon thing, work out the Texas thing, and realize the “Manifest Destiny” of the United States to stretch territorially from sea to shining sea.

—Yeah but what about slavery?

A good question, Adam. Polk is a Tennessee slaveholder. He’s happy for Texas to come into the Union as a slave state, as are all of the slaveholding states. He’s also got the support of the old Jacksonian coalition up North, though its solidity is weakening a bit. Which is exactly why we need to know where Emily, a.k.a. Henry Clay stands in all of this.

—That’s funny. Emily doesn’t look like Henry Clay.

—Sure she does. Sexy Beast. Love that Clay hair.

—What hair?

—It’s wispy. Totally cool.

So what’s it going to be, Em?

—Like I said, I couldn’t be more clear.

Oh, you’re too modest. We need to know: are you going to oppose annexation, and anger southern Whigs (and, very possibly, the majority of the electorate), or go along with it, and anger northern Whigs (who are probably more numerous and loyal) and abolitionists (who are annoying weirdos, but increasingly influential)?

—Geez, Mr. K., you sure know how to pressure a girl, or a guy, or whatever I am. Can’t I come down somewhere in the middle?

You can, and you do.

—Phew. Disaster avoided. Thank you.

Not exactly. You fudge the issue: you say you can go along with annexation of Texas as a slave state, as long as the Northern electorate goes along with it, which is a little like saying you favor abortion as long as no one gets killed. Polk may be reckless, but at least you know where he stands. It’s sort of the worst of all worlds for Clay because he pleases nobody. That includes the abolitionists, who find the Whigs too timid. They have their own party, the Liberty Party. They get 2% of the vote. That 2% is enough to deny you the presidency, Henry Clay.

But let me shift my gaze from Senator Clay for a moment. You happy now, abolitionists? You with your goddamned moral purity have landed a slaveholder who’s determined to expand slaveholding into across the continent in to the White House. Congratulations! This is what your radical activism has achieved. With friends like these, who needs enemies! Am I right, Mr. Clay?

—A little harsh. Mr.-K.-in-the-1840s. But kinda fair.

—No it isn’t, Em. Slavery is wrong. They said so. You’re telling me that the abolitionists, and not the slaveholders, are the real problem here? That’s what’s unfair.

—It’s not a question of what’s right or wrong in terms of the election, Sadie. It’s a question of what’s likely to work. The abolitionists may have been right, but they were dumb.

Kylie, what do you think?

—Well, I know slavery did end. So the abolitionists were on the right track.

Adam, you’re shaking your head.

—You can’t know the abolitionists were right in 1844. Who knows? Maybe if Clay won slavery could have ended without the Civil War.

How likely to do you think that would be, Adam?

—How should I know? But who’s to say I’m wrong?

Fair enough. In any case, Senator Clay, this election is strike three for you. You tried for the presidency in 1824, 1832, and now in 1844—and you’re out for good. But I still love you.

—Oh, well, that makes all the difference, Mr. K. And at least I don’t need to make any more difficult decisions.

Oh yes you do. There’s a war coming. And I want to know where you—and you, and you and you and you stand.

—Can’t we just sit back and have you tell us what to think?

Nope. History doesn’t work that way.

—Yes it does. Every time you read a book.

—Wait: Jonah, you’ve read a book?

—Well, not me, necessarily. I mean in theory. When you read a book you let someone else do the talking.

Maybe, but you shouldn’t let someone else do the thinking. You should be actively considering what the author is saying, and how, and how you feel about it.

—Yeah, but you don’t have to.

—Which is why we have history classes.

—Well, it’s why we have history classes like this. With Mr. K. stalking us demanding to know what we think.

—He doesn’t ask everybody what they think.

—Well, not every day. But there’s always that danger. Right Chris? Chris? Are you there, Chris?

—Uh … Yeah, right.

Thanks, Chris, for that reality check.

Next: Spotty politics

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