King’s Survey: Damned Spot

In which we see it’s one thing to know a war is wrong, and another to know what to do about it.

 Mexican_map_en_1838OK, kids, what are we going to do about this war?

—Whatever you tell us, Mr. K.

No, Jonah. That’s too much responsibility. I don’t want to carry all of it. We need to come up with a plan.

—Well, what are our options?

That’s the problem. We’re kind of in a box. I mean, we all know this war was bogus from beginning to end.

—We do?

—Of course we do, Jonah!

—How’s that?

—I don’t know. What I do know is that Mr. K. is about to set it up.

That’s right, Ethan. Let’s review the facts here. We’ve had tensions in the neutral zone between the (more northern) Nueces River and (more southern) Rio Grande in Texas. President Polk claims shots were fired—note the passive construction there, scourge of English teachers and refuge for scoundrels everywhere—and asked for a declaration of war. Naturally, the Manifest Destiny crowd and their Slave Power allies rushed to judgment and war was declared about a year and a half ago. In the time since, the U.S. army has won a string of victories over the Mexicans and now occupy Mexico City. So what do we do?

—Well, you said the war was bogus, right?

Right.

—So let’s protest it.

Not an option.

—Why not?

—Because, dummy, you can’t protest a war that’s already over. And one that you’ve just won. Decisively.

—You can if that war was wrong, Adam.

—No you can’t. Like Mr. K. said, it’s not an option.

Well, it is an option for people like that idiot Henry David Thoreau. He proudly announced he wasn’t going to pay his taxes because he didn’t want to fund the Mexican War. When the world did not react with shock and indignation, he convinced his friend, the constable of Concord, Massachusetts, to throw him in jail. But that got botched too, because, much to Thoreau’s irritation, an unknown benefactor paid his bail. Thoreau. What a jerk. Loved trees, hated people.

—Why don’t you tell us what you really think, Mr. K?

—God, Em, did you read Walden in your English class? We did. It’s terrible. Worse than watching grass grow. Which, basically, is what he did.

Sorry kids. I got distracted. Really it’s an avoidance device. Adam is right: we’ve got a real problem. Unlike Thoreau, we’re politicians. So we’re supposed to have answers.

—I still don’t understand why you can’t speak out against a war that was wrong, even if you’ve won it. How do things ever get better if people don’t speak up?

That’s a really good question, Yin. I just wish I had a clue about how to answer it. Particularly now, given that President Polk has just asked Congress for millions of dollars to help bring the negotiations with the Mexican government to a close.

—Well, isn’t that a place to start? To vote against giving him the money?

—You just don’t get it, do you, Jonah? How are you going to withhold money from someone who’s just succeeded?

—Yeah, well, Adam, I don’t see you coming up with any great ideas. You’re just saying no no no. How is that helping?

I think you’re asking the right question, Jonah: How do you challenge someone who’s just succeeded? Sadie, you’ve got your hand up.

—You show the person who succeeded cheated. He broke the rules.

—But is that what happened here?

Hmmm. Promising. Actually, we don’t know what happened. But we can ask. Maybe Paolo is really onto something after all.

—Paolo?

Yes, Paolo. Anybody here gave the speech he gave on the floor of the House last week?

Nobody? Not surprising. He’s a freshman member. Nobody really pays attention. Paolo, you want to tell us what you said?

—Ummm, I don’t remember. Maybe you can remind us, Mr. K.

Sure thing, Paolo. Paolo introduced a resolution demanding to know just where the so-called spot was that shots were fired (his motion became known as the Spot Resolution). He asked President Polk to specify exactly what happened as a condition of giving him the money. Paolo figures that if Polk is forced to actually start talking, he’ll either start lying or revealing a truth he’d rather hide. Meanwhile, the Whigs, who have been scattered, can finally recover from their disarray. What do you think? Is it a good idea?

—Sounds good to me.

All right, then, fellow Whigs. Do we have a plan? Raise your hands.

Great. We’re unified.

—OK, now tell us, Mr. K. Is that what happened? Did it work?

No, not really. What happened is that the Whig Party lurched toward collapse. Southern Whigs could not really afford to come out against the war, but were outnumbered by Northern Whigs. They managed to paper over their differences for a while, principally by rallying around the presidential candidacy of General Zachary Taylor, a hero who was critical of the Polk administration. Taylor himself typified the divided soul of the Whig Party: he was a Tennessee slaveholder who also wanted to limit slavery. But he never really got the chance to work his way out of that box because he died shortly after taking office. Once he did, the Whigs fell apart entirely.

—So did that mean the Democrats ran the country?

In a way, yes. But if the Democrats didn’t actually die the way the Whigs did (gradually, I should point out, over a period of a few years), the they nevertheless came out of the war seriously divided. That’s because of a guy named David Wilmot, a member of the House from Pennsylvania. Wilmot was no abolitionist, but he hated Southern slaveholders, who he regarded as political bullies. So he made a modest proposal—it was called a “proviso,” the Wilmot Proviso—as the war broke out in 1846

—What did it say?

It said Congress should agree that whatever may come of the Mexican War (which, again, was just getting underway), the government should agree that slavery would not be allowed to go there.

—But wasn’t that the whole point of the war?

Pretty much. Not for everybody. But certainly for most of its serious supporters.

—So then why did he ask for it?

—Because he was as smartass.

Pretty much. The Wilmot Proviso had zero chance of becoming law. It was passed by the House dozens of times, largely because non-slaveholding Northern states were in favor of it, and the population of the Northern states was growing and reflected there. But it was rejected repeatedly by the Senate, where population changes didn’t matter, and where powerful slaveholding Senators like John Calhoun (coming the end of his long career) had dominated for decades. What the Wilmot Proviso showed is that the Democrats were now divided along sectional lines, something that everybody had dreaded. Democrats divided, Whigs dead. Thoreau’s friend Ralph Waldo Emerson had it right when he predicted, “Mexico will poison us.” The country was headed for serious trouble.

—Yeah, but what I want to know is what happened to Paolo?

Who?

—Paolo.

Paolo? Oh, you mean that freshman congressman? I told you nobody listens to guys like that. But that wasn’t entirely accurate. The voters back home did. They hated his “spotty” speech. He was voted out in the next election. (He wasn’t actually planning on running again, but he blew what had been a safe Whig seat.) Schmuck. He went back home to Illinois. Made a few waves again about a decade later. You may have heard of him.

—What was his real name?

Abraham Lincoln.

Next: A runaway problem

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