James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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TWE Remembers: Abraham Lincoln and the “Spot Resolutions”

by James M. Lindsay
December 22, 2011

Lincoln's handwritten copy of the "Spot Resolutions" (courtesy National Archives).

Lincoln's handwritten copy of the "Spot Resolutions" (courtesy National Archives).

Last week the United States formally ended the war in Iraq. The war began with great patriotic fervor. It ended with two in three Americans saying that it had not been “worth the loss of American lives.” Sad to say, Iraq was not the first war to stoke public regrets and claims that a president had maneuvered the country into an unnecessary conflict. On this day 164 years ago, Abraham Lincoln introduced the so-called Spot Resolutions questioning President James Polk’s version of the events that precipitated the Mexican-American War.

As with Iraq, Americans initially showed great enthusiasm for the war with Mexico. Polk had told the nation in May 1846 that Mexican troops had killed eleven American soldiers in an unprovoked attack just north of the Rio Grande River. Polk’s fellow Democrats in Congress voted for war, using their majority to keep their opponents, the Whigs, from questioning his version of events. Patriotic pride swelled across the country as military volunteers rallied to the battle cry of “Ho, for the Halls of the Montezumas.” (That sentiment would eventually make its way into the opening line of the “Marines’ Hymn.”)

The problem for Polk and the Democrats was that the quick and decisive victory they expected did not happen. As the war dragged on, well-justified doubts about its origins grew. Polk had been spoiling to give the Mexicans what one of his advisers called “a good drubbing” because Mexico had refused to recognize the Rio Grande as the border between the two countries—the United States had annexed Texas a year earlier—and to relinquish control of California and New Mexico. He had ordered U.S. troops to take up positions just north of the Rio Grande, south of the territory that Texas had historically claimed. It was a decision he knew the Mexicans would find provocative.

Growing public dissatisfaction with the war helped the Whigs retake control of the House after the 1846 elections. One of the Whigs swept into office was Lincoln, who served his first and only term in Congress. He hadn’t campaigned against the war with Mexico; his one speech on the subject on the campaign trail was “a warm, thrilling, and effective” call for volunteering shortly after the fighting began. But by December 1847, he was prepared to challenge Polk.

The bill that Lincoln wrote was blunt about the purpose of the eight motions that made up the Spot Resolutions: “the House was desirous to obtain a full knowledge of all the facts which go to establish whether the particular spot on which the blood of citizens was so shed was or was not at that time our own soil.”  Lincoln argued that Polk had provoked the war by ordering U.S. troops to the Rio Grande when his own commanding general “had, more than once, intimated to the War Department that…no such movement was necessary to the defense or protection of Texas.”

The House never acted on the Spot Resolutions. Less than two weeks later, the House did vote to censure Polk for having begun “a war unnecessarily and unconstitutionally.” (Lincoln voted for the censure resolution.) That vote had no legal impact. The Senate ignored what the House did. On February 2, 1848, U.S. diplomats signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, formally ending the war with Mexico.

The Spot Resolutions today are nothing more than a historical curiousity. But they provide a reminder that throughout American history, political disagreements often have not stopped at the water’s edge.

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