Congress and the Mexican War, 1844-1849
by R.D. Monroe
As Lincoln's fourth and final term in the state legislature came to a close in 1841, he sought out greater political prominence and challenges. Illinois was a solidly Democratic state though; there was little prospect for an aspiring Whig politician to win statewide office. Whigs had a majority only in Illinois' Seventh Congressional District, which included Lincoln's Sangamon County. To keep peace within the party, Seventh District Whigs agreed that the seat should be rotated among aspirants. Lincoln's rivals and friends John J. Hardin and Edward D. Baker both served a term before Lincoln's turn came in 1846.
Nominated by the Whigs on May 1, 1846, Lincoln's opponent was Democrat Peter Cartwright, an itinerant Methodist preacher who was popular in the district. Lincoln and Cartwright had clashed before. Cartwright had bested Lincoln for the state legislature in 1832, and Lincoln had skewered Cartwright in an anonymous newspaper article in 1834. A frontier preacher and staunch Jacksonian Democrat, Cartwright annoyed Whigs by boasting that he could turn Methodists out to the polls to vote Democratic. He now spread the rumor that Lincoln was an "infidel," or someone who did not believe in the existence of God. Lincoln complained that Cartwright "never heard me utter a word in any way indicating my opinions on religious matters, in his life," yet presumed to speak authoritatively on his religious faith. Lincoln felt obliged to respond with a July 31, 1846 handbill denying the charges. Cartwright's gambit did him no good as Lincoln easily bested him in the election, held August 3, 1846.
Lincoln's handbill gives some insight into his religious opinions. As a young man, Lincoln imbibed the rationalism of Enlightenment philosophers. He may have written an antireligious tract that friends burned to avoid later embarrassment. Lincoln never belonged to a church though he read the Bible, and biblical imagery decorates his speeches and prose. In an 1838 speech, Lincoln contended that "Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason," was "our future support and defense." In his 1846 handbill, Lincoln admitted that he was not a church member, but claimed he had "never denied the truth of the Scriptures," nor had been disrespectful of any religion. He confessed that when younger he had privately argued in favor of a Doctrine of Necessity but had not advocated that doctrine for five years. Lincoln defined the Doctrine of Necessity as "the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control," and he contended that this fatalism with predestinarian overtones was part of certain Christian faiths, an assertion that sought to demystify it. He concluded with a flat claim that he could never support an atheist for political office. Lincoln later grew more religious or at least sympathetic to religion under the impact of the deaths of his sons Edward and William, and the suffering of the Civil War.
These issues came to the fore during a period of intense religious upheaval in the United States. Beginning in the 1830s, traveling evangelists like Charles Grandison Finney and Peter Cartwright had encouraged American Protestants into a national revival movement that became known as the Second Great Awakening. This movement gave rise to a number of important reform efforts, including sabbatarianism, temperance, education reform, and abolitionism. Reform groups often organized in voluntary associations and sponsored lectures, published handbills, and agitated for political action. Many of these groups provided women with indirect political influence, especially over matters of hearth and home. In the 1840s northeastern Whigs often became these groups' political spokesmen. Together with an emphasis upon economic development, moral reform became a staple of the Whig political program.
The Second Great Awakening's Protestant surge toward activism and moral reform often brought along darker aspects as well. The belief that American society could be purified more than once led to movements to banish supposedly unwholesome elements. With the advent of widespread immigration in the 1830s, many native-born Protestants sought to exclude Catholic immigrants from citizenship.
The Mormons elicited a similar response. In 1840 the sect, followers of the upstate New York prophet Joseph Smith, arrived in western Illinois and began to build the city of Nauvoo on the principles of their faith. Nauvoo quickly became the largest city in the state of Illinois, and the Mormons' iconoclastic faith and considerable political and economic influence quickly won them rivals and enemies in the surrounding counties. Wherever they had settled, Mormons had organized themselves and voted as a bloc. Often this behavior unseated local political leadership and earned long-lasting enmity. Mormons' practice of polygamy also outraged Protestant morality. In 1844 these simmering disputes boiled over into violence as anti-Mormon forces murdered Joseph Smith his brother Hyrum. The so-called Mormon War covered western Illinois with religious bloodshed, and set the importance of religion in sharp relief.
Like the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic movements that flourished in this period, the Mormon conflict of 1844 advertised many Protestant crusaders' intolerance and belligerence.
The Mexican War dominated Lincoln's brief congressional career. In 1846 President James K. Polk, a Tennessee Democrat, ordered General Zachary Taylor's army to advance to the Rio Grande River. Mexico had never recognized the United States' 1845 annexation of Texas, and skirmishes followed the arrival of Taylor's force. Lincoln opposed the resulting war, which he thought a contest Polk provoked as a vote-getting device, and he hoped his arguments against the war would make his reputation in the United States House of Representatives.
Lincoln contended that the disputed territory between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande only belonged to Texas where her jurisdiction had been clearly established, and he did not think it extended to the Rio Grande. "It is a fact, that the United States Army, in marching to the Rio Grande, marched into a peaceful Mexican settlement, and frightened the inhabitants away from their homes and their growing crops," Lincoln said. In his "Spot" resolutions of 1847, he called on Polk for proof of the president's insistence that the war began when Mexicans shed American blood on American soil "That soil was not ours; and Congress did not annex or attempt to annex it." Lincoln voted for a resolution that declared the war unnecessary and accused Polk of violating the Constitution in commencing it. He nonetheless voted to supply the American army and he did not support legislation that would have prohibited acquiring territory from Mexico as part of a peace settlement.
Lincoln's law partner William Herndon condemned his opposition to the war, and other Illinois Whigs expressed similar reservations. Democrats derided his course, referring to him as "Spotty" Lincoln, and there is no doubt that Illinois supported the war. Still, questions have been raised over how much Lincoln's antiwar stand cost him politically. Mark Neely argued that Illinois Whigs agreed with Lincoln, and his refusal to run for another term merely reflected the Whigs' rotation policy. Lincoln backed Zachary Taylor's successful campaign for president and hoped to be rewarded with an appointment as commissioner of the General Land Office, only to lose it to another candidate.
The issue of slavery arose while Lincoln was in Congress, as the new territories acquired from Mexico reopened sectional wounds. Lincoln's congressional voting record opposed slavery, though he exhibited more moderation than abolitionists like Joshua Giddings. Lincoln voted against the "gag rule" that peremptorily tabled citizens' antislavery petitions to Congress, he presented citizens' appeals for the end of slavery in Washington, D.C., and he supported David Wilmot's proviso that outlawed slavery in territory acquired from Mexico.
Lincoln crafted a proposal to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia through a local referendum and compensated emancipation. In essence, Lincoln was inclined to leave slavery alone in the South, out of a desire to placate southern opinion and trusting to its eventual extinction, but he firmly opposed its extension into new territory. He stated: "I hold it to be a paramount duty of us in the free states, due to the Union of the states, and perhaps to liberty itself (paradox though it may seem) to let the slavery of the other states alone; while, on the other hand, I hold it to be equally clear, that we should never knowingly lend ourselves directly or indirectly, to prevent that slavery from dying a natural death."