Modern history


Westward the Star of Empire

The fourth of March 1845: Rain fell on the inaugural parade along Pennsylvania Avenue, and when the new president arrived at the Capitol to deliver his address and take the oath of office from Chief Justice Taney, he looked out upon a sea of umbrellas. Despite the unfavorable elements, James Knox Polk made himself heard, as he would for the next four years. The speech was characteristic of the man. It rehearsed Democratic Party orthodoxies, perhaps traceable to Polk’s family background in the rustic simplicity and Old School Calvinism of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. Abolitionism and a national bank he roundly condemned in the speech.

When Jimmy Polk had been eleven, his parents moved for better economic opportunities to Middle Tennessee, where his father became a successful land speculator. The son hence grew up in a prominent and prosperous family. He too identified the acquisition of land with wealth and power, on a national as well as individual scale. Ambitious and hardworking, he graduated first in his class at the University of North Carolina and became a lawyer. Soon he went into politics, as a devoted follower of Andrew Jackson. Speaking for the producers of agricultural staples, he argued for free trade. During the Bank War, he made himself the Jackson administration’s most effective congressional ally. At forty-nine the youngest president so far, Polk nevertheless had accumulated considerable leadership experience as governor of Tennessee and Speaker of the national House of Representatives. He had also recently demonstrated consummate political skills: by gaining the confidence of both the Jackson and Calhoun wings of the Democratic Party, by securing that party’s nomination at the last moment, and by winning a hard-fought, close election.

Yet people found James Polk a narrow man with a dull personality, for he focused on the interests of his country and his personal advancement, caring nothing for the delights of literature, nature, or society. Even as president he made few public appearances. John Quincy Adams, a former professor of rhetoric, gave Polk low marks as a speaker; he found “no wit,” “no gracefulness of delivery,” “no elegance of language,” “no felicitous impromptus.”1 In choosing a wife, Polk had asked Jackson’s opinion;

1. Quoted in Sam Haynes, James K. Polk (New York, 1997), 18.

Old Hickory recommended the wealthy and intelligent Sarah Childress, and his follower acted on the nomination. Very much a political person too, Sarah told James she would marry him if he won a seat in the state legislature. She then became her husband’s only confidante, sharing in his career goals and giving him valuable advice. The childless couple focused on James’s political advancement. A staunch Presbyterian, Sarah banned dancing and card-playing in the White House but not wine, and supervised the installation of up-to-date gaslights. Meanwhile, the Polks carefully developed the cotton plantation they owned in northern Mississippi, to which they planned to retire. As president, James bought nineteen slaves for this plantation, keeping the purchases a secret because they contradicted his public image as the master of only a few inherited family retainers. The people he bought were teenagers whom his acquisition separated from their parents.2

In his inaugural address, the incoming president remained just as ambiguous on the tariff as he had during his campaign—occasional ambiguity being a political art James Polk understood particularly well. Then the new incumbent turned to what interested him most, his vision of continental expansion. Echoing the arguments of Robert Walker, he gave a ringing endorsement to the annexation of Texas, regardless of its impact on the slavery question. Wherever Americans chose to settle, Polk declared, the federal government should extend its protection over them, a principle he applied to both Texas and Oregon. He repeated the assertion of the Democratic platform: “Our title to the country of Oregon is clear and unquestionable.” This bald affirmation went down well with those under the umbrellas, but when the text arrived across the Atlantic, it made a bad impression. “We consider we [too] have rights in this Oregon territory which are clear and unquestionable,” Prime Minister Peel responded in the House of Commons. No one at the time remarked that the incoming president had left out the words “the whole of ” in restating his party’s Oregon platform, but their omission may have been a straw in the wind.3

To James Knox Polk, the imperial destiny of the United States manifested itself plainly enough. But it would be the press, not a presidential oration, that fixed the term “manifest destiny” for the American public. In the summer of 1845, one of America’s most popular magazines, New

2. William Dusinberre, Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk (New York, 2003).

3. Presidential Messages, IV, 381; Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, 3rd ser., 79 (April 1845): 199; David Pletcher, Diplomacy of Annexation (Columbia, Mo., 1973), 236–41.

York’s Jacksonian Democratic Review, addressed the Texas issue. Annexation still awaited ratification by a popular vote of the Texans; in the United States, public opinion remained bitterly divided. Nevertheless, the Review argued, “It is time now for opposition to the annexation of Texas to cease.” The integration of Texas into the Union represented “the fulfilment [sic] of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”4The article, like many in nineteenth-century journalism, appeared unsigned, but historians have long believed it must have been written by the zealous partisan editor of the Democratic Review, John L. O’Sullivan. Recently, however, it has been argued that the ardent expansionist Jane Storm, a professional political journalist who wrote frequently for that and other periodicals, anonymously or under the gender-neutral pseudonym C. Montgomery, wrote the essay.5 Whoever invented it, the phrase “manifest destiny” passed into the American language, an illustration of the power of the press to capture the popular imagination with a slogan in an age of communications revolution.

“Manifest destiny” served as both a label and a justification for policies that might otherwise have simply been called American expansionism or imperialism. The assumption of white supremacy permeated these policies. It never occurred to U.S. policymakers to take seriously the claims of nonwhite or racially mixed societies to territorial integrity. Antebellum Americans did not shrink from calling their continental domain an “empire.” Thomas Jefferson looked forward to creating an “empire for liberty” that would include Cuba and Canada. In this empire he expected white family farming to have room to expand for generations to come, and the economic basis for Jefferson’s ideal republic would be preserved against historical degeneration. Old Hickory himself drew a connection between America’s democracy and imperial expansion—“extending the area for freedom,” as he put it.6 The “Young Hickory” asserted that expansion actually guaranteed American national existence. “As our boundaries have been enlarged and our agricultural population has been spread over a large surface,” the Union of the states has been strengthened. “If our present population were confined to the comparatively narrow limits of the

4. “Annexation,” Democratic Review 17 (July 1845): 5.

5. Linda Hudson, Mistress of Manifest Destiny (Austin, Tex., 2001), 60–62. This attribution is questioned by Robert Sampson, John L. O’Sullivan and His Times (Kent, Ohio, 2003), 244–45.

6. Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, April 27, 1809, Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Andrew Lipscomb (Washington, 1905), XII, 274–77; Andrew Jackson to Aaron V. Brown, Feb. 9, 1843, in Correspondence of AJ, VI, 201.

original thirteen states,” the incoming president warned, American institutions might be “in greater danger of overthrow.” Recognizing the key role of the press in building support for territorial expansion, Polk replaced Francis Blair’s Washington Globe, which had served Jackson and Van Buren, with a new administration newspaper, the Washington Union, edited by Thomas Ritchie, a more enthusiastic imperialist.7

National aspirations to empire could fit comfortably alongside certain conceptions of American millennialism. As the South Carolina poet William Gilmore Simms wrote in 1846:

We do but follow out our destiny,

As did the ancient Israelite—and strive,

Unconscious that we work at His knee

By whom alone we triumph as we live.8

If America had a divine mission to perform, to be a beacon of freedom and prepare the way for a messianic age, then perhaps increasing its extent and power would bring blessings to the whole world. “A higher than any earthly power,” declared Robert Walker, propagandist for Texas whom Polk would appoint secretary of the Treasury, “still guards and directs our destiny, impels us onward, and has selected our great and happy country as a model and ultimate centre of attraction for the all nations of the world.”9 When George Bancroft, the greatest American historian of his day and an enthusiastic Jacksonian Democrat, published the first volume of his History of the United States of America in 1834, it appeared with this motto on the cover: “Westward the star of empire takes its way.” Bancroft’s history portrayed his country fulfilling a providential destiny as an example of human liberty. His epigraph makes an appropriate title for this chapter.10

Antebellum Americans typically linked the history of political liberty with Protestantism. Accordingly, it was possible to argue that the expansion of the United States would secure the continent for liberty and Protestantism, and save it from Catholic Mexico, whose “cruel, ambitious, and licentious priesthood,” according to Robert Walker, stood ever

7. Presidential Messages, IV, 380; Joel Silbey, Storm over Texas (Oxford, 2005), 102.

8. William Gilmore Simms, “Progress in America,” quoted in Anders Stephanson, Manifest Destiny (New York, 1995), 48.

9. Robert J. Walker, “Report as Secretary of the Treasury for Fiscal Year 1846–47,” Niles’ Register 73 (Dec. 18, 1847): 255.

10. Bancroft misquoted a poem by the Irish philosopher and bishop George Berkeley, “Westward the course of empire takes its way.” I have taken this chapter title from Bancroft rather than Berkeley.

“ready to establish the inquisition.” Despite the support Catholic voters gave the Democratic Party, anti-Catholicism was featured alongside claims of Anglo-Saxon racial superiority in the rhetoric of Jacksonian expansionists like Walker.11

Support for the pursuit of a “manifest destiny” came from a number of groups in American society. Western land speculators, railroad promoters, and small farmers eager for a chance to start over had obvious interests in westward expansion. Many northern workingmen saw westward expansion as guaranteeing economic opportunity and high wages; the penny press in the big cities encouraged such attitudes and celebrated American imperialism. The New York Morning News, edited, like the Democratic Review, by John L. O’Sullivan, cast westward expansion as an example of the participatory democracy of free settlers:

To say that the settlement of a fertile and unappropriated soil by right of individual purchase is the aggression of a government is absurd. Equally ridiculous is it to suppose that when a band of hardy settlers have reclaimed the wilderness, multiplied in numbers, built up a community and organized a government, that they have not the right to claim the confederation of that society of States from the bosom of which they emanated.12

But the Morning News did not tell the whole story. It postulated a vacant continent, ignoring the prior claims of Native Americans and Mexicans. What is more, often those advocating national expansion also advocated the extension of slavery. Debate over the wisdom and morality of national expansion provoked renewed debate over the future of slavery. Expansion in one direction or another could be supported or opposed as strengthening one section at the expense of the other. Most powerfully, party politics influenced the discussion. Jackson’s followers wanted to continue Jefferson’s policy of extending a predominantly agrarian America across the continent. Expansionism served the Democratic Party’s political interests. The pursuit of the nation’s “manifest destiny” could mute conflict between native and immigrant workingmen and under favorable circumstances bridge sectional divisions, since it appealed in the Old Northwest as well as the South.

Nevertheless, American imperialism did not represent an American consensus; it provoked bitter dissent within the national polity. The

11. John Pinheiro, “Anti-Catholicism, All Mexico, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo,” JER 23 (2003): 69–96; Walker is quoted on 78.

12. New York Morning News, May 24, 1845, quoted in Frederick Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History (New York, 1963), 22–23.

Whig Party conceived of American development more in terms of qualitative economic improvement than quantitative expansion of territory. As Henry Clay wrote to a fellow Kentuckian, “It is much more important that we unite, harmonize, and improve what we have than attempt to acquire more.” The historian Christopher Clark has distinguished between the two partisan goals by saying the Democrats pursued America’s “extensive” development and the Whigs its “intensive” development.13 Whigs believed in America’s postmillennial role too, but interpreted it differently. They saw America’s moral mission as one of democratic example rather than one of conquest. William Ellery Channing expressed a Whig view of America’s empire in a famous open letter to Clay opposing the annexation of Texas: “The United States ought to provide its less fortunate sister republics with support, [and] assume the role of a sublime moral empire, with a mission to diffuse freedom by manifesting its fruits, not to plunder, crush, and destroy.”14

Although the Whigs resisted territorial expansion through conquest, they practiced what we might consider economic and cultural imperialism through expanding trade and Christian missions. Daniel Webster, during his tenure at the State Department, put Whig principles of foreign policy into practice, not only by resolving tensions with Britain but also by extending U.S. commercial opportunities in the Pacific. New England whaling vessels had long made use of the Hawaiian Islands (then called the Sandwich Islands) as a supply base en route to the Bering Sea. Although Hawaii remained an independent native monarchy, Yankee sugar merchants and Protestant missionaries also exerted considerable influence. These American interests became alarmed when France intervened in the islands to protect Catholics, simultaneously obtaining trade concessions. Responding to their concerns, Webster persuaded the president to extend the Monroe Doctrine’s opposition to European interference to include Hawaii. This statement, made in December 1842, became known as the Tyler Doctrine; it preserved U.S. economic primacy in the Sandwich Islands. When an overly zealous Royal Navy admiral annexed Hawaii to the British Empire the following spring, London disavowed his action without even waiting to receive an American

13. Henry Clay to John J. Crittenden, Dec. 5, 1843, Papers of Henry Clay, ed. Robert Seager II (Lexington, Ky., 1988), IX, 898; Christopher Clark, Social Change in America: From the Revolution Through the Civil War (Chicago, 2006), 205–6.

14. “Letter to the Hon. Henry Clay on the Annexation of Texas,” Aug. 1, 1837, in William Ellery Channing, Works (Boston, 1847), II, 181–261.

protest; by the end of 1843 both Britain and France had promised to respect Hawaiian independence.15

Meanwhile, Britain had extorted by the Anglo-Chinese Opium War major trade concessions in East Asia, including a lease on Hong Kong. American (chiefly New England) shipowners and merchants worried that they would now be excluded from the lucrative China trade they had cultivated since 1784. To forestall any such development, Webster’s close associate, Caleb Cushing (from Newburyport, Massachusetts, historic center of the China trade) negotiated in 1844 the Treaty of Wanghai, by which the Chinese Empire accorded the United States most-favored-nation status in trade. But congressional approval for the China mission had had to be pushed through in 1843 by Whig majorities against opposition from the Democrats.16 The China trade, it would seem, did not involve commodities that Democratic farmers and planters marketed.

The historian Amy Greenberg has suggested that rival versions of American imperialism corresponded to different conceptions of manliness: “martial manhood,” which endorsed expansion through violence, including private filibustering expeditions and war, and “restrained manhood,” which preferred nonviolent forms of national expansion through commerce and missionary activity. If she is right, the violence in the lives of working-class urban young men helps explain the popularity among them of imperialism through conquest.17

Whether or how to pursue an imperial destiny was thus a matter of controversial public policy. The American empire did not come into existence “unconsciously,” as the poet Simms alleged, or simply through the westward migration of individual families into a vacant continent. If American expansion had been truly a manifest, inevitable destiny, then it could have taken place peacefully and automatically. In practice, however, like all empires, the American one required conscious deliberation and energetic government action to bring it into being, to deal with previous occupants and competing claims to ownership. Power politics, diplomacy, and war proved as much a part of America’s “manifest destiny” as covered wagons. Jacksonian Democracy, for all its disavowals of

15. Presidential Messages, IV, 211–14; Pletcher, Diplomacy of Annexation, 208. See further Edward Crapol, John Tyler (Chapel Hill, 2006), 135–55.

16. Norma Peterson, The Presidencies of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler (Lawrence, Kans., 1989), 140–43.

17. Amy Greenberg, Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire (Cambridge, Eng., 2005).

government agency, demonstrated eagerness to exploit the authority of government in expanding the American empire.18


Characteristically, James Knox Polk did not reveal his full intentions in his inaugural address. No president has ever played his cards closer to his chest. Even in his diary Polk did not let his guard down. He confided the objectives of his presidency to only one person besides his wife: George Bancroft, the New England intellectual who shared his vision of America’s imperial destiny and whom he was about to name secretary of the navy. The new president slapped his thigh and avowed, “There are to be four great measures of my administration,” Bancroft recalled:

The settlement of the Oregon question with Great Britain.

The acquisition of California and a large district on the coast.

The reduction of the Tariff to a revenue basis.

The complete and permanent establishment of the Constitutional Treasury, as he loved to call it, but as others had called it, “Independent Treasury.”19

Judged by these objectives, Polk is probably the most successful president the United States has ever had. He stayed focused on these goals and achieved them all, two in foreign policy and two in domestic, while serving only a single term. Texas did not appear as a goal, for the incoming president regarded its annexation, while not yet implemented, as a fait accompli in policy. The most surprising item on the list, of course, was California. Though Texas and Oregon had been discussed in the election campaign, California had not. The president could at least claim, if not demonstrate, that he had a mandate for Texas and Oregon; certainly no mandate existed for the acquisition of California. Yet Polk’s ambition for California would shape U.S.-Mexican relations more than any other issue.

Remote as it was, California experienced significant change following Mexican independence. In August 1833, the Mexican Congress secularized the Franciscan missions that had dominated Alta California for half a century. Federalista anticlerical liberalism motivated the action, but the federalistas soon fell from power, and in any case Mexico City was too distant and the government’s control too tenuous for effective implementation of plans to replace the rule of the friars with self-governing Native

18. See Thomas Hietala, Manifest Design: Anxious Aggrandizement in Late Jacksonian America (Ithaca, N.Y., 1985).

19. Quoted in Charles Sellers, James K. Polk, Continentalist (Princeton, 1966), 213.

American pueblos. The actual consequences varied from mission to mission. In some cases the newly emancipated inhabitants fled back to their ancestral homes and way of life; others wound up peones on the ranchos that quickly engrossed many of the former mission lands. Land speculators rather than Indians turned out to be the chief beneficiaries of secularization.20

Independent Mexico eagerly broke out of the old Spanish mercantile system and opened up Alta California to the commerce of the world. She also welcomed immigrants from overseas and made naturalization easy. After the demise of the missions, enormous free homesteads could be obtained in California by those with the right combination of political connections and luck. The successful men, either Mexicans or immigrants like Johann Sutter from Switzerland, set themselves up as patriarchal landowners. With transportation and communication slow, the rancheros perforce pursued a measure of economic self-sufficiency, grinding their own grain and employing a variety of artisans. They hired vaqueros and raised cattle. When ships called at California ports, they welcomed the opportunity to trade the hides and tallow from their cattle for the products of the outside world. Richard Henry Dana’s classic account of seafaring, Two Years Before the Mast (1840), is based on that trade; New England’s new shoe factories often used leather from California. The ranchos yielded a good living; the climate was attractive and malaria absent. Visitors pronounced the California way of life either idyllic or decadent, characterizations that many visitors to California would repeat over the generations to come.21

In 1835–36, a number of outlying Mexican states rebelled against Santa Anna’s imposed centralista regime; Juan Alvarado and Mariano Vallejo led Alta California’s uprising. Their supporters included Indians and foreign immigrants as well as Mexicanrancheros. Authorities in distant Mexico City, regarding Texas as the more serious challenge, chose conciliation with the californios. Alvarado and Vallejo received offices, and Alta California considerable autonomy. But the political situation remained unstable, with Monterey and Los Angeles rival power centers. The Mexican army maintained but a feeble presence in this remote region, its officers preferring assignments near the capital, where they could pursue

20. Gerald Geary, The Secularization of the California Missions (Washington, 1934); Robert H. Jackson and Edward Castillo, Indians, Franciscans, and Spanish Colonization (Albuquerque, N.M., 1995), 87–106.

21. See Doyce Nunis, “Alta California’s Trojan Horse,” California History 76 (1997): 299–330.

professional advancement and exert political influence. Upgrading the defenses of distant California required money that the Mexican government could never find.

Foreign powers recognized California’s vulnerability. A French diplomat dispatched by his government to make a thorough inquiry reported back that California could be taken by “whatever nation chooses to send there a man-of-war and 200 men.”22Thenorteamericanos provoked the most anxiety. In August 1841, Charles Wilkes’s Pacific expedition explored San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River; locals wondered what six vessels of the United States Navy were up to. The following year Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones gave their fears substance. Jones had received an alarmist message from John Parrott, U.S. consul in Mazatlán, Mexico, stating “it is highly probable there will be a war between the two countries.”23 On October 19, 1842, acting in response to this misleading intelligence and a rumor that Mexico was selling California to Great Britain, Jones’s squadron demanded and received the surrender of the fort guarding Monterey, capital of Mexican California. Two days later, after going ashore to read the latest news available from Mexico City (dated August 22), the commodore realized no war existed and apologized for his mistake. His precipitous action, however, tipped the hand of the Tyler administration, which had been hoping to enlist British help in persuading the Mexicans to sell California (or at least the port of San Francisco, which was what interested Webster) to the United States. The administration relieved Jones of his command for the sake of appearances but left the provocative Parrott in post. From then on, Mexican policymakers and public, centralistas and federalistas alike, drew the conclusion that California was another Texas waiting to happen.

Besides the seaborne traders along the coast, Americans also came to California overland to settle in the interior valleys. Cheap, attractive land pulled them; hard times after 1839 pushed them. Beginning in 1841, hundreds of brave souls organized themselves into long caravans of wagons, led by professional guides. In 1842, an apprehensive Mexican Congress forbade further acquisition of California land by foreigners, but immigrants from the United States kept arriving; speculators would still sell to them, and many simply squatted. Their overland route followed the Platte River, then crossed southern Wyoming and penetrated the Rocky Mountains at South Pass. Typically, they traveled to the north of the

22. Quoted in Neal Harlow, California Conquered (Berkeley, 1982), 35.

23. John Parrott to Thomas Jones, June 22, 1842, in John Parrott, Selected Papers, ed. Barbara Jostes (San Francisco, 1972), 22.

Great Salt Lake and traced the Humboldt River across the Great Basin. The trip took months, and it had to be timed for crossing the Sierra Nevada into California before the snows came.24

A fast-talking adventurer named Lansford Hastings enticed some migrants to take what he claimed was a shortcut, going to the south of Salt Lake. Hastings would thus secure customers for his trading post on that route; in the longer term, he aimed to attract enough Americans to California to detach it from Mexico and, perhaps, rule it himself. “Hastings’s Cutoff ” was in fact a longer, slower, and more arduous way to California than the conventional one, as the ill-fated party led by the Donner brothers learned at great cost. Delayed by Hastings’s misleading guidebook and false promises en route, they exhausted themselves in crossing the alkali desert west of Great Salt Lake, which took twice as long as he had assured them. Finally, having jettisoned many of their household goods, and with their food supplies running dangerously low, they encountered an early storm when crossing the Sierra in late October 1846. The snowbound emigrants then endured an epic of suffering, horror, death, and survival before rescue came—for some, this was not until the following April. On several occasions starving people in the last extremity had recourse to cannibalism. The worst crime occurred when two California Indians who had volunteered to help them were killed and eaten. Only forty-seven of the eighty-nine members of the party lived to reach their destination. Yet the statistics of death testify to sacrificial heroism: While more than two-thirds of the adult men perished, three-quarters of the women and children survived.25


On the Fourth of July 1836, a caravan of seventy people and four hundred animals (horses, mules, and cattle) entered the South Pass of the Rockies; it included nine wagons, for travelers had recently confirmed predictions that the pass would accommodate wheeled vehicles. Most of the party were traders representing the American Fur Company, but one group consisted of missionaries sent by the ABCFM, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Among the latter rode Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding, the first white women to cross the Continental Divide at that point. Two days later they arrived at Green River (in

24. Ray Billington, The Far Western Frontier, 1830–1860 (New York, 1956), 91–115.

25. See Will Bagley, “Lansford Warren Hastings,” Overland Trail 12 (1994): 12–26; George Stewart, Ordeal by Hunger (Boston, 1960); Kristin Johnson, ed., Unfortunate Emigrants (Logan, Utah, 1996).

what is now Wyoming) for a rendezvous, a meeting with hundreds of trappers, traders, and Indians from several tribes for an annual orgy of commerce and festivities. There the female missionaries enjoyed the spectacle and the attention they received, before moving on, toward the lives of hardship and sacrifice they had chosen to spend in a remote wilderness.26

Traders and missionaries marked the way that farming families would soon follow, in the Oregon Country as in countless other nineteenth-century frontier areas.

Upon arriving in Oregon, the women and their husbands spent time as guests at Fort Vancouver, the bustling outpost of the Hudson’s Bay Company, located not at present-day Vancouver, Canada, but near the junction of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, in what is now the state of Washington. Founded in 1670, the Hudson’s Bay Company had already become one of the world’s great business corporations, absorbing its chief competitor, the North-West Company, in 1821. The most powerful private organization in North America, HBC actually ruled most of Canada. The United States and Great Britain jointly occupied Oregon—which then extended all the way from California to Alaska—by an agreement first made in 1818 and extended in 1827. The British exerted their authority and influence in this vast territory almost exclusively through the Hudson’s Bay Company, and what interested that company was the fur trade, a big business that connected North America with both Europe and China. HBC’s Fort Vancouver had long since replaced Astoria (now deserted) as the center of the Oregon fur trade.27

In 1842, the medical missionary Marcus Whitman, Narcissa’s husband, visited the East Coast, where he pled with the ABCFM and the federal government to take more interest in Oregon. Although historians no longer subscribe to the view that Whitman single-handedly saved Oregon for the United States, his return to the Pacific Northwest in the fall of 1843 coincided with the migration there of almost a thousand American settlers, who benefited along the way from his knowledge and advice.28 The emigrants were fleeing economic depression and the endemic malaria of the Mississippi Valley; in the next few years more and more American farming families followed the same route. The Oregon Trail from Independence,

26. Julie Jeffrey, Converting the West: A Biography of Narcissa Whitman (Norman, Okla., 1991), 76–82.

27. See John S. Galbraith, The Hudson’s Bay Company as an Imperial Factor (Berkeley, 1957).

28. The New Orleans Weekly Picayune, July 17, 1843, gave a detailed accounting of the 990 migrants and their wagons and animals.


Missouri, coinciding much of the time with the pathway followed by migrants to California, became one of the legendary pioneer tracks across the continent. Francis Parkman further popularized it in a narrative of his 1846 journey, The California and Oregon Trail, serialized in the Knickerbocker Magazine beginning in 1847. A young New England intellectual in search of adventure, Parkman rendered a vivid account of his encounters with trappers, settlers (including Donners and Mormons), the landscape itself, and—most fascinating to him—the Ogallala Sioux.

With transportation of heavy goods upstream on the Missouri laborious and the trip around Cape Horn taking six to eight months, the practicality of maintaining U.S. control over distant Oregon had been doubted by prominent statesmen of both parties—Albert Gallatin, Daniel Webster, and Thomas Hart Benton among them. More recent developments had altered this expectation: the negotiation of the overland route with wagons, the development of the railroad, and the invention of the electric telegraph. Now it seemed that if Americans settled in the Pacific Northwest, they could remain within the United States. By the end of 1844 some five thousand Americans had relocated to Oregon—far fewer than lived in Texas but more than lived in California and enough to have an impact. By comparison, only seven hundred British subjects then lived in the condominium, most of them not permanent settlers but on temporary assignment for their employer. For thirty years the British had been more active in Oregon than the Americans; now the new arrivals tipped the balance in favor of the United States.29

Practically all the migrants arriving along the Oregon Trail chose to settle in the Willamette Valley, a fertile area south of the Columbia River that they felt reasonably certain would be assigned to the United States even if Oregon was eventually partitioned between the two occupying powers. There they set up an unauthorized but functioning local government of their own. During these years, many settlers also left the British Isles to pioneer colonies overseas, but they headed mainly for Australia and New Zealand. Some Canadians, retired HBC employees, had settled early in the Willamette Valley, but more recent American arrivals threatened to drive them out. These American settlers were no longer New England missionaries but mostly Missourians, a tough people little restrained by legalities, who had ruthlessly expelled the Mormons from their home state. The Americans included former trappers bitter at the HBC for its cutthroat competitive practices. The possibility of violence in

29. Thomas Leonard, James K. Polk (Wilmington, Del., 2001), 95; Meinig, Continental America, 105. In general see David Dary, The Oregon Trail (New York, 2004).

Oregon could not be ruled out.30 Not coincidentally, relations with the Indian tribes revealed conflicting interests between the occupying powers. HBC valued the natives as customers and suppliers of otter and beaver pelts, and it willingly sold them firearms; U.S. settlers wanting to expropriate Native lands regarded such sales as an invitation to frontier warfare.

The Hudson’s Bay Company tried to cultivate good relations with its new neighbors, extending them credit to purchase supplies. The settlers took the supplies and never paid for them.31 Becoming concerned for the safety of its valuable inventories with a potentially hostile population nearby, HBC closed down Fort Vancouver in 1845 and shifted its base of operations to Fort Victoria at the site of the present city of Victoria, British Columbia. The international fur trade was beginning its decline, due to both diminishing supply and diminishing demand, and this persuaded Sir George Simpson, chief of HBC’s Oregon operations, that prospective profits did not justify mounting a challenge to the American settlers. In preparation for the move northwards, the Hudson’s Bay Company trapped out the southern portion of the Oregon territory, leaving the beaver there virtually extinct.32

The Democratic platform of 1844, with its call for the whole of Oregon, ignored the fact that the British and American governments had long assumed that Oregon would eventually be divided between them and had discussed how that division should go. The British had proposed that the existing 49th parallel boundary be extended west to the Columbia River, at which point the boundary should follow the Columbia to the sea. The Americans had proposed that the 49th parallel should simply be extended due west, all the way across Vancouver Island. Thus, of all the great Oregon Territory, only the area between the Columbia River and the 49th parallel remained in serious dispute. Historians refer to this area as “the disputed triangle,” although it is only vaguely triangular. Within the disputed triangle, the Hudson’s Bay Company carried on virtually all white activity.

Throughout his negotiations concerning Oregon, President Polk played a double game. While seeming to demand all of the Oregon country for the United States, in reality he revealed a willingness to compromise, provided he could get most of the core disputed triangle.

30. Frederick Merk, The Oregon Question (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), 234–54.

31. Peter Burnett, “Recollections of an Old Pioneer,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 5 (1904): 93.

32. Merk, Oregon Question, 96.


A peaceful settlement with Britain over Oregon would ensure that she would not come to Mexico’s aid when he forced a showdown with that country over California. John Tyler, who had concluded the Webster-Ashburton Treaty to smooth the way for annexing Texas, provided Polk with a model: conciliating Britain facilitated getting tough with Mexico. Young Hickory attached much more importance to California than to what is now British Columbia.

Polk could not afford the political embarrassment of overtly betraying the Democratic platform of 1844, which had played such a prominent role in the campaign. The Missouri congressional delegation for a time stimulated American interest in Oregon, since their state, anchoring the east end of the Oregon Trail, provided not only many of the settlers but most of their supplies and equipment. Migration to Oregon made good business for Missouri. But the majority of the Democrats who rallied to the slogan “Fifty-four Forty or Fight” (an allusion to the latitude of the northern boundary of the Oregon condominium, which was also the southern boundary of Russian Alaska) came from the free states. To alienate them would cost Polk congressional votes he needed for the rest of his program. Northern and western Democrats had proved indispensable to the annexation of all Texas, with its vastly exaggerated boundary claims. In return many of them felt entitled to administration support for all Oregon. Polk therefore had to play his cards in such a way as to achieve a compromise over Oregon without having to accept responsibility for that compromise. In this he succeeded, although in the end the northern Democrats finally did rebel at his manipulations. One of them, Gideon Welles of Connecticut, who served as civilian head of the navy’s logistics bureau during the Mexican War, concluded that Polk had “a trait of sly cunning which he thought shrewdness, but which was really disingenuousness and duplicity.”33

Already during the Tyler administration, the capable U.S. envoy in London, Edward Everett, had suggested a compromise boundary that followed the 49th parallel except for leaving all of Vancouver Island in Canada—essentially the same line that would finally be agreed. However, Secretary of State Calhoun put the Oregon negotiations on hold while he concentrated his attention on Texas. With a continuing influx of American settlers into Oregon, he reasoned, time was on the side of the United States. President Tyler took little interest in Oregon compared

33. Quoted in Sellers, Polk, Continentalist, 219.

with Texas and would probably have been willing to accept partition of the condominium along the Columbia River line.34

When Polk came into office, he replaced Everett (a Webster Whig) with another experienced and knowledgeable emissary to London: Louis McLane, the successful negotiator of Jackson’s commercial treaty with Britain, former secretary of state and Treasury, now president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. This strong appointment signaled Polk’s willingness to work toward a mutual understanding over Oregon. Lord Aberdeen, Britain’s foreign secretary, sent Richard Pakenham as his emissary to Washington. A cousin of the Edward Pakenham whom Jackson had defeated at New Orleans, he proved a less happy choice of envoy than McLane. Fundamentally, the Foreign Office favored good relations with the United States. The Peel ministry intended to repeal the “Corn Laws,” Britain’s protective tariffs on grain; they knew that Polk too was a free trader resolved to lower the Whig tariff of 1842, and they looked forward to a mutually profitable expansion of Anglo-American trade. But, like Polk, Aberdeen had to look over his shoulder toward domestic politics when conducting diplomacy. The opposition’s shadow foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, had criticized the Webster-Ashburton Treaty and might denounce any sign of weakness in dealing with the Yankees. So Aberdeen tried to hedge. He gave Pakenham two sets of instructions, an official one to stick firmly by the British position, and an unofficial one to refer an American proposal back to London.35

After arriving in Washington, Pakenham received in mid-July 1845 an offer from the Polk administration to partition Oregon at the 49th parallel. Polk intended this as the opening gambit in a negotiation; he could excuse his initial failure to insist on 54° 40’ by saying that the previous administration had committed the United States to offering such a compromise. Three weeks away from his government’s advice, Pakenham chose to follow his official, rather than his unofficial, instructions. He rejected the American offer out of hand. It was the wrong decision. Once again the slowness of transatlantic communication played havoc with Anglo-American diplomacy; the delicately laid plans of both Polk and Aberdeen had gone awry.

34. Howard Jones and Donald Rakestraw, Prologue to Manifest Destiny: Anglo-American Relations in the 1840s (Wilmington, Del., 1997), 184, 187, 193; Samuel Flagg Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Union (New York, 1956), 486–87; Crapol, John Tyler, 119–21.

35. Pletcher, Diplomacy of Annexation, 242–43.

Furious, Polk called upon Congress to pass an act serving Britain with one year’s notice that the United States would terminate the joint occupation agreement in Oregon.36 This would focus British attention on the need to resolve the matter somehow while according northwestern expansionists full opportunity to vent Anglophobic rhetoric. The Democratic popular press, particularly O’Sullivan’s Democratic Review, James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald, and Moses Beach’s New York Sun, beat the drums for termination as a prelude to seizing all of Oregon. Polk welcomed the bluster at this stage, hoping it would impress the British, and in the meantime he refused to negotiate with them any further over Oregon. However popular among certain Democratic voters, the president’s belligerency alarmed Wall Street, and stocks fell.37

Passing the congressional resolution that Polk wanted proved no simple matter, due to opposition from two quarters unwilling to risk a confrontation with Britain: most Whigs, who wanted British investment capital, allied with many southern Democrats, led by Calhoun, who placed a higher value on Britain as a customer for cotton than they did on extra acreage in the Pacific Northwest inhospitable to plantation slavery. A handful of the most antislavery Whigs pressed for all of Oregon as a counterweight to slaveholding Texas.

The British now proposed arbitration, but Polk refused, knowing this would expose him to reproach from those demanding all of Oregon. Though the extremists imagined that they were on the president’s side, the historian can discern indications that this inscrutable executive indulged them and exploited them to prod the British, but did not ultimately share their objective. The administration’s closest collaborator on Oregon in the Senate, Thomas Hart Benton, despite his Missouri constituency, worked with the moderates to add a conciliatory amendment to the termination resolution. Louis McLane corresponded from London with Calhoun as well as Polk, but not with the expansionist chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, William Allen of Ohio. Polk certainly never seriously entertained the possibility of going to war for what is now British Columbia, since he made no military or naval preparations for it. The Peel ministry, by contrast, did prepare. (British leaders worried about having to fight the United States and France at the same

36. “First Annual Message to Congress” (Dec. 2, 1845), Presidential Messages, IV, 392–99. More recent presidents have given notice of treaty terminations on their own authority, without seeking prior congressional authorization.

37. Sellers, Polk, Continentalist, 357.

time just as Americans worried about having to fight both Britain and Mexico.)38

One perceptive contemporary saw through Polk’s policy. John Quincy Adams, true to his old expansionist principles as Monroe’s secretary of state, defended the title of the United States to the whole of Oregon, drawing upon his unparalleled knowledge of history and international law, confirmed by the Bible. “I want the country for our western pioneers,” he told the House of Representatives. God’s chosen people had been promised “the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession” (Psalm 2:8). Yet, Adams correctly predicted, “I believe the present Administration will finally back down from their own ground.”39 (Indeed, Adams himself, as president, had approved extending the joint occupation agreement when it came up for renewal in 1827.)

After five months of debate, Congress enacted the notice of termination on April 23, 1846, with an important amendment secured by the moderates encouraging an “amicable settlement” of the Oregon Question.40 In response, on May 19 the British proposed the 49th parallel with a detour to save them the southern tip of Vancouver Island (where, of course, the Hudson’s Bay Company had built Fort Victoria). They yielded all the rest of the disputed triangle, although it contained not two dozen Americans at the time.41The proposal represented all Polk could reasonably hope for. Cleverly, he referred it to the Senate for “advice and consent” before signing a treaty rather than (as presidents customarily do) afterwards. War with Mexico having already begun by this time, most senators felt only too eager to settle the dispute with Britain, and they promptly voted 38 to 12 for acceptance. Polk immediately drew up a partition treaty in accordance with the British proposal, got it ratified, and sent it off to London on June 18. In doing so, the president could claim that he had deferred to the Senate’s wishes, not broken a campaign pledge. Northern Democrats who would have held rallies to protest against the compromise received orders from party headquarters to desist. The administration’s relief at having the Oregon Question satisfactorily resolved was expressed candidly if bluntly by the Democratic New York Herald: “We can now thrash Mexico into decency at our leisure.”42

38. Jones and Rakestraw, Prologue to Manifest Destiny, 207–8, 235–37, 243.

39. Congressional Globe, 29th Cong., 1st sess., 157, 342.

40. Ibid., 680–83.

41. Meinig, Continental America, 117.

42. Sellers, Polk, Continentalist, 412; New York Herald, June 11, 1846.

The resolution of the Oregon Question stands as a monument to peaceful diplomacy. Each country received about half of the whole Oregon territory. The outcome also represented a masterpiece of domestic politics. The president had seemingly bluffed his way past both the British and the American political establishments. And just in the nick of time: Ten days after the British sent off the partition proposal that the Senate accepted, word reached London that hostilities had broken out along the Rio Grande between Mexico and the United States. If they had known the United States had involved itself in a war, the British might have tried to drive a harder bargain.

What kind of credit for the favorable settlement of the Oregon boundary should go to Polk may be questioned. His defenders, in his own time and since, have praised his firmness and quoted his words to a member of Congress: “The only way to treat John Bull was to look him straight in the eye.”43 But it seems likely that the British responded more to the presence of the American settlers, the decline of the Oregon fur trade, and their eagerness for American imports of cotton and grain than to the president’s eyeballing.44Once the Hudson’s Bay Company had decided to relocate to Vancouver Island, the die was cast, and Sir George Simpson made his decision to move before Polk even took office. The British foreign secretary would likely have settled for the boundary agreed in 1846 as early as December 1843 if the Tyler administration had followed through on Edward Everett’s suggestion. Democratic rhetorical posturing on behalf of 54° 40’ in fact aimed more at a domestic American audience than at a British one.45

Indeed, a demonstration of firmness by the British prompted Polk and his cabinet to back away from extreme demands and (secretly) invite a compromise. On February 3, 1846, McLane sent a dispatch from London that thirty warships of the Royal Navy had set sail for North American waters. Secretary of State James Buchanan received it on Saturday night, February 21, and immediately alerted the president. For several days (including Sunday) Polk and his cabinet considered what response to make. They decided not to recommend “war-like preparations” to Congress and instead instructed McLane on February 26 to assure the British that Polk would entertain a 49th parallel compromise proposal and refer it to the Senate for advice before responding. Apprised of this decision, Pakenham

43. Diary of James K. Polk, ed. Milo Quaife (Chicago, 1910), I, 155 (Jan. 4, 1846).

44. See David Dykstra, The Shifting Balance of Power: American-British Diplomacy in North America, 1842–48 (Lanham, Md., 1999).

45. See Merk, Oregon Question, 250, 364–94.

sent a message to his government the same day stating that the flotilla had served its purpose and further preparations for war would be unnecessary. All this while the president continued to entertain visits from hawkish congressmen warning him that any retreat from 54° 40’ would bring Democratic defeat at the polls.46 If Polk is to receive a measure of credit for the peaceful resolution of the Oregon Question, it should not be for firmness but for sending a conciliatory message on February 26, 1846, instead of escalating the crisis.

Many politicians besides Polk tried to exploit the nationalistic passions of the public for political advantage in these years—among them Secretary of State Buchanan. The Pennsylvania Democrat had spoken out strongly in Congress for the whole of Oregon. Inside Polk’s cabinet, however, he consistently urged compromise. Then, with the settlement finally reached, Buchanan strove to dissociate himself from it, so as to preserve his credibility with the 54° 40’ extremists. “It is a great misfortune that a member of the cabinet should be an aspirant for the Presidency,” Polk grumbled, “because I cannot rely upon his honest and disinterested advice.” A month later the president complained that too many Democratic Senators showed less concern about “54-40” or “49” than about “48” (the coming presidential election). Considering how carefully Polk himself calculated political advantage, his witticism displayed unconscious irony.47

A curious red herring complicated the Oregon negotiations: whether the British should retain navigation rights on the Columbia River. Eventually, the United States granted a limited right, but the British never exercised it. The Columbia River (as insiders realized at the time), with its many rapids and a sandbar across its mouth, was actually not easily navigable to oceangoing vessels, though canoes used it. What mattered to navigation and Pacific commerce were Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which the disputants ended up sharing. The real importance of the Columbia River, as only the future would reveal, lay in its capacity to generate electric power.

In November 1847, Narcissa and Marcus Whitman were martyred and their mission in eastern Oregon destroyed by members of the Cayuse tribe who resented the whites having introduced measles along with Christianity.48 The remaining missionaries shifted their attention from the Native Americans to civilizing the rowdy white Oregonians.

46. Polk, Diary, I, 241–53 (Feb. 21–25, 1846); Paul Bergeron, The Presidency of James K. Polk (Lawrence, Kans., 1987), 128; Leonard, Polk, 117.

47. Polk, Diary, I, 297, 345 (March 22, April 22, 1846).

48. See Cameron Addis, “The Whitman Massacre,” JER 25 (2005): 221–58.


Joseph Smith, prophet of God escaped from a Missouri jail, crossed the Mississippi River to Illinois, where on April 22, 1839, he rejoined his family and some five thousand other recently arrived Latter-day Saints. The good people of Quincy granted a temporary haven to these refugees from religious persecution. Within a few weeks Smith had identified the site for a new stake of Zion on the left bank of the Mississippi, a hamlet called Commerce that he renamed Nauvoo, a word that he (correctly) informed his people meant “a beautiful place” in Hebrew.49 There the faithful gathered, reinforced now by converts arriving from England via New Orleans. They drained the swampland and commenced to implement their prophet’s vision of a grand city centered on a new temple. The Illinois state legislature, happy to receive an influx of hardworking migrants, granted a municipal charter allowing Nauvoo virtually complete self-rule. In practice this meant the rule of Joseph Smith: mayor of the town, commander of its militia, city planner, recorder of deeds, and chief justice of the municipal court. Unlike most frontier towns, Nauvoo aspired to economic self-sufficiency, but this was not easily achieved, particularly with a shortage of investment capital.50 As a utopian community it impressed visitors; James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald called Nauvoo “a new religious civilization” based on “industry and energy,” adding that it “may revolutionize the whole earth one of these days.”51 The Mormons dug up the press they had hidden and lugged it all the way from western Missouri to set it up again for a newspaper of their own: the Times and Seasons. For several years, Nauvoo grew even faster than Chicago and achieved a population of ten thousand by the end of 1842, making it probably the largest city in Illinois and the approximate equal of old St. Louis.52

Both political parties courted the Mormons in Illinois. Most U.S. male converts to the faith came from small farmer and small-town artisan backgrounds, and normally voted Democratic. In Kirtland, the Saints had voted solidly as soft-money Democrats although their part of Ohio was otherwise strongly Whig. In Missouri, however, the Democratic governor Lilburn Boggs had persecuted them and called for their “extermination.”

49. R. Alcalay, The Complete Hebrew-English Dictionary (Tel Aviv, 1996). The pronunciation “nauvoo” is anglicized. With thanks to Rabbi Mari Chernow.

50. See Annette Hampshire, Mormonism in Conflict: The Nauvoo Years (New York, 1985); Richard Bushman, Making Space for the Mormons (Logan, Utah, 1997).

51. New York Herald, Jan. 19, 1842.

52. Robert Flanders, Nauvoo, Kingdom on the Mississippi (Urbana, Ill., 1965), 56. The population of Chicago in 1840 was 4,450.

When Smith led a delegation to Washington to ask for federal protection, Henry Clay supported them in the Senate, but President Van Buren reminded them of state rights and responded bluntly, “Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you.”53 Accordingly, the Mormons cast their votes in 1840 for the Whig presidential electors. As a gesture toward an Illinois Democrat who had befriended them, they scratched out the last name on the Whig list of electors and wrote in that of their friend; the name they deleted: Abraham Lincoln. In spite of this, Lincoln ranked among the Illinois politicians most sympathetic to the Mormons.54

Democratic politicians did not give up on the Mormons, however, and when Missouri agents came to arrest Joseph Smith as a fugitive from justice, Stephen Douglas, acting in his capacity as an Illinois state judge, set the prophet free. The grateful Mormons returned to the Democratic fold in 1842. In predominantly Democratic Illinois, it seemed a safer bet. The switch infuriated the Whigs, and did not restore the Mormons’ popularity with their Democratic neighbors in the nearby towns of Warsaw and Carthage. Americans were accustomed to bloc voting by ethnoreligious groups, but not to bloc voting that could go either way as directed. In May 1842 occurred an attempt on the life of Missouri’s Governor Boggs, and people suspected Smith of ordering or prophesying the assassination. Illinois refused to extradite him to Missouri, but fear increased of the Saints’ growing numbers and their prophet’s temporal power. The gentile public once again gradually soured on the Mormons.

Early in 1844, Joseph Smith decided to run for president of the United States. If the abolitionists could field a candidate, why not the Mormons? The campaign seems to have had a place in the prophet’s vision of an earthly Kingdom of God that would precede and prepare for the Second Coming of Christ. If it failed, emigration might be necessary to establish the Kingdom.55 Such millennial expectations did not preclude policies sensible in secular terms. Smith’s program included abolition of imprisonment for debt, the reestablishment of a national bank, federal protection for civil liberties abridged by states and mobs, the acquisition of not only Texas and Oregon but all of Mexico and Canada—provided the in-

53. Quoted in Leonard Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience (New York, 1979), 50.

54. Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, rev. ed. (New York, 1972), 260, 267; Leonard Arrington, Brigham Young, American Moses (New York, 1985), 109.

55. Klaus Hansen, Quest for Empire (Lansing, Mich., 1967), 72–79; idem, “The Metamorphosis of the Kingdom of God,” in The New Mormon History, ed. Michael Quinn (Salt Lake City, 1992), 221–46.

habitants peacefully consented— and encouragement for states to enact emancipation by providing masters compensation from federal land revenues.56 Whatever his program’s merits, Smith’s campaign persuaded many gentiles that the prophet had fallen into megalomania.

Joseph Smith did not live to participate in the election. The chain of events leading up to his death began when an influential group of dissident Mormons set up a newspaper of their own, the Nauvoo Expositor. On June 7, 1844, the Expositor published its only issue. The paper accused the prophet and a few of his intimates of practicing plural marriage and teaching the existence of a plurality of gods. Both charges were essentially true and later avowed, but Smith did not yet feel ready for this. He would probably have been better advised to acknowledge the doctrines publicly and proceed immediately with the migration westward that he and his inner circle had already begun considering. Instead he had the Nauvoo city council, which he dominated, declare the new paper a “public nuisance” and destroy its press.57 In 1837, Elijah Lovejoy had died defending his press at Alton; Illinois public opinion now regretted that episode and had resolved nothing like it would happen again. In an age of communications revolution, the Mormon assault on freedom of the press aroused unanimous condemnation from the press. Where Joseph58 and his followers had won sympathy as victims of religious persecution, they now seemed its perpetrators. Convinced that Smith had exceeded his legal authority and become a dangerous despot, the militias assembled in Warsaw and Carthage, the centers of anti-Mormon sentiment. The militias announced their intention to restore law and order in Nauvoo by force, which, of course, exceeded their own authority. In response, Smith mobilized the Nauvoo Legion. Illinois governor Thomas Ford hastened to the scene to forestall a civil war.

Ford hoped to restore law and order through mediation rather than force. Joseph agreed to disband the Legion to avoid bloodshed. The governor demanded he also submit to arrest for the unwarranted destruction of the Expositor. Convinced that he faced lynching if taken into custody, Joseph’s first impulse was to flee. A day later his sense of mission and

56. Joseph Smith, Views on the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States (1844; Salt Lake City, 1886), 15–22.

57. Cultures in Conflict: A Documentary History of the Mormon War in Illinois, ed. John Hallwas and Roger Launius (Logan, Utah, 1995), 143–48 (the Nauvoo Expositor), 149–56 (the proceedings of the Nauvoo city council).

58. Mormons usually refer to the prophets Joseph Smith and Brigham Young by their first names, and historians also often follow this practice.

loyalty to his followers overcame his instinct of self-preservation, and he returned to face arrest and transportation to Carthage. The governor foolishly left him there guarded by the Carthage militia and went off to Nauvoo to negotiate disarmament with the Mormons. In Ford’s absence, men of the disbanded Warsaw militia returned as a lynch mob. The Carthage militia, by prearrangement, made a show of defense and fled. The mob found Joseph and his brother Hirum in an unlocked cell and shot them to death on June 27, 1844. The state’s press perfunctorily deplored the murders; the governor managed to secure indictments against some members of the mob, but not to convict them. The Mormons did not fight back.59

Mormon reaction to the assassination was well expressed by Eliza Snow, secretly a plural wife of Joseph’s, later and publicly a plural wife of his successor, Brigham Young. Called a “prophetess,” she contributed to Mormon theology the doctrine of a Heavenly Mother. A leader of women’s organizations within the LDS Church, in later years she espoused women’s suffrage for Utah Territory, achieved in 1870. Four days after the martyrdom of her prophet husband, she published her righteous anger in imagery of divine judgment:

Never, since the Son of God was slain

Has blood so noble flow’d from human vein

As that which now on God for vengeance calls

From “freedom’s” ground—from Carthage prison walls!

Oh! Illinois! Thy soil has drunk the blood

Of prophets martyred for the truth of God.

Once lov’d America! What can atone

For the pure blood of innocence thou’st sown?


Ye Saints! Be still, and know that God is just—

With steadfast purpose in His promise trust:

Girded with sackcloth, own His mighty hand,

And wait His judgments on this guilty land!

The noble Martyrs now have gone to move

The cause of Zion in the Courts above.60

Among several claimants to the prophet’s mantle, Brigham Young, the senior member of the Twelve Apostles, established his right to succeed Joseph as leader of the church. Where Joseph had been an imaginative, charismatic seer, Brigham was practical, decisive, and gruff. He had a

59. Kenneth Winn, Exiles in a Land of Liberty (Chapel Hill, 1989), 208–27.

60. Reprinted in Hallwas and Launius, Cultures in Conflict, 237–40.

better head for business. He received only one divine revelation, which set out the command structure for crossing the plains. The successful leader of the best organized large migration in American history, he has appropriately been called “the Moses of an American Exodus.” A dissenting minority argued that the presidency should pass to the prophet’s young son Joseph Smith III; they eventually established the Reorganized LDS Church, whose members (sometimes called Josephites, as distinguished from the Brighamites) have remained a separate denomination.61 They did not join in the westward migration and did not practice polygamy.

Disillusioned with Illinois and the United States, Brigham set about planning the escape of his people to someplace else, where they could implement their theocratic vision of society and prepare for the millennium undisturbed. During Joseph’s lifetime, Texas, Oregon, California, and Vancouver Island had already been considered. But the first priority remained completion of the Nauvoo temple, which was achieved by August 1845. Even before they finished construction, the Saints had begun to perform new rites there, based in part on Joseph’s revision of Masonic rituals (restoring them to their ancient originals, he claimed).62 When anti-Mormon violence resumed in September, Young promised state authorities his community would depart by the following spring. It was little enough time to ready and equip such an undertaking. To ensure Mormon departure, the state legislature voted (by wide bipartisan margins) to revoke Nauvoo’s charter of self-government. By now, most gentiles saw Mormonism the way the nativists saw Roman Catholicism: as a denial of and a threat to American liberal pluralism. That opponents had to resort to illiberal measures themselves seemed to them regrettable but necessary.63

The exodus actually got under way early, in February 1846. With typical resourcefulness, Mormon families turned unusually cold weather to advantage, crossing the frozen Mississippi on foot. But when almost everyone in town tried to sell home and possessions at the same time, prices hit rock bottom; as in Missouri earlier, the departing Saints took a terrible financial

61. In 2000, the Reorganized LDS Church changed its name to the Community of Christ. They no longer call themselves Mormons.

62. On Mormon temple rites, see Paul Conkin, American Originals: Homemade Varieties of Christianity (Chapel Hill, 1997), 189–95.

63. On the conflict of political ideologies, see Marvin Hill, Quest for Refuge (Salt Lake City, 1989); Laurence Moore, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (New York, 1986), 25–47; and the essays in Roger Launius and John Hallwas, eds., Kingdom on the Mississippi Revisited (Urbana, Ill., 1996).

beating. The Mormons did not cross the plains in a single group. During 1846, Brigham stretched out sixteen thousand people in camps all across Iowa. The circumstances taxed his leadership and the people’s faith to the utmost. Having lost their savings in Nauvoo, many of the migrants needed to find temporary jobs along the way to feed their families. Persecuted, divided, impoverished, and frightened as they were, Brigham Young forged his people into a cohesive, purposeful New Israel. He enforced a military-style discipline and the pooling of resources. People would plant crops in one location and move on to another, leaving the harvest for the next company. The famous advance party—known in Utah as “the Pioneers”—left the staging area west of Winter Quarters, six miles north of present-day Omaha, on April 19, 1847, for the trek across the plains and mountains. It consisted of 143 men (3 of them the slaves of southern Mormons), 3 women (6 more women later joined the party), 2 children, 93 horses, 66 oxen, 52 mules, 72 wagons, and (since they were exploring) sextants, barometers, thermometers, telescopes, and a cannon.64 Even in the advance party, most people did not know where they were headed.

Unlike most settler caravans, the Mormons employed no professional scouts or outfitters. Brigham chose the route west well, whether by divine guidance, careful preparation, or both. They managed good relations with all the Indian tribes except the Pawnee, who feared for the buffalo. Young admonished his people sternly to kill no more buffalo than they needed for food. On a good day the party made ten miles. The women cooked, washed, and gathered buffalo dung for fuel.65 Much of the time they paralleled the Oregon Trail. They left messages with advice for subsequent parties. They took the Hastings Cutoff but were better prepared for it than the Donners had been. Along the way, the Pioneers could be fortified by the hymnody of one of their own number, William Clayton, written in Iowa the year before, on Brigham’s order.

Why should we mourn or think our lot is hard?

’Tis not so; all is right!

Why should we think to earn a great reward,

If we now shun the fight?

Gird up your loins, fresh courage take,

Our God will never us forsake.66

64. Stanley Kimball, Heber C. Kimball (Urbana, Ill., 1981), 151–54; Newell Bringhurst, Brigham Young (Boston, 1986), 89.

65. Ibid., 90.

66. From stanza 2 of “Come, Come Ye Saints,” Deseret Sunday School Songs (Salt Lake City, 1909), no. 16.

On July 24, as the party emerged from Emigration Canyon in the Wasatch Mountains, the valley of the Great Salt Lake lay visible below. Brigham Young, ill inside one of the wagons, struggled up and looked out. Erastus Snow remembered him saying it: “This is the place.”67 It was isolated and barren, but those were assets, not liabilities. The Mormon leader did not want his people to settle in a place anyone else would want. Only one white person, a trader named Miles Goodyear, then made his home in the Salt Lake Valley; the Mormons bought him out.68 As soon as Brigham had supervised building a stockade, planting crops, and beginning the irrigation system, he was off, heading back across the plains to Iowa. Along the way he greeted ten more Mormon parties coming on schedule. By the end of 1847, seventeen hundred Latter-day Saints had made their way to Utah. Until the transcontinental railroad made the trip easier in 1869, they continued to come by the thousands along the trail the Pioneers had marked out, the poorest of them, who could not afford wagons, pushing their few belongings in handcarts.

The Mormons transplanted their culture whole. Unlike so many other frontiers (Gold Rush California, for example) Utah experienced no transition from anarchy to civilization. The closest analogy in American history to the Mormon exodus would be the Great Migration of the Puritans from East Anglia to Massachusetts Bay in 1630, likewise religiously motivated, well organized, and implementing a preexisting blueprint. Brigham laid out Salt Lake City very much as Joseph had laid out Nauvoo, with wide streets at right angles, and lots distributed to faithful Mormons, all centered on a temple site. The Mormons proclaimed the State of Deseret, with generous boundaries much larger than the present state of Utah, and, like Joseph in Nauvoo, for a time Brigham united the leadership of church and state in his person. Young announced the ideal of a self-sufficient community, and this time he had geography on his side. “We do not intend to have any trade or commerce with the gentile world, for so long as we buy of them we are in a degree dependent upon them,” he declared. “The Kingdom of God cannot rise independent of the gentile nations until we produce, manufacture, and make every article of use, convenience, or necessity among our own people.”69 Early Mormon Utah was the largest of American utopian communities, an example to the world but not a part of it.

67. Arrington and Bitton, Mormon Experience, 101.

68. Charles Kelly and Maurice Howe, Miles Goodyear (Salt Lake City, 1937).

69. Quoted in Arrington, Brigham Young, 169.

In the summer of 1848, a plague of crickets descended on the Mormons’ first crop. Men, women, and children fought the horrid insects frantically. Then huge flocks of seagulls from Great Salt Lake appeared, devouring the crickets. Today, Seagull Monument in Temple Square, Salt Lake City, expresses gratitude for a providential deliverance, and Utah law forbids killing seagulls.70

Like the celibate Shakers and the Oneida perfectionists with their complex marriages, the Mormons had a pattern of gender relations all their own. The most distinctive feature of Mormon culture was the practice of plural marriage, or (as the gentiles called it) polygamy. Joseph Smith set out to restore the authentic religion of biblical times, and of course the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob took many wives. Joseph also taught that polygamous marriage constituted a step in the evolution of faithful Mormons toward godhood in the hereafter. (“As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be.”)71 The prophet shared his revelation commending plural marriage with a few Nauvoo intimates in 1843 while publicly denying the rumors of its practice. Careful inquiry has revealed that Joseph married between twenty-eight and thirty-three women, eleven of whom were already wives of other men. (It is not widely grasped that Joseph’s plural marriages involved polyandry as well as polygyny.)72 Among the prophet’s wives was the widow of William Morgan, the Antimasonic martyr, although Joseph himself joined the Masonic Order. Brigham Young married nineteen wives in the three weeks just before leaving Nauvoo; some of these women may have been seeking to place themselves under his protection during the coming journey. In Utah, the Mormons felt freer to practice polygamy openly; Young proclaimed the doctrine publicly in 1852. By most counts, the second president of the church eventually had twenty-seven wives, who bore him fifty-six children.73 Even in Utah, only about 10 percent of Mormon men practiced polygamy. A man was expected to support all his families, often

70. Only in retrospect did the Mormons attribute the seagulls’ intervention to God. See William Hartley, “Mormons, Crickets, and Seagulls,” New Mormon History, ed. Quinn, 137–52.

71. Lorenzo Snow’s oft-quoted summary of the doctrine. Eliza R. Snow, Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow (Salt Lake City, 1884), 46.

72. There are two forms of polygamy. Polyandry means a woman having more than one husband; polygyny, a man having more than one wife. See Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, 2001); Richard Bash-man, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York, 2005), 437–46.

73. Counting the wives is complicated because Young apparently contracted a number of unconsummated marriages.

in separate establishments, which confined the practice to an economic elite. Plural marriage usually accompanied a man’s advancement in the church hierarchy and showed his unreserved loyalty to the faith. Evidence of dissatisfaction with their situation among plural wives is less widespread than we might expect. Some women enjoyed their independence when their husband was living with his other families; others resented having to rear their children largely by themselves. Some felt jealous of the other wives, but sisterly affection was also common. Plural wives could divorce their husbands more readily than their husbands could divorce them; Ann Eliza Webb divorced Brigham Young.74 After Utah became part of the United States in 1848, the Mormons claimed that the First Amendment protected their practice of polygamy as a “free exercise of religion.” Eventually the Supreme Court ruled against them, and in 1890 the president of the LDS Church renounced the practice of plural marriage out of respect for the law of the land; the principle is still considered to enjoy divine sanction in the life hereafter.75

Ironically, the Mormons who sought to escape from the United States ended up playing a role in extending the United States. Their way of life, originally a millenarian critique of the larger society and a collectivist, authoritarian dissent from American individualistic pluralism, now impresses observers as the most “American” of all. How that transformation came about, however, is another story.


Sixty-eight United States dragoons commanded by Captain Seth Thornton rode out in the evening of April 24, 1846, on reconnaissance. They went to confirm intelligence that a Mexican military force had crossed the Rio Grande a few miles upstream from where Brigadier General Zachary Taylor’s army encamped across the river from the Mexican town of Matamoros. The reports proved all too accurate. The next morning a superior Mexican force surprised and surrounded Thornton’s soldiers at the Rancho de Carricitos. When the Americans tried to fight their way out, eleven were killed and the rest captured. The enemy allowed a wounded survivor to make his way back to Taylor bearing the news and assurances that the captives would be treated decently. (In fact, a few

74. For the women’s perspective on plural marriage, see Lawrence Foster, Women, Family, and Utopia (Syracuse, N.Y., 1919), 189–98, and the essays in Claudia Bushman, ed., Mormon Sisters, 2nd ed. (Logan, Utah, 1997).

75. Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City, 1952), 256–57.

weeks later the prisoners were exchanged.) Thus inauspiciously began the war between the United States and Mexico. “Hostilities may now be considered as commenced,” Taylor reported dryly to Washington. When his message reached the White House fourteen days later, the president and his cabinet responded promptly and without surprise. They had been about to recommend to Congress a declaration of war against Mexico anyway, and the little battle facilitated this task. President Polk spent all day Sunday, May 10, drafting his war message with the help of Secretary of State Buchanan and Secretary of the Navy Bancroft, taking out only enough time to go to church.76

Some people in the United States and elsewhere wondered what a U.S. military force was doing along the Rio Grande in the first place. The answer to this question went back more than a year. When Congress passed its joint resolution offering Texas statehood in March 1845, the president of the Lone Star Republic, Anson Jones, displayed distinct coolness to the action. Jones had an alternative vision of the Texan future; he dreamed of a powerful independent nation, stretching from sea to sea. In May 1845, the British brokered a deal by which Mexico finally offered Texas peace and recognition provided the republic remained independent. But the proposal came too late. Given the options of independence and U.S. statehood, the Texan Congress had no difficulty choosing annexation, a decision ratified by a convention in Austin on July 4, 1845. An American state constitution was approved at local community meetings throughout Texas in October; the U.S. Congress accepted it in December. But not until February 1846 would President Jones deliver a farewell address and turn legal authority in Texas over to officials of the new state government.

The Mexican minister to the United States had denounced the annexation of Texas as “an act of aggression,” and in response to the statehood offer severed diplomatic relations on March 6, 1845.77 Back in 1843, Mexico had warned the United States that annexation of Texas would mean war, but this threat was not actually carried out. Though the Mexican government considered attempting the reconquest of Texas in July 1845 after the rejection of their recognition proposal, they stopped short of it. Santa Anna’s irresponsible policies had left the Mexican government at the mercy of financiers who made short-term loans at high interest rates.

76. Karl Jack Bauer, The Mexican War (New York, 1974), 48, 81; Pletcher, Diplomacy of Annexation, 376–77.

77. William Manning, ed., Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States: Inter-American Affairs (Washington, 1937), VIII, 699–700.

The same financial straits that precluded adequately defending California made waging war for Texas unattractive. In August 1845, President José Joaquín Herrera, a moderate federalista who had inherited Santa Anna’s financial mess, let it be known that he would receive a U.S. emissary to discuss Texas. Herrera had a program of fiscal and domestic reform in mind, which could only be addressed if his country reconciled itself to the loss of Texas.78

“I regard the question of annexation as belonging exclusively to the United States and Texas,” Polk had declared in his inaugural address— thereby serving notice that he would not negotiate it with Mexico.79 But what constituted Texas? The boundary of Texas as a Mexican province had been the Nueces River, and this had remained the approximate limit of effective control by the Lone Star Republic. Nevertheless, as we have seen, Texans had repeatedly laid claim to the Rio Grande as their boundary. With annexation, the undefined boundary between Mexico and Texas became a problem between Mexico and the United States. And from the day of annexation, the Polk administration made clear to all that it considered Texas as extending to the Rio Grande.

Polk did not wait for the legal transfer of authority before trying to secure Texas, defined broadly, against Mexican reoccupation. The American diplomatic envoy to the Texan Republic, Old Hickory’s nephew Andrew Jackson Donelson, pestered President Jones with the importance of military preparations against Mexican attack. Nevertheless the Polk administration did not trust Donelson to press the Texans hard enough to occupy the disputed area beyond the Nueces (since he belonged to Van Buren’s faction), so they reinforced him with ardent expansionists like former Arkansas governor Archibald Yell to make the case more forcefully. In April 1845, Secretary of the Navy Bancroft ordered Commodore Robert Stockton’s naval squadron to Galveston. A zealous American imperialist, Stockton there set about recruiting Texans for a military expedition into the disputed territory. Texan president Jones put a stop to it. He had reason to believe Stockton acted at Polk’s direction and later complained that they had tried to “manufacture a war” between Texas and Mexico that the United States would then take over.80 Stockton may have exceeded his instructions, although his activities certainly did not lose him the confidence of the administration.

78. Pletcher, Diplomacy of Annexation, 172–75.

79. Presidential Messages, IV, 380.

80. Anson Jones, Memoranda and Official Correspondence (New York, 1859), 46–52, quotation from 49; italics in original.

Having decided to place a U.S. military presence on the ground, on June 15, 1845, Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor across the Sabine into Texas. Later he specified that Taylor should “approach as near the boundary line, the Rio Grande, as prudence will dictate.”81 But Taylor employed the prudent discretion permitted him and stationed his force, ultimately about four thousand strong, at Corpus Christi by the mouth of the Nueces, the southernmost point under Texan control. There he spent several months intensively training his soldiers. The administration would have liked a more aggressive posture but didn’t feel ready to overrule their field commander. In August, Polk’s secretary of war, William Marcy, instructed Taylor to treat any attempt by the Mexican army to cross the Rio Grande as an invasion of the United States and an act of war.82

Meanwhile, President Polk did not ignore President Herrera’s invitation to negotiate. Polk spent much of the fall of 1845 arranging a mission to Mexico City by Congressman John Slidell of Louisiana, a fluent Spanish-speaker who had been of great help to Polk in the last election. He instructed Slidell that the annexation of Texas was nonnegotiable; he should confine himself to purchasing California and/or New Mexico and to collecting the debts Mexico owed U.S. citizens. The claims of American citizens against Mexico were badly inflated; out of some $8.5 million presented, a mixed commission had found about $2 million justified. In 1844, the financially strapped Mexican government stopped making payments on this debt, although they did not repudiate it. Polk told Slidell that at the very least, he should obtain Mexican recognition of the Rio Grande boundary in return for U.S. assumption of these debts. Beyond this, Slidell had authority to pay $5 million for New Mexico and $20 million more for California.83 Since Mexico had already refused to sell any of its national territory, these instructions did not augur well for a resolution of outstanding differences. The United States did not occupy a strong moral position in getting tough when others fell behind in their debt payments, considering that several U.S. states had defaulted on larger sums to foreign creditors earlier in the 1840s. Complicating the mission further, Slidell’s number two, William Parrott, had already been declared personally offensive and unacceptable by the Mexicans. (Parrott, the brother of the troublemaking consul in Mazatlán, made

81. Orders of June 15 and July 30, 1845, quoted in Pletcher, Diplomacy of Annexation, 255–56.

82. Orders of Aug. 23 and 30, 1845, quoted ibid., 260.

83. Manning, Diplomatic Correspondence, VIII, 172–82.

$690,000 in claims against the Mexican government that a previous U.S. envoy had described as “exaggerated in a disgusting degree”; more recently he had been exposed as a spy.)84 Finally, although the Mexican authorities had offered to engage in negotiations over Texas, they made it clear they would not resume full diplomatic relations so long as a United States army occupied what they considered a substantial portion of their country. Polk appointed Slidell not an emissary with a particular assignment but a “minister plenipotentiary”—meaning that for Mexico to receive him would constitute a resumption of full diplomatic relations. In short, President Polk had so structured the U.S. mission that it would be extremely difficult for President Herrera even to meet the envoy, let alone negotiate with him.

Can Polk have really expected the Slidell mission to achieve a satisfactory resolution of the outstanding issues? Surviving evidence indicates that he and his advisors entertained some hope of success. From the standpoint of Mexican authorities, to sell California was as unthinkable as it would be for any U.S. administration to sell Michigan to Canada. But Polk and his circle felt no empathy with their Mexican counterparts. On the other hand, Polk did recognize the sensitive nature of Slidell’s appointment as minister plenipotentiary, and he did not submit it to the Senate for confirmation.

Polk’s strategy toward Mexico was precisely the converse of his strategy toward Britain. On Oregon, he wished to appear uncompromising but achieve a compromise. Regarding the issues with Mexico, however, he wished to seem reasonable and open to discussion while pressing uncompromising demands that would probably lead to war. Polk’s insistence on the exaggerated Texan boundary claim, in the words of his modern biographer, “is the clearest indication of the administration’s anxiety to complete annexation not only at the earliest possible moment, but also as offensively to Mexico as possible.”85 The area between the Nueces and the Rio Grande had significance not only for its own sake but also as possible cause for war with Mexico.

What lay behind Polk’s provocative Mexican policy is not too difficult to discern: the acquisition of more territory, especially California. The administration’s official newspaper, the Washington Union, proclaimed the goal as early as June 1845. “The road to California” beckoned Americans: “Who will stay the march of our western people?” Of course, the Union

84. Waddy Thompson, quoted in Sellers, Polk, Continentalist, 230.

85. Sellers, Polk, Continentalist, 223–24.

not only presented administration policy but sought to rally public support for it. If Mexico should resist the U.S. takeover of California, the paper predicted, “a corps of properly organized volunteers (and they might be obtained from all quarters of the Union) would invade, overrun, and occupy Mexico.”86 Both publicly and privately, Polk avowed a strong geopolitical interest in California, in particular a determination to deny the area to Britain. Historical investigation of the papers of the Foreign Office in London has discovered no intention to take over California, though the British would have preferred it to remain Mexican. Nevertheless, informants like Duff Green and Oliver Larkin warned Polk to fear the California ambitions of the superpower of the time. Polk portrayed himself as defending the principles of the Monroe Doctrine in California. No doubt the president also shared the characteristic Jacksonian desire to extend the area of white American agricultural settlement; his territorial ambitions, after all, included much besides California. Finally, Polk valued California for its opening onto the Pacific. “The possession of the Bay and harbor of San Francisco is all important to the United States,” he instructed Slidell. “If all these [advantages] should be turned against our country, by the cession of California to Great Britain, our principal commercial rival, the consequences would be most disastrous.”87 Ironically perhaps, the congressional Whigs representing maritime New England demonstrated less eagerness than the Democratic president to obtain “an empire on the Pacific.” Sometimes Democratic imperialists invoked the commercial advantages of expansion simply as a tactic to win support, as Walker had done in arguing for Texas. But Polk really does seem to have wanted to expand American power and commerce in the Pacific, manifesting once again that solicitude for American overseas trade that the Democratic Party had displayed ever since the Jackson administration.88

President Polk was fully prepared to persuade the Mexicans to cede California by whatever means it took. Perhaps their financially strapped government would sell territory for money, which is why Polk told Slidell to press the issue of Mexico’s foreign indebtedness so hard. Jackson had done this too when he wanted to buy Texas. But in all probability, only military defeat could force this cession upon them. Such a defeat could come in either of two ways: war with the United States or a revolution in California analogous to what had happened in Texas.

86. Washington Union, June 2, 6, 1845.

87. Manning, Diplomatic Correspondence, VIII, 180.

88. See Norman Graebner, Empire on the Pacific (New York, 1955); and Shomer Zwelling, Expansion and Imperialism (Chicago, 1970).

Polk pursued all the possible routes to California—purchase, revolution, and war—simultaneously. Slidell’s instructions included detailed specifications of various purchases of territory and the amounts the United States would pay for each. In October 1845, while Slidell waited in New Orleans, Polk sent Commodore Stockton off to California via Cape Horn, issued secret orders to the U.S. consul in Monterey to encourage disaffected Californians to seek U.S. annexation, and communicated these plans to Captain John C. Frémont’s overland military expedition to California. Earlier orders had directed the navy’s Pacific Squadron to be ready to seize San Francisco at the outbreak of war. The effect of these coordinated messages would be felt in California the following spring. But also in October, the Washington Union (the administration’s organ) announced that on the question of whether the Mexican government would receive Slidell hung the issue of peace or war.89 If Mexico did not rise to the challenge of the Rio Grande boundary dispute, the Slidell mission itself could provide a casus belli. Buchanan instructed Slidell, in case of failure, to let Washington know right away, while Congress was still in session, so that “prompt and energetic measures may be adopted on our part.”90Slidell would know that meant a congressional declaration of war.

When Slidell arrived in Mexico City on December 6, 1845, he posed an excruciating difficulty for the government there. Once the terms of his appointment as plenipotentiary became known, Mexican public opinion reacted with outrage. Thefederalistasthemselves divided, with moderados supporting President Herrera while the puros, left-wing populists, denounced his temporizing with foreign aggressors. Herrera’s moderate foreign secretary, Manuel de la Peña y Peña, told his chief that although justice called for resistance to U.S. demands, their country’s weakness counseled concession.91 But the political left and right agreed in repudiating any willingness to negotiate with the insulting yanquis. Herrera fell from power before the end of the year without having received Slidell. Mariano Paredes, a centralista and a professional soldier, replaced him. Slidell vented his anger in his reports to Polk. “A war would probably be the best mode of settling our affairs with Mexico,” he wrote.92 After confirming that the Paredes administration would not receive him either, he

89. Washington Union, Oct. 2, 1845.

90. Manning, Diplomatic Correspondence, VIII, 183.

91. George Brack, Mexico Views Manifest Destiny (Albuquerque, N.M., 1975), 160–63.

92. John Slidell to James K. Polk, Dec. 29, 1845, quoted in Pletcher, Diplomacy of Annexation, 357.

sailed for home. In later years Slidell would embark on another famous diplomatic mission, to persuade France to help the Southern Confederacy; that too would fail.

Throughout the early months of 1846, the Oregon crisis remained unresolved and impinged on the crisis with Mexico. It stiffened the resistance of Mexican public opinion against U.S. demands by encouraging false hopes of British support. Meanwhile, American public opinion focused chiefly on the danger of war with Britain; the possibility of war with Mexico attracted much less attention. Northern Democrats in Congress provided the president solid support in his strong stand against Mexico because they still expected him to support their point of view on Oregon. Thus the existence of another simultaneous international confrontation did not moderate administration policy toward Mexico (as one might expect) but had the opposite effect. Polk’s insistence that the compromise line he had secretly offered to the British in February must be publicly proposed by them first slowed down the resolution of the Oregon controversy in the spring. Perhaps he stalled on Oregon deliberately, knowing that it strengthened his hand in dealing with Mexico. Polk juggled two balls in the air at the same time. Depending on how the Oregon issue was playing out at any given moment, he slowed down or speeded up the confrontation with Mexico. In the end, the timing worked out just right for him. The British offered their Oregon compromise before learning of the fighting on the Rio Grande; Congress voted war against Mexico before northern Democratic expansionists had been disillusioned by the partition of Oregon.

In January 1846, having learned of the impending failure of the Slidell mission, the administration ordered Taylor to enforce U.S. claim to the disputed area beyond the Nueces by advancing to the Rio Grande. The nineteenth-century historian and legal scholar James Schouler called Polk’s insistence on the Rio Grande as the Texan boundary “pretentious,” and it has found few defenders among historians since. Even Justin Smith, the historian whose book The War with Mexico (1919) remains the account most sympathetic to Polk, recognized that his boundary claim was “unsound.” Polk’s twentieth-century biographer Charles Sellers called his insistence on the Rio Grande boundary “indefensible”—meaning it was logically indefensible.93 Militarily, however, Polk resolved to defend it. If the president intended Taylor’s advance simply to pressure Mexico into

93. James Schouler, History of the United States (New York, 1889), IV, 523; Justin Smith, The War with Mexico (New York, 1919), I, 449, n. 4 and 5; Sellers, Polk, Continentalist, 223.

negotiating, it seems odd that he did not order it sooner. Coming when it did, the action was more likely to provoke hostilities. Thomas Hart Benton, who had consistently favored a peaceful resolution of both the Oregon and Mexican problems, disapproved of Polk’s order but did not go public with his views.94 The Whig press publicly deplored the advance as constituting aggression.

Taylor took his time marching into the disputed territory, part of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, for it contained some eight thousand local Mexicans. It was cattle-ranching country, with scattered villages (in the largest of which, Laredo, the U.S. Army counted 1,891 persons upon occupation).95 Some of these civilians sold produce to Taylor’s army; others fled before his coming. The rancheros had already suffered heavy losses to rustlers gathering herds to stock ranches up in the Texan Republic; in the coming war they would lose everything.96 At Arroyo Colorado a Mexican military force drew up across Taylor’s front, commanding him to halt; he proceeded across the arroyo anyway, and the Mexicans withdrew without firing. “Old Rough and Ready,” as the American soldiers called their gruff, informal general (who often wore casual civilian clothes instead of a uniform), set up a supply base on the coast at Point Isabel and reached the site of present-day Brownsville in late March. “We have not one particle of right to be here,” U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Ethan Hitchcock wrote in his diary. “It looks as if the government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have a pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses.”97 Across the Rio Grande lay the Mexican town of Matamoros. The U.S. commander built a fort and trained his guns on the town center. The Mexican commander in Matamoros, Pedro de Ampudia, demanded the American army withdraw from the disputed territory or face military action. Taylor responded by blockading the mouth of the Rio Grande on 12 April, preventing Ampudia from receiving supplies by water and legally an act of war. Meanwhile, U.S. naval squadrons hovered by Veracruz and Mazatlán, ready to blockade Mexico’s chief ports on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts respectively.

94. Polk, Diary, I, 375, 390 (May 3, 11, 1846); Thomas Hart Benton, Thirty Years’ View (New York, 1856), II, 678–79.

95. Many secondary works erroneously describe the disputed area as uninhabited, but see Andres Tijerina, “Trans-Nueces,” in The United States and Mexico at War, ed. Donald Frazier (New York, 1998), 434–35.

96. J. Frank Dobie, The Longhorns (Boston, 1941), 11, 28.

97. Journal entry for March 26, 1846, in Ethan Allen Hitchcock, Fifty Years in Camp and Field, ed. W. A. Croffut (New York, 1909), 213.

In Mexico City, the Paredes government faced a terrible dilemma. Popular sentiment and the governors of the northern states demanded a stand against what they considered a U.S. invasion. The new president had indulged these calls for firmness as his stepping stone to power. Now he realized all too well that the national treasury was bankrupt, the armed forces ill prepared for a major war, and hopes of European intervention illusory. Yet the fall of Herrera demonstrated that no Mexican government could temporize and stay in power. The rancheros living in the disputed area began to wage a guerrilla war of their own, ambushing U.S. soldiers who strayed too far afield. At length, on April 23, Paredes issued a proclamation blaming the United States for initiating hostilities and directing his new commander in Matamoros, Mariano Arista, to undertake “defensive” operations, yet adding that this was not a declaration of war. Paredes may have intended a resort to arms only if Taylor crossed the Rio Grande, but Arista considered the blockade sufficient provocation and notified Taylor on the twenty-fourth that “hostilities have commenced.” That day he sent sixteen hundred cavalrymen over the river, where they engaged Thompson’s dragoons on the twenty-fifth. Mexico drifted into war confusedly and indecisively. The Mexican Congress, with whom the constitutional power rested, never did declare war. The proclamation of resistance to invasion that Paredes finally issued on July 1 served as the functional equivalent of a war declaration.98

In Washington, Polk realized by early May that a compromise solution to the Oregon controversy was imminent and that when it occurred, it would hurt him with northern Democratic expansionists. A war with Mexico would help keep his party united on the basis of patriotism, but the war needed to come first, before the Oregon settlement. Northern Democrats were already asking the wrong kind of questions to suit Polk: “Why should we not compromise our difficulties with Mexico as well as with Great Britain?” demanded the Chicago Democrat. “If it is wicked to go to war with England for disputed territory, it is not only wicked but cowardly to go to war with Mexico for the same reason.”99 The latest reports from General Taylor indicated that he expected an attack at any time. But on Saturday, May 9, after finally having a chance to talk with John Slidell in person, Polk felt he could wait no longer. He persuaded

98. Mariano Paredes, “Proclamation,” April 23, 1846, in Origins of the Mexican War, ed. Ward McAfee and Cordell Robinson (Salisbury, N.C., 1982), II, 134–35; Mariano Arista to Zachary Taylor, April 24, 1846, quoted in Charles Dufour, The Mexican War (New York, 1968), 61; Brack, Mexico Views Manifest Destiny, 117–18, 149, 165–66.

99. Quoted in Pletcher, Diplomacy of Annexation, 382.

his cabinet to support him in sending a war message to Congress immediately. (Only Bancroft voted to go on waiting for Taylor to be attacked.) The grounds on which Polk would ask Congress to declare war were refusal to receive Slidell and failure to keep up payments on acknowledged international debts. These did not constitute a strong case for war, even by nineteenth-century standards, the unmentioned real grounds being Mexico’s refusal to sell territory. The president adjourned his cabinet meeting about 2:00 p.m. Four hours later the adjutant general brought to the White House Taylor’s report of the fight on April 25. Now the president could compose a much stronger message:

The cup of forbearance had been exhausted even before the recent information from the frontier of the [Rio Grande] Del Norte. 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....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 place at the disposal of the Executive the means of prosecuting the war with vigor, and thus hastening the restoration of peace.100

When presenting this war message to Congress, Polk’s party managers did everything they could to stifle discussion, questions, and dissent. In the House of Representatives, they allowed only two hours for debate, then used up all but thirty minutes of this having presidential documents read aloud. The declaration of war (literally, an assertion that a state of war already existed by act of Mexico) was attached as a preamble to a bill appropriating $10 million for the troops at the front and authorizing the president to enlist fifty thousand more for defense against foreign invasion. The Whig opposition had wanted to be able to vote support for the troops without endorsing Polk’s claims that Mexican aggression was to blame and that war already existed. They conceded that the executive had authority to repel an invasion (in this case meaning that Taylor’s army would expel the Mexicans from the disputed area), but they wanted a thorough discussion by Congress before declaring a full-scale offensive war upon Mexico. However, with the support of the Democratic majority, the amendment attaching the preamble passed, 123 to 67. This vote reflects the actual extent of opposition to the war, rather than the tally on the combined bill, which carried 174 to 14, with 35 abstentions. “The river Nueces is the true western boundary of Texas,” declared the Kentucky

100. Presidential Messages, IV, 442–43.

Whig Garrett Davis during the brief debate. “It is our own President who began this war. He has been carrying it on for months.”101 Nevertheless, Davis and most of the Whigs felt obliged to vote for war in the form the Democratic leadership had packaged it. Twenty-two Democrats abstained, which was as far as any member of the party was willing to go in expressing doubts about the president’s methods. The fourteen irreconcilables, led by the venerable John Quincy Adams, were all northern Whigs with safe seats. “It is on Mexican soil that blood has been shed,” explained one of them, Luther Severance of Maine, and for their “manly resistance” to U.S. invasion, the Mexicans should be “honored and applauded.”102

In the Senate, opponents of the war included not only Whigs but John C. Calhoun. The politician who had done so much to make Polk president and to bring Texas into the Union now feared the consequences of more expansion. A striking figure in the Senate with his piercing eyes and shock of gray hair, Calhoun, now sixty-four years old, demanded time to study the situation and find out whether the Mexican government really intended war; he could not stomach Polk’s executive war-making. As he put it, Calhoun “could not agree to make war on Mexico by making war on the Constitution.” Fundamentally, Calhoun was not interested in territorial acquisitions unless they promised to strengthen the power of slavery. Texas certainly did, but not California and New Mexico, which the South Carolinian foresaw would provoke sectional conflict while offering little practical likelihood of slavery’s extension. He worried that war with Mexico might jeopardize relations with Britain, on which cotton-growers so heavily depended. He also feared to acquire a Mexican population of mixed race that, if enfranchised, would breach the virtual monopoly of political power enjoyed by white Americans.103

Repeated tests of strength between the war and peace parties all produced votes of about 26 to 20 (the minority consisting of eighteen Whigs and the two senators from South Carolina). On May 12, the combined military appropriation and war declaration measure passed 40 to 2; Calhoun and two Whig senators abstained. These figures hid considerable opposition even among the Democrats. Several Van Buren Democrats, including Benton and John Dix of New York, voted for war only with great reluctance and after hard political arm-twisting. Benton pointed out

101. Congressional Globe, 29th Cong., 1st sess., 794.

102. Quoted in Sellers, Polk, Continentalist, 421.

103. Ernest Lender, Reluctant Imperialists: Calhoun, the South Carolinians, and the Mexican War (Baton Rouge, 1984), 6–10, 62–63.

on the Senate floor that the Mexican Congress had not declared war and the Mexican president had undertaken only defensive military actions.104

The unwillingness of the Whigs to oppose the war any more forcefully reflected their reading of public opinion. Polk had assessed the feelings of the popular majority accurately, at least for the moment. He had decided that imperialism was a winner with the electorate, that he could stir it up and take advantage of it politically. The exciting news from Texas and the Rio Grande would play to feelings of bellicose nationalism even more successfully than had Oregon and the Columbia River. The Whigs remembered all too well how the Federalist Party had opposed the War of 1812 and been rewarded with permanent oblivion. They resolved not to repeat that mistake.

On May 13, 1846, the president issued a proclamation announcing the state of war. The secretary of state suggested he also issue a statement that the United States had not gone to war to acquire territory; Buchanan thought this would reassure Britain and France, which might otherwise intervene to preempt the United States taking California. Polk immediately rejected the advice, as he described in his diary:

I told him that though we had not gone to war for conquest, yet it was clear that in making peace we would if practicable obtain California and such other portion of the Mexican territory as would be sufficient to indemnify our claimants on Mexico, and to defray the expenses of the war which that power by her long continued wrongs and injuries had forced us to wage. I told him it was well known that the Mexican Government had no other means of indemnifying us....I was much astonished at the views expressed by Mr. Buchanan.105

104. Congressional Globe, 29th Cong., 1st sess., 796 (Calhoun), 798 (Benton), 803–4 (votes). See also John Schroeder, Mr. Polk’s War (Madison, Wisc., 1973), 20–26.

105. Polk, Diary, I, 397–99 (May 13, 1846).

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