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War Fever and Antiwar Protests Previous Next
Digital History ID 3266


During the first few weeks following the declaration of war a frenzy of prowar hysteria swept the country. Two hundred thousand men responded to a call for 50,000 volunteers In New York, placards bore the slogan "Mexico or Death." Many newspapers, especially in the North, declared that the war would benefit the Mexican people by bringing them the blessings of democracy and liberty. The Boston Times said that an American victory "must necessarily be a great blessing," because it would bring "peace into a land where the sword has always been the sole arbiter between factions" and would introduce "the reign of law where license has existed for a generation."

But from the war's very beginning, a small but highly visible group of intellectuals, clergymen, pacifists, abolitionists, and Whig and Democratic politicians denounced the war as brutal aggression against a "poor, feeble, distracted country."

Literary and reform circles were particularly vocal in their opposition to the war. Congregationalist minister Theodore Parker declared that if the "war be right then Christianity is wrong, a falsehood, a lie." Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison's militant newspaper, the Liberator, expressed open support for the Mexican people: "Every lover of Freedom and humanity throughout the world must wish them the most triumphant success."

Most Whigs supported the war--in part, because two of the leading American generals, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, were Whigs, and in part because they remembered that opposition to the War of 1812 had destroyed the Federalist party. But many prominent Whigs, from the South as well as the North, openly expressed opposition. Thomas Corwin of Ohio denounced the war as merely the latest example of American injustice to Mexico: "If I were a Mexican I would tell you, "Have you not room enough in your own country to bury your dead." “Henry Clay declared, "This is no war of defense, but one of unnecessary and offensive aggression."

A freshman Congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln lashed out against the war, calling it immoral, proslavery, and a threat to the nation's republican values. In Congress, he proposed the so-called "Spot Resolution," demanding that President Polk identify the precise spot on which Mexicans had "shed American blood on American soil." One of Lincoln's constituents branded him "the Benedict Arnold of our district," and he was denied renomination by his own party.

As newspapers informed their readers about the hardships of life on the front, public enthusiasm for the war began to fade. The war did not turn out to be the romantic exploit that Americans envisioned. Troops complained that their food was "green with slime" and "acted as an instantaneous emetic." Diarrhea, amoebic dysentery, measles, and yellow fever ravaged American soldiers. Seven times as many Americans died of disease and exposure as died of battlefield injuries. Of the 90,000 Americans who served in the war, only 1,721 died in action. Another 11,155 died from disease and exposure to the elements.

Public support for the war was further eroded by reports of brutality against Mexican civilians. Newspaper reporters claimed that the chapparral was "strewn with the skeletons of Mexicans sacrificed" by American troops. After one of their members was murdered, the Arkansas volunteer cavalry surrounded a group of Mexican peasants and began an "indiscriminate and bloody massacre of the poor creatures." A young lieutenant named George G. Meade reported that volunteers in Matamoros robbed the citizens, stole their cattle, and killed innocent civilians "for no other object than their own amusement." If only a tenth of the horror stories were true, General Winfield Scott wrote, it was enough "to make Heaven weep, & every American of Christian morals blush for his country."

Dissent even made its way to the battlefield. A group of enlisted Irish-Catholic Americans, shocked by the desecration of Catholic churches, deserted to the Mexican side, formed the San Patricio Battalion, and fought against the American army. At Churubusco, 65 members of the battalion (which also consisted of foreign nationals resident in Mexico) were captured. Fifty were executed and 11 others were punished with fifty lashes apiece and the letter D (for deserter) branded on their cheeks.

A young essayist and poet named Henry David Thoreau staged the best known act of protest against the Mexican war. On July 23, 1846, the constable of Concord, Massachusetts, arrested the Transcendentalist poet for failure to pay the state poll tax (a head tax on male citizens between the ages of 21 and 70). The constable actually offered to pay the tax if Thoreau was short of money, but Thoreau insisted that he refused to pay on principle, as a protest against his country's involvement in the Mexican War. The constable then placed Thoreau in the local jail. Thoreau spent only a single night in jail because his tax was paid, much to his disgust, by one of his relatives.

In response to his arrest Thoreau wrote an essay that became a source of inspiration for Leo Tolstoi, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Thoreau entitled his essay "Civil Disobedience." In it he declared that if all citizens who opposed the Mexican War followed his example and went to jail for their beliefs, the government could be forced to end the conflict. It was the duty of every individual to protest a government policy, even though it had been adopted with majority consent, when it conflicted with moral law. "Any man more right than his neighbor," he wrote, "constitutes a majority of one."

So how should an individual protest a moral wrong? Here Thoreau was at his most creative. He described a type of disobedience that disrupted the everyday workings of society and dramatized the moral issues at stake, without resorting to violence. Individual acts of protest, he argued, would awaken the conscience of those people whose consciences could still be stirred.

Out of Thoreau's jailing grew a legend. Ralph Waldo Emerson, America's greatest philosopher, visited Thoreau in jail. Emerson asked, "Henry, why are you here?" Thoreau replied, "Why are you not here?"

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