Polk in light of the War Power within Hamilton’s Dissimilitude, Rhetoric and Action
The republican president was insulated by the people through the Electoral College in order to prevent demagoguery. Importantly, congress was designated the responsibility to vote for the initiation of a military strike upon a foreign and sovereign nation because congress is a representative body of [we] “the people.” Madison and Jefferson expressed in letters their approbation for the war power to be transferred from the executive [King] to the legislature (Fisher, 2000, 1645). Indeed, Article I, Section 8 explicitly authorizes Congress with the right to declare war, and “Grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water” (Rossiter, 1963, 533). The latter was associated with initiating a short war—reprisal—and importantly transferred to the legislature (Fisher, 2000, 1649).
Hamilton’s dissimilitude was first breached by President Polk. Previous wars had either been “authorized” or “declared” by Congress. However, the Mexican War was already underway when Polk sent Congress a special message stating that Mexican troops shed blood on American soil and that “War exists” (Merk, 1969, 120). For example, the main point to Polk’s speech to Congress was, “I invoke the prompt action of Congress to recognize the existence of the war, and to place at the disposition of the Executive the means of prosecuting the war with vigor, and thus hastening the restoration of peace” (1846, speech).
While Fulmore (1901) explained that the Rio Grande was the de facto border at the time of the hostilities, Merk (1969) illuminated that the Nueces River was the border on maps used by Benton, Van Buren, and Calhoun during the contentious times under examination. The Nueces River border was 130 miles north and east of the Rio Grande. And though the Mexican President signed an agreement making the Rio Grande the border in order to secure his own release from capture, the Mexican Congress did not approve the measure (Merk, 1969).
The rhetoric by Polk addressing Congress was a half-truth. The United States was attacked and engaged in war, but it was because Polk had ordered Taylor to march to the Rio Grande and engage a siege on a port on the Mexican side. Once positioned, Taylor “planted his cannon so as to command Matamoros, on the other side, and blockaded the river” (Merk, 1969, 121). As a result, the Mexican army was unable to receive supplies and thus designed to end the siege by attacking Taylor and his encampment. In doing so, Americans were killed, which led to Polk’s address to the Congress. Polk’s message caused a stampede to declare war, though there were dissenters. For example, Calhoun, because of maps and a history with decision-making, vehemently opposed the preamble of the bill to declare war, which read: “…a state of war exists between that government [Mexico] and the United States” (Merk, 1969, 122). Some exclaimed that a skirmish made a falsehood of the preamble, yet the preamble remained, and Calhoun only abstained from the vote.
Polk has successfully initiated war and then co-opted congressional approval. While Fulmore (1901) argued that the war was the result of ecstatic westward expansion, Merk (1969) adds that the Whigs wouldn’t argue against the war because they feared “the fate which had overtaken their predecessors”—the Federalists, who became extinct after their vote against the War of 1812 (127). The demagoguery did not play upon the fear of passions that Mexico would attack the United States; rather, that Mexico had attacked the United States and that Congress must act in the midst of war. It was unacceptable that Congress was so late to declare war!
The battle to control the truth and to delegate the liar ignited between Polk and the Whigs, and the Whigs won. They supported the troops while denouncing the war as “iniquitous and unconstitutional” (Merk, 1969, 127). The Whigs publicly thanked the troops and passed resolutions praising Generals Taylor and Scott. Six months after congress had declared war, the Whigs took back the House and thus controlled the power of the purse. Polk’s democratic party lost seats everywhere besides the South, where they remained about the same as before the election. Soon thereafter, Polk addressed Congress in his annual message and “devoted two thirds” of it to recount the initiation of the war. Whigs decried Polk’s message as an “artful perversion of the truth…to make the people believe a lie” (Merk, 1963, 129). In the end, Polk was censured by the House of Representatives for his actions which “unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun [war] by the President of the United States” (american.presidents.org, 2006).
The counterfactual of Hamilton’s dissimilitude regarding war powers was subverted by Polk. The critical juncture occurred when Polk ordered Taylor to the disputed border and to lay siege to the undisputed land of Mexico. The point of departure caused vehement protests by the opposition party, who, like W. Bush, supported the troops but opposed the war. The censure of Polk may have returned Hamilton’s dissimilitude counterfactual. It would be about a century before another president engaged war and then informed the congress of military actions in a foreign land.
Adler, D. 1988. The Constitution and Presidential Warmaking: The Enduring Debate. Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 103, No. 1, pp. 1-36.
Merk, F. 1969. Dissent in the Mexican War. Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Third Series, Vol. 81, pp.120-136.
Nugent, W. 2007. The American Habit of Empire, and the Cases of Polk and Bush. The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 1, pp. 4-24
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