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37 Triumph And Tragedy: America At The Turn Of The Century

Representative Abraham Lincoln Disagrees with President Polk (1846)

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Representative Abraham Lincoln Disagrees with President Polk (1846)

Polk's statement on the start of the war continued to be a matter of dispute between defenders of the war and its opponents. A young congressional representative from Illinois who opposed the war challenged the president's version of events. Excerpted below are passages from a speech by Abraham Lincoln on January 12, 1848. Note that this material comes from the Congressional Globe, which paraphrased the statements of members of congress instead of directly quoting them. Thus the frequent use of "he" in the passage refers to Lincoln. Read Lincoln's remarks carefully and compare them with Polk's comments.


First, as to the declaration that the Rio Grande was the western boundary of Louisiana, as purchased by France. All knew that purchase was in 1803; and the President himself told us that by the treaty of 1819 we sold the land east of the Rio Grande — to the Sabine, he believed — to Spain. He wanted to make but a single remark upon this point. How the line that divided your land and mine still remains the dividing line after I have sold my land to you, was to him past all comprehension. And how a man, with the honest purpose of telling "the truth, and nothing but the truth," could have ever thought of introducing such a piece of "proof" was equally incomprehensible.

The next point was, the declaration that the Republic of Texas always claimed the Rio Grande as her western boundary. That was not true in point of fact. She did not "always" claim it. she did claim it, but not always. The constitution by which she was admitted into the Union — which, being her last act as a Republic, might be said to be her "last will and testament," "revoking all others" — made no such claim. But suppose it were true that she had always claimed it, had not Mexico always claimed that it was not so? If Texas had always claimed that the Rio Grande was her western boundary, had not Mexico always claimed directly the reverse? So that it was nothing but claim against claim, and there was nothing proved until you got behind the claims, and saw which stood upon the best foundation. And what he here said in reference to these claims of his was equally applicable to all the President said about Texas, under her republican constitution, having always claimed to the Rio Grande; and her laying out her congressional districts, towns, counties, &c., all stood on the same ground. You might just as well say I could get a valid title to your land by writing a deed and signing it as to say that Texas could get the land of another by, at home, including within her boundary, upon paper, a certain piece of territory, when it was itself where she dare not go. The thing was preposterous!

Next came the declaration that Santa Anna, by his treaty with the Republic of Texas, recognized the Rio Grande as the western boundary of Texas. . . . The fact was, it was nothing more or less than an article of agreement, and it was so called on its own face, entered into by Santa Anna, by which to get his liberty. He stipulated he would not himself take up arms, nor encourage the Mexican people to do so, during the existing war, leaving it expressly understood that there was no termination of the war. Nobody supposed it was a treaty, because it was well known, as it has many times been stated, that Santa Anna, being a prisoner of war at the time, could not have made a treaty, if he had tried to do so. but he never intended to make — he never made — any such thing. There was no mark, no characteristic about it of a treaty at all.

He next came to notice the declaration of the President, that Texas before annexation, and the United States since annexation, had exercised jurisdiction over the country between the two rivers — the Nueces and the Rio Grande. . . . He did not understand that exercising jurisdiction over territory between two rivers necessarily implied the exercise of jurisdiction over the whole territory between them . . . . He knew, then, from actual experience, that it was possible [a laugh] to exercise jurisdiction over a piece of land between two rivers without owning the whole country between then. And when you come to examine this declaration, this was just the amount of it.


[From Congressional Globe, 30th Congress, 1st Session, p. 64.]

Bartolomeo de Las Casas was a Spanish cleric who became an early defender of the Indians in the New World. He was one of the first to argue that the Indians were civilized and worthy of the same respect as other humans. What follows is an excerpt from his History of the Indies, in which he describes the cruelty inflicted by the Spanish when they overran Cuba.

They [the Spaniards] arrived at the town of Caonao in the evening. Here they found many people, who had prepared a great deal of food consisting of cassava bread and fish, because they had a large river close by and also were near the sea. In a little square were 2,000 Indians, all squatting because they have this custom, all staring, frightened, at the mares. Nearby was a large bohio, or large house, in which were more than 500 other Indians, close-packed and fearful, who did not dare come out.

When some of the domestic Indians the Spaniards were taking with them as servants (who were more than 1,000 souls . . . ) wished to enter the large house, the Cuban Indians had chickens ready and said to them: "Take thesedo not enter here." For they already knew that the Indians who served the Spaniards were not apt to perform any other deeds than those of their masters.

There was a custom among the Spaniards that one person, appointed by the captain, should be in charge of distributing to each Spaniard the food and other things the Indians gave. And while the Captain was thus on his mare and the others mounted on theirs, and the father himself was observing how the bread and fish were distributed, a Spaniard, in whom the devil is thought to have clothed himself, suddenly drew his sword. Then the whole hundred drew theirs and began to rip open the bellies and, to cut and kill those lambsmen, women, children, and old folk, all of whom were seated, off guard and frightened, watching the mares and the Spaniards. And within two credos, not a man of all of them there remains alive.

The Spaniards enter the large house nearby, for this was happening at its door, and in the same way, with cuts and stabs, begin to kill as many as they found there, so that a stream of blood was running, as if a great number of cows had perished. Some of the Indians who could make haste climbed up the poles and woodwork of the house to the top, and thus escaped.

The cleric had withdrawn shortly before this massacre to where another small square of the town was formed, near where they had lodged him . . .

The cleric, moved to wrath, opposes and rebukes them harshly to prevent them, and having some respect for him, they stopped what they were going to do, so the forty were left alive. The five go to kill where the others were killing. And as the cleric had been detained in hindering the slaying of the forty carriers, when he went he found a heap of dead, which the Spaniards had made among the Indians, which they thought was a horrible sight.

When Narvaez, the captain, saw him he said: "How does Your Honor like what these our Spaniards have done?"

Seeing so many cut to pieces before him, and very upset at such a cruel event, the cleric replied: "That I command you and them to the devil!" . . . Then the cleric leaves him, and goes elsewhere through some groves seeking Spaniards to stop them from killing. For they were passing through the groves looking for someone to kill, sparing neither boy, child, woman, nor old person. And they did more, in that certain Spaniards went to the road to the river, which was nearby. Then all the Indians who had escaped with wounds, stabs, and cutsall who could not flee to throw themselves into the river to save themselvesmet with the Spaniards who finished them.


Author : George Sanderlin

Citation / Source : From George Sanderlin (ed. and trans.), Bartolom de las Casas: A Selection of His Writings (New York: Knopf, 1971), pp. 63-65

Reference : America: A Narrative History, 6th Edition, Chapter 13; Inventing America, Chapter 13; Give Me Liberty, Chapter 12



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