Abraham Lincoln to William H. Herndon, 1 February 18481Washington, Feb. 1– 1848 Dear William:
Your letter of the 19th ult was received last night, and for which I am much obliged–2 The only thing in it that I wish to talk to you about at once, is that, because of my vote for Mr Ashmun's amendment, you fear that you and I disagree about the war– I regret this, not because of any fear we shall remain disagreed, after you shall have read this letter, but because, if you misunderstand, I fear other good friends will also– That vote affirms that the war was unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced by the President; and I will stake my life, that if you had been in my place, you would have voted just as I did– Would you have voted what you felt you knew to be a lie? I know you would not– Would you have gone out of the House—skulked the vote? I expect not– If you had skulked one vote, you would have had to skulk many more, before the end of the session–3 Richardson's resolutions, introduced before I made any move, or gave any vote upon the subject, make the direct question of the justice of the war; so that no man can be silent if he would– You are compelled
<Page 2>to speak; and your only alternative is to tell the truth or tell a lie– I can not doubt which you would do–4
This vote, has nothing to do, in determining my votes on the questions of supplies– I have always intended, and still intend, to vote supplies; perhaps not in the precise form recommended by the President, but in a better form for all purposes, except locofoco party purposes– It is in this particular you seem to be mistaken– The locos are untiring in their effort to make the impression that all who vote supplies, or take part in the war, do, of necessity, approve the Presidents conduct in the beginning of it; but the whigs have, from the beginning, made and kept the distinction between the two– In the very first act, nearly all the whigs voted against the preamble declaring that war existed by the act of Mexico, and yet nearly all of them voted for the supplies–5 As to the whig men who have participated in the war, so far as they have spoken to my hearing, they do not hesitate to denounce, as unjust, the Presidents conduct in the beginning of the war– They do not suppose that such denunciation, is dictated by undying hatred to them, as the Register would have it believed– There are two such whigs on this floor, Col Haskell, and
<Page 3>Major Gaines– The former, fought as a Col[Colonel] by the side of Col Baker at Cerro Gordo, and stands side by side with me, in the vote, that you seem to be dissatisfied with–6 The latter, the history of whose capture with Cassius Clay, you well know, had not arrived here when that vote was given; but as I understand, he stands ready to give just such a vote, whenever an occasion shall present– Baker too, who is now here, says the truth is undoubtedly that way, and whenever he shall speak out, he will say so– Col Donaphin too, the favorite whig of Missouri, and who overran all Northern Mexico, on his return home in a public speech at St Louis, condemned the administration in relation to the war as I remember–7 G. T. M Davis, who has been through almost the whole war, declares in favour of Mr Clay, from which I infer that he adopts the sentiments of Mr Clay, generally at least–8 On the other hand, I have heard of but one whig, who has been to the war, attempting to justify the President's conduct– That one is Capt Bishop, editor of the Charleston Courier, and a very clever fellow– I do not mean this letter for the public, but for you– Before it reaches you, you will have seen and read my pamphlet speech, and perhaps, scared anew, by it–
After you get over your scare, read it over again, sentence by sentence, and tell me honestly what you think of it– I condensed all I could for fear of being cut off by the hour rule, and when I got through, I had spoke but 45 minutes–9Yours foreverA. Lincoln
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Feby[February] —1 — 48
3“Skulk” in this context means shirking one’s duties or responsibilities.
Lesley Brown, ed., The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 2:2887.
4The vote Lincoln refers to was on George Ashmun’s amendment to a resolution expressing thanks to General Zachary Taylor and his troops. On January 3, 1848, Representative John W. Houston introduced a joint resolution of thanks to General Taylor and his soldiers. Representative Robert C. Schenck moved that the resolution be referred to the Committee on Military Affairs. Representative Thomas J. Henley moved to amend Schenck’s motion by adding the following: “with instructions to insert in the said resolution the following: 'engaged as they were, in defending the rights and honor of the country.’” Ashmun proposed to amend these instructions by adding at the end the following: “in a war unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States." The House adopted Ashmun’s amendment either by a vote of eighty-two yeas to eighty-one nays or eighty-five yeas to eighty-one nays, with Lincoln voting yea. (The House Journal and the Congressional Globe differ on the vote tabulation.) There is no evidence that the House resumed consideration of this joint resolution or its amendments. On February 7, 1848, the House passed a joint resolution of thanks to Taylor without Ashmun’s or Henley’s amendments by a vote of 181 yeas to one nay, with Lincoln voting yea. The Senate adopted the joint resolution with amendments on February 16, and the House concurred in the Senate amendments on May 4. President James K. Polk approved the resolution in final form on May 9.
On December 20, 1847, William A. Richardson proposed three resolutions justifying the war as “just and necessary,” and “prosecuted with the sole purpose of vindicating our national rights and honor,” and insisting that the United States “had no alternative,” in the face of repeated rejections of overture for peace, “but the most vigorous prosecution of the war, in such manner, consistent with the law of nations, as will make the enemy feel all its calamities and burthens.”
U.S. House Journal. 1848. 30th Cong., 1st sess., 131-32, 183-85, 365-66, 765, 773, 782; U.S. Senate Journal. 1848. 30th Cong., 1st sess., 178-79; Cong. Globe, 30th Cong., 1st Sess., 59, 95, 320 (1848).
5Lincoln references the preamble in Congress’s declaration of war with Mexico enacted on May 13, 1846. When Democrats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate included this preamble in the bill raising troops and supplies to conduct the war, the Whigs faced a dilemma. Knowing the fate of the Federalist Party for opposing the War of 1812, most congressional Whigs recognized that it was essential for their political survival to appropriate men and material to carry the war to a successful conclusion, but bristled at the idea of exonerating Polk for his culpability for instigating the conflict. In the end, only fourteen of seventy-seven Whigs in the House and two of twenty-four in the Senate voted against the bill of May 13, 1846.
“An Act providing for the Prosecution of the Existing War Between the United States and the Republic of Mexico,” 13 May 1846, Statutes at Large of the United States 9 (1862):9-10; Michael F. Holt, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 233.
6Along with Lincoln, William T. Haskell voted for the Ashmun amendment.
U.S. House Journal. 1848. 30th Cong., 1st sess., 184.
7Alexander W. Doniphan delivered this speech at a formal reception in honor of himself and his troops in St. Louis, on July 4, 1847.
William Elsey Connelley, Doniphan’s Expedition and the Conquest of New Mexico and California (Topeka, KS: William Elsey Connelley, 1907), 591; Roger D. Launius, Alexander William Doniphan: Portrait of a Missouri Moderate (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1997), 192.
8Lincoln may be referring to George T. M. Davis coming out in support of Henry Clay for president in 1848.
In a major policy speech at Lexington, Kentucky, in November 1847, Clay had condemned the Mexican War and President James K. Polk, characterizing the conflict as a war of aggression and flatly rejecting Democratic hopes to obtain Mexican territory in the war’s aftermath.
David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, Henry Clay: The Essential American (New York: Random House, 2010), 427.
9Lincoln delivered this speech before the House of Representatives on January 12, 1848.
Autograph Letter Signed, 4 page(s), Lincoln Manuscripts, Lilly Library, Indiana University (Bloomington, IN).