The battle between President George W. Bush and Congress over funding for military operations has dominated the news in recent weeks and threatens to continue indefinitely. While the dispute is perhaps inevitable, given the political situation in Washington, it certainly is not new.
A similar debate raged during the Mexican American War. The war, which lasted from 1845 – 1848, is little remembered by most people who slept through high school history class. Civil War buffs, however, know the war served as a proving ground for young Army officers who one day would lead armies in blue and gray. One of those young men, a future Union General and President, U.S. Grant, felt the war was “one of the most unjust [wars] ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”
Although not nearly so close to the realities of the war, another future president made his voice of opposition heard as well. When the Mexican American war began, Abraham Lincoln was a first-term Congressman from Illinois and a member of the Whig party, many of whom opposed the war.
While Grant’s service in the Army no doubt limited his criticism to personal conversations and letters, Lincoln was under no such constraint. He voted against the war on every opportunity. He joined with 66 of his fellow Whigs in voting for an amendment accusing President James Polk of “unnecessarily and unconstitutionally” starting the war.
Shortly after the amendment was defeated, Lincoln gave an impassioned speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, which point by point refuted every justification given by Polk for the war.
The cost in blood during the war was relatively light, at least for the Americans. The cost in treasure, however, was substantial. The war lasted much longer than the president expected and the cost to keep the Army in the field continued to mount.
Since Congress held the purse strings of the federal government the Whigs and others opposed to the war had a perfect opportunity to limit the president’s war policy by refusing additional funding for supplies and equipment.
Lincoln saw the war as unjust, believed Polk had the blood of the war “crying to Heaven against him,” and saw no justification for allowing the war to drag on. Yet, every time the issue came to a vote he supported the troops.