Friday, May 4th, 2012...9:30 am
You’ve Got Mail: Congressman Lincoln Stands against the Mexican War
Abraham Lincoln was elected to his only term in Congress in August 1846, representing Illinois’ Seventh District. The future president’s term began in December 1847, more than a year after his election, and he was ready to make his mark in the House of Representatives, choosing opposition to the Mexican War as one of his signature issues. Like many in the Whig Party, Lincoln opposed President James K. Polk’s 1846 decision to go to war with Mexico, asserting that the Democratic president initiated the conflict to acquire land for the expansion of slavery rather than defending American territory as the administration had argued, and thus the war was unnecessary and unconstitutional.
In a January 29, 1848 letter, William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner back home in Springfield, Illinois, as well as a Whig who supported the war, criticized his fellow lawyer’s public statements, especially those relating to the war’s constitutionality. Responding on February 15, Lincoln defended his anti-war stance, arguing that by allowing a president to “invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem in necessary to repel an invasion, and allow him to do so, whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose…you allow him to make war at pleasure.” It was to prevent such abuse of power, according to Lincoln, that the Constitution granted war-making powers to Congress rather than to the president. “Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars,” he claimed, “pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This, our Constitution understood to be the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions.” This is why the Founding Fathers “resolved to so frame the Constitution that no man should hold power of bringing this oppression upon us.” It was Herndon’s stance, then, that was in opposition to the Constitution, since it “places our President where kings have always stood.”
This letter to Herndon is one of several Lincoln letters owned by Houghton Library. It came to Harvard in 1915 as a bequest of Mrs. James T. Fields. You can see more of Houghton’s Lincoln collections in our online exhibition, Harvard’s Lincoln.
This post is part of a weekly feature on the Houghton Library blog, “You’ve Got Mail,” based on letters in Houghton Library. Every Friday this year a Houghton staff member will select a letter from the diverse collections in the Library and put that letter into context. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the You’veGotMail tag.
[Thanks to Tom Horrocks, Associate Librarian for Collections, for contributing this post.]