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The Impending Crisis

Chapter One"

American Nationalism
Achieves an Ominous Fulfillment"

On Saturday evening, February 19, 1848, a little after dusk, a special courier arrived in Washington at the end of a remarkably rapid journey from Mexico City. He had left the Mexican capital scarcely two weeks earlier, had hastened through the mountains and down to Vera Cruz, where he took ship to Mobile, and from there had pushed on in only four days to Washington. His first act upon arriving was to deliver to Mrs. Nicholas P. Trist two letters from her husband in Mexico, after which he went on to the house of Secretary Of State James Buchanan. To Buchanan, he delivered a treaty which Trist had negotiated at Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2 to terminate the war with Mexico. By this treaty the United States was to acquire an area of more than 500,000 square miles, including what is now California, Nevada, and Utah, most of New Mexico and Arizona, and part of Wyoming and Colorado--next to the Louisiana Purchase, the largest single addition to the national domain.

More than a century later, readers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and even Las Vegas might suppose that such a vast acquisition would have been hailed with wild enthusiasm, but this was by no means true. On the contrary, James K. Polk, a purposeful man then in the third year of his presidency, found the treaty most unwelcome. True, its terms were closely in accord with what he had wanted when he sent Trist to Mexico in the preceding April. But since that time, a great deal had happened. In September, General in Chief Winfield Scott had marched victorious into Mexico City. The occupation of thecapital had brought Mexico to a crisis during which Santa Anna resigned as president, leaving the government one step away from collapse and the country itself ripe for acquisition. These events had stimulated some of the eagle-screaming expansionists in the United States to enlarge their aspirations, and to join in a clamor, which had been growing ever since 1846, for the annexation of the entire Mexican republic. Even before these developments took place, Polk had prepared to raise the price of peace, and as he made plans for his annual message at the end of 1847, he drafted a statement threatening that "if Mexico protracted the war," more land cessions, in addition to California and the Southwest, "must be required as further indemnity." His political caution later led him to fall back upon more ambiguous language, but by 1848 his original goals in California and the Southwest, which had once seemed so bold and aspiring, now began to appear parochial and unimaginative.

At the same time, too, when victory was swelling Polk's ambitions, his emissary of peace had fallen into deep disfavor. Nicholas Trist, whose only previous distinctions had been his marriage to a granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson and his office as chief clerk in the State Department, had been selected to go to Mexico because he seemed a loyal Democrat who would do as he was told and would leave any of the potential glory to be harvested by Secretary Buchanan or other luminaries. But he had greatly disappointed Polk. First, he had indicated to the Mexicans a willingness to consider yielding the area in south Texas between the Nueces and the Rio Grande, which his instructions had given him no discretion to do. Thisalone determined Polk, in October, to hasten his recall, which had already been ordered simply because the president did not want to appear too anxious for peace. Then, in December, the president learned that Trist, after initially quarreling bitterly with Winfield Scott, had become a warm friend of the Whig general in chief, and that the two of them had planned to use Scott's war fund to buy a treaty from the Mexican peace commissioners. It was the bane of Polk's presidency that his best generals were Whigs, whom he hated more than Mexicans, and he had no intention of countenancing a Democratic peace commissioner who would collaborate with them. Polk, now thoroughly aroused by the reports of the use of bribery, had begun to plan the recall of Scott and was restlessly awaiting the return of his dismissed emissary.

Then the incredible happened. On January 15, a sixty-five-page letter arrived from Trist, who had not received the message of October 25 recalling him until he was already deep in negotiations for a treaty. He knew the administration wanted a treaty; he thought it was within his power to achieve peace and his moral duty not to waste this power. He believed that the letter recalling him was not binding because it was written without awareness of the circumstances in Mexico City. Thus the chief clerk, who had been appointed partly because of his expected pliancy, refused to be recalled and wrote on December 6 to inform the government that in his capacity as a private citizen he was continuing to negotiate a treaty of peace.

The administration could use this treaty or not, as it saw fit. For good measure, Trist lectured the president: he hinted that Polk planned a wrongfulwar of conquest; he implied that he and General Scott would save the administration in spite of itself-, he denounced Polk's close friend Gideon Pillow as an "intriguer ... of incomprehensible haseness of character." When Polk read this, his anger overflowed, and words of choking fury poured out on the pages of his diary: "His despatch is arrogant, impudent, and very insulting to this government, and even personally offensive to the President....It is manifest to me that he has become the tool of General Scott...I have never in my life felt so indignant...he is destitute of honour or principle...a very base man."

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"The finest work of a fine historian."--C. Vann Woodward"In contrast to so much of recent American historical writing, "The Impending Crisis "is history in the grand tradition. Its concerns are philosophical; it asks questions which have been eclipsed by newer interests. It seeks to examine the nature of the political process and the underlying patterns of historical causation. On these subjects, Potter's insights are profound and original."--Eric Foner, "The New York Times Book Review""It is magnificent."--Walter Clemons, "Newsweek"

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