Trump, Polk, and Political Posturing at the Border

By Kaleena Fraga

(To check out this piece in podcast form click here)

The Trump administration has begun to push its case that the situation on the Mexican border is in such crisis that the president needs to declare a national emergency. This action would allow the president to fulfill a campaign promise and build his wall, which is currently the subject of a stalemate shutdown in Congress.

Political posturing at the border, and the exaggeration of crisis, is reminiscent of another president who sought to use the Mexican border for political and territorial gains. As president, James Polk stirred up a fake crisis with Mexico that triggered a war, and resulted in the acquisition of 525,000 square miles of new land.

Polk had many detractors. Abraham Lincoln, then a young Whig Congressman, considered the war a political ploy meant to expand slavery into new territory. In a speech on the House floor, Lincoln detailed how Polk had created a crisis at the border in order to provoke a war. Lincoln was joined in his dissent by John C. Calhoun, a democrat (and a fierce anti-abolitionist), and by Alexander Stephens, who would later act as the vice president of the Confederacy of the United States. Ulysses S. Grant, who served in the conflict as a young man, would later call the Mexican-American war the “most evil war.” In his memoirs, he wrote: “Even if the annexation itself could be justified, the manner in which the subsequent war was forced upon Mexico cannot.”

Still, the office of the presidency is a strong one, and Polk had his war. On May 13, 1846, Congress voted overwhelming to support the president. This came after Polk sent General Zachary Taylor to a provocative position on the Rio Grande, which prompted Mexico to attack. Polk, declaring that “American blood” had been shed on “American soil” had his justification for an expanded conflict.

Polk expected a short war and a quick victory, but the conflict would go on for two years. Ironically, the war would boost the political fortunes of Taylor, of the opposite Whig party. He would succeed Polk in the next election.

Writing about the war at the end of his life, Grant drew a line between the conflict with Mexico and the subsequent war between states.

“To us it was an empire and of incalculable value; but it might have been obtained by other means. The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.”

If President Trump declares a national emergency in order to build his wall, that may open a whole new can of worms. But one thing is for sure–he’s not the first president to use politics at the border as a means to an end.