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I Am indebted to Mr. Frank Beverly Williams for these illustrative notes.
This series of the Biglow Papers relates to the Mexican War. It expresses the sentiment of New England, and particularly of Massachusetts, on that conflict, which in its aim and conduct had little of honor for the American Republic. The war was begun and prosecuted in the interest of Southern slaveholders. It was essential to the vitality of slavery that fresh fields should constantly be opened to it. Agriculture was almost the sole industry in which slaves could be profitably employed. That their labor should be wasteful and careless to preserve the productive powers of the soil was inevitable. New land was ever in demand, and the history of slavery in the United States is one long series of struggles for more territory. It was with this end in view that a colony of roving, adventurous Americans, settled in the thinly populated and poorly governed region now known as Texas, revolted from the Mexican government and secured admission to the Union, thus bringing on the war with Mexico. The Northern Whigs had protested against annexation, but after the war began, their resistance grew more and more feeble. In the vain effort to retain their large Southern constituent, they sacrificed justice to expediency and avoided an issue that would not be put down. The story of the Mexican War is the story of the gradual decline of the great Whig party, and of the growth of that organization, successively known as the Liberty, Free-Soil, and Republican party, whose policy was the exclusion of slavery from all new territory. One more victory was granted to the Whigs in 1848. After that their strength failed rapidly. Northern sentiment was being roused to a sense of righteous indignation by Southern aggressions and the fervid exhortations of Garrison and his co-workers in the anti-slavery cause. Few, however, followed Garrison into disloyalty to the Constitution. The greater number preferred to stay in the Union and use such lawful political means as were available for the restriction of slavery. Their wisdom was demonstrated by the election of Abraham Lincoln twelve years after the Mexican War closed.
“ A cruetin Sarjunt.” The act of May 13, 1846, authorized President Polk to employ the militia, and call out 50,000 volunteers, if necessary. He immediately called for the full number of volunteers, asking Massachusetts for 777 men. On May 26 Governor Briggs issued a proclamation for the enrollment of the regiment. As the President's call was merely a request and not an order, many Whigs and the Abolitionists were for refusing it. The Liberator for June 5 severely censured the governor for complying, and accused him of not carrying out the resolutions of the last Whig Convention, which had pledged the party“ to present as rm a front of opposition to the institution as was consistent with their allegiance to the Constitution.”
“ Massachusetts she's akneelin' An allusion to the governor's call for troops (cf. note to p. 52) as well as to the vote on the War Bill. On May 11, 1846, the President sent to the House of Representatives his well-known message declaring the existence of war brought on “ by the act of Mexico,” and asking for a supply of $10,000,000. Of the seven members from Massachusetts, all Whigs, two, Robert C. Winthrop, of Boston, and Amos Abbott, of Andover, voted for the bill. The Whigs throughout the country, remembering the fate of the party which had opposed the last war with England, sanctioned the
measure as necessary for the preservation of the army, then in peril by the unauthorized acts of the President. Page 49.
“ Ha’n't they sold . . . env’ys w’iz ?” South Carolina, Louisiana, and several other Southern States at an early date passed acts to prevent free persons of color from entering their jurisdictions. These acts bore with particular severity upon colored seamen, who were imprisoned, fined, or whipped, and often sold into slavery. On the petition of the Massachusetts Legislature, Governor Briggs, in 1844, appointed Mr. Samuel Hoar agent to Charleston, and Mr. George Hubbard to New Orleans, to act on behalf of oppressed colored citizens of the Bay State. Mr. Hoar was expelled from South Carolina by order of the Legislature of that State, and Mr. Hubbard was forced by threats of violence to leave Louisiana. The obnoxious acts remained in force until after the Civil War.
“ Go to work an' part.” Propositions to secede were not uncommon in New England at this time. The rights of the States had been strongly asserted on the acquisition of Louisiana in 1803, and on the admission of the State of that name in 1812. Among the resolutions of the Massachusetts Legislature adopted in 1845, relative to the proposed annexation of Texas, was one declaring that “such an act of admission would have no binding force whatever on the people of Massachusetts.”
John Quincy Adams, in a discourse before the New York Historical Society, in 1839, claimed a right for the States “to part in friendship with each other when the frater. nal spirit shall give way,” etc. The Garrisonian wing of the Abolitionists notoriously advocated secession.
There were several other instances of an expression of this sentiment, but for the most part they were not evoked by opposition to slavery.
“ Hoorawin' in ole Funnel.” The Massachusetts regiment, though called for May 13,
1846, was not mustered into the United States' service till late in January of the next year. The officers, elected January 5, 1847, were as follows : Caleb Cushing, of Newburyport, Colonel ; Isaac H. Wright, of Roxbury, Lieutenant-Colonel ; Edward W. Abbott, of Andover, Major. Shortly before the troops embarked for the South, on the evening of Saturday, January 23, 1847, a public meeting was held in Faneuil Hall, where an elegant sword was presented to Mr. Wright by John A. Bolles, on behalf of the subscribers. Mr. Bolles' speech on this occasion is the one referred to.
“ Mister Bolles.” Mr. John Augustus Bolles was the author of a prize essay on a Congress of Nations, published by the American Peace Society, an essay on Usury and Usury Laws, and of various articles in the North American Review and other periodicals. He was also the first editor of the Boston Journal. In 1843 be was Secretary of State for Massachusetts.
Page 55. Rantoul. Mr. Robert Rantoul (1805–1852), a prominent lawyer and a most accomplished gentleman, was at this time United States District Attorney for Massachusetts. In 1851 he succeeded Webster in the Senate, but remained there a short time only. He was a Representative in Congress from 1851 till his death. Although a Democrat, Mr. Rantoul was strongly opposed to slavery.
Page 55. “ Achokin' on 'em." Mr. Rantoul was an earnest advocate of the abolition of capital punishment. Public attention had recently been called to his views by some letters to Governor Briggs on the subject, written in February, 1846.
“ Caleb.” Caleb Cushing, of Newburyport, Colonel of the Massachusetts Regiment of Volunteers.