Modern history


The Revolutions of 1848

When news of an uprising in Paris arrived in New York on March 18, 1848, Americans learned that it had broken out—appropriately, they thought—on the twenty-second of February, George Washington’s Birthday. America’s sense of mission, of being an example to the world, appeared justified. New York’s penny press, which had celebrated manifest destiny, now sensationalized the tidings coming across the Atlantic. Within weeks, other revolutions broke out across much of Europe, promising to overthrow authoritarian regimes in the name of a variety of liberal, democratic, and ethnic-minority movements. “The finger of revolution points to us as its example, its cloud and pillar of fire!” crowed the New York Sun in vivid rhetoric typical of Jane Storm, the “mistress of manifest destiny,” who had returned from her secret mission in Mexico. “The great principles of popular sovereignty which were proclaimed in 1776 by the immortal author of our Declaration of Independence, seem now to be in the course of rapid development throughout the world,” President Polk wrote to his emissary in Paris.1

Like their president, most Americans assumed the United States did not need another revolution of its own. Margaret Fuller, foreign correspondent for the New York Tribune, drew analogies between Europe in 1848 and American political issues: “I find the cause of tyranny and wrong everywhere the same,” she reported. “I listen to the same arguments against the emancipation of Italy that are used against the emancipation of our blacks; the same arguments for the spoliation of Poland as for the conquest of Mexico.”2 But only a perceptive minority of Americans saw things the way Fuller did. A “Great Demonstration” held in New York City during April typified the early, naive American enthusiasm for the European revolutions, celebrating German, French, and Italian uprisings with speeches and songs, often in the ancestral languages of the

1. New York Sun, May 6, 1848, attributed to Storm in Frederick Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History (New York, 1963), 200n.; James Knox Polk to Richard Rush, April 18, 1848, quoted in Michael Morrison, “American Reactions to European Revolutions, 1848–1852,” Civil War History 49 (June 2003): 117.

2. Margaret Fuller, “These Sad but Glorious Days”: Dispatches from Europe, ed. Larry Reynolds and Susan Belasco Smith (New Haven, 1991), 165.

immigrants who participated.3 Besides confirming liberal ideology and the ethnic loyalties of immigrant groups, the revolutions overseas also provided religious omens for many Americans. Some millennialists jumped to the conclusion that the outbreaks heralded the overthrow of the papacy and the ultimate divine vindication of the Protestant Reformation. A Presbyterian minister named Alexander McGill recalculated biblical prophecies of the final destruction of Antichrist and determined that 1848 would be the year. Not surprisingly, leading American Catholics expressed a sharply different perspective on events. The country’s most prominent Catholic lay theologian, Orestes Brownson, joined with New York’s Bishop John Hughes to condemn the European uprisings, distinguishing them from the rational and responsible American Revolution of 1776.4 On the other hand, the most significant attempt by Americans to intervene in Europe involved Irish Americans and the abortive Irish rebellion of 1848. A “Young Ireland” movement in New York encouraged the expectation that the Continental revolutions would spread to Ireland. Those arrested after the failure of the attempted Irish uprising included several Irish Americans. The United States had to give the British an apology to secure the release of these citizens.5

The two major American political parties diverged from each other in their response to the European revolutions. The Democrats’ party platform, adopted in May 1848, invoked their favorite principle, “the sovereignty of the people,” welcomed the erection of new republics “on the ruins of despotism in the Old World,” and tendered “fraternal congratulations to the National Convention of the Republic of France” in particular.6Such effusive rhetoric seemed like inexpensive appeals to the immigrant voters on whom the Democratic Party relied. The Whig Party regarded the revolutions with more ambivalence. On the one hand, humanitarian reformers and supporters of universal education, strong within the party, naturally sympathized with their counterparts in Europe; the Whig New York Tribune displayed this attitude. Nevertheless, the Whigs felt a strong attachment to legal order, and mob rule dismayed their middle-class

3. Timothy Roberts, “The American Response to the European Revolutions of 1848” (D.Phil. thesis, Oxford University, 1997), 125–28.

4. Alexander Taggart McGill, Popery the Punishment of Unbelief (Philadelphia, 1848); Orestes Brownson, “Legitimacy and Revolution,” in his Essays and Reviews (New York, 1852), 389–415; John Hughes, The Church and the World (New York, 1850).

5. See John Belcham, “Irish Emigrants and the Revolutions of 1848,” Past and Present 146 (1995): 103–35.

6. Democratic Platform of 1848, National Party Platforms, ed. Kirk Porter and Donald Johnson (Urbana, Ill., 1966), 12.

constituency; the Washington National Intelligencer reflected this side of the Whig outlook.

The most conservative of American political factions, John C. Calhoun’s southern Democrats, expressed grave reservations about the European revolutions from the start. “France is not prepared to become a Republic,” Calhoun warned. Where others heard echoes of Jefferson’s Declaration in 1848, he could only see dangerous defiance of constituted authority: “neither more nor less than Dorrism”—a reference to the Rhode Island uprising to which Chief Justice Taney refused legal recognition in a case argued before the Supreme Court in 1848. The Second French Republic’s emancipation of the slaves in the French West Indies confirmed Calhoun’s suspicions. His Disquisition on Government (written 1846–49) reflected his revulsion at the European revolutions. When German liberals, probably unaware of Calhoun’s pessimism regarding their undertaking, asked his opinion on a draft constitution, the South Carolinian cautioned them to preserve state rights.7

Apart from its republican sympathies and sense of mission, the United States had important commercial and financial ties to Europe. Americans participated prominently, as they had ever since the restoration of international peace in 1815, in the Atlantic market economy. American business interests in Europe tended to be quite different from American ideological inclinations. Slave-grown cotton constituted the leading U.S. export to Europe. Demand for American cotton plunged in the spring of 1848 when European buyers became uncertain of the availability of credit facilities during times of turmoil. Financial markets, like the cotton market, experienced a dip during the revolutions. The American investment banking firm of Corcoran & Riggs had already found difficulty selling in Europe the U.S. government bonds issued to finance the war against Mexico. When the European revolutions broke out, demand for American securities dried up altogether. Corcoran & Riggs managed to sell only $3 million worth of bonds out of a stock of $14 million that they had acquired for resale. Only a temporary postponement of the settlement date granted by the U.S. Treasury saved the firm from bankruptcy.8

7. Calhoun quotations from Morrison, “United States and the Revolutions of 1848,” 119; Taney’s opinion is in Luther v. Borden, 48 U.S. (7 Howard) 1–88 (1849).

8. With permission of my co-author, this section reuses passages from Timothy Roberts and Daniel Howe, “The United States and the Revolutions of 1848,” in The Revolutions in Europe, 1848–49, ed. Robert Evans and Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann (Oxford, 2000), 157–79.

Before the year 1848 had run its course, however, authoritarian regimes crushed most of the European revolutions, and the promise of reform gave way to prolonged reaction. In France the moderate regime inaugurated by the February Revolution managed to survive a little longer, until the Empire of Napoleon III put an end to the short-lived Second Republic in 1851. As the authoritarian governments reasserted their control, business confidence returned and the demand for cotton soared. On November 5, 1849, theNew York Herald aptly commented that although Americans could not condone the brutalities of either the revolutions or their subsequent suppression, “we can console ourselves with a rise in the cotton market, [creating] as great a sensation in Wall Street and in New Orleans as the recent revolutions did among speculators in the destiny of the human race.” Likewise, British and Continental financial markets rebounded as soon as the postrevolutionary reaction set in. Soon Corcoran & Riggs had no difficulty disposing of their American bonds, not only the Treasury notes but state and corporate obligations as well.9 Whigs, always concerned for European investment in the United States, feared that the Democrats might meddle in the revolutions to cater to immigrant (especially German) voters. They need not have worried; the Democrats had enough stake in the cotton trade not to care to jeopardize it. The behavior of financial and commercial markets vindicated the decision of the United States to avoid involvement in the European revolutions and to confine expressions of sympathy to rhetoric. At least in the short run, the United States had a greater tangible stake in European stability than in European liberty.10

Meanwhile, 1848 would transform America in ways more lasting than the transitory revolutions in Europe. By the treaty of that year ending the war against Mexico, the United States acquired an empire on the Pacific. Along with this vast domain came the people who lived in it, many of them Hispanic in culture and Catholic in religion. The discovery of gold in 1848 produced an influx of people into California from all over the world, from Asia and Latin America as well as Europe and the eastern United States. Simultaneously another group of Catholics, even larger and exerting a greater immediate impact, was arriving in the United States: the refugees from the Irish potato famine. The presence of these diverse peoples would complicate the ethnic relationships in American

9. Roberts, “American Response,” 159–65.

10. See also Richard Rohrs, “American Critics of the French Revolution of 1848,” JER 14 (1994): 359–77; Timothy Roberts, “Revolutions Have Become the Bloody Toy of the Multitude,” JER 25 (2005): 259–83.

society and test its commitment to democracy for generations to come. The Catholics in particular initiated a profound and prolonged transformation of America from a generically Protestant society into a religiously pluralistic one. In all these ways, 1848 marked a pivotal year for the development of American history. In the immediate future, of course, the consequences of the Mexican War were precisely what Calhoun and the Whigs had foreseen: The North and South fell to quarreling over the spoils of war. Both major political parties and many religious denominations would divide, and within a dozen years the nation tore itself apart in a Civil War. The republic as known to Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun was irreversibly changed by the revolutionary developments of 1848.


On December 6, 1847, the Thirtieth Congress that President Polk dreaded finally met, with its House of Representatives narrowly dominated by an antiwar Whig majority. The president greeted the Congress with his Third Annual Message, a lengthy document that traversed once again the causes of the war and asserted that the Mexicans had “commenced the war,” “shedding the blood of our citizens upon our own soil.” To refute the Whig position that the United States should take no territory from the war, Polk argued that Mexico owed the United States an “indemnity,” not only for its prewar debts but also as partial compensation for the costs of having to wage the war Mexico had started, and that the only way Mexico could pay such an indemnity was in territory. Furthermore, the weakness of Mexico’s control over its northern provinces implied danger that if the United States did not take them over, some other power might do so. Thus the principle of the Monroe Doctrine, Polk claimed, dictated a substantial territorial transfer as part of any peace treaty.11

Polk’s Annual Message justified taking territory from Mexico as an indemnity for Mexican aggression. Whigs, who wanted No Territory, responded by questioning his assertion that Mexico had in fact started the war. They held but a precarious majority in the House of Representatives: 115 Whigs, 108 Democrats, 4 others. It took three ballots to elect as Speaker the moderate Whig Robert Winthrop of Massachusetts because two northern radical and three southern imperialist Whigs refused to support him.12Leadership in opposing the president’s rationale for the war

11. Presidential Messages, IV, 532–40.

12. John Schroeder, Mr. Polk’s War (Madison, Wisc., 1973), 147.

and the territorial gains he wanted from it appeared in the unlikely person of a lanky congressman from Springfield, Illinois, named Abraham Lincoln. On December 22, having been in Washington only three weeks, Lincoln introduced a set of resolutions challenging Polk’s claim that the war began on U.S. soil. With the logical organization characteristic of him, this freshman representative ticked off his points: The “spot” where the armed clash took place had been an acknowledged part of New Spain and Mexico since the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819, the local population recognized no allegiance to the United States and fled before Taylor’s approach, and the U.S. citizens whose blood the Mexicans shed were soldiers in an invading army. The House did not adopt Lincoln’s lucid “spot resolutions,” but on January 3 a party-line vote of 85 to 81 amended a resolution thanking General Taylor for his services with a statement that the war had been begun by President Polk “unnecessarily and unconstitutionally.”13 (Of course, the Democrat-controlled Senate did not agree to the amendment.)

By other actions too, the House served notice on the president that he would find it difficult to prolong the war. It refused to pass the excise tax and land-sale measures that Polk hoped would raise some money to prosecute the war, and it never acted on his two requests for more troops. The House also authorized a lower ceiling on federal borrowing than he requested. On the other hand, a radical Whig motion to call off the war unilaterally and simply bring the troops home gained support from only about half the Whig membership and went down to defeat, 41 to 137. Meanwhile, the administration pursued its own policy: the exertion of pressure on Mexico to sign a treaty yielding substantial territory by occupying the capital and the ports, depriving the Mexican government of its tariff revenues. The occupying power collected the duties but confiscated the money and used it to offset the costs of occupation. Congress had not authorized the practice; the president simply ordered it in his capacity as commander in chief of the occupying army. So far about half a million dollars had been realized this way—less than hoped, because during wartime the Mexican people did not consume as many imported goods as usual. Daniel Webster called it sheer “pillage and plunder.” But making the occupation of Mexico pay for itself, at least in part, helped the administration fend off the argument that the recently lowered U.S. tariff should be raised again to generate more revenue.14

13. “ ‘Spot’ Resolutions in the House of Representatives,” Collected Works of AL, I, 420–22; Congressional Globe, 30th Cong., 1st sess., 95.

14. Presidential Messages, IV, 540–49; Justin Smith, The War with Mexico (New York, 1919), II, 261–63; Daniel Webster, Writings and Speeches (Boston, 1903), IX, 269.

The administration hinted broadly that the longer the Mexicans delayed signing an acceptable treaty, the more punitive their occupation would become and the stiffer the price in territory they would have to pay as indemnity. Indeed, Polk’s appetite for Mexican territory grew as time went on. By the fall of 1847, his ambitions included Baja California (invaded in July) and a right of transit to construct a canal across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.15 His envoy had already negotiated in 1846 such an agreement for the Isthmus of Panama with the government of New Grenada (today’s Colombia), which then owned Panama. As late as April 29, 1848, when peace with Mexico had been almost finalized, the president sent a special message to Congress advocating intervention in Yucatán. There the Mayans had rebelled against the white minority. Ostensibly Polk had in mind protecting the whites and forestalling any British interference, but Democrats hoped and Whigs feared that resumption of war and the annexation of Yucatán might be on the executive agenda. In the event, the Mexican government reestablished its control over Yucatán.16

Two other possible scenarios for ending the war found advocates among Democrats outside the administration. Calhoun proposed withdrawing to some easily defensible line, such as that of the Rio Grande. The land north of the chosen line would be annexed, and (he argued) it would not much matter whether the rest of Mexico signed a peace treaty or not, since she would be unable to reconquer the lost provinces.17 The administration disliked Calhoun’s plan because it seemed to acquiesce in sporadic guerrilla fighting along the border, even for generations to come. The most drastic suggestion came from certain wild-eyed northern Democratic imperialists like Robert Stockton, Lewis Cass, and some editors of the northern Democratic penny press. They called for the annexation of all Mexico to the United States. Like Calhoun’s plan, this one also avoided the difficulty of obtaining a peace treaty, since there would be no Mexican Republic left to sign one. Mexico’s natural resources, particularly her silver mines, held considerable attraction. But most southerners abhorred the idea of “All Mexico,” which by incorporating millions of Mexican people, mainly of mixed race, and presumably granting them citizenship, would seriously compromise the nature of the United States as an exclusively white republic. “Ours is the government of the white

15. Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission, 128–43.

16. Frederick Merk, The Monroe Doctrine and American Expansionism (New York, 1966), 194–232.

17. Congressional Globe, 30th Cong., 1st sess., 96–100.

man,” protested Calhoun in opposition to taking All Mexico.18 The penny press propagandized the cause of All Mexico to immigrant readers who saw no difficulty in ethnic pluralism; the grandiose proposal seemed a logical consequence of the national aggrandizement the papers had touted as a manifest destiny. Several editors claimed the annexation of All Mexico by the United States would “regenerate” the Mexican people.19

Polk had no intention of taking over the entire Mexican population, but tolerated the cause of All Mexico within the Democratic Party; it made his own plans for extensive territorial acquisitions seem modest by comparison. Within his cabinet the arch-expansionist Robert Walker sympathized with All Mexico, and James Buchanan tried to exploit the movement to promote his presidential prospects.

Mainstream Whig exasperation with the president found passionate expression in a forty-five-minute speech by Abraham Lincoln on January 12, 1848. The Texan people’s right of revolution, he argued, extended only to areas where they enjoyed popular support and exerted de facto control, and this included very little southwest of the Nueces River. Polk’s justification for war, Lincoln indignantly proclaimed, “is, from beginning to end, the sheerest deception.” Honesty was just as indispensable to the historical Lincoln as to the Honest Abe of popular mythology. Polk should “remember he sits where Washington sat” and tell the truth about the origin of the war. “As a nation should not, and the Almighty will not, be evaded, so let him attempt no evasion—no equivocation.” Addressing the president in tones worthy of the Prophet Nathan addressing King David, Lincoln declared that Polk must be “deeply conscious of being in the wrong”—that he must realize “the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to Heaven against him.” Not having been truthful about the beginnings of the war or its objectives, Polk could provide no leadership regarding its ending. Lincoln’s manuscript of his speech reads:

It is a singular omission in this message, that it, no where intimates when the President expects the war to terminate. At it’s beginning, Genl. Scott was, by this same President, driven into disfavor, if not disgrace, for intimating that peace could not be conquered in less than three or four months. But now, at the end of about twenty months, during which time our arms have given us the most splendid successes... this same President gives us a long message, without showing us, that as

18. Ibid., Appendix, 51.

19. The term used by the Boston Times, Oct. 22, 1847, quoted in Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission, 122.

to the end, he himself, has, even an immaginary conception....He is a bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man.20

Polk’s perplexity and anxiety over how to end the war, which Lincoln sensed, were real enough. Faced with the implacable hostility of the Mexican people to surrendering any part of their country to the United States, how could he obtain a treaty of cession? The president told Congress that a commissioner had accompanied Scott’s army, empowered to sign a peace treaty whenever the Mexicans were willing to do so, and that after the failure of negotiations in September 1847, he had recalled the commissioner. He did not tell Congress—and did not yet know himself—that the emissary refused to leave and instead resumed negotiations with the Mexican government. The same day Congress convened (December 6, 1847), Polk’s diplomatic representative in Mexico City sent off to Washington a memo of sixty-five handwritten pages explaining his defiance.


Nicholas Trist, protégé of Thomas Jefferson, had administered the patriarch’s estate and married his granddaughter Virginia Randolph. He served as private secretary to Andrew Jackson during Andrew Donelson’s absence. Having spent nine years as U.S. consul in Havana for Jackson and Van Buren, Trist possessed a secure command of Spanish. He was now chief clerk of the State Department, and Secretary Buchanan trusted his loyalty implicitly, allowing him to perform as acting secretary on occasion. When President Polk decided to send a peace commissioner to Mexico, Nicholas Trist seemed a safe pair of hands.

Trist’s orders, prepared in April 1847, directed him to attach himself to Winfield Scott’s headquarters and encourage the Mexican government to negotiate peace with him. Elaborate instructions specified the territorial concessions he should demand and how much the United States would pay Mexico for each. Trist’s mission was supposed to be a state secret, for the administration had not yet publicly admitted that it waged war for territory. Polk paid his commissioner out of executive funds and did not submit his name for Senate confirmation. Trist set out traveling under an assumed name. By the time he sailed from New Orleans, however, the newspapers had wind of his story. No one knows who blew Trist’s cover, but since the leak went to Democratic, expansionist newspapers (the New York Herald

20. “The War with Mexico,” Collected Works, I, 431–42; spelling, punctuation, and italics are original. See also Gabor Boritt, “Lincoln’s Opposition to the Mexican War,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 67 (1974): 79–100; Mark Neely, “Lincoln and the Mexican War,” Civil War History 24 (1978): 5–24.

and the Boston Post), Buchanan may have done it to ingratiate himself with the press and gain support for the next presidential nomination. Because the administration did not trust the Whig Scott, they did not fully brief him on Trist’s mission and even encouraged their emissary to confide in Democratic general Gideon Pillow rather than the army commander. Unsurprisingly, Scott and Trist began quarreling as soon as Trist arrived in Veracruz on May 6, 1847. Trist wanted Scott to forward his invitation to negotiate to the Mexican minister of foreign relations, but he didn’t tell Scott what the message contained. Scott, his suspicions of administration duplicity aroused, refused to do so and complained of Trist’s presumptuousness. Trist enlisted the services of the neutral British to send his letter to the enemy, but matters proceeded slowly. Polk and his cabinet grumbled that the Trist-Scott alienation was hindering Trist’s mission, though the origin of the problem lay in their own arrangements. Fortunately, the basic decency of Trist and Scott, together with their common dedication to winning an honorable peace, overcame their initial misunderstanding. The turning point occurred on July 6 when Trist felt sick and Scott sent him a jar of guava marmalade.21

During the armistice that began on August 21, following the Battle of Churubusco, Trist finally got a chance to test his government’s treaty draft against the proposals of his adversaries. Polk had instructed Trist to get at least Alta California and New Mexico in addition to the Rio Grande boundary for Texas; he should also try to obtain Baja California and a canal route across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The Mexicans found out through their efficient intelligence network that Baja and Tehuantepec were not essential to Trist and successfully rejected his pressure for them. They conceded a willingness to sell Alta California, including San Francisco Bay, but only as far south as Monterrey. They balked at selling areas with populations loyal to Mexico, such as New Mexico and the region between the Nueces and the Rio Grande. Trist offered to refer the Texas boundary question to his government if the Mexican negotiators would refer the New Mexico question to theirs.22 This round of negotiations ended in stalemate on September 6. Santa Anna received conflicting advice from the peace and war factions within his capital, and opted for the latter. Trist had impressed his Mexican counterparts with his courtesy and understanding for their position. His own superiors reacted with anger when his referral of the Texas boundary reached them; they could not afford to have the Rio Grande boundary questioned, since the declaration of war itself hinged upon it.

21. Wallace Ohrt, Defiant Peacemaker (College Station, Tex., 1997), 117.

22. Robert Drexler, Guilty of Making Peace (Lanham, Md., 1991), 99.

Even as these negotiations went on, however, the administration was rethinking its position. Polk decided that the U.S. military victories during the past six months justified taking more territory from Mexico than he had instructed Trist in April. The president and his cabinet agreed to put Baja and transit across Tehuantepec on the “must have” list, and that a considerable portion of what is now northern Mexico should be acquired as well, perhaps as far south as Tampico.23 After learning that the early September negotiations had not born fruit, Polk concluded that Trist was not the man to get tough with the Mexicans and resolved to recall his commissioner. It had been a tactical mistake for the United States to appear eager to end the war, he decided. Let the Mexicans suffer under occupation a while longer, and they would come begging for peace. On October 6, 1847, a message from Secretary of State Buchanan went out ordering Trist to return to the United States “at the first safe opportunity.” Buchanan did not specifically enumerate the administration’s new territorial requirements, which would have been no concern of Trist’s any longer.24

Trist’s recall notice, delayed by Mexican partisan activity, took over a month getting to him. When he received it on November 16, he felt that the president, not being abreast of events in Mexico, had made a monumental mistake. Trist perceived that Mexican political realities dictated reaching an accord with the liberal moderados who had succeeded Santa Anna; if this were not achieved soon, power would pass to intransigents. The possibility of Mexico disintegrating into anarchy, leaving no stable government at all to negotiate, could not be ruled out. Trist wrote Buchanan on November 27 urging that a new commissioner be appointed immediately and stating his intention to remain and brief the successor. He continued to agonize over his position. Then, on December 6, Trist sent his fateful message announcing that, in violation of his orders, he had invited the Mexican government at Querétaro to negotiate a peace with him, on the basis of the instructions he had received back in April.25

23. Diary of James K. Polk, ed. Milo Quaife (Chicago, 1910), III, 161–65 (Sept. 4–7, 1847); Robert Brent, “Nicholas P. Trist and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 57 (1954): 454–74.

24. Polk, Diary, III, 185–86 (Oct. 4, 5, 1847); James Buchanan to Nicholas Trist, Oct. 6, 1847, in Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States: Inter-American Affairs, ed. William Manning (Washington, 1937), VIII, 214–16.

25. Nicholas Trist to James Buchanan, Dec. 6, 1847, and to Edward Thornton [the British diplomat through whom Trist communicated with the Mexicans], Dec. 4, 1847, ibid., 984–1015.

Trist informed the Mexicans that his president had recalled him, and that Polk no doubt intended to impose terms even harsher than those Santa Anna had found unacceptable in early September. He offered to let them make peace on the basis of his original proposals, by which Mexico would cede Alta California, New Mexico, and Texas above the Rio Grande. Take it or leave it. The Mexican authorities took it, although reluctantly, to forestall worse. Only with peace could the federalistas moderados preserve the union of their states and hold free elections throughout the country. They felt heavy pressure from financiers, often representing British interests, who had lent the Mexican government money. Only with peace could their administration regain collection of the tariffs at Mexican ports from the occupying power and start to repay these loans. Mexican commissioners met with Trist throughout the month of January to settle specifics. The negotiators on both sides worried as much about getting their treaty ratified by their respective governments as they did about disagreements with each other. Trist had to work all by himself, without clerical, legal, or archival help. In defining the precise boundary, Trist gained the harbor of San Diego for the United States, but not an outlet to the Gulf of California. The negotiators relied on an inaccurate map, and not until 1963 were all the resulting boundary confusions cleared up.26 Trist left the railroad route south of the Gila River to be acquired for $10 million in 1853 (from a restored regime of the venal Santa Anna) by what is called the Gadsden Purchase. He assumed U.S. responsibility for preventing the Indian tribes living north of the border from raiding Mexican homes south of it, a significant concession.

But Trist did not deal entirely generously with Mexico in the treaty. His original instructions actually authorized him to pay up to $20 million for the territory acquired, but he reduced the sum to $15 million, no doubt in hopes of mollifying Polk. Before the war, Slidell would have paid $25 million. Just how little $15 million represented to pay for California and New Mexico may be judged from the fact that in the summer of 1848 the United States offered Spain $50 to $100 million for its colony Cuba—and the offer was rejected.27 The claims against Mexico by U.S. citizens were valued at no more than $3.25 million and assumed by the United States government. To the Mexicans, the terms they signed on to, stipulating the loss of almost half their territory, seemed drastic and humiliating, not moderate. The sums paid out in accordance with the treaty paled in

26. Jack Rittenhouse, Disturnell’s Treaty Map (Santa Fe, N.M., 1965) reproduces the map and describes its problems.

27. Richard Van Alstyne, The Rising American Empire (Chicago, 1965), 150–54.

Above: Counting Texas, Oregon, and the Mexico Cession, Polk acquired more territory for the United States than any other president; below: This map reflects the boundary Polk wanted the peace treaty with Mexico to specify, as well as his attempts to purchase Cuba from Spain and invade Yucatan after the war was over. Other U.S. imperialists wanted to take over all of Mexico, as well as what is now British Columbia.


Above: Counting Texas, Oregon, and the Mexico Cession, Polk acquired more territory for the United States than any other president; below: This map reflects the boundary Polk wanted the peace treaty with Mexico to specify, as well as his attempts to purchase Cuba from Spain and invade Yucatan after the war was over. Other U.S. imperialists wanted to take over all of Mexico, as well as what is now British Columbia.

comparison with the estimated $100 million that it cost to wage the war, not counting pensions to veterans and widows.28

On February 2, 1848, the peace commissioners signed their document “In the Name of Almighty God” at Guadalupe Hidalgo, site of Mexico’s national shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary, which Trist chose as a location to impress the Mexican public with the treaty’s authority.29 Polk’s order to General Butler to terminate the negotiations forcibly arrived too late to prevent the signing. Later the American diplomat revealed to his wife what had been his guiding principles.

My object, through out was, not to obtain all I could, but on the contrary to make the treaty as little exacting as possible from Mexico, as was compatible with its being accepted at home. In this I was governed by two considerations: one was the iniquity of the war, as an abuse of power on our part; the other was that the more disadvantageous the treaty was made to Mexico, the stronger would be the ground of opposition to it in the Mexican Congress.

Trist wanted a treaty that could realistically end the war, capable of ratification by both sides and avoiding such outcomes as the conquest of All Mexico, that country’s complete dismemberment, or the indefinite prolongation of anarchy and fighting. Privately, he also felt “shame” at his country’s conduct in the war. “For though it would not have done for me to say so there, that was a thing for every right-minded American to be ashamed of,” he remembered thinking.30 His recognition of a moral standard higher than the unbridled pursuit of national interest was no doubt unusual in the history of diplomacy.

Trist achieved his treaty at considerable personal cost, it turned out. On January 15, 1848, President Polk received his commissioner’s message of December 6. He termed it “insulting and contemptably [sic] base,” its author “destitute of honour or principle.” He hoped to punish the disobedient diplomat “severely.” Polk laid much of the blame on Scott, whom he suspected (correctly, in fact) of having encouraged Trist in his course. Collaboration between Scott and Trist proved even more infuriating to

28. The original text, plus amendments made by the U.S. Senate and a protocol interpreting those amendments, is printed in Richard Griswold del Castillo, The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (Norman, Okla., 1990), 179–99.

29. Alejandro Sobarzo, Deber y consciencia: Nicolás Trist, el negociador norteamericano (México, 1990), 231–32.

30. Nicholas Trist to Virginia Trist, as related in a letter from Virginia Trist to [Henry?] Tuckerman, July 8, 1864, Trist Papers, University of North Carolina; quoted in Drexler, Guilty of Making Peace, 129.

Polk than had conflict between them.31 When Trist evinced a determination to remain in Mexico long enough to testify on Scott’s behalf before the court of inquiry, Scott’s successor General Butler, following the president’s orders, arrested the former peace commissioner and sent him back to the United States in custody. There he was neither indicted nor rewarded for his great achievement. Trist lived out the rest of his life in obscurity and modest financial circumstances; in 1860 the Virginian voted for Lincoln and the following year opposed secession. The Polk administration had cut off his salary and expense allowance effective November 6, 1847, the date Trist received his dismissal. Not until 1871 did Congress pass an act paying him (with interest) for the period when he negotiated the historic treaty; it did so at the behest of another statesman of conscience, Senator Charles Sumner.32

Trist dispatched his new treaty back to Washington with a friend, James Freaner, a reporter for the New Orleans Delta. Avoiding the telegraph for security reasons, this private courier made the trip in only seventeen days. (As he had promised to do, Freaner dropped off a personal letter from Nicholas to Virginia Trist before delivering the treaty to the secretary of state.)33 Meanwhile, Scott had agreed with the Mexicans to an armistice while the two governments pondered ratification. Despite Polk’s bitterness toward Trist, the president saw at once that he had no realistic alternative to submitting the treaty for the Senate’s consent. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee at first called the treaty a nullity because Trist possessed no authority to make it, and urged appointment of a new commissioner to draw up another. But Polk realized that delay would play into the hands of his Whig opponents and those of the intransigent puros in Mexico. The House would probably vote no more supplies for war, and the United States might even end up able to secure less territory than Trist had obtained. And, after all, the treaty gave him everything from Mexico that he had originally desired.34 The president persuaded the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to report the treaty, even with no recommendation.

When the treaty reached the Senate floor, two challenges confronted it. From the Whig side came a proposal to make peace with no territorial acquisitions at all except the port of San Francisco, which Daniel Webster

31. Polk, Diary III, 300–301 (Jan. 15, 1848).

32. Drexler, Guilty of Making Peace, 141.

33. Norman Graebner, “Party Politics and the Trist Mission,” Journal of Southern History 19 (1953): 137.

34. See Polk, Diary, III, 344–51 (Feb. 19–21, 1847).

had coveted when he was secretary of state. The New England whaling fleet (whose shipowners were Whigs) could use the harbor. Mexico had expressed willingness to sell that part of Alta California to the United States as early as the first round of negotiations in September 1847. Eighteen of the twenty-one Senate Whigs voted for such a peace, but that was not enough. From the opposite side of the opinion spectrum, Jefferson Davis’s resolution to require more extensive territorial acquisitions than Trist had secured received only eleven votes. On March 10, 1848, the Senate voted to ratify the treaty: 38 in favor, 14 opposed, with 4 abstentions. Those voting no included seven Whigs, among them Webster, whose youngest son, Edward, had died of typhoid fever on duty in Mexico ten days before the treaty was signed. The seven Democrats voting no included Benton, angry at (among other things) the administration’s treatment of his son-in-law Frémont. Those voting for ratification included fourteen Whigs, whose desire for peace, in the final analysis, trumped their preference for No Territory.35

Horace Greeley’s strongly antiwar Whig New York Tribune commented resignedly, “Let us have peace, no matter if the adjuncts are revolting.” On the Democratic side, the papers that had trumpeted the cause of All Mexico generally accepted the end of their dream with surprisingly little complaint. Only the New York Sun protested strongly, calling Trist’s treaty “an act of treason to the integrity, position, and honor of this Empire.”36

The speed with which most of the penny press abandoned the cause of All Mexico suggests that it may have been more an early example of sensationalism selling newspapers than a serious policy proposal.

Ratification by the two houses of the Mexican Congress was complicated by the fact that the U.S. Senate had amended the treaty to remove certain guarantees for the Roman Catholic Church and the recipients of Mexican land grants. Future Mexican president Benito Juárez, among other puros, argued that Mexico did not need to sign a disadvantageous peace and could prevail by waging a guerrilla war in which the invaders would inevitably tire and go home. Nevertheless, the opposition to the

35. The Senate considered the treaty in executive session and kept no record of its debates; later, however, it published a record of the votes on various proposals: The Treaty Between the United States and Mexico, the Proceedings of the Senate Thereon, and Message of the President and Documents Communicated Therewith (Washington, 1848).

36. New York Tribune, March 1, 1848, quoted in Michael Morrison, Slavery and the American West (Chapel Hill, 1997), 83; New York Sun, March 15, 1848, quoted in Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission, 191.

treaty was overcome and the ratifications exchanged on May 30. The same day José Herrera, the moderate federalista who had tried to avoid war with the United States, returned to the presidency of Mexico. The evacuation of the occupying army began, and on June 12 the Mexican Tricolor replaced the Stars and Stripes over the Zócalo.37

Historians have overwhelmingly concluded that Trist made a courageous and justified decision in defying his orders and remaining to secure a peace treaty. Even Justin Smith, Polk’s strongest defender among historians, called Trist’s decision the right one, and “a truly noble act.”38 There is a strong parallel (though one not often remarked) between Polk’s resolution of the Oregon Question and that of the U.S.-Mexican War. In both cases the president made extravagant demands but unhesitatingly accepted a realistic and advantageous solution when offered it. In the case of Oregon, he probably had planned the outcome all along; probably not in the case of Mexico. Yet it is interesting that Polk waited twelve days after receiving news of Trist’s defiance before sending an order off to Mexico to abort whatever negotiations he might have under way. Perhaps the president secretly felt willing to give Trist a chance, provided the administration did not bear responsibility for the negotiations.39 Indeed, Polk had earlier confided to his diary the thought that he would not mind if Moses Beach exceeded his instructions and obtained a peace treaty. “Should he do so, and it is a good one, I will waive his authority to make it, and submit it to the Senate.”40

Even though the treaty represented the work of a man who defied him, it embodied the objectives for which Polk had gone to war. Polk had successfully discovered the latent constitutional powers of the commander in chief to provoke a war, secure congressional support for it, shape the strategy for fighting it, appoint generals, and define the terms of peace. He probably did as much as anyone to expand the powers of the presidency—certainly at least as much as Jackson, who is more remembered for doing it. The contrast with Madison’s conduct of the War of 1812 could not be sharper. Wartime presidents since Polk, including Lincoln, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, have followed in Polk’s footsteps.

37. Nathan Clifford to James Buchanan, June 12, 1848, Documentos de la relación de México con los Estados Unidos, ed. Carlos Bosch García (México, 1985), IV, 957.

38. Smith, War with Mexico, II, 238. There is an unfavorable assessment of Trist’s work in Jack Nortrup, “Nicholas Trist’s Mission to Mexico,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 71 (1968): 321–46.

39. Martin Van Buren Jr. told his father he suspected as much. Graebner, “Party Politics,” 156.

40. Polk, Diary, II, 477 (April 14, 1847).

Counting Texas, Oregon, California, and New Mexico, James K. Polk extended the domain of the United States more than any other president, even Thomas Jefferson or Andrew Johnson (who acquired Alaska). His war against Mexico did more to define the nation’s continental scope than any conflict since the Seven Years War eliminated French power between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. On July 6, 1848, the president sent a message to Congress pointing with pride to the acquisition of California and New Mexico and declaring that, although they had remained “of little value” in Mexican hands, “as a part of our Union they will be productive of vast benefits to the United States, to the commercial world, and the general interests of mankind.”41 Polk conceived of the Pacific Coast empire he had achieved not as an escape into a romanticized Arcadia of subsistence family farms, but as an opening for American enterprise into new avenues of “the commercial world.” For all his supporters’ talk of manifest destiny, Polk had not trusted in an inevitable destiny to expand westward, but, anxious about national security and the danger of British preemption in particular, and prompted by the conviction that the American political, social, and economic order required continual room for physical expansion, he had hastily confronted both the Oregon and Mexican controversies head-on. Certain that American strength served “the general interests of mankind,” he had not hesitated to adopt a bellicose tone and make extreme demands. His high-risk strategy had worked in the end because the British proved reasonable, the Mexicans disunited and bankrupt, the U.S. armed forces superbly effective, and Nicholas Trist a wise if disobedient diplomat. In each case, Polk himself knew just when to abandon truculence and settle.

In the same statement to Congress, the president described California and New Mexico as “almost unoccupied.” But the people affected most immediately by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo were the residents of the domain Mexico relinquished, including some ninety thousand Hispanics and a considerably larger number of tribal Indians. By the Mexican Constitution of 1824, once again legally in force in 1848, all these persons, including the Indians, had been Mexican citizens. According to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo they were to become United States citizens unless they took action to retain their Mexican citizenship. Despite the treaty’s assurances, however, the Mexican Americans found themselves generally treated like foreigners in the country where their people had lived for generations. Some individuals remained prominent under the

41. Presidential Messages, IV, 589.

new regime; Mariano Vallejo participated in the California state constitutional convention and became a senator in the state legislature, though he lost most of his extensive landholdings. Vallejo’s property losses were typical of the fate of most Mexican Americans, unfamiliar as they were with the English language or Anglo-American land law, and surrounded by newcomers eager to take advantage of them and obtain title to their holdings by fair means or foul. The state of California placed heavy burdens of legal proof on the owners of Mexican land grants to validate their titles, in violation of the spirit if not the letter of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Although state and federal courts heard many cases arising out of the treaty in decades to come, they did not consistently defend the rights of preexisting property owners as its provisions seemed to require. California did not recognize Mexican Americans as citizens until a decision by the state supreme court in 1870. In New Mexico the Hispanic population did not receive their promised full rights of citizenship until after statehood in 1912. Texas restricted the right to own land to persons of the white race, and Mexican Americans had difficulty establishing themselves as legally white. In some regions of eastern Texas, Mexican Americans were forcibly expelled.42

Those who suffered worst of all by the change of sovereignty were the tribal Indians of California, the people for whom the Spanish had created the mission system in the eighteenth century. While California’s Hispanic landlords had valued Native Americans for their labor, the new Anglo regime saw them merely as obstacles to progress. Excluded from all rights of citizenship or property, over the next generation they were exposed to a shocking process of expropriation, disease, subjugation, and massacre that historians today sometimes call genocide. That term was not used before the twentieth century, but the great nineteenth-century compiler of the records of early California, Hubert H. Bancroft, deplored what he called “the extermination of the Indians.” Indeed, in 1851, California state governor Peter Burnett predicted that “a war of extermination” would be waged “until the Indian race becomes extinct.”43 The population of the California

42. Griswold del Castillo, Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, 62–86. See also Matt Meier and Feliciano Ribera, Mexican Americans/American Mexicans (New York, 1993), 66–78; Neil Foley, The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture (Berkeley, 1997), 17–25; Vicki Ruiz, “Nuestra América: Latino History as United States History,” JAH 93 (2006): 655–72.

43. Hubert H. Bancroft, History of California (San Francisco, 1890), VII, 474–94; Burnett in California State Senate Journal, Jan. 7, 1851, 15. See also the documents in Robert Heizer, ed., The Destruction of the California Indians (Santa Barbara, Calif., 1974). On the term “genocide,” see Albert Hurtado, Indian Survival on the California Frontier(New Haven, 1988), 3–4.

Indians, a biologist has estimated, fell from 150,000 to 50,000 during the decade from 1845 to 1855. The federal government gave up on its attempt to shelter the Indians in reservations, facing strong opposition from the new state. The few remaining Natives usually eked out a living as agricultural laborers or domestic servants. Nevertheless, several tribes managed to preserve something of their integrity and culture.44

Contemporary judgments on Polk’s imperial accomplishment varied. Democrats expressed satisfaction but showed no signs of resting content; they continued to covet Cuba as well as additional concessions in Mexico and Central America. The Whig National Intelligencer called Guadalupe Hidalgo “a Peace which everyone will be glad of, but no one will be proud of.” The black abolitionist Frederick Douglass expressed a deeper bitterness in the North Star: “They have succeeded in robbing Mexico of her territory, and are rejoicing over their success under the hypocritical pretense of a regard for peace.”45 The $15 million payment, which to Democrats illustrated the essential fairness of the United States even in dealing with a defeated enemy, seemed to Whigs conscience money. As for the Mexicans, they scarcely experienced the payment at all, so quickly did it pass into the hands of their government’s foreign creditors.

In the short term, President Polk’s war led, as he had feared, to the election of a Whig war hero as president. In the medium term, the acquisition of an empire in the Far Southwest exacerbated the tensions over the extension of slavery that led to civil war. In the long run of history, however, in some respects, the seizure of California by the United States did work as Polk expected, for “the general interests of mankind.” For example, it enabled a strong stand to be taken against the aggressions of Imperial Japan in the 1940s. God moves in mysterious ways, and He is certainly capable of bringing good out of evil.


One voice that would have had something perceptive and valuable to say about the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was stilled. John Quincy Adams had voted against the declaration of war, in favor of taking no territory from Mexico, and in favor of the Wilmot Proviso in case territory should be taken. Like most Whigs, he had voted money to supply the troops in

44. Sherburne Cook, The Population of the California Indians (Berkeley, 1976), 44; Hurtado, Indian Survival, 100–148, 211–18.

45. Washington National Intelligencer, March 14, 1848; Frederick Douglass, “Peace! Peace! Peace!” North Star, March 17, 1848.

the field, on the grounds that soldiers obeying the nation’s orders deserved support even if the orders were unwise. “The most important conclusion from all this, in my mind, is the failure of that provision in the Constitution of the United States, that the power of declaring War, is given exclusively to Congress,” Adams wrote to his friend Albert Gallatin. The president had essentially made the war, and Adams feared the precedent threatened the future of American liberty.46

Monday morning, February 21, 1848, while Polk was explaining to his cabinet that he had received Trist’s treaty and intended to send it to the Senate for ratification, Adams attended the House of Representatives. The Speaker called for a suspension of the rules to permit a vote on thanks and decorations for the generals who had led the armed forces in the victorious war against Mexico. The suspension passed overwhelmingly, but an old man’s voice rang out clearly when the clerk called for those opposed. It may seem fitting that Adams’s last word in Congress should have been “No!” The former president had resisted the tide in many ways: against the popular Jackson, against mass political parties, against the extension of slavery across space and time, and most recently against waging aggressive war. Yet Adams’s vision was predominantly positive, not negative. He had stood in favor of public education, freedom of expression, government support for science, industry, and transportation, nonpartisanship in federal employment, justice to the Native Americans, legal rights for women and blacks, cordial relations with the Latin American Republics, and, undoubtedly, a firm foreign policy that protected the national interest.

As the clerk read the text of the resolution he opposed, Old Man Eloquent rose in his seat to seek recognition to speak. But his face reddened, and suddenly he fell into the arms of a colleague. “Mr. Adams is dying!” a member called out. The House immediately adjourned; so did the Senate and the Supreme Court as soon as they heard the news. They carried the eighty-year-old statesman to a sofa in the Speaker’s office. He managed to say, “This is the end of earth, but I am composed.”47 Then he lapsed into unconsciousness until the evening of the twenty-third, when he expired. Only after several days of official mourning did the Senate Foreign Relations Committee commence its consideration of the great treaty on Monday, February 28. A railway train bore Adams’s body back to

46. John Quincy Adams to Albert Gallatin, Dec. 26, 1847, quoted in Samuel Flagg Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Union (New York, 1956), 500.

47. This version is accepted by his great biographer, Bemis, 536. Other authorities give “This is the end of earth. I am content.”

Quincy, Massachusetts, the first such transportation of a dead politician and an appropriate recognition for a friend of internal improvements.48 Of the many eloquent tributes, the most apt came from Adams’s long-term political adversary, Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. “Death found him at the post of duty; and where else could it have found him?”49

In due course, a young Whig colleague of Adams in the House, coming from an utterly different background both geographically and socially, would revitalize the older man’s combination of commitments to national unity, the restriction of slavery, and economic modernization. Abraham Lincoln fulfilled Adams’s prophecy, made at the time of the Missouri Controversy, that the slavery issue would provoke dissolution of the Union and civil war, after which: “The Union might then be reorganized on the fundamental principle of emancipation. This object is vast in its compass, awful in its prospects, sublime and beautiful in its issue. A life devoted to it would be nobly spent or sacrificed.”50


Coloma, California, was a remote location in the Sierra Nevada on the South Fork of what the californios named the Río de los Americanos after Jedediah Smith’s visit in 1827. There a carpenter named James Marshall supervised a team of Mormon Battalion veterans constructing a sawmill for local magnate Johann Sutter. On the morning of January 24, 1848, Marshall inspected the millrace (the channel for the waterwheel) they were deepening. He noticed some distinctive particles amidst the watery sand. He carried them in his hat back to the breakfasting workers and said, “Boys, I believe I have found a gold mine!” Actually, the group he addressed included a woman, Jennie Wimmer, the cook, disliked by the men because she insisted they be on time for meals. She tested Marshall’s sample in her lye kettle, and the result, though not conclusive, was positive.51 The following day, eighteen hundred miles to the south, an exhausted Nicholas Trist composed a letter to Secretary of State Buchanan reporting that he and his Mexican counterparts had completed drafting a treaty of peace; eight days later they would formally sign the document.

48. Lynn Parsons, John Quincy Adams (Madison, Wisc., 1998), xiv–xv.

49. Benton in Congressional Globe, 30th Cong., 1st sess. (Feb. 24, 1848), 389.

50. John Quincy Adams, diary entry for Feb. 24, 1820, in his Memoirs, ed. Charles Francis Adams (Philadelphia, 1874–79), IV, 531.

51. Quotation from Rodman Paul and Elliott West, Mining Frontiers of the Far West, rev. ed. (Albuquerque, N.M., 2001), 13. On Jennie Wimmer, see H. W. Brands, The Age of Gold (New York, 2001), 1–2; Joanne Levy, They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush (Hamden, Conn., 1990), xix–xxi.

Unknown to the negotiators in Guadalupe Hidalgo, the gigantic value of the territory Mexico was ceding away had just been demonstrated. The gold that Spanish explorers of the region had sought in vain for three hundred years had now been revealed. The discovery benefited neither Marshall nor Sutter (in fact, it ruined both of them), but the potential of the empire that Mexico had lost and the United States had won soon became dramatically apparent to all the world.

Marshall and Sutter tried and failed to keep the gold a secret. Early in May a former Mormon named Sam Brannan, hoping to promote trade at his store in New Helvetia, went through the streets of San Francisco waving a sample and shouting, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” It was one of the most sensational advertising ploys in history. By mid-June, three-quarters of the men in San Francisco had left for the gold country, some of them no doubt buying equipment from Brannan. Soldiers deserted their units and sailors their ships, leaving the abandoned vessels clogging San Francisco Bay. Oliver Larkin thought the Gold Rush introduced a strange kind of democracy, in which no one wanted to work for anyone else, and everyone in the mining camps, regardless of any new wealth, dressed alike and ate the same simple food, since no luxuries were yet available there. “A complete revolution in the ordinary state of affairs is taking place,” he commented in the spring of 1848.52

With telegraph poles still thousands of miles away, news of the gold in California traveled faster by water than over land. It first spread around the Pacific Rim. In July gold-seekers set out from Hawaii and the Mexican west coast, especially Sonora. Over the summer, two-thirds of the white men in Oregon departed for California. Through the autumn and following winter argonauts started arriving from Chile, Peru, Australia, and the Kwangtung Province of China. In both the United States and Mexico, dislocated war veterans were especially likely to respond to the appeal of the gold fields. The people most immune to the “golden yellow fever” seemed to be the Utah Mormons. Indeed, when Brigham Young ordered them to do so in June, the Mormon veterans who had been with Marshall left the Sierra and joined the Gathering in Zion.53

The Atlantic world learned of the discovery more slowly and digested its import more gradually than the Pacific. On August 19, 1848, the New

52. Quoted in Morrison, Slavery and the American West, 97.

53. See Kenneth Owens, ed., Riches for All: The California Gold Rush and the World (Lincoln, Neb., 2002); William Greever, The Bonanza West (Norman, Okla., 1963), 7–8.

York Herald ran a communication from an anonymous New York volunteer soldier in California under the headline “Affairs in Our New Territory.” Buried within it was this sentence: “I am credibly informed that a quantity of gold, worth in value $30, was picked up lately in the bed of a stream of the Sacramento.” National attention did not focus on the discovery of gold, however, until President Polk, eager to rebut his critics and show that California had been worth a war, highlighted it in his Annual Message of December 5, 1848, sharing with the public news he had received from his military sources.54 Underscoring the president’s point, two days later there arrived in Washington a display of 230 troy ounces of gold, worth almost four thousand dollars, sent more than three months earlier by the military governor of California, Colonel Richard Mason. The secretary of war announced that the gold would be cast into medals for military heroes. After this deliberate encouragement from the political authorities, the now authenticated reports spread by the telegraph and the packets to Europe. Smaller newspapers copied, after the fashion of the time, the accounts printed in the major metropolitan dailies.55 The great California Gold Rush in the Atlantic world ensued in 1849, though it had begun in the Pacific and the West in 1848.

One reason why the president promoted the Gold Rush was to stimulate gold coinage. His Message to Congress urged establishment of what became the U.S. Mint in San Francisco, so as to save transporting the bullion a long distance before monetizing it. By the end of 1848, $10 million in gold had been produced in California; by the end of 1851, $220 million. The value of U.S. gold coins in circulation increased by a factor of twenty.56 This went far to alleviate the shortage of currency that had always plagued the United States and that had done so much to stimulate conflict between “hard” and “soft” money advocates. With plenty of gold in circulation, there could be no objection to the hard-money policy of the Jacksonian Democrats, and less need for a multitude of bank notes with all their problems of confusion, fraud, and counterfeiting. Polk had restored Van Buren’s Independent Treasury (though this did not sever the connection between the federal government and banking; it meant the government used the Jacksonian banking firm of Corcoran & Riggs, which did not issue banknotes, to market its securities). Thanks to California gold and the generous extension of British credit in the 1850s, the

54. New York Herald, Aug. 19, 1848, morning ed.; Presidential Messages, IV, 636–37.

55. Malcolm Rohrbough, Days of Gold (Berkeley, 1997), 28.

56. T. H. Watkins, Gold and Silver in the West (Palo Alto, Calif., 1971), 40; Robert Hine and John Faragher, The American West (New Haven, 2000), 240.

Whigs could never again find a mandate for trying to create another national bank.57

People in “the States” wanting to reach California had their choice of routes. The easiest but slowest and usually the most expensive mode of travel ($300 to $700 and from four to eight months) was to sail fifteen thousand miles—often much more in order to pick up fresh water or catch the wind—around Cape Horn. The fastest option consisted of taking ship to Central America and then crossing either Panama or Nicaragua by pack mule and dugout canoe; at this point there could be an indeterminate wait for a ship to take one the rest of the way. With a good connection the whole trip could be made in five to eight weeks. When faced with a long delay between ships, frantic emigrants would pay as much as $600 for a ticket from Central America to San Francisco. This route exposed the traveler to dreaded tropical diseases. Its importance, however, prompted a wave of U.S. expansionist activity in Central America and the Caribbean during the next decade.58 Another possibility would have been to sail to Tampico, cross Mexico and take another ship from Mazatlán. But fear of bandits and the general unpopularity of gringos in the aftermath of the war discouraged most North American gold-seekers from taking a Mexican route.

More than half of American migrants chose an overland route to California. This consumed at least three months of a spring and summer. Although the least expensive, it still required investment in a wagon and draft animals. Oxen were slower than mules but more tractable; most people opted for oxen. Outfitting the trip cost $180 to $200 per person, and emigrants hoped to recoup much of that by selling their animals at inflated California prices upon arrival. Of course, overland travel demanded much more in human effort than the ocean routes. Of all land emigrants, the overwhelming majority (seventy thousand in 1849–50) took the conventional pathway along the Platte and Humboldt Rivers, though some followed more southerly trails through Santa Fe and Tucson. The Gold Rush overland migration dwarfed earlier overland ones in size and included a higher proportion of town and city dwellers. Like the earlier migrants, these formed “companies,” democratically organized, for their collective welfare. They found it harder, however, to hire knowledgeable guides for

57. Michael Holt, “The Market Revolution and Major Party Conflict,” in The Market Revolution in America, ed. Melvyn Stokes and Stephen Conway (Charlottesville, Va., 1996), 246. On Corcoran & Riggs, see Henry Cohen, Business and Politics in America from the Age of Jackson to the Civil War (Westport, Conn., 1971).

58. See James Wall, Manifest Destiny Denied (Washington, 1981).

so many caravans leaving about the same time. Trails soon became littered with discarded equipment and supplies that reflected bad initial advice on what to carry. Cholera from crowded campsites and polluted water along the Platte proved as dangerous as malaria and yellow fever in Central America. Many who set out turned back.59

One anticipated danger on the overland trails did not usually materialize: Indian attack. To their surprise, the travelers typically enjoyed good relations with the Plains peoples through whose lands they passed. Native guides often substituted for the scarce white ones; Indian trade goods, especially horses, could be purchased when supplies ran low or animals died. After the mid-1850s, however, as the number of white migrants swelled, problems developed: The caravans competed with the bison for forage, spread disease, and sometimes killed precious game just for sport. Both on their way to California and after they got there, the gold-seekers sought anxiously to keep in touch with those they had left behind, especially wives managing a family, business, or farm in their husbands’ absence. People needed to be able to send and receive not only advice but also money. Postal authorities improvised ways to provide service to California long before the famous Pony Express was established in 1860.60

While migrants and letter-carriers could follow any of a number of paths to California, shippers of merchandise found that the ocean route around Cape Horn provided the only practical means for sending supplies in any quantity to the burgeoning West Coast society. At the height of the Gold Rush the U.S. merchant marine almost disappeared from foreign ports, as shipowners concentrated on voyages to California.61 Responding to the sudden demand for fast sailing vessels to navigate the Cape Horn route, the beautiful American clipper ships appeared in the 1850s. They cut the time to San Francisco to three months and proved themselves valuable for the China as well as the California trade, until eventually rendered obsolete when the British developed oceangoing steamships.

As a result of the Gold Rush, California’s population increased much more rapidly than that of other Far West societies. The census of 1850 showed a population of 93,000, not counting those whose constant motion eluded the census-taker, those who had already come and gone, or

59. Brands, Age of Gold, 123; Rohrbough, Days of Gold, 65; Paula Mitchell Marks, Precious Dust (New York, 1994), 55–57.

60. Michael Tate, Indians and Emigrants (Norman, Okla., 2006), 104–20; David Henkin, The Postal Age (Chicago, 2006), 119–37.

61. Greever, Bonanza West, 21.

“Indians not taxed.” Utah and Oregon, by comparison, then had about twelve thousand each. The economic effort required to supply and equip so many migrants in so brief a time has been compared to mobilizing an army in wartime. The effort in this case was made by the private, not the public, sector. Who came? Yeoman farmers, middle-class townsfolk (including a surprisingly large number of professionals), and journeyman workers—in short, those who could raise or borrow money for the trip.62 Emigrants usually received help (financial or otherwise) from family members, even though the family was being left behind. Whole families sometimes moved within California to the gold fields in 1848, but thereafter, and among those undertaking longer journeys, about 90 percent of argonauts were men.63 The few women who came to the early mining camps might well be as scruffy and tough as the males; they seldom actually mined but could earn as much money as the average miner (with less risk) in the traditional female occupations of washing and cooking, which were in great demand. Other entrepreneurial women set up boardinghouses in shacks.64

California’s population expanded not only in size but also in ethnic diversity. The first participants in the Gold Rush were those already living nearby: Hispanic californios, the few Anglo-Americans, and the Native Americans, who, once they learned that others valued gold, used their unmatched local knowledge to advantage in finding it.65 Then came the Pacific peoples: Native Hawaiians, Latin Americans, Asians. When migrants arrived from the United States proper—whites, free blacks, a handful of enslaved blacks—with them came Europeans: British, French, German, and Russian, sometimes failed revolutionaries. In 1848, the different varieties of newcomers got along reasonably well with each other, but in succeeding years unbridled competition among increasing numbers provoked savage ethnic violence.66 From the start, however, the Native Americans were victimized, not permitted to stake claims either individual or tribal, and often coerced into working for others. By the end

62. For numbers, see Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States (Washington, 1975). For class origins, see Brian Roberts, American Alchemy: The California Gold Rush and Middle-Class Culture (Chapel Hill, 2000), esp. 32–37.

63. Levy, They Saw the Elephant, xvii. This is an estimate for those who traveled overland, but it is probably appropriate overall and for all ethnic groups.

64. Paul and West, Mining Frontiers, 222, 265; Marks, Precious Dust, 354.

65. A story circulated that James Marshall actually got his first gold from a Maidu Indian named Jim. Joel Hyer, “We Are Not Savages” (East Lansing, Mich., 2001), 53.

66. For a vivid portrayal of this ethnic multiplicity, see Susan Johnson, Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush (New York, 2000).

of 1848 some four thousand Indians were already employed in the mines, generally at subsistence wages and sometimes in virtual slavery. In the years to come the Natives would sometimes fight back in vain, sometimes accommodate to white domination, and sometimes retreat farther into the mountains. A gold rush invariably spelled bad news for Indian tribes, as it had for the Cherokee in 1829 and as later rushes would for the Cheyenne and Sioux.67

The times of the California Gold Rush were turbulent, wasteful, and short. Prostitution flourished. Some women volunteered to pay for their ocean passage by indenturing their bodies for a term of six months. Other women and girls were brought involuntarily—usually from Latin America or China.68 Gambling flourished too—not surprisingly, with prospecting for gold itself such a big gamble. Most argonauts, of whatever nationality, hoped to get rich quick and return home, not stay and build for the future. Besides wealth, they came for adventure, to participate in the great excitement (“to see the elephant,” the saying went, a reference to why kids wanted to go to the circus parade). These motives did not foster prudence or public responsibility. Heedless of the environmental damage they inflicted, the migrants denuded the mountainsides of trees to get wood for their shantytowns, mines, and fuel. Even after a state government existed in Sacramento, mining camps governed themselves as informal democracies “not sharply distinguished from mob law,” as the early California historian and philosopher Josiah Royce put it. Kangaroo courts dealt out rough justice to suspected offenders; notorious lynchings occurred. Personal violence became common after 1848. Royce blamed the “irresponsibility” of individual fortune-hunters plus hostility toward “foreigners” for a lack of community loyalty.69

The shortage of women also contributed to the temporary drop in the level of civilization among the new arrivals, mostly men in their twenties— though they had, after all, usually come from solid communities and been schooled in conventional values. The presence of respectable Anglo womanhood in California became a dream, part of an aspiration to the civilization the migrants had left behind. When her husband died in far-off San Francisco in September 1848, Eliza Farnham of New York conceived a plan to lead a shipload of virtuous, eligible young women to California to provide the new society with suitable wives and mothers.

67. Hyer, “We Are Not Savages”; Hurtado, Indian Survival, 100–124.

68. See Marks, Precious Dust, 358–63.

69. Josiah Royce, California from Conquest in 1846 to the Second Vigilance Committee, ed. Earl Pomeroy (1886; Santa Barbara, Calif., 1970), 214.

But she found only three qualified takers for her plan. She decided to go to California anyway, and operated her late husband’s farm at Santa Cruz. In practice, the Gold Rush probably had as significant an impact on the status of women in the East as it did in California itself. The many married women left behind had to take on unaccustomed responsibilities, such as running the family farm or business.70

In 1848 and for several years thereafter, all California gold mining occurred in “placers,” places where gold had been eroded out of the rocks and washed by flowing water into beds of dirt or gravel. Panning for gold in such a location required only inexpensive equipment and no great expertise, favoring the early prospectors. Some of them soon graduated to using a “rocker” or “cradle,” which washed dirt more efficiently than a pan. Later arrivals would have to work harder to find gold the early ones had missed. Often they went to work for wages in hydraulic mining operations that used large amounts of water under high pressure. Eventually, excavation of quartz deposits for gold ore required both capital and specialized knowledge, and the industrial revolution came to gold mining. Mining evolved into a corporate enterprise, and the miners became unionized employees instead of amateur entrepreneurs.71 The amount of money an individual miner could expect to make fell sharply over the years. According to the estimates of the modern expert Rodman Paul, an average miner could earn $20 a day in 1848, $16 in 1849, $5 by 1852, and $3 by 1856. Declining local prices partially offset these declining earnings. By comparison, in New York City at this time a male carpenter or printer earned on average $1.40 a day, a female milliner, about 40 cents.72

Quite unintentionally, President Polk dramatically exacerbated sectional conflict by his territorial acquisitions and his promotion of rapid development. The miners in California, even if Democrats or southerners, overwhelmingly opposed the introduction of black slaves—not because slavery was unsuitable for gold mining but for the very opposite reason: because employment of unfree labor conferred such a huge advantage that individual prospectors felt they would be forced out of the gold fields if large slaveholders came in. The conscripted labor of Indians had demonstrated the point, which was why the forty-niners made it their policy to kill or drive the Natives away. The same fear of the competition of cheap gang labor also appeared in the vicious persecution of Chinese

70. Rohrbough, Days of Gold, 113; Roberts, American Alchemy, 92, 233–41.

71. Paul and West, Mining Frontiers, 28–36.

72. Ibid., 35. Figures for New York come from Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic (New York, 1984), 405 (Table 14).

“coolies” after 1852. Knowing the state of public opinion in California, and the impossibility of preventing slaves there from escaping, southern participants in the Gold Rush very seldom brought slaves with them. However, political spokesmen for the southern slaveholding interest did not readily acquiesce in its exclusion from the territories acquired from Mexico. Calhoun proclaimed the legal right of slaveholders to take their human property into all the territories as a matter of principle, fearing that legal exclusion of slavery implied moral disapproval of the institution and constituted the thin end of a wedge of eventual general emancipation. Unable to resolve the question of slavery’s legality, the federal government provided no organized civilian political structures for the former Mexican territories until the great Compromise of 1850.73 What resulted in the meantime was vigilantism in California, theocracy in Utah, and a mixture of military rule with persistent tradition in New Mexico. One of those who foresaw the bitter political fallout from the war of conquest was the Concord sage Ralph Waldo Emerson, who predicted, “The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man who swallows the arsenic which brings him down in return. Mexico will poison us.”74

In 1837, Emerson had published his ode for the monument to commemorate the Battle of Concord: “Here once the embattled farmers stood/And fired the shot heard round the world.” The memorable lines were hyperbole—the sound of the American Revolution resonated around the Atlantic but not the Pacific. James Marshall’s discovery of gold in the Sierra had a better claim to triggering an event in global history. California was the first state to be settled by peoples from all over the world. (Indeed, it remains the most ethnically cosmopolitan society in existence today.) Endowing an occurrence in such a remote place with global historical consequences were the nineteenth-century developments in communication: the mass newspapers that publicized the finding, the advertisements that sold equipment and tickets, the increased knowledge of geography and ocean currents, the improvements in shipbuilding. Although the travel times to California seem long to us, the Gold Rush of 1848-49 represented an unprecedented worldwide concentration of human purpose and mobilization of human effort. To those who lived through it, the well-named “Rush” seemed a dramatic example of the individualism, instability, rapid change, eager pursuit of wealth,

73. Morrison, Slavery and the American West, 96–103.

74. Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ralph Orth and Alfred Ferguson (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), IX, 430–31. Emerson wrote this May 23, 1846, not long after the war began.

and preoccupation with speed characteristic of America in their lifetime. It also testified to the power of hope, and hope built the United States.


The blight came upon Ireland suddenly. As harvest time approached in 1845, “the crops looked splendid,” an emigrant remembered. “But one fine morning in July there was a cry around that some blight had struck the potato stalks.” The leaves blackened, the tubers quickly rotted, and “a sickly odor of decay” spread over the land, “as if the hand of death had stricken the potato field.”75 Even today, the fungus-like spores named Phytophthera infestans cause hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of damage to potato and tomato crops all over the world. In 1845–51, they constituted a novel, unforeseen, and mysterious catastrophe, producing the last major famine in European history: an gorta mór, “the great hunger” in Irish.

Of the eight million people in Ireland at the onset of the famine, three million ate potatoes at every meal, and the poorest ones ate very little else.76 In 1845, the blight stole about a third of the potato crop, causing serious economic hardship; in 1846, virtually the entire crop was destroyed, and famine stalked the land. By 1847, most people had eaten their seed potatoes, so only a small crop appeared; in 1848, the blight returned. Many Irish peasants had practiced “composite” agriculture, raising potatoes to eat and feed their animals, while selling the animals and other produce to pay the rent. In normal times agricultural Ireland exported linens, grain, and livestock to England. Ironically, exports of food continued during the famine; had the British government halted them, it would have provoked hunger in England. Three times as much food was imported into Ireland from the United States, including for the first time maize. (The Creek Indians, from their reservation in Oklahoma, donated a hundred thousand bushels.)77 Prime Minister Robert Peel’s repeal of the Corn Laws (the protective tariffs on grain) facilitated such importation. The maize was boiled into gruel and given away at outdoor soup kitchens by the government; in July 1847, three million Irish people got what little food they had that way. The soup kitchens, the rapid expansion

75. Quoted in Kerby Miller, Emigrants and Exiles (New York, 1985), 281.

76. On the potato diet, see Mary Daly, “Revisionism and the Great Famine,” in The Making of Modern Irish History, ed. George Boyce and Alan O’Day (London, 1996), 78.

77. Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas: North America, ed. Bruce Trigger and Wilcomb Washburn (Cambridge, Eng., 1996), pt. i, 528.

of public works (chiefly road building), and relief efforts by landlords, local authorities, and religious philanthropies all fell hopelessly far short of the human need. In the decade 1846-55, over a million Irish people, perhaps a million and a half, died of starvation or diseases provoked by malnutrition such as cholera, typhus, dysentery, and typhoid fever. About two million emigrated to Britain, North America, or the Antipodes, with over half of them going to the United States. All these figures are estimates; during the Great Famine no one kept track of dying rural paupers, and because Irish people of the time enjoyed freedom to travel without passports or visas, comprehensive records of their comings and goings do not survive. The population of Ireland has never since attained its level of the 1841 census, and the Great Famine has been called an Irish holocaust.78

Historians conventionally distinguish between migrations prompted by “pull” and those prompted by “push.” The California Gold Rush was a classic example of “pull”; the Irish Potato Famine an extreme case of “push.” The years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars and before the Great Famine had already seen substantial emigration from Ireland to the United States. Although Protestants comprised only about one-fourth of the Irish population, they composed three-fourths of the Irish migrants to America before 1840. Like many others who came to the New World, these tended to be single young men, ambitious and responding to the pull of high wages for skilled labor and the chance for farmland of one’s own. Whenever the U.S. economy encountered hard times, this immigration fell off.79

The push of the Famine significantly altered these patterns. The number of Irish emigrants soared, 90 percent of them now Catholics. The potato blight encouraged landlords to evict tenants and convert their estates to pasture for livestock, so the number of jobs in agriculture permanently declined. Hunger peaked in 1849, but emigration continued to grow as people saved their strength and money to escape what now seemed like an overpopulated rural Ireland. In 1845, 77,000 people left; in 1848, 106,000; in 1851, 250,000. Single women and families with children joined the single men in departing the blighted country. But indentured servitude no longer provided a means to pay for ocean passage; so except in a few cases, where local authorities or landlords subsidized departure, the poorest people, the ones most in danger of starving, could not afford

78. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles, 280, 201; Kevin Kenny, The American Irish (London, 2000), 89–90.

79. On Protestant Irish emigration to North America, see Donald Akenson, The Irish Diaspora (Toronto, 1996), esp. 219–30.

to emigrate. While death fell disproportionately on the very young and the very old, emigrants typically consisted of young adults in their prime. (The average age of Irish immigrants to the United States at this time was 22.3 years.) Most emigrants represented the social stratum just above destitution, that is, they were tenant peasants, either evicted or choosing to leave, or itinerant laborers and domestic servants, accustomed to moving about Ireland in search of work and now looking overseas. They benefited from the improvements in ocean transportation that led to more frequent sailings and lower transatlantic fares, which seldom now exceeded £3 10s. (the equivalent of $338 in 2005). By a combination of hard work, extreme thrift, and luck, they succeeded in saving the price of a ticket. Although unskilled, most of them knew English, not just the Irish language; indeed, many had achieved literacy and could take advantage of the newspapers and advertisements that described and compared employment opportunities available in other English-speaking countries. The communications revolution had penetrated even rural Ireland.80 Prospective emigrants learned that getting the cheapest fares to North America often required taking a ferry to Liverpool, where the ships that brought cotton from the United States and timber from Canada welcomed passengers for the return voyage. A trip across the Irish Sea also afforded the opportunity to earn money in England to put toward the Atlantic crossing. The routes to Boston and Quebec were slightly shorter and therefore cheaper than sailing to New York; New Orleans of course cost the most. Some Irish emigrants went to Canada to take advantage of periodic British government subsidies designed to populate the empire, only to walk across the border to the United States, where better economic opportunities beckoned. American authorities did not monitor overland immigration from Canada, so their number is unknown.81

Ellen and Richard Holland from Kenmare in southwest Ireland were among the poorest of the immigrants. They and their three children could never have come up with passage money; their landlord, the marquess of Landsdowne, paid their way to Liverpool and thence to New York. They settled in Five Points, the most notorious slum on Manhattan, amidst other people from their home county. Richard became a day

80. Terry Coleman, Going to America (New York, 1972), 23; Kenny, American Irish, 99–104; P. J. Drudy, “Introduction,” in The Irish in America (Cambridge, Eng., 1985), 16–19. The National School system had been introduced in 1831 with English as the sole language of instruction.

81. See Dierdre Mageean, “Nineteenth-Century Irish Emigration,” in Drudy, Irish in America, 39–61.

laborer, and Ellen took in washing; no doubt the three children worked too. Overcrowded as it was, their urban tenement compared favorably with their cabin in the old country; it had a wooden floor rather than a dirt one, and a ceiling of plaster instead of insect-filled thatch. Amazingly, a scant thirty months after arrival, Ellen Holland deposited in the Emigrant Savings Bank $110 (equivalent to over $2,500 in 2005). Even after Richard and their eldest boy succumbed to high urban mortality, the widowed Ellen continued to save money. The historian who has traced the Hollands and other peasants relocated from the Landsdowne estate to Five Points declares her thrift not uncommon. Coming as they did from a less well developed economy, Irish immigrants had more difficulty adjusting to American life than British and German immigrants, but nevertheless they rose to the occasion. Their peasant background did not prevent the Irish immigrants from seizing the modest opportunities America presented to them.82

Yet emigrants from Ireland did not forget their homeland when they left it for another country. From their hard-won earnings, they sent back money to family members left behind, often enabling them to come and reunite their kin group on a new shore, a pattern known as “chain migration.” Remittances from Irish Americans greatly exceeded the contributions of either the British government or private charities in tangible help to the stricken Irish countryside in the years and generations following 1845. Only one Irish immigrant in twelve left the United States to return to Ireland, compared with one in three among U.S. nineteenth-century immigrants in general who went back home.83 The people who contrived to escape from their country’s horrific ordeal and rebuild their lives elsewhere perpetuated much of Irish culture and replicated their religion in many locations thousands of miles away. These were not passive victims, uprooted prisoners of a premodern outlook (as they have sometimes been portrayed), but resourceful, courageous, indomitable fighters.84 And fighters they needed to be, for Irish emigrants who came to the United States encountered both political hostility and economic discrimination.

82. Tyler Anbinder, “From Famine to Five Points,” AHR 107 (2002): 351–87; Joseph Ferrie, Yankeys Now: Immigrants in the Antebellum United States (New York, 1999), 98, 128, 187.

83. David Fitzpatrick, Irish Emigration (Dublin, 1984), 20; Roger Daniels, Coming to America, 2nd ed. (New York, 2002), 127.

84. Contrast Oscar Handlin, Boston’s Immigrants (Cambridge, Mass., 1941), with Akenson, Irish Diaspora and Drudy, Irish in America.

Immigration generally confers an economic benefit on the country that receives it, because the immigrants are typically adults ready to work, for whom the sending country has already born the costs of rearing. Irish immigrants played an important role in railroad and canal construction and staffing the emerging industries of the North, as well as alleviating the chronic northern shortage of domestic help. But American workers did not look upon the advent of hordes of hungry Irish as an advantage to the country; they looked upon them as competitors in the job market. Whenever real wages came under severe pressure, native-born workers naturally blamed the immigrants. Artisans who feared industrialization blamed them for the spread of the factory system. Unable to afford to move farther west, many Irish collected in the port cities of New York and Boston, where they found themselves also blamed for the congested, unhealthy, and dangerous conditions of urban life.85

Heavy British and German immigration also occurred in the 1840s and ’50s. Germany suffered a milder version of the potato blight, provoking in April 1847 three days of rioting in Berlin that the German press termed “the Potato Revolution.” The newcomers from Britain and Germany avoided much of the unpopularity of the Irish, however, partly because most of them were Protestants, and partly because more of them could afford to move beyond the port cities into the hinterland, where they took up a variety of occupations, including farming. Immigration from all sources in the decade following 1845 totaled almost three million persons, the greatest in American history relative to the resident population. The foreign-born percentage of the U.S. population increased from an estimated 8.2 in 1840 to 9.7 in 1850, the first time the census recorded it; the percentage would increase to 13.2 in 1860.86 (The high point was 14.7 percent in 1910; in the early twenty-first century it is about 12 percent.)

The surge in immigration, particularly that of the Irish, provoked a dramatic reaction among the native born. Nativist sentiment combined economic anxieties about the new immigration with ethnic stereotyping of the Irish and long-standing religious distrust of Roman Catholicism. It could appeal to both working-class and middle-class voters. After 1846 many native-born citizens went over to what had earlier seemed the eccentric views of Samuel F. B. Morse, the fear that immigration constituted a threat to American economic and political stability. In 1850, the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner appeared, a nativist secret society

85. Amy Bridges, A City in the Republic: Antebellum New York (New York, 1984), 65, 83, 96. See also Dale Knobel, Paddy and the Republic (Middletown, Conn., 1986).

86. John Higham, Send These to Me (New York, 1975), 15, Table 2.

whose members, when questioned about it, invariably claimed to “know nothing.” In derision, Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune termed nativism the “Know-Nothing” movement, and the name stuck.

The antebellum nativist movement, unlike that of later years, did not undertake to curtail immigration itself, but to limit the political power of the immigrants, by denying the suffrage to noncitizens, extending the residency requirement for citizenship, and restricting officeholding to native-born citizens. Like the Antimasons earlier, the nativist movement transformed itself from a group of local voluntary associations into a nationwide political party in an effort to obtain its objectives. (Starting up a new political party was easier in the nineteenth century than today, because ballot access was no problem. The parties themselves printed the ballots, so any group could print its own and try to persuade voters to cast them.) In the North, the nativist “American Party” probably drew approximately equal numbers of Whig and Democratic voters into its fold; Morse himself was a Democrat. In the South, it attracted mostly Whigs.87 Overall, the nativist movement harmed the Whig Party politically more than its rival; Catholic immigrants rallied to defend themselves against it by voting for the rousingly pro-immigrant Democratic Party. Because of the anti-antislavery stance of the Roman Catholic Church, some abolitionists and supporters of the restriction of slavery felt sympathy with nativism, although others like Seward and Wilmot firmly dissociated themselves from it. The leaders of the two national parties agreed in condemning nativism, both as a matter of principle and because they saw it as a political threat. Such apprehensions were justified, for nativism reflected discontent with the existing parties and played a major role in the demise of the second party system during the 1850s. Those Democrats who joined the nativists in the early 1850s often moved into the new Republican Party a few years later.88


The election of 1848 marked not only a change of the party in power but a revolution of sorts in American politics: the crumbling away of the second party system. Ethnic issues made critical by soaring immigration began their rise to the forefront of politics, where they would remain for

87. William Gienapp, Origins of the Republican Party (New York, 1987), 145, 419; Robert Fogel, The Fourth Great Awakening (Chicago, 2000), 64.

88. William Gienapp, “Nativism and the Creation of a Republican Majority in the North,” JAH 72 (1985): 529–59; Tyler Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery (New York, 1992).

several years in the 1850s. Even more importantly, the election commenced a process that led to sectional issues dominating over all others, a dominance that would then last for a generation. The economic issues that had preoccupied the America of Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams—banking, the tariff, internal improvements—no longer constituted the pivot around which politics moved. Polk had won a new empire for his countrymen, and now they had to decide what they wanted to do with it, and in particular whether slavery should control it. Within a few years a new party system—the one we still have—would arise in response to this challenge.

Henry Clay had been in retirement since his narrow and unexpected defeat in the election of 1844. On November 13, 1847, in a major policy address delivered in his hometown of Lexington, he announced his candidacy for 1848 on a platform of taking no territory from Mexico except for a modestly defined Texas. “The sterile lands of Mexico,” he warned, “might prove a fatal acquisition, producing distraction, dissension, division, possibly disunion.” The war itself he branded “unnecessary and of offensive aggression.” “No earthly consideration would have ever tempted or provoked me to vote for” it, he insisted. Far from advocating the expansion of slavery, he reminded his audience that “I have ever regarded slavery as a great evil,” and supported gradual emancipation and the colonization society. He called upon Congress (which now included a Whig House) to define the objectives of the war.89 James Gordon Bennett spent five hundred dollars to run a special express train from Lexington to Cincinnati, where the telegraph connected to New York City, so Clay’s speech could appear in his New York Herald the very next day. The penny paper editor’s desire for a scoop trumped even his Democratic Party loyalty.

Despite the accuracy of his foresight, Clay lost the Whig nomination. Ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in February wiped out his No Territory platform, and his association with thirty-four years of public policy debates had become a liability. Even so sincere a Whig as Representative Lincoln felt the party needed a new face. Winfield Scott, a leading contender for the nomination based on his impressive military achievements, had been compromised by the president’s accusations and some of his own ill-considered public remarks. On the fourth ballot, the Whig convention that met in June at Philadelphia nominated Zachary Taylor, the hero of Buena Vista, and ran him without a platform. Some of the issues historically associated with the Whig Party, such as currency and banking, had become passé. But one issue still alive was fear of executive

89. The Papers of Henry Clay, ed. Melba Hay (Lexington, Ky., 1991), X, 361–77.

usurpation, which Polk had certainly exacerbated. Historians have shaken their heads over a party running a military hero of a war they had opposed. Whigs at the time felt desperate to win, believing that Polk had so betrayed his trust that constitutional government itself was at stake. In the end, the convention shared Polk’s opinion that a war hero would be the strongest of Whig candidates. Taylor, a Regular Army man who had won his biggest victory with a largely volunteer force, transcended the unpopular authoritarianism of military life (as Scott did not). The candidacy of Old Rough and Ready offered a way to repudiate Polk’s presidency but not the soldiers who fought his war, while minimizing sectional tensions within the party.

The partial irrelevance of the old Whig economic program resulted in part from the success of Polk’s legislative agenda. In accordance with the objectives the president had laid out to George Bancroft upon taking office, his first Congress scrapped the “pet bank” scheme in favor of the complete separation of bank and state, that is, the restoration of Van Buren’s Independent Treasury. In the past, the business community had felt a need for a national bank to provide a sound but sufficiently plentiful currency. Now, however, the Irish Potato Famine so boosted American grain exports that specie flowed into the country and provided a circulating medium that satisfied Democrats and Whigs alike. In the years to come, gold from California would solve the old problem of a currency shortage until after the Civil War. The reciprocal lowering of U.S. tariffs by Congress a month after Parliament repealed the Corn Laws further stimulated international trade. Together with deficit spending on the war, this completed economic recovery from the hard times of the early forties.

To some extent the Democrats had also preempted traditional Whig economic issues. A movement within the Democratic Party called “Young America” embraced internal improvements so long as they were built by private enterprise, not mixed public-private corporations. They saw themselves as a new generation of Democrats, emphasizing nationalism and expansionism rather than currency and banking as their issues. Internal improvements seemed to them a necessary corollary of geographical expansion; they expressed eagerness to spend government money, state or federal, to subsidize transportation. The Democratic Party had always had a commercial wing, so the Young Americans were not so innovative as they imagined, but they enjoyed particular strength in the Old Northwest. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois typified this kind of prodevelopment Democrat with his interest in railroads. From December 1844 on, Congress discussed federal land grants to a transcontinental

railroad, with western Democrats eagerly competing to anchor the eastern terminus of such a route. No longer could the Whigs count on appealing to the business community with a sharp contrast between all the positions of the two parties.90

With the luck of world events playing into Democratic hands, Polk might have seemed a good bet to win reelection. However, he had promised to serve but one term, and felt so exhausted by the strains of his presidency, its crises and war, the bitterness of his critics and the dissension within his party, that for once he kept his word. The Democratic National Convention, meeting in Baltimore, passed over James Buchanan and bestowed its nomination on Lewis Cass of Michigan, a super-imperialist especially hostile to Britain, who had been a prominent contender for the nomination in 1844. Zealous enforcer of Indian Removal as Jackson’s secretary of war, Cass had wanted to annex more of Mexico and would have welcomed the chance to conquer British Columbia for the United States. He believed that an “unlimited power of expansion” constituted “our safety-valve,” underwriting American economic and political democracy.91 The European Revolutions of 1848 provided Cass an opportunity to play up to the ethnic loyalties of immigrants with truculent gestures toward Old World monarchies. As a candidate from the Old Northwest, his selection helped reconcile Democrats in that section to their party. The convention quietly shelved the Wilmot Proviso, and most northern Democrats accepted as a substitute Cass’s own solution to slavery in the territories, called “popular sovereignty.” According to this doctrine, slavery should be left to the white settlers in the West to decide for themselves. The attraction of this policy was that it promised to keep the explosive issue out of the halls of Congress. But the Democratic Party platform, though it commended popular sovereignty as a principle for Europeans to adopt, said nothing about it applying to the U.S. territories. And Cass himself refused to specify whether settlers could legislate against slavery before the territory was admitted to the Union. Southern Democrats, accordingly, remained free to argue that the Constitution mandated the legality of slavery in every U.S. territory unless and until the voters exercised their option to end it at the time of statehood. To a

90. Yonatan Eyal, The Young America Movement and the Transformation of the Democratic Party, 1828–1861 (Cambridge, Eng., 2007); Michael Holt, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party (New York, 1999), 245–47; John Larson, Internal Improvement (Chapel Hill, 2001), 240–45.

91. Quoted in Thomas Hietala, “This Splendid Juggernaut,” Manifest Destiny and Empire, ed. Sam Haynes and Christopher Morris (College Station, Tex., 1997), 58.

Whig like Abraham Lincoln, a Cass presidency heralded “new wars, new acquisitions of territory, and still further extensions of slavery.”92

For all his successes as president, Polk had been much less successful as leader of his party. He had achieved his impressive legislative victories thanks to the support of northern Democrats. Vice President Dallas, although a Pennsylvania protectionist, had swallowed hard and broken a Senate tie in favor of the low Walker Tariff. Up to the time when he introduced his famous proviso, David Wilmot had been one of the most prosouthern of northern congressmen: He had defended the gag rule to the last, supported Calhoun’s plan for conciliation in Oregon, and voted to reduce the tariff.93 But in return for their loyalty, northern Democrats felt they had received little or nothing. The most disaffected of all from “Polk the Mendacious” were the followers of Martin Van Buren, who had been frozen out of the patronage. New York’s electoral votes had been critical in winning the presidency for Polk, yet Van Buren’s New York Democratic machine had received nothing from his administration; the only high-ranking New Yorker in it, Secretary of War Marcy, belonged to a rival party faction. When Van Buren had occupied the White House, he had accorded the slaveholding South plenty of favors; the Polk administration had not reciprocated. Finally convinced that Polk had lied to them repeatedly, the angry Van Burenites decided to break away from the Democratic Party. The party regulars gave them the contemptuous nickname “Barnburners,” after the legendary New York Dutch farmer stupid enough to burn down his barn in order to drive the rats out of it.94

In August 1848, the Barnburners met at a third-party convention in Buffalo, New York, to negotiate an alliance with two other political elements. One consisted of “Conscience” Whigs (that is, the radical antislavery, antiwar wing of their party) who could not accept the candidacy of Zachary Taylor, hero of a war they deplored and absentee owner of a Louisiana plantation. The other group attending represented the Liberty Party, those abolitionists who engaged in politics as well as moral suasion. The convention voted Van Buren their presidential nomination in return for a platform designed to appeal to the Liberty Party and antislavery Whigs. It

92. “Speech in U.S. House of Representatives” (July 27, 1848), Collected Works of AL, V, 505. The definitive formulation of Cass’s position was his letter to Alfred Nicholson, Dec. 24, 1847, reprinted in Arthur Schlesinger Jr., ed., History of American Presidential Elections (New York, 1971), II, 906–12.

93. Charles Sellers, James K. Polk, Continentalist (Princeton, 1966), 372.

94. Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy (New York, 2005), 583; Joel Silbey, Storm over Texas (Oxford, 2005), 99–111.

opposed slavery in the territories and the District of Columbia, called for free western lands to homesteaders, and endorsed internal improvements and a protective tariff. The platform concluded with the slogan “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, and Free Men!”95

Of course, the irony of the Free Soil movement escaped no contemporary. Van Buren, the person who legitimated political partisanship at a time when all conventional wisdom condemned it and the one who had done more than anyone else to create the national Democratic Party, now led a revolt against that party. The Free Soil convention underscored the irony by the running mate it chose for Jackson’s longtime protégé: Charles Francis Adams, son of Van Buren’s antagonist John Quincy Adams. Those who found the newborn party congenial included the land reformer George Henry Evans and a faction of the New York anti-renters who had become his followers; they had actually started using the term “free soil” two years earlier in 1846. Also enthusiastic were the little band of northern former Democrats whom that party had expelled for daring to criticize slavery; these included the Liberty Party’s new leader, Senator John P. Hale.96 On the other hand, a few Liberty Party members refused to stomach Van Buren and maintained their separate identity. The former president’s own motivation was the protection of the Democratic machine he had built up in New York state from destruction at the hands of Polk’s appointees. As a judicious biographer points out, “In 1848, Van Buren acted neither as a moral idealist nor as a revengeful cynic, but rather as the loyal New York Democrat he had always been.”97 What explained the nationwide significance of the new movement Van Buren temporarily headed was, however, the new strength of sectionalism. Twelve years later a new Republican Party, with a platform much like that of the Free Soil Party, would actually win the presidency.

November 7, 1848, witnessed the first modern presidential election; for the first time all the states chose their electors on the same day. All but South Carolina did so by popular vote. A uniform single day had been mandated by act of Congress following the notorious 1844 frauds organized on Polk’s behalf by John Slidell in Louisiana, where five thousand

95. See Frederick Blue, The Free Soilers (Urbana, Ill., 1973); Joseph Rayback, Free Soil: The Election of 1848 (Lexington, Ky., 1970); and for the long-term consequences, Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men (New York, 1970).

96. See Jonathan Earle, Jacksonian Antislavery and the Politics of Free Soil (Chapel Hill, 2004), esp. 58–62 on the anti-renters.

97. Donald Cole, Martin Van Buren and the American Political System (Princeton, 1984), 418. See also Eric Foner, Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War (New York, 1980), 77–93.

men had cast their votes in one parish on one day and then traveled to another to vote again a day later.98 Congress specified a Tuesday so rural voters could journey to the county seat on Monday, thus not forcing sabbatarians to travel on Sunday; November first was ruled out because Catholics went to mass on All Saints’ Day. Putting all the voting on one day still did not prevent voting at more than one precinct in urban areas; in the absence of voter registration, this kind of fraud remained common enough to provoke the joking admonition, “Vote early and often.” Because the telegraph network already linked much of the country in instant communication, some people worried that early reports of results in the East would affect voters in the West. (Though standard time zones still lay in the future, it was, of course, later in the day in the East than in the West.) Telegraph companies warned their employees not to divulge the contents of messages to anyone but the addressee, but the newspapers had agreed to pool information over the wires through the Associated Press in 1848. The time it took to hand-count ballots and print newspapers containing election returns mitigated the problem at this early stage of the communications revolution.99 Later, Maine secured an exception that allowed it to hold its presidential election in September, on the grounds that the weather was often bad in Maine by November.

Counting the votes proceeded so slowly it took a week to reveal the outcome. Taylor won the election with 163 electoral votes to 127 for Cass; Old Rough and Ready carried both North and South. Polk could leave office having achieved his original goals more completely than most presidents, but the election also realized his nightmare: The war he waged created a Whig military hero who succeeded him in the White House. Van Buren’s Free Soil ticket carried none of the states but came in second in New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Like the communications revolution, the sectional revolution in American politics was only just beginning in 1848. Both major parties had dodged the Wilmot Proviso: the Whigs by having no platform and the Democrats by running a candidate who favored popular sovereignty. Most American voters and politicians stuck with their old party loyalties. Even Van Buren’s friends Benton and Francis Blair supported Cass; surprisingly enough, so did David Wilmot. On the Whig side, even such opponents of slavery extension as Lincoln

98. David Grimsted, American Mobbing (New York, 1998), 195.

99. Richard Bensel, The American Ballot Box in the Mid-Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, Eng., 2004), 156–59; Communications from Steven Bullock, Daniel Feller, and David Hochfelder to H-NET list for members of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, November 2000.

and Seward supported Taylor. The Free Soil Party took away enough Democratic votes in New York to give that state to Taylor; in Ohio, it took away enough Whig votes to give that state to Cass. Overall, the third party does not appear to have determined the outcome of the election, which Taylor would have won even without its intervention.100 Yet the Free Soil Party had served notice on national politicians that a critical fraction of the northern electorate found additional slave states unacceptable. Thereafter, Congress admitted no more slave states.

After the election, Clay claimed that he too could have beaten Cass, carrying every state that Taylor did except Georgia, and he may well have been right, though Clay should perhaps also have conceded Florida and Louisiana, which Taylor carried. Whig politicians who thought Clay could not win were probably too cautious, as politicians often are. Taylor helped the Whigs only in the Deep South; in the North, Whig voters would have turned out as well or better for Clay. The Walker Tariff was deeply unpopular in protectionist Pennsylvania, a critical state that went for Taylor and presumably would have gone for Clay too. Unlike the national bank, the tariff had not died as an issue. Unlike Taylor, Clay could have held Ohio for the Whigs even with the Free Soil ticket in the field. As for Van Buren, his moment of rebellion past, he returned to the Democratic Party and remained there for the rest of his life. His caution prevailed over principle. He endorsed Pierce and Buchanan for president in the 1850s and in 1860 supported Douglas and popular sovereignty rather than Lincoln and free soil.101

As the United States faced the future at the close of 1848, the newly elected president from the opposition waited to assume power in March. Zachary Taylor could take a certain personal satisfaction in having beaten Lewis Cass. In 1832, Colonel Taylor, in accordance with War Department policy, evicted some white squatters from Indian land. The irate settlers sued Taylor personally. But when Taylor asked Secretary of War Cass for a deposition stating that he had obeyed orders, Cass refused. Taylor concluded that the secretary acted from “timidity, or perhaps from worse motives.”102 Although his southern supporters touted his candidacy in 1848 as that of a slaveholding planter, the outlook of Old Rough and Ready reflected more his years of national service in the army than his absentee

100. Holt, Rise and Fall of Whig Party, 368–81; Joel Silbey, The Partisan Imperative (New York, 1985), 94–95.

101. Henry Clay to Charles Fenton Mercer, Dec. 10, 1848, Papers of Henry Clay, X, 561–62; Donald Cole, Martin Van Buren (Princeton, 1984), 425, 430.

102. Willard Klunder, Lewis Cass and the Politics of Moderation (Kent, Ohio, 1996), 70.

ownership of a Louisiana plantation. Before an untimely death cut short his presidency, this veteran soldier would antagonize the extreme southern rights advocates by his insistence that California should become a free state and that New Mexico remain separate from Texas.

Andrew Jackson and his Democratic Party had appealed to a militant sense of egalitarianism among males of the favored race and had built a strong nation, even while keeping the role of the national state as limited as they could. The Democrats had also demonstrated a receptivity to immigration and a tolerance of cultural diversity that would prove valuable qualities for the nation in the years ahead. The extension of American sovereignty across the continent had been largely an achievement of Democrats. Yet the expansion of the economy and of educational opportunities reflected the contribution of National Republicans and Whigs. Although the Democrats had been more politically successful in the national party competition of the previous generation, on the whole the Whigs had more accurately anticipated the directions in which the country moved: toward economic diversification and industrialization, away from dependence on slavery and a uniformly agricultural economy. The leaders of the Whig Party, John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, had both foreseen and intended the kind of empire that America would become. Adams was now dead, and Clay had lost his final try for the presidency. Still, America’s future lay predominantly within the Whig vision of economic development and a stronger central government. Abraham Lincoln, admirer of Henry Clay, would apply the principles of John Quincy Adams to save the Union, purge it of slavery, and promote both education and economic expansion.

The United States over which Zachary Taylor would preside was vastly larger in area and population than it had been in 1815, richer, and more powerful. While more diverse socially, economically, and culturally, it was also much better integrated by transportation and communication. Increased speeds amazed everyone. The sailing ship Rainbow arrived in New York harbor on April 17, 1846, only seventy-five days after leaving Canton, China. The diarist Philip Hone commented, “Everything goes fast now-a-days; the winds, even begin to improve upon the speed which they have hitherto maintained; everything goes ahead but good manners and sound principles, and they are in a fair way to be driven from the track.”103

Hone was by no means alone in wondering if the rapid pace of change threatened cherished values. Yet some aspects of American life

103. Philip Hone, Diary, ed. Bayard Tuckerman (New York, 1910), II, 276.

demonstrated uniformity and durability. Indeed, many of the innovations had been produced in response to widespread popular eagerness to participate in the market economy, and this eagerness showed no sign of abating. America’s national identity had weathered crises, its economy had recovered from panics, and its political system had successfully managed repeated peaceful transfers of power. The rise of mass political parties and popular voting for presidential electors had proved compatible with stability and made the white male republic incrementally more democratic. But white male supremacy still prevailed everywhere. Only a few courageous voices demanded the abolition of slavery; even fewer ones criticized gender discrimination. The admission of Iowa and Wisconsin to statehood, balancing Texas and Florida, preserved for a little while longer the carefully contrived sectional equality that had existed in the Senate ever since the Missouri Compromise. In reality, however, North and South found themselves more divided than ever by the institution of chattel slavery, now defended more stridently than it had been in 1815. Finally, the Christian religion remained an enduring element of imponderable magnitude in American life and thought, simultaneously progressive and conservative, a source of both social reform and divisive controversy.

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