“A Just and Honorable Peace, And Not Conquest, Being Our Purpose”: A Message from President James K. Polk to the United States Senate, 4 August 1846

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Because the last post, presented in two parts, concerned a call, issued in a reprinted article from the 31 January 1846 edition of Littell’s Living Age, for the United States to purchase California from México and this was made about three-and-a-half months before the declaration of war by the Americans against the Mexicans, today’s featured artifact seems an obvious and natural complement.

It is a message from President James K. Polk to the United States Senate, dated 4 August 1846, including a record of votes of that body over the next few days, and ordered to be printed on 2 February 1847. In his missive, Polk informed senators that a letter from Secretary of State (and president from 1857 to 1861) James Buchanan to his counterpart in México was intent on “proposing to open negotiations and conclude a treaty of peace.”

The president continued that “considering the relative power of the two countries, the glorious events which have already signalized our arms, and the distracted condition of Mexico, I did not conceive that any point of national honor could exist which ought to prevent me from making this overture.” Polk went so far as to suggest that he was “equally anxious to terminate, by a peace honorable for both parties, as I was originally to avoid the existing war” the conflict and “to extend the olive branch.”

He hoped that México would agree “in the same friendly spirit by which it was dictated” so that treaty negotiations could take place quickly, but added, “the chief difficulty . . . is the adjustment of the boundary between the parties.” A related in the last post, México insisted the boundary with newly annexed Texas should be the Nueces River, while the United States demanded that it be further south at the Río Grande.

Polk expressed the hope that a line could be agreed upon “which shall at once be satisfactory and convenient to both” and which “neither will hereafter be inclined to disturb” so that such an agreement would be “the best mode of securing perpetual peace and good neighborhood between the two republics.” Moreover, the chief executive added,

Should the Mexican government, in order to accomplish these objects, be willing to cede any portion of their territory to the United States, we ought to pay them a fair equivalent; a just and honorable peace, and not conquest, being our purpose in the prosecution of the war.

Under these circumstances, and considering the exhausted and distracted condition of the Mexican republic, it might become necessary, in order to restore peace, that I should have it in my power to advance a portion of the consideration money for any cession of territory which may be made.

Polk opined that the Mexicans would not want to wait for the entire sum before a final ratification of the treaty followed by a Congressional appropriation and “such a delay might defeat the object altogether.” He asked “whether it might not be wise for Congress to appropriate a sum such as they might consider adequate for the purpose” and ready for delivery once the treaty was ratified.

As for precedent, the president noted that under the administration of Thomas Jefferson, there were two examples, including the $2 million set aside in early 1803 for the Louisiana Purchase from France, while three years later, the same amount was appropriated for the purchase of the Florida territory from Spain. It was important to note that, “in neither case was the money actually drawn from the treasury” and the chief executive hoped that, in this case, “the appropriation is deemed expedient as a precautionary measure.”

He asked that the Senate, should it agree with his proposal, pass “a law appropriating such a sum as Congress may deem adequate, to be used by the Executive, if necessary, for the purpose which I have indicated.” Again, looking back to the actions of forty years prior, Polk stated that “the special purpose of the appropriation did not appear on the face of the law, as this might have defeated the object” and he asked for the same consideration.

Also included in the message was the text of a letter, dated 27 July 1846, from Secretary Buchanan to his counterpart, the Mexican Minister of Foreign Relations Joaquín María del Castillo y Lanzas in which Buchanan stated that Polk, being “no less anxious to terminate than he was to avoid the present unhappy war” instructed the secretary “that negotiations shall forthwith commence for the conclusion of a peace just and honorable for both parties.”

If, the missive continued, México replied “in the same frank and friendly spirit by which it was dictated,” then Polk would send an envoy “to conclude a treaty of peace which shall adjust all the questions in dispute between the two republics.” On the other hand, if the Mexican government wished to send a minister to Washington “he shall be received with kindness and respect” and nothing would prevent concluding a treaty “with the least possible delay.”

Buchanan thought it important to tell del Castillo that “it is deemed useless, and might prove injurious, to discuss the causes of the existing war” and that this worthless exercise “might tend to delay or defeat the restoration of peace.” After all, he intoned, “the past is already consigned to history” but, sententiously, the secretary proclaimed that “the future, under Providence, is within our own power.”

It was further averred that “the President has ever cherished the kindest feelings for Mexico, and that one of the first wishes of his hear is that she may be a powerful and prosperous republic, in perpetual amity with the United States.” With that del Castillo was informed that U.S. Navy Commodore David Conner was to deliver the letter to the governor of Veracruz “under a flag of truce” and the minister was “respectfully invited” to respond in kind.

The letter from Buchanan to Conner followed, with the original enclosed in a sealed note and a copy provided to the commodore, with the secretary noting that “from this you will perceive that the President has determined again to offer the olive branch to Mexico.” Moreover, Polk did not think that “any point of national honor” prevented him from the outreach “especially after the glorious events which have thus far marked the progress of the war.”

Should the Mexicans agree to Polk’s proposal, Conner would likely have been asked by them “to conclude an armistice during their pendency,” but the commodore was instructed to “promptly but kindly reject it” while letting the other side know that the president would do everything possible to work towards the most expedient arrangement of ending the war. This said, Buchanan added,

If an armistice were concluded, the two parties would not stand on an equal footing. The United States, at a heavy expense, now have armies in the field and navies upon the ocean, in successful progress to conquer an honorable peace. Should their operations be arrested by an armistice, and the negotiations for peace should finally fail, we would then lose nearly all the advantages of an entire campaign. Besides, this sacrifice, great as it might be, would scarcely equal the evils in every form which a season of inactivity could not fail to inflict upon our troops, the greater portion of whom consists of patriotic citizens who have volunteered to serve their country . . .

The secretary added that Polk wished “to restore our friendly relations with Mexico upon fair and liberal terms,” but, in the meantime, “the war must continue to be prosecuted with the utmost vigor until a definitive treaty of peace shall be signed and ratified by Mexico.”

The rest of the message consisted of a review of three days of deliberation by the Senate on Polk’s proposal after it was reviewed by the Committee on Foreign Relations. The chair of that committee, George McDuffie of South Carolina reported on the 5th on resolutions, including that the president’s idea “receives the approbation of the Senate” and that the sum of $2 million was to be placed at Polk’s disposal “to be used at his discretion in the event of a treaty of peace with Mexico, satisfactorily adjusting the boundaries of the two countries.” The committee was also to report to the broader Senate a bill to fulfill this request based on the Jeffersonian era precedents.

There were two amendments offered on the same day, including revising the first resolution so that it read that the Senate “heartily unite” with Polk’s “expressed desire for a speedy and honorable peace,” but that “they have no further advice to give” at that time. As for the second, it was decided to remove any reference to a specific amount of money, merely saying that “it is expedient to place a sum of money at the disposal of the President.

On the 6th, the two resolutions were offered up to the full Senate for a vote with the first again revised to say that the body “entertain[s] a strong desire that the existing war with Mexico should be terminated by a treaty of peace, just and honorable to both nations” and that Polk should pursue any reasonable means toward that end.

The second asserted that it was “advisable” that Congress give the president “a sum of money” for the pursuance of the treaty as well as the “limits, and boundaries” with México. When it came to a vote, the result was overwhelming, with only two of the forty-five members voting no, including President pro-tempore David Atchison of Missouri and, not surprisingly, Senator Thomas Jefferson Rusk of Texas, who joined the Senate in February 1846 after the recent admission of Texas to the Union.

Atchison sought to amend the second resolution so that, after the reference to the limits and boundaries with México, the words “and for the purchase of the whole or a part of Upper California” be added. The vote on this, though, was 11 yeas and 34 nays. Senator James Pearce of Maryland, who voted for Atchison’s idea, then sought his own amendment with the phrase, “Provided, That no part of the said sum of money shall be applied to the purchase of any part of California,” while Senator James Semple of Illinois wanted to tack on, “until after the conclusion of a peace with Mexico” but this latter was dropped, while Pearce’s amendment failed 7-32, with both he and Semple voting in the affirmative.

Senator John Berrien of Georgia offered his own take on the second resolution, adding that “to accomplish this object, it would be advisable that a proposition to this effect should be submitted to the two houses of Congress in such mode as the President may deem proper.” Whether this was considered overly vague or not, Berrien’s concept was denied 10-34. Senator James Turner Morehead of Kentucky sought to change the wording so that it had the proviso “that before the appropriation is made, the President . . . shall inform the two houses of Congress, in confidence, of the object or objects to which the money shall be applied.” This was more narrowly defeated 18-26.

Finally, when it came to the second resolution, the original amendment was offered for a vote and, after Michigan Senator Lewis Cass (later Buchanan’s secretary of state) motioned that “the yeas and nays being desired by one fifth of the Senators present,” the final tally was 33-19. On the 7th, Alabama’s Dixon Lewis offered a resolution that the finance committee prepare a $2 million appropriation bill for Polk to use in his efforts at a treaty and for the limits and boundaries and in conformity to the Senate resolution of the prior day based on the president’s suggestion of the 4th.

Finally, on another motion by Lewis, it was ordered “that the injunction of secrecy be removed from the message of the President of the 4th instant, relating to a negotiation with the republic of Mexico, from all documents communicated to the Senate in relation thereto, and from the proceedings of the Senate on the subject thereof.”

These efforts, however, were for naught and the war continued for another year until the capture of Mexico City in mid-September 1847. After the resulting Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ratified by the Mexican Congress on 2 February 1848, the Río Grande was accepted as the border, while México’s claims to Texas were surrendered. For 525,000 square miles of land in parts of all of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, the United States paid $15 million, while agreeing to settle any claims of Americans against México.

This document is a very interesting artifact from the museum’s holdings about the Mexican-American War and provides context for what transpired in California while William Workman was involved in some key aspects of the conflict in greater Los Angeles in the months between the President’s proposal and the printing of the message.

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