War with Mexico

In this editorial, published in the abolitionist newspaper the The North Star, Douglass presents his perception of the U.S. government and citizenry’s motivation for fighting.
Frederick Douglass
Grade Level

This text is part of the Teaching Hard History Text Library and aligns with Key Concepts 3 and 7.

North Star, February 1848 

The rumors of peace with Mexico, seem all to end in rumor. All hopes of peace are, to our mind, based upon the most shallow apprehension of the character of the ruling power in this country. The present unholy war is not the accident of a day, but the result of long years of national transgression. Pride and ambition, when once in the full possession of a nation’s heart, and roused to action, cannot be easily expelled, by any means this side of national ruin.

We have given ourselves up to the blind spirit of mad ambition. The war will be carried on. The bones of many more American citizens must be added to the thousands now bleaching on the plains of Mexico. The slaughter of Mexicans must be continued and the government of that country annihilated, before the wicked war can case. Some hopes of peace have been predicted on our national love of money; but glory has no time for monetary considerations, especially while the idea of making Mexico pay for her own invasion, can be held out to blind the eyes of the American people.

While we can make the Mexican government pay our soldiers for invading our territory and blowing out the brains of her citizens, no rational prospect of a peace with that nation can be predicated on our fears of a national debt. It is impossible to induce the people of this country to feel, or to think of, either the expense or wickedness of this war, unless they are brought to their senses by a direct tax.—and this is out of the question. The Whigs are opposed to direct taxation, and the Democrats are in favor of a vigorous prosecution of the war, and the people are intoxicated with military glory; peace, therefore, cannot, for the present take place. Slavery, treachery and mad ambition, are at the head of the government, in the person of James K. Polk; and the means of checking them are naught. We can only bear our testimony, clear our own skirts, and await the catastrophe of our national crimes. What that will be is known only to the Most High, the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe. Whatever it may be, our duty will have been done; and a righteous God will save those who have done their duty and put their trust in Him. 

This text is in the public domain. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/item/mfd.21018/.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    What characteristics of the United States does Douglass believe led to the war with Mexico?
    He believes it is the result of “pride and ambition” of the United States. He goes on to say “we have given ourselves up to the blind spirit of mad ambition.”
  2. Question
    Why does Douglass believe the war’s cost will not convince the public to call for its end?
    He believes the country is more concerned about “glory.” Additionally, he says many believe they will make Mexico pay for the war.
  3. Question
    What could change the United States public’s mind about the war? Why does Douglass believe this will not happen?
    Douglass believes that if the American people are given a direct tax, they will think about the war’s cost.
    Neither of the two prominent political parties will impose such a tax. He says the “Whigs are opposed to direct taxation,” while the Democrats are supportive of the war, pursuing “military glory.”
  4. Question
    What controls the United States government, according to Douglass? Why would these things lead to (and perpetuate) a war with Mexico over territory?
    “Slavery, treachery, and mad ambition” -- the implication being that those three things are driving the war with Mexico.

    Answers may vary: Slavery: acquiring land through warfare, particularly south of the United States, would extend areas that allow slavery; treachery: or deceitfulness implies that the government will perpetuate the war for selfish purposes, though they may portray it in another way to garner public support; mad ambition: they will perpetuate the war as “mad ambition” implies greed.
  5. Question
    How does Douglass’ editorial reflect the larger struggle between slave and non-slave states during the 1800s?
    Douglass says slavery heads the government, represented by President James K. Polk. The implication is that the expansion of slavery is at the root of the war. The larger struggle had to do with a balance of power in the federal government in terms of number of slave and non-slave states. Acquiring new land could add another slave state, thereby providing more power in the federal government to the slave states.
Reveal Answers