Monday, February 04, 2008
All were agreed that the US was engaged in an historic mission of "peopling the New World with a noble race" as Walt Whitman put it. (Don't let me deceive you. Whitman was a brilliant poet, who later shed his youthful imperialism, and who also had the good sense to do it with Oscar Wilde when he got the chance.) There was some dissent, and not only from racists who simply thought that going to war at this time would result in the racial dilution of America. Henry David Thoreau, for example, wrote 'On Civil Disobedience' in part as a polemic against the conquest of Mexico and also against the institution of slavery. Because, though the Saxons were storming under the banner of liberty, they were intent on slavery. The same people would spend much of the decade following Hidalgo-Guadalupe subsidising various filibusters to head into Latin America and set up slavery plantations - William Walker famously made himself the president of Nicaragua for a brief period, and during that time reintroduced the institution of slavery, which had been abolished. (Perhaps the 19th century filibusters have a twentieth century equivalent. After all, didn't Henry Ford try to set up a utopian community on the Amazon called - I shit you not - Fordlandia? Not slavery, but certainly a colonial effort and one that collapsed quite quickly). And they would try, during the Civil War, to form a southern slave alliance with Brazil.
Perhaps only a New York intellectual could have believed that a war conceived by James Polk and the southern Democratic slaveocracy to conquer Mexico was about to deliver freedom. Or, more precisely, only a New York intellectual steeped in romantic nationalism. But then, it isn't altogether uncommon for people to get the strange idea that they, who do not wage it, will determine what a war will be about. Intellectuals, for some reason, have a curious propensity to believe that they author such ventures, ordain ends, discriminate between means, and determine the outcomes. And they have an equal and contrary propensity to believe that, when things go wrong, their words are at any rate without consequence.