Senate and House Debate on the Declaration of War with Mexico: May 11, 1846

[Historical Context: President James K. Polk, an expansionist president, wished to gain territory from Mexico, unconcerned with the exact methods. Many in ongress also had expansionist ambitions, however, others complained that the reasons for going to war with Mexico were trumped up to make Mexico look like the aggressor. By the 1840s many American agreed with the idea of "Manifest Destiny", a grandiose concept that God had ordained US expansion from sea to sea. Polk sent a letter to Congress, read on May 11, 1846. The previous month Mexican troops had attacked U.S. soldiers under the command of General Zachary Taylor, after much provocation by the Americans. Once shots had been fired, Polk lost no time declaring that "American blood had been shed on American soil—even though the area remained in dispute. Polk's assertion that a state of war existed between the United States and Mexico touched off a brief congressional debate focusing on the language of the statement and on the maintenance of constitutional balance regarding the right of Congress to declare war.]
[Senate Debate]

Mr. CALHOUN then rose, and said: The question now submitted to us is one of the
gravest character and the importance of the consequences which may result from it we
cannot now determine. I do hope that this body will give to it that high, full, and
dispassionate consideration which is worthy the character of the body and the high
constitutional functions which it is called on to exercise. I trust that we will weigh
everything calmly and deliberately, and do all that the Constitution, interests, and honor
of the country may require. I hope that in the present state of the question nothing
further will be done than is usual—that is, to print the document for the use of the
Senate, and after we have had the subject under consideration, it will be time
enough to determine the number of copies to be printed. I say this because no man can
make up his opinion from the mere reading of the message, and the printing of an extra
number may seem to be a committal of this body in favor of all which is contained in the
message. It is eminently proper that, in this case, the deliberate sense of the body
should be expressed. It is always understood that printing a large number of documents
is an endorsement. At all events, I think it would be undignified in the Senate to print on
this occasion more than the usual number.

Mr. SPEIGHT said, I rise to respond to every sentence—every word—which has been
uttered by the honorable Senator from South Carolina. My motive in moving to print an
extra number of copies of the message and accompanying documents was the
suggestion of Senators around me. I had supposed that the country would be anxious
to read those documents, and I cannot see why the printing of it should be necessarily
considered as an endorsement of that message. But I take occasion to state here in my
place that I endorse every word of that message. I approve of it. The President has
recommended what I am prepared to carry out. It is useless to conceal the fact that he
has recommended no declaration of war. He only asks Congress to place at his
disposal a sufficient military force to repel any invasion of the territory of the United

I apprehend that there is not a single Senator who will not cordially respond to that
portion of the message; and I am confident I only do justice to the Senator form South
Caroline, [Mr. Calhoun,] when I say that none will more cordially respond to it than
himself. If I apprehended that my motion was at all inconsistent with the dignity of the
Senate, I need not say that I would at once withdraw it. Far be it from me to entertain
any desire to precipitate the action of the body in this important affair. But the
document will appear in the newspapers, and there will be a general anxiety in the
country to read it; and I cannot see the impropriety of printing such a number of extra
copies as will ensure the most extended circulation of the message. It is an important
document, and we seem to have approached an important crisis, and I agreed with the
Senator that we should meet it firmly, calmly, and with deliberation, For my part, I am
prepared so to meet the crisis.

Mr. ALLEN. . . . these are facts about which there can be no dispute; and if ever there
was a case in which it becomes important to give an extended circulation to a great
public fact, this is that case. What is it? The honorable Senator has told us that the
President recommends no declaration of war; but he did not tell us what the President
has told us, which is the far more important fact, that war actually exists, and he asks
the Congress of the United States to acknowledge that fact by such a public act as shall
nationalize the troops, and put the United States in that relation to the nations of the
world which she has a right to assume, as growing out of a state of war. Sir, it has been
said that time for deliberation is necessary; but the time of deliberation should be
measured by the crises presented by the state of facts upon which that deliberation is to
be had; and what is the crises here! The crises is existing war. The deliberation can tend
to no point, if it have a useful object, except the great point of the defence of the
country against invasion. And as for the suggestion thrown out that the arm of the
Government should be limited to its own soil—that we should be required to fight over
one square of the board, while Mexico fights over the whole board—seems to me to
involve a most suicidal policy. How can this war be brought to a successful issue? How
can any permanent peace be expected to result from all this conflict with Mexico,
unless she is given distinctly to understand that when she makes war upon the United
States she incurs all the penalties which the condition of war inflicts upon nations? But I
am sensible that this is digressive. I desire that these documents may be printed in large
numbers, for the reasons that I have given; and for the sake of testing the sense of the
Senate, I ask the yeas and nays.

Mr. MOREHEAD said: I regret that I cannot concur with my friend from Delaware in his
suggestion as to the proper direction which this document should take. I think that in the
first instance the reference should be made to the Committee on Foreign Relations; and
I do so because I concur with the Senator from South Carolina, [Mr. Calhoun,] that
before war does exist, according to the Constitution of the United States, there must be
some action on the part of Congress. Thus far, if war does now exist—if the people of
the United States now find themselves in a state of war with Mexico, it is a war which
has not been brought about or declared by the legislative department of the United
States, to which constitutionally the power of declaring war belongs. It does, therefore,
seem to me that before we can occupy a proper position in the estimation of the nations
of the world—(whose opinion on subjects of this sort, I think, we dare not disregard, at
all events it is our duty to pay respect to it)—before we assume a hostile position,
which in all probability it will be our duty to assume—this subject ought to be referred
to that committee which in all cases of this sort has charge of these subjects; that this
ought to be done before the Congress of the United States shall recognise the existence
of war, and perform that part assigned to them by the Constitution. It is with this view,
and with regret, that I cannot concur with the Senator from Delaware, and I hope that
the subject will take the usual direction.

Mr. J. M. CLAYTON. It is perfectly clear in my mind that this Message should go to the
Committee on Military Affairs, and not to that on Foreign Relations. The President has
announced to the Senate of the United States that there is war—that war does exist
between this country and Mexico, and he calls upon us for millions of money to aid him
in carrying on that war; he pronounces it necessary, and demands of us the needful
supplies. He also asks for tens of thousands of volunteers. Now I am quite
willing—although I so not take upon myself any portion of the responsibility of this
war—that devolves upon the Presi-
dent and upon him alone, with those who have brought it about—but I say I am quite
ready to fight it out. I will not undertake to decide, in the first instance, whether it was
right or not; but I go for the soldiers and the millions at once, to support the honor of
the country and army. The Committee on Foreign Relations can decide at their leisure
any grave questions touching the constitutionality of this war. We shall have all that
undoubtedly in debate here from day to day; but the first duty of the Senate, in my
judgement, is to vote the supplies. Well, what has the Committee of Foreign Relations
to do with that? What does it know about the manner of furnishing these supplies? That
is the appropriate duty of the Committee of Military Affairs. I would say to my friend
from South Carolina—if he will allow me to call him my friend—that I entertain
opinions perhaps closely allied to his own on this general subject. I do not mean to
express any opinion as to the sending of troops o the Rio Grande, by voting for the
supplies. The President has announced the existence of war. What is the first duty of
Congress? I hold that its first duty is to vote the supplies; to lose no time in defending
the country. . . .

Mr. ARCHER proceeded. It has been stated, on the highest authority that the President of
the United States cannot declare war. The intervention of Congress is absolutely
indispensable to constitute war. What is the import of the message received this
morning? A certain state of facts has reached the President, which has rendered it
necessary for him, in the discharge of his duty, to inform Congress of the necessity of
inquiring what action of Congress may be necessary, and whether there shall or shall
not be war on the part of the United States, Does the existence of hostilities on one of
the frontiers of the United States necessarily put us in a state of war with any foreign
Power? Clearly not. Suppose we have misunderstood the state of things on the Rio
Grande, and that the Mexican authorities have acted justifiably under the circumstances:
the danger of admitting the doctrine that a state of war can exist except by the
constitutional action of the Government of the United States will then be evident. There
can be no question about that. There can be no war till the ascertained facts be
submitted to the Congress of the United States, to be pronounced upon by them, and
till they authorize war. That is the question. . . .

Mr. BENTON said: I apprehend that there are two very distinct questions presented to
the consideration of the Senate in the message of the President. He announces the fact
of the invasion of the territory of the United States, that's one thing.

He then proposes to Congress to carry on war against Mexico on a scale
commensurate with the exigency of the occasion, in order to bring it to an immediate
close. These are two distinct subjects; and on these two subjects a different form of
action is, I think, required. It is not merely the constitutional authority, but the duty of
the President to repel invasion at once, and by all the means which the law has put into
his hands. He has a regular army and navy for that purpose. The act of Congress of
1795 authorized him to call out the militia from the neighboring States for that purpose;
but their services is limited to a period of three months; and as often as emergencies of
this kind have occurred, it has been deemed proper, both for the purpose of getting
troops more promptly into action, and also, such as could be retained in the service for
a longer period—it has, I say, been usual for Congress on all such occasions, when in
session, and when not in session, it has been usual for the President to call for
volunteers. . . .

[House Debate]

Mr. GARRETT DAVIS. . . . Sir, if the bill contained any recitation upon that point in truth
and justice, it should be that this war was begun by the President. The river Nueces is
the true western boundary of Texas. The country between that stream and the Del
Norte is part of Mexico; and that Power had people and establishments on it. Months
ago the President, of his own will, orders General Taylor and his army to take post at
Corpus Christi, on the west bank of the Nueces, where they remained until a
considerable time after the beginning of this session of Congress. In March last, under
the positive orders of the President, he moves through the disputed country upon Del
Norte. The Mexican authorities meet him at several points with the declaration that he
has invaded their country, and with protests against the aggression. They warn him that
unless he retires east of the Nueces, he will be deemed to be making war upon Mexico,
and they will resort to force. He refers to the positive orders of the Executive, and in
the execution of them he presses on to Matamoras; strongly fortifies a position
overlooking the city, and mounts a battery of cannon within three hundred yards of it,
bearing upon its public square, and from whence he could, in a few hours, batter it
down. He then blockades the port of Matamoras, orders off English and American
vessels, and directs the capture of a Spanish schooner. The Mexican commander treats
all these as acts of war; and, on the 25th of April, General Taylor is informed, by a
messenger from the Mexican camp, that hostilities exist, that the Mexicans will
prosecute them according to the usages of civilized nations. That night a detachment of
the Mexican army crosses the Rio Grande, General Taylor sends out a scouting party
to reconnoitre, which attacks the Mexicans, and is defeated and captured by the
Mexicans, and thus war is raging in bloody earnestness. It is our own President who
began the war. He has been carrying it on for months in a series of acts. Congress,
which is vested exclusively by the Constitution with the warmaking power, he has not
deigned to consult, much less to ask it for authority. Now, forsooth, when it has
unexpectedly broke forth in bloody reverses, a position must be taken by the friends of
the President in Congress to protect him by charging Mexico with being the author of
the war; and he, in cold blood, teaches others to sacrifice a brave and veteran officer,
whenever it may become necessary to cover his mistakes and incompetency.

I have yet another objection to this bill. All that is proposed to be voted by this bill is to
be trusted to him. He is to conduct this war. He is our Commander-in-Chief, our
Generalissimo of
army and navy. He knows, or ought to know, how much money and how many men
the present exigency requires; and yet he has not named any sum or any number of
troops, as has been invariably the usage in such cases by all former Presidents. He
leaves us to act upon our information and judgment in the premises. Are we to
understand that he abandons the responsibilities and duties as President and
Commander-in-Chief in the conduct of this war? Does he intend to be understood by
Congress as saying to them, (what must be now apparent to the whole nation,) "I am
unequal to the high position which I now occupy. I know not how to advise you as to
the amount of money and the number of men you must raise to rescue the military
renown of the country from the passing cloud which now covers it. In this important
matter you must assume my duties and my responsibilities, and adopt the necessary
measures to vindicate the suffering honor of the nation?" If this be the position of the
President, he has exhibited more good sense in assuming it than in all the acts of his
Administration besides; if it be not, he exhibits his usual reprehensible secretiveness.

But, Mr. Speaker, the essence of this measure is the supplies. They will all be required
before the nation gets out of this difficulty. I will vote for the supplies of the bill with a
hearty alacrity, at the same time protesting against its falsehoods. Since the play has
begun, I am for fighting Mexico on our soil, on hers, everywhere, until we drive her
across the Rio Grande, and retrieve our ancient renown. I am then for withdrawing our
army to the east side of the Nueces, and then settling by treaty all our points of dispute
with that weak and distracted country upon the most liberal terms.

Mr. BAYLY rose and said:

Mr. Speaker: I ask to be excused from voting. I cannot vote in silence, without placing
myself in a false position. I consider this bill virtually a declaration of war, made without
Executive recommendation; for I do not understand the message, from hearing it read,
as recommending a declaration of war, and made, too, when we do not know that the
invasion of our territory and the aggressive acts are sanctioned by the Mexican
Government. They may yet be disavowed, and reparation made. I am unwilling,
therefore, at this time, and under the circumstances, to vote for a declaration of war. I
do not think such a declaration necessary to meet the emergency. On the other hand, I
am anxious to vote such supplies of men and money as will afford succor to our army,
and repel the invasion. I must, as I am now situated, decline to do this, or vote for the
bill before the House, I shall vote for the bill, if not excused, as I can never withhold
supplies, under the circumstances, as the greater evil. Mr. B. then withdrew his request
to be excused.

The question, "Shall this bill pass?" was then taken, and decided as follows:

Bill passed in the following form, [Declaration of War with Mexico]:

Whereas, by the act of the Republic of Mexico, a state of war exists between that
Government and the United States:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of
American in Congress assembled, That, for the purpose of enabling the Government of
the United States to prosecute said war to a speedy and successful termination, the
President be, and he is hereby, authorized to employ the militia, naval, and military forces
of the United States, and to call for and accept the services of any number of volunteers,
not exceeding fifty thousand, who may offer their services, either as cavalry, artillery, or
riflemen, to serve twelve months after they shall have arrived at the place of rendezvous,
or to the end of the war, unless sooner discharged; and that the sum of ten millions of
dollars out of any moneys in the Treasury, or to come into the Treasury, not otherwise
apportioned, for the purpose of carrying the provisions of this act into effect.

Sec. 2. And be it further enacted, That the militia, when called into the service of the
United States by virtue of this act, or any other act, may, if in the opinion of the President
of the United States the public interest requires it, be compelled to serve for a term not
exceeding six months, after their arrival at the place of rendezvous, in any one year, unless
sooner discharged.

Sec. 3. And it be further enacted, That the said volunteers shall furnish their own clothes,
and if cavalry, their own horses; and when mustered into service shall be armed and
equipped at the expense of the United States.

Sec. 4. And be it further enacted, That said volunteers shall, when called into actual
service, and while remaining therein, be subject to the rules and articles of war, and shall
be in all respects, except as to clothing and pay, placed on the same footing with similar
corps of the United States Army; and in lieu of clothing every non-commissioned officer
and private, in any company, who may this offer himself, shall be entitled, when called
into actual service, to receive in money a sum equal to the cost of clothing of a
non-commissioned officer or private (as the case may be) in the regular troops of the
United States. . . .

Congressional Globe, 29th Congress, 1st session, May 11, 1846, 782–795.