I think things. Then I write about them. It's the narcissism, you see.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 Invasion of Mexico by Amy S. Greenburg



A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 Invasion of Mexico on Goodreads.

This was a very interesting read from the perspective of some of the behind the scenes political machinations going on—especially those involving Trist. Greenburg’s choice to portray the events through the lens of five principle figures, two of which range from somewhat to completely obscure if one isn’t more than passingly familiar with the conflict retold here, is a great one and does let some of the history feel as though revelation when seen through the context of one of these figures’ lives. But my principle reaction to this book is conflicted due to two relatively minor and one larger issue I had while reading it.

First I wonder if Greenburg overstates Lincoln’s contribution to the pressure on Polk and the developing antiwar movement that she asserts brought the war to its end. More often I’ve read in other works that Lincoln’s feelings on the Mexican War expressed while in Congress were formative for his personal growth and useful to his developing power with the Whigs and later the Republicans, but were not a contributing force on war policy itself.

Additionally, I’m not entirely sure if Greenburg successfully, at least for me, ties her anti-war movement assertion together at the end. It feels more like various disparate elements began expressing fatigue and opposition to the war at a time when Polk himself was content to end the war so long as an appropriate treaty was negotiated. I’m also personally biased against the contention that Clay’s anti-war speech was based purely in conscience. Surely it may have been, but while Greenburg admits Clay was a political opportunist, she seems too eager to set that fact aside because his speech reflects her larger argument. Throughout the book, Clay and his often politically motivated behaviors are treated lightly—a significant contrast from how President Polk is portrayed.

What ultimately made the book a less enjoyable read for me was the treatment of President Polk. While the war was absolutely started under dubious circumstances—at best—too often Greenburg portrays Polk as almost a black hat villain, a treatment that is unique amongst the five figures she chooses to highlight. While she justifies Polk’s choices as coming from his belief that what he was doing was “right,” Greenburg never seems to give him the benefit of the doubt that she seems all-too-eager to give to Clay. Additionally, since her book’s central argument is that development and success of America’s first anti-war movement, it feels almost cynical to make the president that that movement triumphed over into such an overwhelmingly suspect character.

My first two objections are trivial, and I really only have my amateur study of history to support them. As a reader and an enthusiast of 19th century American history, the portrayal of unforgiving Polk, especially in contrast to a much more sympathetic treatment of a political opportunistic like Clay, feels markedly unbalanced even during the reading of the book. While I recommend A Wicked War, I can’t say that I am as enthusiastic for it as I was for other books covering this time period.

I gave this book 3 stars on Goodreads.

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