Was Polk the Putin of 1848?

Long before President Barack Obama rebuked Russian President Vladimir Putin for grabbing Crimea, supposedly to protect ethnic Russians, another Illinois politician similarly castigated a potentate for being trigger happy and sticky fingered.

But with one difference: In 1848, Abraham Lincoln wasn't pointing at a foreign ruler when he told the U.S. House of Representatives: "He is a bewildered, confounded and miserably perplexed man." The object of his scorn was the president of the United States. America was at war with Mexico, a conflict President James Polk justified in terms that eerily anticipated Putin's claims on Crimea. As Polk saw it, Mexico started the Mexican War by shedding "American blood on American soil." But Lincoln insisted on seeing evidence of "whether the particular spot on which the blood of our citizens was shed was or was not at that time our own soil."

That made Lincoln a pariah whose own party refused to renominate him. His was a lonely voice, out of tune with the times. The U.S. in the 21st century might be opposed to Russian imperialism, but 165 years ago, the U.S. was convinced that territorial expansion was its Manifest Destiny.

Years later, when the Tribune was grooming Lincoln for a presidential race, it defended his opposition to the Mexican War, branding it as "a pro-slavery raid which our Government once thought to make upon a neighboring pigmy." The Tribune also apologized for having joined the drumbeat for a war that cost Mexico its northern provinces — an immense territory, parts of which would become the states of California, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.

"We shouted as loudly as any for the reparation due the honor of the country, supposedly to be wounded in its most vital part. We did not see that pretense was a pretense only — that the contest was wanton, unnecessary, criminal," the Tribune said in an 1858 editorial.

Yet the Mexican War remained popular, embedded in the public consciousness as necessary to protect Americans and America's image.

The countdown to the Mexican War began in 1836, when Texas won its independence from Mexico. The better part of its inhabitants were American immigrants who wanted to be annexed by the United States, prompting a heated debate during the course of which the term Manifest Destiny was coined. When Texas was finally annexed in 1845, the U.S. inherited a festering dispute between Texas and Mexico. Texans considered the Rio Grande as their border; but Mexicans thought it was the Nueces River, a considerable distance to the northeast.

In 1846, the U.S. Army entered the disputed territory. Mexican cavalry did as well, inflicting several casualties on the Americans, and Polk used the skirmish as a justification for declaring war. To Lincoln, the president was pulling the wool over the citizenry's eyes. "I more than suspect already, that he is deeply conscious of being in the wrong, that he feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to heaven against him," Lincoln told his fellow congressmen, as the war dragged on into 1848.

By that point, it was obvious to Lincoln that Polk's price for ending the war would be a lot more Mexican territory than the strip of land between the Nueces and the Rio Grande. "So, again, he insists that the separate national existence of Mexico, shall be maintained; but then does not tell us how this can be done after we shall have taken all her territory," Lincoln said.

In fact, when the war ended, the U.S. took a little over half of Mexico — a staggering amount of land that seemed to belie the idea the U.S. was simply protecting Americans.

As for Lincoln, after unsuccessfully opposing the Mexican War, he went back to practicing law in Illinois. When he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1858, his opponent Stephen Douglas accused Lincoln of disloyalty in the first of the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates, saying: "Whilst in Congress, he distinguished himself by opposition to the Mexican War, taking the side of the common enemy against his own country."

Lincoln lost the race, but he remained convinced that the Mexican War was a shameful mistake. In 1860 he wrote: "the act of sending an armed force among the Mexicans was unnecessary, inasmuch as Mexico was in no way molesting or menacing the United States."

He wasn't alone in his assessment. The man who would help Lincoln preserve the Union and who also fought against the Mexicans, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, wrote in his memoirs that the Mexican War was "one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger nation against a weaker nation."

So recall the rhetoric of previous land grabs when listening to Putin's explanations of Crimea. In the twisted logic and patriotic gibberish you will hear echoes of the arguments long employed by powerful nations when chopping up weaker ones.

rgrossman@tribune.com