“Died of the Spotted Fever”: The Spot Resolutions and the Making of Abraham Lincoln

By Ryan Bilger ’19

On December 22, 1847, the Speaker of the House of Representatives recognized a young, freshman congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln who wished to speak about the ongoing war with Mexico. The lanky, awkward, high-voiced westerner raised doubts regarding President James Knox Polk’s conduct in starting the war, proposing eight resolutions that challenged Polk to provide evidence for his stated reason for doing so. Polk had said that Mexican troops had shed “American blood on American soil” and forced his hand, but Lincoln challenged this assertion. Lincoln insinuated that the fatal encounter between Mexican and American troops had in fact occurred in a contested region between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande, a region to which Mexico had stronger claims than the United States. With his demand that Polk prove that the exact location of the engagement had been on American soil, Lincoln’s proposals became known as the “Spot Resolutions.” This speech brought Lincoln into the national spotlight for the first time, and it proved key in the development of his future career.

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Caption: Daguerrotype of Abraham Lincoln as Congressman-elect in 1846, by Nicholas Shepherd. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Lincoln’s Spot Resolutions provoked a storm of intense reactions from fellow politicians and newspapers alike. Many of these criticisms compared Lincoln unfavorably with the former holder of his Congressional seat, John Jay Hardin, who had served as a militia commander in the war with Mexico and had been killed in action earlier in 1847 at the Battle of Buena Vista. Missouri Congressman John Jameson, for one, responded in a speech of his own a few days later with the exhortation, “The gentleman from Illinois, from the Hardin and Baker district, took a strange position before the American Congress for such a Representative. Yes, sir; look back and see what your Hardin did.” The Illinois State Register gave Lincoln the nickname “Ranchero Spotty,” connecting him with Mexican guerrilla fighters who preyed on American soldiers that left camp alone. The Democratic Peoria Press heckled, “What an epitaph: ‘Died of the Spotted Fever.’ Poor Lincoln.” Even Lincoln’s friend and law partner, William Herndon, wrote to him criticizing his Spot Resolutions speech as “political suicide,” while gatherings of citizens in his home district in Illinois denounced his “base, dastardly, and treasonable assault upon President Polk,” labeling him “this Benedict Arnold of our district.” This outpouring of public sentiment contributed greatly to Lincoln’s defeat in his reelection bid the next year, putting a hold on his time in the national spotlight.

Though many people disagreed with the ideas expressed by Lincoln in his Spot Resolutions speech, others recognized his great capacity for oration. This sentiment permeated across the nation. The Missouri Republican wrote that the speech was “one of great power, and replete with the strongest and most conclusive arguments. He commanded the attention of the House, which none but a strong man can do.” The Baltimore Patriot opined that “evidently there is music in that very tall Mr. Lincoln.” In Massachusetts, a Solomon Lincoln wrote to his congressman that “[O]ur attention has been arrested in this quarter of the country by the able speech of Hon. Mr. Lincoln of Illinois made this session, in the House of Representatives, and it has been a source of gratification to those bearing his name to know that the old stock has not degenerated by being transplanted. On the contrary, it exhibits fresh vigor in the fertile soil of the West.” Lincoln’s speech won him acclaim from a range of outlets, a real achievement for a young, first-term congressman.

Abraham Lincoln may have only served one term as a congressman before his 1860 nomination for president on the Republican ticket, but in that brief time he put himself on the map with his Spot Resolutions speech. The speech was far from an unmitigated success, as it provoked a political firestorm that both failed to stop Polk’s war in Mexico and largely led to Lincoln’s defeat in his reelection campaign. It became such a memorable strike against Lincoln that in his debates with Stephen Douglas more than a decade later, the “Little Giant” would ask the audience its thoughts on Lincoln’s efforts “to dodge the responsibility of [the Republican Party] platform because it was not adopted in the right spot” and refer to him as “Spotty Lincoln.” Yet, the wide range of reactions from across the United States demonstrated that Lincoln had the power to craft his orations in such a way that they left a mark on people, an ability that proved highly useful in his later political career. The Spot Resolutions were thus integral in the making of Abraham Lincoln, perhaps ironically so for a man who would later preside over the most catastrophic war in American history. The elevation of his name into the national consciousness as a man of great ability and conviction at such an early point in his career set the stage for his eventual meteoric rise, culminating in his election to the presidency. As such, Lincoln’s Spot Resolutions speech deserves greater recognition among Civil War historians and enthusiasts alike.


Sources

DeRose, Christopher. Congressman Lincoln: The Making of America’s Greatest President. New York: Threshold Ed., 2014.

Fisher, Louis. “The Mexican War and Lincoln’s ‘Spot Resolutions’.” Washington: Law Library of Congress, 2009.

Greenberg, Amy S. A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2013.

Merry, Robert W. A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011.

Lincoln’s First 100 Days

By Hannah Christensen ‘17

Imagine trying to avoid a civil war and then having to figure out how to fight one—all in one’s first 100 days in office and all without Congress. That was what Abraham Lincoln’s first 100 days as president essentially looked like. From his first full day in office on March 5th, 1861 to his 100th day in the middle of June, Lincoln barely had time to handle the things presidents normally did, never mind relax.

Lincoln Inauguration 1861
Abraham Lincoln’s Inauguration on March 4, 1861. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On March 5th, one of the first items on his desk was a letter from Major Robert Anderson, the commander of Fort Sumter. Fort Sumter had been surrounded by Confederate troops since South Carolina seceded in December of 1860, and now the situation was desperate. According to Anderson, they had about six weeks’ worth of provisions left before they would have to surrender. Otherwise, based on Anderson’s estimate, reinforcing the fort was going to take 20,000 men—4,000 more than the entire army—and might trigger fighting. Lincoln’s general-in-chief, General Winfield Scott, recommended surrender. On his first full day in office, Lincoln was facing the possibility of having to break both of his electoral promises regarding war: holding onto government property and waiting for the Confederates to move first. Continue reading “Lincoln’s First 100 Days”

The 2016 Fortenbaugh Lecture: Individual Responses to Lincoln’s Assassination

By Hannah Christensen ’17

Every year on November 19th, the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, a distinguished scholar of the Civil War Era is invited to speak as part of the Robert Fortenbaugh Memorial Lecture and present an aspect of the Civil War in a format that the general public can understand. This year, the 55th annual Fortenbaugh Memorial Lecture was delivered by Dr. Martha Hodes of New York University. Dr. Hodes’ lecture was based on her book Mourning Lincoln and argued, based on personal primary sources from the immediate aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, that Americans’ responses were by no means consistent. Not everyone mourned, nor was everyone totally focused on the assassination, partly because there were differing visions for the nation’s future.

Martha Hodes' book Mourning Lincoln. Photo courtesy of Yale University Press
Martha Hodes’ book Mourning Lincoln. Photo courtesy of Yale University Press

At the beginning of her lecture, Dr. Hodes explained that she has always mentioned Lincoln’s assassination in the course she teaches on the Civil War, but  she did not become more interested in the event until after 9/11. She said it made her think about “how people respond to transformative events on the scale of everyday life.” She began to wonder how individual people responded to such a transformative event as Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and came up with the idea of writing a book about it because no one had written about the assassination using individuals’ own, private words. Continue reading “The 2016 Fortenbaugh Lecture: Individual Responses to Lincoln’s Assassination”

Abraham Lincoln as Wartime President: 4 Questions for Lincoln Scholar Harold Holzer

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

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Image courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2017 CWI conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Mr. Harold Holzer, one of the nation’s leading authorities on Abraham Lincoln and the political culture of the Civil War era.  A prolific writer and lecturer, as well as a highly sought-after guest on television, Mr. Holzer served for six years as the Chairman of The Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation and for ten years as the co-chair of the U.S. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.  In 2008, he was the recipient of the National Humanities Medal.  He currently serves as the Jonathan F. Fanton Director of Hunter College’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute.  Mr. Holzer has authored, co-authored, or edited 52 books and 560 articles and reviews for both popular magazines and scholarly journals.  His most recent major work, Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War For Public Opinion (Simon & Schuster, 2014), won numerous prestigious awards, including the Lincoln Prize from the Gilder Lehrman Institute.

CWI:  How did Lincoln’s relationship with the Constitution, the American people, his political allies and adversaries change or evolve over the course of the war?  What were Lincoln’s priorities as a wartime president, and how did he strive to balance conflicting priorities?

HOLZER: Lincoln did a Blondin-like tightrope act as Civil War President—Blondin, by the way, was the most famous tightrope walker of his day—most adroitly when he tried to balance the interests, and maintain the support, of both abolitionists and conservatives.  Nowhere was this delicate touch more urgently required than in his effort to maintain the loyalty of the slaveholding Border States, many of whose residents were dubious about Union, and certainly opposed to emancipation.  That Lincoln actually gained support over the years in a once-hostile state like Maryland, where he had been driven in 1861 to wearing a disguise and sneaking through the state to reach Washington for his inaugural, represented one of his greatest political triumphs.  He thought so, too. Continue reading “Abraham Lincoln as Wartime President: 4 Questions for Lincoln Scholar Harold Holzer”

Something Must Be Done: The Construction and Dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg

By Hannah Christensen ’17

Not only did the armies leave something of a state of chaos behind them after the battle of Gettysburg; they also left their dead buried poorly almost everywhere. Within days, the combination of rain and pigs rooting around the battlefield had exposed multiple skeletons and partially-decomposed bodies. The smell was horrendous, and residents and visitors alike were shocked by the state of the burials.

Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin was among these visitors. After seeing the state of affairs during his tour of the battlefield on July 10th, Curtin appointed local attorney David Wills to act as his “agent” in affairs related to Pennsylvania’s dead. As agent, Wills did everything from helping families locate loved ones’ bodies to disinterring and sending those remains home. This process was made more complicated by the fact that those grave markers that existed were only partially legible, if at all.

Wills also got to know other state agents, including William Yates Selleck of Wisconsin and Henry Edwards of Massachusetts. It was Edwards and Massachusetts officials who brought up the idea of purchasing part of the battlefield to turn into a cemetery. Wills also got the head of the Christian Commission of Pennsylvania, Andrew B. Cross, in on the idea. When Wills wrote to Governor Curtin about it on July 24th, the governor quickly authorized him to get to work. Continue reading “Something Must Be Done: The Construction and Dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg”

“The Union Forever”: Frederick, Maryland in the Elections of 1860 and 1864

By Megan McNish ’16

Frederick, Maryland has been remembered as a bastion of Unionist sentiment during the Civil War. However, in the Election of 1860, on the eve of the nation’s internal conflict, a large portion of the city’s 8,000 residents voted for a secessionist candidate. The Election of 1860 is famous for straying from the typical bi-partisan election; four candidates ran for office and each appealed to different political sentiments. John Bell and Stephen A. Douglas were the two moderate candidates, while Abraham Lincoln and John C. Breckenridge were on the extremes of the political spectrum. Lincoln, running on the Republican ticket, was by far the most politically progressive candidate with his desire to limit the expansion of slavery. Stephen A. Douglas, a Northern Democrat, was also progressive but was a more moderate candidate with his desire for popular sovereignty, the principle of allowing new states to decide if they would open to slavery. John Bell, like Douglas, was also a moderate candidate who had his regional loyalties. Bell ran on the Constitutional Union ticket but was pro-South in his political leanings. Finally, John Breckenridge was an extreme candidate who supported Southern causes almost exclusively. Breckenridge was the Southern Democrat candidate, a byproduct of the fissure that had developed in the party over the issue of slavery. Voting for Breckenridge was a mere assertion for Southern causes.

Photo credit to the author
Photo credit to the author

Continue reading ““The Union Forever”: Frederick, Maryland in the Elections of 1860 and 1864”

Historicizing the Free Speech Debate: Harold Holzer on Lincoln and Censorship

By Annika Jensen ’18

Before attending Harold Holzer’s Lincoln Lyceum lecture entitled “Lincoln and the Press: Master or Monster?” I really believed that today’s media presence was the craziest this nation had ever seen. Mr. Holzer insisted otherwise.

 

Harold Holzer spoke on February 23 at Gettysburg College. Photograph by the author.
Harold Holzer spoke on February 23 at Gettysburg College. Photograph by the author.

“I invite you to imagine the press culture of the mid-19th century,” the scholar told his audience, proceeding to illustrate the world of partisan journalism of the Civil War era: newspapers had no shame; they were open about their opinions and their agendas, and every aspect of the news was opinionated. Moreover, they were omnipresent, as nearly every major city had a paper for each political party. In the years preceding the war, the press particularly had fun with the Lincoln-Douglas debates, opposing newspapers disputing whether, when Lincoln was carried away by his supporters after one debate, he was lifted up out of the excitement of his followers or his own exhaustion and defeat.

Before getting into the meat of the lecture, Holzer specified that Congress never made or passed any law during the Civil War that acted against the First Amendment. However, President Lincoln and his administration took considerable measures against anti-war and anti-government newspapers that threatened to incite Americans against Lincoln, measures which are still debated on moral grounds today. Throughout the war, the Lincoln Administration and the Union Army initiated the suppression of about 200 newspapers in the North and in border states. Continue reading “Historicizing the Free Speech Debate: Harold Holzer on Lincoln and Censorship”

Challenging Lincoln: How Gettysburg’s Lincoln-centric Emancipation Narrative Has Overshadowed Local Black History

By Jeff Lauck ’18

When it comes to symbols of emancipation, President Abraham Lincoln is king. No other person is more associated with the abolition of slavery than “The Great Emancipator” himself. This holds true in Gettysburg just as much as it does throughout the country. Only last September, Gettysburg College erected a statue of Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation in the hope that it would “promote the discussion of race relations in America today.” Yet when it comes to commemorating and remembering the struggle for emancipation, Lincoln is far from the only face that we should look to in our historic town.

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Abraham Lincoln has been forever linked to Gettysburg thanks to his famed “Gettysburg Address.” Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The borough has a long and rich history of both slavery and liberation. The first African Americans to arrive in Gettysburg did so as slaves to Alexander Dobbin, the Presbyterian minister who founded a classical school in the soon-to-be-incorporated town. The Dobbin House, today a colonial tavern and eatery, was built in 1776 by Dobbin’s slaves. James Gettys, the borough’s founder and namesake, also owned a slave named Sydney O’Brien. For reasons unknown, Gettys freed O’Brien and gave her a house in the southwest corner of the town, close to the Dobbin family home. Thus was born Gettysburg’s free African American community. Continue reading “Challenging Lincoln: How Gettysburg’s Lincoln-centric Emancipation Narrative Has Overshadowed Local Black History”

Lincoln Scholar Harold Holzer Teases His Upcoming Lecture at Gettysburg College

By Alex Andrioli ’17

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2016 Lincoln Lyceum speaker Harold Holzer. Photograph courtesy of the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities.

Harold Holzerwinner of the 2015 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize, will be delivering the 2016 Lincoln Lyceum lecture entitled Lincoln and the Press:  Master or Monster? 

Harold Holzer is one of the country’s leading authorities on Abraham Lincoln and the political culture of the Civil War era. A prolific writer and lecturer, and frequent guest on television and radio, Holzer has authored, co-authored, and edited more than 45 previous books on Lincoln and the Civil War. He recently retired from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where he was senior vice president for public affairs. He joined Roosevelt House in September 2015, where he directs academic programs for Hunter College undergraduates in public policy and human rights, and hosts public programs on history and current events.

The lecture, which is free and open to the public, will be held on February 23, 2016 at 7:30 p.m. in CUB 260 at Gettysburg College. We hope to see you there!

ANDRIOLI:  As you discuss in your prize-winning Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion, Lincoln was not the beloved president that he is today. Many Northerners despised him as much as Southerners did. Based on your research for Lincoln and the Power of the Press, do you think Lincoln really earned the reputation of “Honest Abe”?

HOLZER:  Here is one Lincoln legend that I think is true.  Impressed by stories of George Washington’s unassailable honesty from his own boyhood on, Lincoln really did try to live up to the example so dramatically retold by Parson Weems in his early life of Washington.  Moreover, Lincoln worked off the debt he incurred when that book was damaged while in his possession! And we do have testimony from Lincoln’s early friends, relatives, and neighbors that he too was meticulously, almost obsessively honest—his wife said honesty was almost a “mania” with him (she should know!).  So the young man who always got asked to be the judge at tugs-of-war or wrestling matches, earned his way to the sobriquet that followed him through the 1860 presidential campaign—and while many of his unique traits were criticized during his White House years (including his love of humor and the theater), I don’t think anyone seriously questioned his honesty.  It was a virtue he wore proudly and a mantle he deserved. Continue reading “Lincoln Scholar Harold Holzer Teases His Upcoming Lecture at Gettysburg College”

George Washington: Hero of the Lost Cause

By Alex Andrioli ’18

George Washington was a revolutionary founding father. He served as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army through eight years of war, turned down the opportunity of becoming sovereign of the newly-formed United States, established the precedent for future presidents, and voluntarily stepped down from office after two terms. Though it took many men to conceive and found the United States of America, Washington is the poster child of the revolution and the spirit of 1776. Washington embodies the basic American spirit, so it is no wonder why both the North and South staked a claim on the “Father of our Country” as civil war loomed.

In times of devastating war, people often turn to something that gives them hope and strength to justify their cause to fight. During the American Civil War people looked to the heroes of the American Revolution because it was the “apex of heroism” that bestowed liberty onto the American people. Soldiers of the Civil War were sons and grandsons of the Revolutionaries who shared admiration in their beloved leader, George Washington, with their descendants. As a result, Washington’s lasting legacy forced him to campaign long after he took his dying breath.

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Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress. George Washington. 1890.

Continue reading “George Washington: Hero of the Lost Cause”