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A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico Paperback – August 13, 2013
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Historian Greenberg, who specializes in Manifest Destiny, advances a thesis about the expansionist doctrine’s realization through the Mexican-American War of 1846–48. As he sees it, things could have been much worse for Mexico, for at times President James Polk demanded more Mexican territory than he eventually settled for. Greenberg argues that strengthening antiwar sentiment deterred Polk, the evidence for which she draws from four figures who opposed the war: Henry Clay, Polk’s opponent in the 1844 election; Nicholas Trist, Polk’s diplomat, who defied orders and negotiated the peace treaty; Abraham Lincoln; and Lincoln’s now-forgotten Illinois political rival, John Hardin. Greenberg brings forth interesting details about each character’s political life and stance toward proposals to annex Texas that posed an obvious risk of war. Particularly intriguing is the prominence Greenberg accords to Hardin, whose deepening doubt about the war never assumed public expression and who, killed at the Battle of Buena Vista, was honored as a war hero. Adding Polk’s politically talented wife to the historical mix, Greenberg clothes a provocative main idea in a freshly original narrative. --Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to the Audio Cassette edition.
“The best account we have of the politics of Mr. Polk’s War . . . If one can read only a single book about the Mexican-American War, this is the one to read.” —James M. McPherson, The New York Review of Books
“Amy Greenberg's original and moving narrative of the U.S. invasion of Mexico relates the gradual loss of enthusiasm for waging what began as a popular war of conquest. How peace ultimately prevailed is the most surprising part of her story.” —Daniel Walker Howe, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of What Hath God Wrought
“No less a warrior than Ulysses S. Grant had good reason to decry the war with Mexico as ‘wicked.’ In Amy S. Greenberg’s dramatic and deeply engaging political narrative, the reader gets the grit of the campaign and rich insight into the fascinating historical actors who stage-managed (or resisted) this all-important, under-studied war. In these fast-turning pages, we see clashes among political opportunists, moments of eloquence and pathos-all under the rising sun of American power.” —Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, authors of Madison and Jefferson
“A Wicked War gives the U.S.-Mexican War a personal dimension and immediacy that has been lacking until now. Amy Greenberg makes us live the war vicariously through the lives of the aging patriarch Henry Clay who lost a son in Mexico, the husband-and-wife presidential team of James K. and Sarah Polk, the lanky and somewhat disheveled Abraham Lincoln still learning about politics, and others. This is a rare melding of great story-telling and analysis of an era that shaped not only the United States but the entire North American continent.” —Andrés Reséndez, author of A Land So Strange
“A Wicked War, with its emphasis on politics rather than military history, does for the Mexican-American war what James McPherson did for the Civil War with Battle Cry of Freedom, greatly broadening our understanding of the war. Certainly Professor Greenberg’s book will immediately become the standard account of the Mexican War, at last giving it an important place in the history of the United States. This book restores my faith in the merits of narrative history.” —Mark E. Neely, Jr., Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Fate of Liberty
“A well-rendered, muscular history of a war whose ramifications are still being carefully calibrated." —Kirkus Reviews
"The seldom-sung Mexican War emerges as one of America's most morally ambiguous and divisive conflicts in this illuminating history." —Publishers Weekly
“Amy S. Greenberg’s new history elegantly unfolds the story of the war through the lives of five politicians . . . [Greenberg] immerse[s] her readers in the early 1840s . . . Gripping.” —Maria Montoya, San Francisco Chronicle
"A provocative main idea in a freshly original narrative." —Booklist
“Greenberg writes taut political history, full of chapter-ending cliffhangers and characters who feel like real people.”
—Zocalo Public Square
“In her absorbing and valuable A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico, Penn State’s Amy S. Greenberg does a splendid job of vivifying this disgraceful episode in American history.” —Bill Kauffman, Reason
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As Greenberg notes in the introduction this is not a comprehensive view of the war, instead it looks at the events leading up to the war (and the war itself) through the eyes of five men, their wives and children. These are President James K. Polk, Henry Clay (“The Great Compromiser”), Abraham Lincoln (over a decade before his rise to the Presidency), John J. Hardin and Nicholas Trist. The latter two are the lesser known of the five men, but no less important to the story. Furthermore, the story moves along chronologically, starting with Henry Clay’s decision to come out against the possible annexation of Texas and ends with the end of the war and the nation starting down the road to the Civil War with Lincoln voting for the Wilmot proviso and the death of John Quincy Adams.
As for sources, Greenberg uses unpublished documents and manuscripts from such archival collections as the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, the Huntington Library, the Library of Congress and the Wisconsin Historical Society. Greenberg also uses newspapers from all over the country to round out her primary sources. When it comes to secondary sources, the author also uses an impressive collection of new and older sources, some dating back to as early as 1851. Amongst her newer sources are some of what can be called the usual suspects, including works by Brian DeLay’s War of a Thousand Deserts, David Donald’s definitive biography on Lincoln, Eric Foner’s recent prize winning The Fiery Trial, and Paul Kramer’s The Blood of Government (about the connections between racism and American Imperialism).
Greenberg’s work contains what might be considered a weakness in that, unlike most recent works of history, it takes a very top down approach to historical analysis, focusing on “big men” and diplomacy. While she does include the wives of Lincoln and Polk, they garner much less attention than the men (Mary Lincoln’s entry in the index is significantly smaller than the one for her husband), in a way this is a weak criticism. The fact is, the United States in the 1840’s and 50’s had no women in Congress or in any political office for that matter. Furthermore, her purpose is not to tell a bottom’s up story. While there is nothing wrong with that approach, her goal is to look at the war through the eyes of the big men.
The strength of the work is that, by using men we are familiar with, in conjunction with an accessible narrative style, Amy Greenberg delivers a history which is valuable not only to specialists, but can be read and enjoyed by a much larger audience. This fact is backed up by the fact that her manuscript was picked up and published by a major mass market publisher like Vintage. Furthermore she is able to give us a new take on what has suddenly become a very popular topic: the Mexican American War.