The Way We Were - and the Way We Went
Smithsonian, April 1996

The year the Smithsonian was born, America picked up a million square miles of real estate and our westward destiny was highly manifest.


IT WAS A YEAR when people were reading The Raven by a neurotic genius who had flunked out of West Point. It was the year when Melville scored a hit with Typee, his first South Seas adventure; five years later Moby Dick stirred hardly a ripple. The first game of baseball (not invented by Abner Doubleday) was played with present day rules. Walt Whitman, age 26, landed a job as editor of the Brooklyn Eagle. In Manhattan P. T. Barnum, already rich and famous for "exhibiting all that is monstrous, scaley, strange and queer," was pleasing crowds with the latest of his Fat Boys.

It was a year when, at a great industrial fair in the nation's capital, inventor Elias Howe showed off his amazing new sewing machine. The first telegraph lines had been strung between Baltimore and Washington. During an operation a Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston a dentist named William Morton administered ether in the first public demonstration of its use as an anesthetic. Thereafter, the help of three or four men need no longer be required to amputate a leg or pull a tooth.

It was a year when some 20,000 Mormons, savagely driven out of Nauvoo, Illinois, a city they built as a New Jerusalem, crossed the icy Mississippi to safety in Iowa. They were abolitionists who had lately begun to practice polygamy; their prophet, Joseph Smith, and his brother had been taken from jail and murdered. Now, under Brigham Young, they were on the point of heading farther west, not seeking any green and desirable place (where Young figured they would be attacked again) but some site where, with discipline and the help of the Almighty, they aimed to make the desert bloom.

To the south, in Independence, Missouri, several thousand emigrants, westward bound out of the United States for the Oregon territory and for California, then part of Mexico, were about to set off toward Fort Laramie and the Platte River, an early stop on what was to become famous as the Oregon Trail. Already at Laramie was an ambitious historian-to-be, 22-year-old Francis Parkman, Harvard '44, who intended to study Indians. He needed to know about them because he planned to write about the French and their Indian allies, but in his research back East the only Indians he could find were already completely corrupted by white civilization. The Indians around Fort Laramie turned up each day to cadge a handout of biscuits and coffee, and menace arriving wagon trains if the emigrants didn't give them richer fare. So Parkman was headed out to live in a remote Oglala Sioux village. The emigrants also disappointed him. They seemed to him "like a troop of schoolboys lost in the woods. "

Also heading west was young Charles Stanton, who was exhilarated after crossing the Continental Divide at South Pass. "I have seen the Rocky Mountains," he wrote his brother, "and am now on the waters that flow to the Pacific! It seems as if I had left the old world behind and a new one is dawning upon me" Stanton was traveling with the Donner Party. On December 21- snowblind, frozen, starving and alone - he died after trying to help others make it over the last few agonizing miles of the Sierra Nevada and down into sunny California.

The year, of course, was 1846. We are just now commemorating it hereabouts as the Smithsonian Institution celebrates its 150th birthday, complete with a traveling show and a special exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. Quite apart from the Smithsonian's founding, 1846 was an astonishing year. It was the year the Mexican War began. The year when the country, taking a quantum leap forward, suddenly completed the westward course of empire that Jefferson had dreamed of when he sent Lewis and Clark out exploring 40 years before. As 1846 began, the Union occupied less than half of what is the continental United States today; when it was over we possessed, or were soon to possess, all of it.

This was accomplished by means that are controversial to this day - the canny use of cash, diplomatic dealmaking, the threat of war and, finally, when the others failed, war itself. The war left us with 13,000 American dead - only 1,721 died in battle, most of the rest from disease. President James Polk's policies changed the contour of the country by adding more than a million square miles of territory. Some claimed they changed the content of our national character - and for the worse.

On May 3, 1846, down in steamy Fort Brown (now Brownsville, Texas), Ulysses S. Grant, a 24-year-old second lieutenant, heard enemy gunfire for the first time. The war he was about to fight, Grant figured (incorrectly, it turned out), would encourage the spread of slavery, and he wrote home, "I felt sorry that I had enlisted." In July, to protest that same war, Henry David Thoreau refused to pay his Concord, Massachusetts, poll tax. Characteristically, his aunt paid it for him, so after a night in jail he repaired to a nearby small lake to contemplate further civil disobedience and the changing seasons.

The war added place-names like Buena Vista and Chapultepec to the American vocabulary. It brought to the fore two generals.  Zachary Taylor, fondly known to his men as "Old Rough and Ready," dressed like a tramp, believed in the bayonet but fortunately had light artillery. In 1848 he would parlay his fighting fame into the Presidency. Towering Winfield Scott, unfondly known as "Old Fuss and Feathers," for years unsuccessfully aspired to the Presidency. But Scott won victories while keeping casualties to a minimum, and he ended the fighting in 1847 by jumping off across Mexico from the coast at Veracruz, driving toward Mexico City. His soldiers were always outnumbered, but they defeated Santa Anna again and again until the capital fell, in a campaign still admired by military tacticians.

Alexis de Tocqueville regarded America as one of the hopes of the world but nevertheless noted that Americans were "slaves of slogans. " The slogan of choice in 1846 was' "Manifest Destiny."  The term had been coined in 1845 by a New York publisher named John O'Sullivan, eager to encourage, or get out ahead of, the curve of national expansion. It has drawn much scorn of late. In the 19th century, belief in Manifest Destiny would lead to some deplorable policies and even more deplorable rhetoric. But at first it simply meant that Providence had a universal design for Americans to carry their democratic machinery and customs across the continent.

In 1846, the man who more than any other set all this in motion was James K. Polk. A Scotch-Irish lawyer from Tennessee, Polk was a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, a Presbyterian and a compulsive political micromanager. Though he had served five years as Speaker of the House (then made up of only 228 Congressmen) he was so little known to the voting public that when the Democratic convention at Baltimore finally chose him on the ninth ballot in 1844, the rival Whig Party jeered happily, "Who is James K. Polk?"

When the jeering stopped, he was the 11th President of the United States, with 170 electoral votes to famous Henry Clay's 105, though there was only a 38,000-popular-vote difference between them. Polk worked a 10-to-12-hour day, kept a diary of everything that he did or said (it ran to 25 handwritten volumes), complained bitterly about how hard the job was, but quickly set about becoming the first President to keep all his promises. He said he would serve only one term. He said he would fix up the federal treasury. He said he would adjust customs duties - in an era when Southern states sometimes threatened secession over tariffs. He said he would acquire Oregon ("54-40 or fight! "), a huge, disputed territory claimed by both Great Britain and the United States since the joint-occupancy treaty of 1827. He said he would annex the Republic of Texas. He said he would acquire California. He did all that and more.

Oregon was simple. All he had to do was to make it seem as if Americans were willing to risk war over it, discover that the British weren't, outbluff the British a time or two, and get a touchy Congress to pass an aggressive bill abrogating the 1827 treaty. In the end Polk had to settle for everything south of the 49th parallel - which meant that he got part of Idaho and all of what are now the states of Washington and Oregon.

Texas and California launched him into the sort of high-stakes, peace-or-war diplomatic maneuvering that Americans like to think only Bismarck and the British foreign office were good at. California still belonged to Mexico; only ten years earlier Texas had won its independence by defeating strongman Santa Anna's forces at San Jacinto. Sporadically raided and threatened with war by Mexico, the breakaway Texas Republic was kept out of the Union because adding a slave state would disturb the uneasy political balance in the US. Senate. But before Polk's Inauguration, through an initiative taken by Polk's predecessor, John Tyler, Congress admitted Texas as the 28th state - with Wisconsin shortly added to balance. Overnight, the border dispute between Texas and Mexico became a problem for the United States.

Polk opened talks with Mexico to clear things up - as well as settle longstanding money claims on Mexico by US. citizens. He named John Slidell, a Louisiana trader, as special minister plenipotentiary authorized to offer Mexico $25 million for California and $5 million for New Mexico. Both Texas and the US. Government now claimed the Rio Grande as the western Texas-Mexico border. Mexico bitterly insisted the border was the Nueces River, 120 miles to the east (see map). Polk quietly moved 2,000 men under veteran Indian fighter Zachary Taylor toward the Nueces. The Mexican government kept Slidell (and Polk) waiting for weeks, then refused to receive Slidell, at least as minister plenipotentiary. By April, Taylor's army, considerably reinforced, had been moved on down to the mouth of the Rio Grande - either the southern tip of Texas or well inside Mexican territory - whichever way you saw it, a provocative move. Mexico saw it as invasion and again threatened war, this time with the United States.

Not only threatened. On April 25 a Mexican army crossed the Rio Grande with a view to cutting off Taylor's forces. It met with a startled American patrol, killed 11 troops, wounded 5 and took 47 prisoners. Stirred to action and outnumbered nearly two to one, Taylor's little army won two quick battles, then crossed the river, took the Mexican town of Matamoros and set up headquarters there. Taylor's dispatches did not reach Polk until May 8. On May 13, the President, declaring that Mexico had "shed American blood upon the American soil," signed a joint resolution stating that war had begun.

Polk was not a man to leave things to chance. When the unstable Mexican government was slow to come to terms, he got involved in a secret plot to bring the exiled leader Santa Anna to power - in return for a quick peace. Santa Anna double-crossed him. But Polk's aim had always been bloodless conquest. Whatever happened below the Rio Grande, he figured to stir up local revolutions in other restless Mexican territories. Weeks before the war, he had sent representatives to Santa Fe, in the huge Mexican province of New Mexico, to bribe its governor and to promise (correctly) that conditions would dramatically improve should revolution or a U.S. takeover occur. Now he ordered Gen. Stephen Kearny at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to take a force of dragoons to Santa Fe.

For years, far more American than Mexican goods had been offered for sale in Sante Fe, so Kearny reached New Mexico closely followed by a traders' wagon train. On August 18 he took the capital of New Mexico without spilling any blood.

California was, as it usually is, a whole story in itself. In 1846 it was a sleepy province of Mexico, almost empty and dramatically ill-governed to the extent it was governed at all. The most remote and underpopulated part of the collapsed Spanish empire, it ran itself without much help from distant, usually bankrupt and chaotic Mexico City. From time to time one genial California general would snatch power from a rival in a bloodless coup, which, as an observer reported, mostly meant "that the revenue [had] fallen into other hands." The total California population ran to about 6,000 Mexicans in addition to the local Indians, often reduced to devout near-servitude on behalf of religious missions. The land was controlled by Mexican cattle ranchers. There were some 800 ragtag Americans, most having come by ship around Cape Horn to trade for hides.

Polk being Polk, his cash offer to Mexico for California was not his only ploy. Early on he had sent secret orders to Commodore John Sloat, commander of our Pacific naval squadron, and to Thomas Larkin, a trader who served as U.S. consul in California. If war came, or if the British Navy made any move, Sloat was to occupy all California ports. Larkin was to cultivate his contacts with the lax local authorities and encourage any move on their part to declare independence from Mexico City. Mostly he was to impress on them not to accept the protection of any foreign power except the United States.

Polk's third secret message may have included orders to flamboyant John C. Fremont, at 33 a famous writer-explorer. Fremont always claimed it did, as did his father-in-law, Thomas Hart Benton, a powerful Senator from Missouri, and of course Fremont's wife, Jessie, whose editing of her husband's exploring accounts gave them much of their charm and readability. In any case, on the 9th of May, 1846, a messenger from the nation's capital. Marine Lieut. Archibald Gillespie, caught up with Fremont near Klamath Lake in Oregon. Fremont was bound east from his fourth mountain exploration. Whether from ambition or acting under orders, he abruptly turned back toward California, where he soon was fomenting revolution. He had raised a band of roughnecks. Creating a theatrical distraction, they captured the "microscopic hamlet" of Sonoma (it "could have been captured by Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn," says historian Bernard DeVoto) and, running a flag with a lumpily painted bear on it up the pole there, declared California an independent republic.

Fremont got himself made acting governor. In fairly short order, California was under the control of the United States of America. The fact was confirmed by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, under the terms of which America got not only California but the land that today is Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah, as well as chunks of Colorado and Wyoming. Mexico got $15 million.

It is the custom now for Americans to judge the American past harshly and with a really notable lack of understanding, as if the people who lived then were exactly like us. But even the passionate abolitionists, pure spirits, and New England Whig politicians who bitterly condemned the Mexican War at the time, could not have imagined a country like our own, deeply concerned with the condition of its minorities, a country rich and secure enough even to debate whether wolves should be reintroduced into Yellowstone Park. The America of 1846 was nothing like that.

In that year the nation consisted of an uneasy union of 28 still very sovereign states. It had a population, including Indians and slaves, of less than 20 million, about as many people as live in New York State today. Its western border ran roughly on a north-south line from Wisconsin to Louisiana. Beyond that lay what maps referred to as the "Great American Desert."

Americans were not much given to the kind of self-criticism we now practice. Or to criticism of any kind. Chest thumping was more our collective style. We were already noted for being miffed by critiques from Europeans who were always coming over to tell us how rude, violent, greedy and tasteless we were, as well as ragging us for spitting tobacco juice on the carpet, keeping slaves and terminating Indians with extreme prejudice.

All that was more or less true, of course, but, according to the prevailing American view, beside the point. In 1846 Eastern and Midwestern Indians had been crushed or brushed aside with treaties, for the time being. They were treated deceitfully by the government and would be treated worse as the century wore on. But in the struggle, they had done things to settlers that were not forgiven or forgotten. This was especially the case with people who already regarded them as savages and had little reason not to regard them as entirely inimical to the creation of towns, schools, railroads and real estate deals, which then, as now, passed for the spread of civilization. Slavery was seen as a problem and, by some, as a sin, but we had tried to contain its divisive thrust with the Compromise of 1820: no slave states north of 36 degrees 30 minutes north latitude. If we kept expanding westward, we might keep it from splitting the Union for a while, and perhaps it would wither away.

The franchise was steadily expanding

In 1844, the antislavery candidate got just 62,000 votes; it was only in 1845 that Congress lifted a decade-long ban on debating slavery issues in the House. In 1848, the Free-Soil Party polled just 290,000. If women didn't vote, well, they didn't vote anywhere else either, did they? Europe, after all, was a place we'd broken away from by force of arms, a place governed by tyrants and frozen into rigid social classes. Meanwhile, over here, the franchise was steadily expanding. Almost anyone could walk into the White House and see the President. In 1846, America was the only place in the world where the people got to elect their head of state.

The country was not yet embarrassed by patriotism. Settlers rolling west in covered wagons read the Declaration of Independence aloud to each other on the Fourth of July. Americans were deeply religious. They had no trouble believing that God had created the world in all its infinite variety (Charles Darwin's findings on evolution were 13 years away) or that Providence was watching over America, the greatest experiment in freedom and democracy ever. It followed (and was mostly true) that any place annexed by America was likely to be better off than it had been before.

By dog-eared tradition America's remarkable growth and prosperity depended on private liberty, more of it than any stable political system had tried before, and public land, more of it tillable and easily acquired than history had yet seen. Because of it there was no income tax; the federal government and those of many states ran mainly on the sale of public land. (Frugally, of course - Polk had only one private secretary to help him with his paperwork.) Land policy varied. Real estate scams abounded. But generally the old cliche of the American Frontier did apply: a family with grit could move west, carve a life out of the wilderness, squat there and have a good chance of buying the place, sometimes for as little as $1.25 an acre.

Because of land the immigrants came. Starting in 1846 the latest wave, more than a million, were refugees from Ireland's potato blights and killing famine. At first they did not go to the frontier; the only farming they knew was the cultivation of an acre or two of potatoes. Instead, they huddled in the seaboard cities and soon were dying by the thousands of cholera. They displaced free people of color as servants to the rich and slowed incipient attempts to organize labor by their need to work at almost any wage. Most were Catholic and many spoke only Gaelic, and they sometimes found themselves treated as half-human. Thousands volunteered for the war (monthly pay $7). Of these enough deserted to the Mexican side to form the "San Patricio" battalion. The Mexicans promised 320 acres of free land and did not fail to point out that fellow Catholics should not be fighting alongside blackhearted Protestant gringos.

Zachary Taylor's volunteer soldiers struggling into Mexico and the hundreds of wagons creaking and bumping westward in the summer of 1846 were the vanguard and living proof that the idea of Manifest Destiny had taken root. New England Whigs lambasted the Mexican War as a betrayal of American ideals. A fair number of people today can hardly mention it without wincing for the transgression of a shady relative. But in the South and West it set off a blaze of patriotic feeling . Though the peace treaty was slow to be signed, we had whipped the Mexican Army. Settlers were about to take on the Great American Desert.

A vast expanse, savage and forbidding

Entering it, you were emigrating outside the United States. Back East, people knew very little about it except that it was forbidding. A vast expanse of plains with Indians. Sometimes mountainous and hard to crosslike the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada. Sometimes flat, baking hot and waterless. Even the treeless, near-to-hand prairies, which eventually became the breadbasket of the nation, were little known. Westering settlers thus far had been used to cutting farms out of forest, braving Indians, running a few pigs as livestock. They figured that any place where trees did not grow wouldn't be much for growing anything else. Besides, without trees, how could you build a cabin?

Map shows the United States in 1846 - roughly the somewhat settled eastern area (in yellow) - and vast lands, west of the orange line, acquired by Polk's diplomacy and by war.  Trails to Oregon, Utah, and California all crossed the Rockies at South Pass.


It would be two decades before a rush of homesteaders settled these prairies and got used to grim sod huts and great corn crops. But in the early 1840s a few thousand farmers and homesteaders dared to try the grueling five-month trek across the often deadly 2,000 miles or so that lay between Independence, Missouri, and the alluring green of Oregon's Willamette Valley. In 1846, of some 2,700 people gathered for westward migration at Independence, more than 1,200 were aiming for California. They were the real start of a rush there that ran wild in 1849 after gold was found.

The allure of the place that year can largely be blamed on a best-selling new book by an unscrupulous real estate promoter named Lansford W. Hastings. Its title: The Emigrant's Guide to Oregon and California. Hastings, who had interests there, was high on California, a place of "perpetual spring," he wrote, where no "noxious miasmatic effluvia" existed. Oats grew eight feet tall and wheat yielded 70 bushels per acre - sometimes 120. Hastings' clincher for householders wheezing and freezing back East during the cold winter of 1845: in California you never had to build a fire, except to cook.

The trek continued for nearly 20 years. It became one of the set pieces of American history. The routes to Oregon and California were the same at first: up the south fork of the Platte River, over South Pass (at 7,500 feet) in what is now Wyoming, north past Soda Springs in Idaho, then down the Snake River. Those California bound turned south beyond the Great Salt Lake to follow the Humboldt River to the Sierra Nevada and Sacramento. The way west could be a great adventure. As the Donner Party proved, it could also be a season in hell. In any case it was a challenge taken mainly by people of substance. George Donner, leader of the ill-fated Donner Party, was rich; his wife was going to start a genteel girls' school in California. Fellow travelers came from all sorts of trades and professions, some scribbling poetry or collecting scientific specimens along the way.

It took considerable substance to get together the supplies thought necessary for a family of four, including: a covered wagon that could run you $200 even if you bought the cover in Missouri to save money; four yoke of oxen (more durable than horses and less often stolen by Indians) at $20 to $30 per yoke; for each male traveler a rifle, a shotgun and maybe one of Samuel Colt's new single-action revolvers (about $50); 200 lbs. flour; 75 lbs. bacon; 300 Ibs. "pilot" bread, or hardtack; 10 lbs. salt; 20 lbs. sugar; 5 lbs. coffee; 2 lbs. tea; 25 lbs. rice, and a small keg of vinegar. At a rough total, from $700 to $1,500. Many people sold off all their land and livestock to get the cash .

Between 1845 and 1859 some 280,000 souls took the Oregon Trail; an estimated 30,000 died along the way. Many were babies and toddlers who, on the trail or off it, in the America of 1846 often did not live past age 5. Dysentery, fever, almost any sort of infection, swept them away. Cholera became a notable killer; settlers, not expecting to pass that way again, were slapdash about latrines and garbage, and those following them suffered. Women died in childbirth. But generally people were killed by carelessness; children fell out of wagons and were run over; guns went off accidentally, though some wagon trains required that most guns be kept unloaded during the day's run. "The dead were carried along till evening, then buried. Next day all the wagons would roll over the grave to obliterate it and pack it down as a protection from marauding varmints. Until the 1860s, contrary to the impression given by the movies, Western Indians rarely killed migrating settlers along the trail, though they stole horses, shot poison arrows at oxen and sometimes fired on passing wagons.

Francis Parkman's famous Oregon Trail is sharper about Indians than about wagon trains. Because he was in search of groups uncorrupted by whites, stayed in the village of a notable Sioux warrior chief, and much admired his host's skill and bravery, he makes an interesting witness. Modern scholars note that Parkman was not a trained cultural anthropologist and was thus incapable, as one told me, "of recognizing differences in honorable cultures." Yet it is hard not to believe his low-key reporting when he watches a young woman catch, kill and skin a family puppy for a feast, adding that he himself later bought a white dog that had growled at him and had it cooked at an obligatory party for his host. The Sioux, he notes, will "sometimes give away the whole of their possessions." But they also routinely stole wives and ponies from each other and sometimes tortured captured enemies. What strikes Parkman as most troubling, though, is that the Sioux he knows are capricious in the extreme; honorable, perhaps, but not easy to integrate into busy, greedy 19th-century society. Crossing the plains, wood soon ran out; wagon-train women gingerly learned to use buffalo chips (known as bois de vache) for cooking. The stuff burned better than cottonwood. The travelers scratched brief messages for others coming behind, using cattle skulls and bones that gradually accumulated along the way. Those who too flagrantly broke the wagon-train rules were hanged from an upright wagon tongue (which must have been remarkably awkward) or were driven from the group to travel on alone. This happened to the Donner Party's James Frazier Reed after he killed a man in self-defense. As a result of his exile, he survived and heroically helped lead repeated rescue parties, the first of which found his 9­year-old daughter, Patty, barely alive in a snow-covered hut in February 1847.

Even in the best of times, except in highly disciplined groups--commercial traders, say, or the Mormons - progress was nothing like the orderly procession of white-topped prairie schooners, routinely circling for protection each night, that Hollywood has made part of American culture (along with stagy Indians in bad makeup who keep attacking and being shot down in droves). There were practical procedures about assignment of duties and places in line for the daily march, but the American penchant for exercising personal freedom at all costs caused all sorts of trouble. A "captain who wanted to camp here rather than there," Bernard DeVoto writes, "had to make his point by parliamentary procedure and the art of oratory. It remained the precious right of a free American ... to camp somewhere else at his whim or pleasure." Or not stay in line. Strung out along the trail at "senseless intervals they traveled fewer miles a day than they might have, traveled them with greater difficulty than they needed to." They were ready enough to help one another through any emergency or difficulty, DeVoto concludes, but "were unwilling to discipline themselves to an orderly and sensible routine. "

He is not here particularly describing the Donner Party. It came to almost unimaginable grief for reasons that discipline and common sense might not have avoided.  The group tried a shortcut urged on them personally by Lansford Hastings: south of the Great Salt Lake, then across the salt flats, which even today drivers in air-conditioned cars are advised not to enter casually. That took weeks. Even so, they might not have become a grisly chapter in frontier history if in 1846 blizzards had not started a month early in the Sierra Nevada, burying the passes in 30 feet of snow. History has concentrated on cannibalism, but the group produced some heroes whose self­sacrifice is almost beyond praise. To read about them is to weep for us all. DeVoto is probably right, though, that the significance of the Donner experience is as a reminder of dangers that any wagon train might face if things went really wrong.

Critics of Polk and the Mexican War attacked the President with self-righteous passion and some Whiggish hypocrisy for nudging the country from domestic innocence to incipient imperialism. But it was, and is, hard for most Americans to believe it would have been better for the United States and the world if Mexico or some other country (Britain? Spain?) controlled much of what we now call our own. In 1846 even the most violent abolitionists hadn't a clue about how to free - or later deal with - some three million slaves. War was, in fact, the only way to abolish slavery in the United States. But like most people confronted by an unsolvable and shameful problem - and by such a destructive alternative - Americans generally tried not to face it, hoping it would go away. With all that new land, most of it not suitable for slave-worked crops, might not the tension ease? Instead Southerners and States Righters grew more desperate about their share of power and more politically aggressive, especially after an attempt in Congress to link the peace treaty to an agreement that no part of the land acquired from Mexico would, permit slavery. Meanwhile the power of the abolitionists - who, as late as 1844 were widely regarded as politically insignificant and a bit nutty - increased. And, with a little help from the speeches of Daniel Webster, so did the cult of this quasi-sacred Union - to be preserved at all costs. The federal government, of course, had just got considerable practice in mobilizing for modern war.

James K. Polk did not live to see what happened. He died, exhausted, three months after the end of his term. Ambitious John C. Fremont lived to take part in it, ineffectively. In 1856 he became the first candidate for President put up by the new Republican Party - and lost. Four years later the Republican candidate was Abraham Lincoln. After the people of the Thirteen Colonies had won their freedom, and the French had disposed of their monarchy, British statesman Edmund Burke had this to say: "The effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do as they please: We ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risque congratulations. "

In June 1846, George Pickett of Richmond, Virginia, graduated from West Point last in a class of For him the road to Gettysburg led through Chapultepec.



Year of Decision: 1846 by Bernard DeVoto, Houghton Mifflin, 1984

The American Heritage History of the Great West by David Lavender, American Heritage, 1982

Francis Parkman by Howard Doughty, Harvard University Press, 1983

The Oregon Trail Revisited by Gregory M. Franzwa, Patrice Press, 1988

The Presidency by Marcus Cunliffe, Houghton Mifflin, 1987

So Far From God: The U.S. War With Mexico 1846-1848 by John S. D. Eisenhower, Anchor Books: 1989

The author, on the Board of Editors, recently wrote about D-Day and the Irish 'Troubles" of 1916-22.