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Lincoln & Mexico: Local author, teacher sets the record straight through sound research and a nudge from his students

Back in January 2013, many of the 11th-grade students in Michael Hogan’s U.S. history class at Guadalajara’s American School attended an early screening of “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s much touted biopic.

The timing couldn’t have been better, thought Hogan, whose course that year had covered the life and work of the 16th president of the United States and, specifically, his relationship with Mexico.

“So tell me,” asked the professor once the students had settled into their seats for the next day’s class. “What was said about Mexico in the film?”

“Nada,” came the collective response.  The Emancipation Proclamation, yes, The 14th Amendment, yes. The 15th Amendment, yes. Mexico, not a word.

“I couldn’t fathom it,” Hogan told the Reporter in a recent interview. “The most courageous thing Abraham Lincoln did was to stand up in Congress in May of 1846 and protest the invasion of Mexico by President Polk, and this film contained not a single thing about it.”

Never one not to grasp an opportunity to engage his students – and somewhat irked by Spielberg’s omissions – Hogan went to the Library of Congress website and made copies of Lincoln’s passionate speeches on the Mexican invasion, since none were ever published in text books.  He then asked his class to analyze them carefully.  “I said, you make your judgment who’s right. Was the U.S. right in declaring war or was Lincoln right that American blood was never shed on American soil?

“When they came up with their conclusion, I asked them what they thought happened to Lincoln after that. They said people must have agreed with him.”

As we know, that never happened.  Lincoln’s insistence that the war with Mexico was unconstitutional not only cost the young congressman his seat, but other candidates shunned his support believing it would affect their chances of election. His demand to know the exact spot where hostilities began earned him ridicule and the nickname “Spotty Lincoln,” Hogan noted.

Despite these indications, almost all historical interpretation since then has concluded that Lincoln’s opposition to the war with Mexico was motivated by political or partisan calculations and not driven by his sincere belief that the United States was engaging in an act of aggression.   

It’s an analysis that spurred Hogan, an author of 24 books, to redress the balance, forming the early chapters to “Abraham Lincoln and Mexico,” a gripping reassessment of a long-ignored slice of history that one reviewer is calling “a shining contribution to the literature on Abraham Lincoln.”

Released in digital form in May, the month marking the 170th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Mexico and declaration of war on its neighbor, “Abraham Lincoln and Mexico” will be available in print later in the summer.  The positive early buzz is very generous, Hogan acknowledged, with all signs suggesting that the longtime Guadalajara resident will have another best-seller – and invaluable teaching resource – on his hands, to follow the hugely successful “Irish Soldiers of Mexico,” his absorbing account of the Irish-born soldiers who switched sides during the 1846-48 Mexican-American War.

Completing “Lincoln and Mexico,” nonetheless, was a far from straightforward task, Hogan conceded, requiring an exhaustive investigation that provides the 316-page tome with much of its heft and credence.

Recalled Hogan: “So I’m writing the book and I get to the end of the war. Right, that’s the end of the story I say. But this very bright girl in my class insists that I can’t have a book 100 pages long. She says ‘Lincoln’s now president of the United States, Mexico is at war with France, so what happens then?’

“I started wondering if Lincoln had any correspondence with Benito Juarez. I began doing some research and found out there was an unofficial letter that he had written to the young Mexican envoy in the U.S., Mateos Romero, before he was inaugurated.”

Hogan may not have realized it at the time but he had stumbled upon the start of a trail that would lead to a wealth of riches. Like a well-trained sniffer dog, the historian went to work.

On the basis of this letter, Romero, it turned out, had not only visited the White House and taken Mrs. Lincoln on a shopping trip in a rented carriage, but convinced U.S. banks to issue 30 million dollars in bonds to help Mexico’s war effort against France and even persuaded General Ulysses Grant to “loose” 30,000 rifles on the border that were used in the Siege of Queretero. Unbeknown to most Americans, 6,000 discharged U.S. soldiers – “Buffalo Soldiers,” many former slaves – participated bravely alongside Mexico’s Republican forces in this landmark 1867 battle that ousted the French invaders and resulted in the execution of Emperor Maximilian. 

In his book, Hogan manages to cut away the foliage obscuring the United States’ neutrality in Mexico’s struggle to expel the French by revealing the true extent of Lincoln’s affinity for his southern neighbors and the lengths he went to assist them. 

Hogan unearthed much of the detail for his narrative from a most unlikely source: the Banco de Mexico.  The resourceful Romero had been named Secretary of the Treasury in the first administration of President Porfirio Diaz (1877) and kept a daily journal that after his death was stored deep in the vaults of the nation’s central bank.  “After I learned about this material, I asked if these documents were available. Surprisingly, no one had ever read them before,” Hogan said.

Thanks to this research, Hogan was able to weave these neglected connections between Lincoln and Mexico into a compelling story about geopolitics and the approaches to political understanding required by the two neighboring nations. His book introduces a slew of colorful secondary characters whose actions, while previously never fully acknowledged by historians, contributed greatly to the bilateral relationship at such an important time in the development of the two countries.      

With a repository of “new” material in his possession, Hogan was keen to ensure that no surprises regarding accuracy would rear up and haunt him down the line.   On the advice of his publisher, Mikel Miller of EgretBooks.com, prior to publication he sent his manuscript to members of academic historical associations in the United States, Mexico and Europe asking for their comments and any factual corrections. “The response was terrific,” he said.

Not only did Hogan’s expert use of primary documentation to tell his story enthuse his peers (the book annexes the sources in their entirety), but many commented on the book’s contemporary implications: “It adds to the vital pedagogical mission of challenging triumphalist narratives of U.S. identity with more critical renderings of the past,” noted Carlos R. Hernandez of Yale University’s Department of History.  “With his equal focus on Mexico’s leaders and diplomatic efforts, Hogan reminds us clearly to be ashamed of talks about restraining walls and to recognize and remember an incredibly special bond between two proud and important countries,” penned one Amazon.com reviewer.

Hogan, too, is acutely aware of these implications. “It’s Trump versus Lincoln,” he said. “Lincoln didn’t just get up in Congress and say Mexico rah, rah, rah.  He makes his case point by point and when he finishes, he’s right … There’s two ways to do things. Back up what you say with reasonable evidence.  Listen to other people even though you disagree with them, and when you finish listening to them, ask if they have evidence to support their case.”

It’s a philosophy that Hogan extends to his U.S. history class, acknowledged last year as the largest outside American soil.  “It’s why you give (the students) the documents. You have to give them a chance to think about things without telling them how to think. But you have to give them enough evidence, and say bring evidence. You give them the authority, allow them to get into groups and form collaborative opinions. Don’t be like Trump and just run your mouth.”

“Abraham Lincoln and Mexico” is currently available on Kindle from amazon.com.  The Guadalajara Reporter will publish a review of the book after its release in printed form.

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