History 110
Whose Manifest Destiny?  The Conquest of Northern Mexico

Map of Mexican American War

Discussion Goals:

  1. To understand the economic, social, and political status of Mexico at the time of American immigration.
  2. To examine the causes that led up to the Mexican American War and the way it contributed to the growth of the U.S. at Mexico’s expense.
  3. To explain why the Mexican American War was so unpopular among many Americans.
  4. To study the consequences of the Mexican American War.
  5. To learn how the Mexicans fared in “Occupied Mexico” - that portion of Northwest Mexico that came under control of the US after 1848.

Goal #1: To understand the economic, social, and political status of Mexico at the time of American immigration

In 1821 - the year that the first large American migration into Texas began - Mexico was in deep financial trouble after winning an eleven-year war of independence with Spain. As Rodolpho Acuna notes, in 1821, the new nation was "bankrupt, and it needed time to build an infrastructure to unify the new country."Chart of Mexican society in 1821

 


Goal #2: To examine the causes that led up to the Mexican American War and the way it contributed to the growth of the U.S. at Mexico’s expense

Causes of the Mexican American War

  1. U.S. government adopted an aggressive foreign policy designed to force Mexico to sell Texas.
  2. North American immigration to Texas, eventually making Americans the dominant population. 
  3. American refusal to submit to Mexican laws.
  4. Mexico adopted a new, centralized government, thus forcing the Mexican states to relinquish some of their power.
  5. Anglo-American settlers sought more autonomy of Texas.
  6. Americans established the Republic of Texas with the western boundary at the Nueces River.
  7. The U.S. government annexed Texas with the western bourndary at the Rio Grande River.

First Cause - The U.S. government adopted an aggressive foreign policy designed to force Mexico to sell Texas.

Second Cause - Americans began immigrating to the Mexican territory of Texas and quickly became the dominant population.

Third Cause - American refusal to submit to Mexican laws

Fourth Cause - Mexico adopted a new, centralized government, thus forcing the Mexican states to relinquish some of their power. Fifth Cause - Anglo American settlers' began to seek more autonomy for Texas. Sixth Cause - Americans established the Republic of Texas with the western boundary at the Nueces River.

Seventh Cause - Americans elected a new president in 1844 - James K. Polk - who ran on a platform to annex Texas with the western boundary at the Rio Grande River.

In 1838, Sam Houston invited the U.S. to annex Texas, but Congress declined. Why? Mexico refused to recognize Texas independence and the Whigs (advocates of federalism) felt annexation would bring war with Mexico. Further, the northern Whigs did not want another slave state entering the Union.

However, in 1845, just days before President Tyler (Whig) left office for his successor, James K. Polk (Democrat), convinced Congress to annex Texas with the southern border set along the Rio Grande. Texas was admitted to the union as a slave state. Republic of Texas disputed territories map But admission had not been easy. The United States Congress passed - after much debate and only a simple majority - a Joint Resolution for Annexing Texas to the United States.

Although the formal transfer of government did not occur until February 19, 1846, Texas statehood dates from the 29th of December, 1845.

Mexico immediately cut off relations with U.S. and insisted that Texas’s southern boundary was the Nueces River, not the Rio Grande which was 130 miles to the south. President Polk responded by ordering American troops under General Zachary Taylor to the disputed territory - the border area between the Nueces and the Rio Grande Rivers.

The U.S. government declared it had no choice but to go to war with Mexico.  Mexican forces Map of Mexican cession of land after Mexican American Warcrossed the Rio Grande to attack the U.S. army and on May 11, 1846, the U.S. was at war with Mexico.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 1, 1848, ceded Texas with the Rio Grande boundary, and all territory between Texas and the Pacific - territory that later became the states of New Mexico, California, Nevada, Utah, and most of Arizona, Wyoming, and Colorado. In return, the U.S. paid Mexico $15 million. Americans gained over 1 million square miles - an area amounting to one-half of all Mexico.


Goal #3: To explain why the Mexican American War was so unpopular among many Americans

The Mexican American War was perhaps the most unpopular war ever fought in American history. This statement from the State of Massachusetts provides some insight into the war's unpopularity:

"Resolved, That the present war with Mexico has its primary origin in the unconstitutional annexation to the United States of the foreign state of Texas ...; that it was unconstitutionally commenced by the order of the President, to General Taylor, to take military possession of territory in dispute between the United States and Mexico, and in the occupation of Mexico; and that it is now waged ingloriously - by a powerful nation against a weak neighbor - unnecessarily and without just cause, at the immense cost of treasure and life, for the dismemberment of Mexico, and for the conquest, of a portion of her territory, from which slavery has already been excluded, with the triple object of extending slavery, of strengthening the 'Slave Power,' of obtaining the control of the Free States, under the Constitution of the United States.

Resolved, That such a war of conquest, so hateful in its objects, so wanton, unjust, and unconstitutional in its origin an character, must be regarded as a war against freedom, against humanity, against injustice, against the Union, against the Constitution, and against the Free States; and that a regard for the true interests and the highest honor of the country, not less than the impulses of Christian duty, should arouse all good citizens to join in efforts to arrest this gigantic crime, by withholding supplies, or other voluntary contributions, for its further prosecution; by calling for the withdrawal of our army within the established limits of the United States; and in every just way aiding the country to retreat from the disgraceful position of agression which it now occupies toward a weak, distracted neighbor and sister republic."

Who resisted and protested the War?

  1. Abolitionists knew that southerns planned to expand slavery through invading Mexico. One Georgia newspaper stated that taking territory from Mexico would "secure to the South the balance of power in the Confederacy [i.e., the United States], and, for all coming time - give to her the control in the operations of the Government" (quoted in James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom).
  2. Veterans. In his personal memoirs written after he served in the war, Ulysses S. Grant recognized that the annexation of Texas was "from the inception of the movement to its final consummation, a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed for the American Union." In 1879, he wrote, "I do not think there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico." "Plucked" political cartoon showing how the U.S. plucked Mexico as a result of the Mexican American warAnd as he was dying in 1885, he asserted that the war was "one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger nation against a weaker nation."
  3. Northern Democrats and Northern Whigs who opposed the annexation of Texas and wanted to end the extension of slavery into the American territories - called the war "Mr. Polk's War," referring to President James Polk, a Southern Democrat, who had clear expansionist tendencies.
  4. Racists who did not want to add more people of color to the United States.
  5. Idealists such as Henry David Thoreau who agreed with the anti-war stance of both the abolitionists and northerners. Because he detested slavery and because tax revenues contributed to the support of it, Thoreau refused to pay the hated poll tax. In July 1846, he was arrested and jailed. Soon after his release, he wrote "Civil Disobedience" - an analysis of the individual's relationship to the state that questions why men obey governmental law - like going to war or paying taxes - even when they believe such actions are unjust.

Goal #4: To study the consequences of the War

For the United States:

  1. The U.S. acquired a colony that was 1 million acres (almost 50% of all Mexican territory) and contained rich farmlands and natural resources such as gold, silver, zinc, copper, oil, and uranium.
  2. With the acquisition of the Northern Territories of Mexico, the U.S. became a hemispheric power - largely because of the new ports in California that would facilitate economic expansion across the Pacific.
  3. Almost 30% of all American troops who fought in the war died. More than 16,000 lives were lost. More than 5,800 Americans were killed or wounded in battle, 11,000 soldiers died from diseases, and others eventually died from their war injuries. 1848 painting of the American occupation of Mexico City
  4. U.S. spent between $75 and $100 million dollars.
  5. Disagreements over slavery escalated across the United States. A growing number of northerners were convinced that the War was started by southern slave owners who wanted to open the newly acquired lands to slavery.
  6. American political parties were weakened; subsequently, it became increasingly difficult for the nation's leaders to prevent slavery and the expansion of slavery from dominating Congressional activity for the next 12 years.
  7. Many 21st century historians argue that the Mexican American War was the first American War of conquest - or as some have even stated, a war in which the U.S. "bullied" a weaker power to gain new territory by conquest.
  8. Historian Brian DeLay in The Mexican American War states the major consequence of the war in this way:

    " ... the Mexican American War ... does not fit well with our idea of what American history is all about. We like to structure our history around important wars ... and we remember these wars as conflicts where we were attacked by an aggressor. And this aggressor had particular designs on things central to who we are - our liberties, our fundamental freedoms - but through enormous sacrifices, we overcame the odds and drove back this threat. And the Mexican War does not fit this pattern."

  9. For Sam Haynes, the author of a biography on President Polk, the war is even more significant:

    "The Mexican American War represents a fundamental moral dilemma for the United States. Is the U.S. going to be a good nation or is it going to become a great nation? Is it going to become a nation that will protect the sovereignty of neighboring nation states, or a nation that will aggressively pursue its own self interests?" ( James K. Polk and the Expansionist Impulse.)

For Mexico, the war was a series of tragedies - largely because the war was fought almost entirely on Mexican soil.

  1. Mexico lost half of its nation.
  2. Besides the thousands of military and civilian deaths during battles, the war left tens of thousands of orphans, widows and disabled.
  3. Some cities suffered great losses and destruction due to artillery shelling and small-arms gunfire.
  4. The nation's economy was severely disrupted by the naval blockade and movement of thousands of troops across the land, as well as the steep decline in agricultural and mineral production caused by the massive conscription of peasants.
  5. The political instability during and immediately after the war led to a new despotic regime and eventually to another civil war.
  6. The Mexican population suffered severe psychological damage and their national dignity and honor were shattered largely due to the humiliation of having their capital and much of the country occupied by enemy troops and the horror of a peace treaty that cost Mexico half of its national territory. Consequently, a deep and long-lasting feeling of resentment toward Americans arose within much of Mexico.

Goal #5: To learn how the Mexican population fared in "Occupied Mexico"

The Mexicans who now lived in what many began to call "Occupied Mexico" did not fare well. Political Cartoon of Occupied Mexico

Mexican Land Dispossession in California

The early 1820s until the Gold Rush - Spanish and Mexican rulers granted over 800 large tracts of California land to Hispanic and white settlers. The rulers did not recognize Indian ownership of these lands. Newcomers to California selected valley locations with rich soil and reliable water sources to raise livestock and crops. Most grants were not accurately surveyed and mapped, which made the claims difficult to prove when California passed into American hands in 1848.

1848 - The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that formally ended the Mexican American War provided that the Mexican land grants would be honored (Article X). However, the United States Senate removed that protection when ratifying the Treaty. In order to investigate and confirm titles in California, American officials acquired the provincial records of the Spanish and Mexican governments.

In the ten years before the missions were dismantled, the Mexican government had issued only 50 grants for large Map of California Land Grants under Mexican ruleranchos. In the dozen years after the missions were secularized, over 600 new grants were made.
1851 - The California Legislature passed an "Act to Ascertain and Settle Private Land Claims in the State of California" which required all holders of Spanish and Mexican land grants to have their land titles confirmed by the newly-created Board of California Land Commissioners. Despite promises in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, this Act placed the burden of proof of title on Spanish and Mexican landholders - and this was a difficult burden because in most cases, the land grants were made without closely defining the exact boundaries and even when boundaries were more specific, many markers had been destroyed before accurate surveys were made.

Although 604 of the 813 claims brought before the Land Commission were confirmed, most decisions were appealed to US District Court and some even went to the Supreme Court. The confirmation process required lawyers, translators, and surveyors, and took an average of 17 years to resolve - making it very expensive to defend land titles. In many cases, land had to be sold to pay for defense fees or given to attorneys in lieu of payment.

From the early 1850s forward - Before 1850, Mexican Californios owned all the land valued at over $10,000.


Conclusions - Whose Manifest Destiny?  The Conquest of Northern Mexico

  1. The United States government's interest in Texas began early during the era of Manifest Destiny but did not significantly increase until a substantial number of Americans had migrated into Texas territory - enough to stimulate a move for independence - and until a president with deeply expansionist ambitions was elected president - James K. Polk.
  2. The primary causation of the Mexican-American War was American aggression in the Mexican areas of Texas and California. From the time of the first American settlement in Mexico in 1821 until the end of the Mexican-American War, the march of Americans into Mexican territory was unrelenting.
  3. The belief in Manifest Destiny fueled the Mexican American War and as such, made it a war of conquest. As historian James McPherson has written, "Like the adventure in Iraq more than a century later, [the Mexican American War] was a war of choice, not of necessity, a war of aggression that expanded the size of the United States by nearly one quarter and reduced that of Mexico by half." (New York Review of Books, Feb. 7, 2013).
  4. The war was one of the most unpopular wars in U.S. history and contributed to the growing problems between pro- and anti-slavery forces in the United State.
  5. The consequences of the Mexican-American War for the U.S. were both progressive and regressive:
  6. The consequences of the war on Mexico were tragic.
  7. The consequences for Mexicans living in the new boundaries of the United States were even worse.
  8. The Mexican American War is often ignored or mythologized in U.S. History. Historian Brian DeLay in The Mexican American War sheds light on this: " ... the Mexican American War ... does not fit well with our idea of what American history is all about. We like to structure our history around important wars - the Revolutionary War, the Civil war, World War II - and in each of these cases, we remember these wars as conflicts where we were attacked by an aggressor. And this aggressor had particular designs on things central to who we are - our liberties, our fundamental freedoms - but through enormous sacrifices, we overcame the odds and drove back this threat. And the Mexican War does not fit this pattern."
  9. For Sam Haynes, the author of a biography on President Polk, the war is even more significant: "The Mexican American War represents a fundamental moral dilemma for the United States. Is the U.S. going to be a good nation or is it going to become a great nation? Is it going to become a nation that will protect the sovereignty of neighboring nation states, or a nation that will aggressively pursue its own self interests?" ( James K. Polk and the Expansionist Impulse.)