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Lines In The Sand, part 2: The Mexican-American War

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This Land Is…Whose Land?

As described in last week’s article, the Republic of Texas successfully seceded from Mexico in the spring of 1836—“successfully,” that is, insofar as they had captured the Mexican president and general Santa Anna and gotten him to sign an agreement that Texas was to be an independent republic. The Mexican government, however, had deposed Santa Anna and refused to acknowledge Texas, though they no longer conducted an active war against the separatists.

 To further complicate the picture, there was no agreement about just where Texas’ southern boundary might be. The Republic of Texas claimed that the Rio Grande marked the southern border, while the Mexican government insisted that the border lay about 150 miles north of the Rio Grande along the Nueces River. 

Some Texans wanted to maintain a separate and independent republic.  Others maintained that they would have a better chance of keeping their territory out of the hands of the Mexican government if they were annexed by the US and became a US state.  The first Texan elections swept Sam Houston and the annexationists into power, and a delegation was sent to Washington.

Slavery and the Road Not Taken

The United States, in the person of President Martin van Buren, declined to annex Texas. The US was then at peace with Mexico, but the peace was not likely to survive the US annexation of Mexico.  Also the US was already deeply divided over the question of slavery, and the addition of new territories, slave or free, was likely to change the balance of power and perhaps alter the direction of the federal government. Texas would have come in as a slave state, having earlier insisted on remaining a slaveholding territory when the rest of Mexico outlawed slavery.  Van Buren turned down the fraught offer of annexation, but he did recognize the Republic of Texas.

Charles Elliot

So did Great Britain, which sent Charles Elliot as its ambassador to Texas in 1842. Elliot was a seasoned diplomat whose protests against the brutalities of the slave trade had contributed to Britain’s banning slavery in all its territories in 1833. After that he was sent to China, where he was found too conciliatory to the natives and sent to the fledgling republic of Texas—a downward move, in the view of his superiors. But the Texans were delighted to have a real British ambassador, and their view of Elliot warmed further when he helped them out of a diplomatic embarrassment.  Some Texan troops had gone raiding in the disputed territory along the Rio Grande in 1842, and the Mexican government captured two hundred of them.  Elliott negotiated their release in 1843.

Elliot hoped to use this leverage to keep Texas as a sovereign republic, and also to get them to outlaw slavery. This appealed both to his conscience and to Britain’s economic interest. Since banning slavery, Britons were increasingly uncomfortable trading in commodities that depended on slave labor; they also saw the potential for a more advantageous trade relationship with a small, separate and grateful Texas than with the US.  Elliot offered a very substantial loan from the British government that would have enabled the Texan government to emancipate all slaves and compensate all former slave owners.  But the slave owners weren’t willing to take up this proposal. 

In 1845 Elliot also negotiated and supported a treaty offer from the Mexican government, which was willing to recognize Texas and promise peace if Texas would stay out of the United States. This proposal also was turned down. The US had elected an expansionist President, James Polk, who promised to support Texas’ claim that the Rio Grande was its Southern border if Texas joined the Union. 

James K. Polk

Polk wasn’t just thinking of Texas.  On the day of his inauguration he confided in his Secretary of the Navy that one of his main objectives was to annex California, which was still, as Texas had recently been, Mexican territory with a history of welcoming immigrants from the US—and a more recent rise in tensions with some of the newer immigrants.   

The President wasn’t the only one with grand ambitions. In 1845 the Washington Union, a Democratic Party paper, had called for “a corps of properly organized volunteers” to “Invade, overrun and occupy Mexico. They would enable us not only to take California, but to keep it.”  That same year Polk offered to purchase California and New Mexico, and the Mexican government refused. However, Sam Houston and the Texans took Polk’s offer up, and in December 1845 Texas was admitted to the Union as the 28th state.

“Ample Cause of War”

In February 1846 President Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor and his troops to take up and defend a position on the banks of the Rio Grande.  Taylor obeyed orders, crossing the Nueces River, marching south and arriving at the Rio Grande late in March.  Mexican families fled ahead of the army and took refuge in the city of Matamoros just across the Rio Grande, from whence they watched Taylor’s troops setting up fortifications.

Later on Ulysses Grant, then a lieutenant in Taylor’s army, later a famous Civil War general and US president, wrote: “The presence of United States troops on the edge of the disputed territory farthest from the Mexican settlements, was not sufficient to provoke hostilities. We were sent to provoke a fight, but it was essential that Mexico should commence it. It was very doubtful whether Congress would declare war; but if Mexico should attack our troops, the Executive could announce, “Whereas, war exists by the acts of, etc.,” and prosecute the contest with vigor. Once initiated there were but few public men who would have the courage to oppose it. …”

Mexico declared a ‘defensive” war against Taylor’s advancing troops late in April. Early in May, according to President Polk’s diary, he told his Cabinet that “we had heard of no open act of aggression by the Mexican army, but that the danger was imminent that such acts would be committed. I said that in my opinion we had ample cause of war…”  Not long after that he received dispatches informing him that Taylor’s quartermaster had been found dead, and that a patrol of Taylor’s soldiers had been surrounded and killed or captured by Mexican troops. Polk went before Congress and declared, “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil…we are called upon by every consideration of duty and patriotism to vindicate with decision the honor, the rights and the interests of our country.”  After only one day of debate the declaration of war was authorized by a vote of 40-2.

Many members of Congress, and of the general public, supported the war enthusiastically, often framing their support in terms of the US’ manifest destiny of expansion.  Thousands of private citizens volunteered to fight in the first excitement, though as the war dragged on the Army struggled with low recruitment and with soldiers abandoning the army on mid-campaign when their terms of enlistment expired.

A few anti-slavery politicians and public figures opposed the war vehemently—for varied reasons.  One antislavery Congressman from Ohio, Joshua Giddings, denounced the war because “In the murder of Mexicans upon their own soil, or in robbing them of their country, I can take no part…” and also because he saw the war as supporting slave-owners against a nation that had rightly abolished slavery. Another, Columbus Delano, warned that taking over more Mexican territory would encourage Americans to mingle with people who were willing to “embrace all shades of color…resulting, it is said, in the production of a slothful, ignorant race of beings.” Freed slave and abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass denounced the war vehemently.  Henry David Thoreau, hero of many modern tax resisters, refused to pay his poll taxes—and went to prison for that refusal– because he objected so strongly to the war.

Many members of the generally anti-slavery Whig party, while unconvinced by the President’s rationale for war, were unwilling to oppose funding for the war once it had started. Abraham Lincoln, who was not yet in Congress when war was declared, tried to explain the position of the Whig moderates two years later: “If to say ‘the war was unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced by the President’ be opposing the war, then the Whigs have very generally opposed it…The marching of an army into the midst of a peaceful Mexican settlement, frightening the inhabitants away, leaving their growing crops and other property to destruction, to you may appear a perfectly amiable, peaceful, unprovoking procedure, but it does not seem to us so…But if, when the war had begun, and had become the cause of our country, the giving of our money and blood, in common with yours, was support of the war, then it is not true that we have always opposed the war.”

“Such ‘Glorious’ Butcheries”

While the politicians weighed their interests and their consciences, the soldiers fought. Anglo-American settlers in California started the “Bear Flag Rebellion” there in summer 1846, and federal troops soon poured in to back them, sweeping through Alta California and New Mexico.  Meanwhile Taylor’s forces pressed south.  Mexico was at a disadvantage in responding, as its own government was in chaos and plagued by factional infighting.  In May, after prolonged fighting, Taylor’s army routed Mexican forces, drove them in disorder across the Rio Grande, and pursued them south into Mexico.

The fighting that followed was marked by ruthless conduct on both sides, but given the location of the battles it was Mexican civilians who suffered.  Veracruz and Mexico City were besieged and heavily shelled, leading to large numbers of civilian casualties.  More direct cruelty was also an issue.  General Taylor complained that the Texas Rangers had committed “shameful atrocities” and declined to renew their terms of enlistment.  Lieutenant Grant wrote bitterly—in a letter, not in his memoirs– “Some of the volunteers and about all the Texans seem to think it right to impose upon the people of a conquered city to any extent, and even to murder them where the act can be covered by dark.” Rape also was widely reported. Some of these crimes were reported at home and may have damped public support for the war.  One anonymous letter-writer in Massachusetts informed the paper’s readers that he did not intend to enlist in or otherwise support the Mexican war, explaining “I have no wish to participate in such “glorious’ butcheries of women and children as were displayed at the capture of Monterey etc.”

Soon after the US army occupied Mexico City, the Mexican government gave up the fight.  The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in 1848, ceded the territories of Alta California, Nuevo Mexico and Texas—about half of Mexico’s land– to the United States in exchange for fifteen million dollars.  The treaty also stipulated that individual landholdings were to be preserved if former Mexican citizens wished to remain on their land and become US citizens. In fact, however, in the postwar years commissions “investigated” land claims and invalidated the title of many formerly Mexican owners.

For more information about Charles Elliot, see this article.  To read Polk’s speech to the Congress calling for a declaration of war, click here. To read Joshua Giddings’ speech opposing the war, click here.



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