By Raul Vasquez
Some say it was an unjust war that exacted “one of the most punishing peace treaties in history.” Others say it was the work of “pent-up forces of the developing national spirit in the United States,” and the fulfillment of a “Manifest Destiny.”
What is indisputable is that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended a two-year conflict between Mexico and the U.S. on February 2, 1848, hurled shock waves across the physical and psychological landscapes of both nations. In many ways, even though today that war is arguably one of the least understood of all American wars, its passions still run deep.
In the spirit of Mexican Independence Day, which in 1848 was in real danger of becoming obsolete, we present the facts based on Mexican and American historical sources.
In his monumental work, “A Diplomatic History of the United States,” American historian Samuel Flagg Bemis blames the war and its chief outcome (Mexico ceded the whole northern half of its territory, including California, to the U.S.) on Mexico’s bad immigration policies for its sparsely populated frontier land.
Immediately after gaining Independence from Spain in 1821, “the new Mexican Government embarked on a policy of attracting settlers into its northern provinces from the U.S., by most liberal laws governing immigration and land disposal,” wrote Bemis. “In the end this was a sad mistake for Mexico… Texas filled up speedily with an alien population which soon became a menace.”
From 1825 onward, tens of thousands of legal and illegal American immigrants, mostly slave owners from the South, poured across the border and settled on the vast open lands in Mexican territory. Many broke laws by bringing with them African slaves (slavery was illegal in Mexico) and some even sold land that was not theirs to sell.
In 1825, a wealthy slave plantation owner, Haden Edwards, led the first rebellion to secede from Mexico, calling the region “Fredonia.” Edwards rebelled because he wanted to avoid Mexican sanctions after allowing several Mexican laws to be broken in his colony.
Though his “Fredonia” experiment was quickly squashed, Mexican officials grew weary and took steps to stem the overwhelming flow of immigrants into their country.
In 1830 Lucas Alamán, the able Mexican foreign minister, pushed through an immigration law that prohibited illegal American aliens from entering Mexico, and outlawed any new American settlements.
“But the door, if shut at all, was shut too late,” says Bemis. “The legislation caused friction with the new immigrants, when an attempt was made to enforce it.”
Most Texas colonists simply refused to give up their slaves, pay taxes and in general succumb to Mexican laws, so they organized and rebelled.
Despite a few military setbacks, such as at the Battle of the Alamo, they quickly established control of what then became the Independent State of Texas. Texans also established a constitution, which “entrenched slavery impregnably,” according to Bemis.
The question of Texas independence, acknowledged by the U.S. in 1837, was a foregone conclusion. What wasn’t, however, was whether the U.S. would annex Texas.
Ever since the early years of Mexican independence, the U.S. sent off a steady stream of petitions to purchase Texas and surrounding territories in northern Mexico. However, at every step, Mexicans refused to consider the sale of their land.
“U.S. analysts have always criticized the ‘stubbornness’ of the Mexican government for refusing to sell uninhabited land, despite the bankrupt state of the nation, and for granting generous concessions,” wrote Mexican historians Josefina Vázquez and Lorenzo Meyer in “Mexico Before the United States, 1776-1993.” “They are unable to comprehend that for Mexicans, land is not merchandise, but rather an ancestral legacy… The appreciation of this situation was, and appears to be still, irreconcilable.”
For nine years, Texas was a free and sovereign nation. But in 1845, after heavy lobbying by the Democratic Party, its annexation was approved by the U.S. Congress.
President James K. Polk, an avowed expansionist who fed into the idea of Manifest Destiny, ordered preparations for war with Mexico. Manifest Destiny was an idea that held that God intended the U.S. to control North America. Polk’s explanation for military preparations was that he had to defend the U.S. from a Mexican attack.
“In view of the formally declared attitude of Mexico (that U.S. annexation of Texas would be considered an act of war against Mexico) there was abundant justification for these dispositions of armed forces,” wrote Bemis.
However, most Mexican historians disagree that bankrupt and disorganized Mexico posed a serious threat.
A Mexican attack “was hardly possible since the border was protected by less than 1,300 Mexicans, most of them without guns,” wrote Vázquez. “Even American intelligence reports indicated that the Mexican Army barely deserved its name; it was a ghost… whose soldiers deserted at every opportunity.”
As Polk prepared for war by sending troops and battle ships to the border, he made one last attempt at a bloodless purchase. The official John Slidell was sent to Mexico to offer “a blank check” in exchange for the northern half of Mexico, from California to Texas.
The Mexican government, however, refused to see Slidell. “By refusing to receive Slidell they played into Polk’s hand,” wrote Bemis. Incensed, Polk “disposed the military forces of the U.S. in a challenging way.”
General Zachary Taylor was ordered to march a small band of soldiers up to the Rio Grande, into disputed territory.
“We have no business being here,” wrote into his diary eyewitness U.S. Colonel Ethan Hickock. “It’s as if the government was sending a small force in order to provoke a war, so it can then go and take California.”
On April 25, 1846, an unidentified Mexican soldier fired on Taylor’s trouble-making force.
Polk, who had been losing patience and was on the verge of asking Congress for a war against Mexico based on monetary claims Mexico owed American colonists, then learned of the Mexican “attack.”
Denouncing Mexico for its obstinacy and for “spilling American blood on American soil,” Polk got the war he had prepared for.
American forces easily made their way down to the outskirts of Mexico City by September 14, 1848.
With his army in the heart of Mexico, Polk ordered diplomat Nicholas B. Trist to negotiate a land deal with Mexico for half its territory. But after a brief armistice broke down, “the President decided to make Mexico sue for peace on the banks of the Potomac,” wrote Bemis. “There was rapidly rising an ominous sentiment for the cession of all of Mexico.”
With visions of annexing all of Mexico running rampant in Washington. D.C., Polk ordered Trist to return home.
In a fateful and brave decision, Trist, believing that swallowing Mexico whole would be hurtful to U.S. interests, ignored Polk’s order and went ahead to sign the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. It called for the U.S. to pay $15 million for the vast territories known today as the Southwestern United States.
While some believe Mexico brought the war on itself and that the U.S. simply took advantage of a “Manifest Opportunity,” as Bemis states, Mexican historians such as Miguel Angel Gonzalez Quiroga strongly disagree: “American expansion, or growth, to use a less belligerent term, was… the principal cause of this great conflict. Without it, the war is simply incomprehensible.”
Reprinted from Eastern Group Publications, September 16, 2003.