The U.S.- Mexican War… Then And Now
One-hundred seventy years ago tomorrow, on May 13, 1846, the U.S. congress voted to declare war on Mexico. Complex factors led up to this war and the consequences have been far reaching. So far, in fact, that we are still feeling the effects to this very day.
In the aftermath of the Panic of 1819, Americans flocked to the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas. It was initially a comfortable transition as Mexico had recently won independence from Spain, and established a republican form of government based largely on the U.S. Constitution. Moses Austin began negotiating an agreement with Mexico in 1820 to import American settlers, and upon his death, his son Stephen F. Austin took over the project.
The land was inexpensive, and the Mexican government was largely decentralized at the time. It was quite common for signs at abandoned shops across America to read GTT (Gone To Texas).
In 1833, however, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna won the presidency through a series of coups. He quickly dissolved congress, replaced the constitution with a document called The Seven Laws, began centralizing power, and declared himself dictator. In response, a number of Mexican states rebelled, including Texas.
Santa Anna, considering himself the ‘Napoleon of the West,’ personally led a military campaign to crush the rebellion. Marching northward straight through the harsh winter, he surprised Austin at the Alamo- a former Catholic mission which had never been completed. Grossly outnumbered and out gunned the Alamo fell and every last man was executed.
Six weeks later, in April of 1836, General Sam Houston defeated and captured Santa Anna in a battle that lasted just 18 minutes. His troops, many of which were volunteers, wanted to hang Lopez for his ruthless slaughter at the Alamo, but Houston replied “I just want Texas.” The Republic of Texas became a free and independent nation on March 2. Nine years later, on December 29, 1845, Texas became the 28th state of the U.S.
There was a couple of problems with this arrangement. For one, Mexico had threatened to declare war on the U.S. if Texas was ever admitted as a state. Secondly, Texas and Mexico continued to dispute their borders. Texas claimed land to the Rio Grande, including much of what is today New Mexico and Colorado, while Mexico believed the boundary was at the Nueces River, north of the Rio Grande.
In July of 1845 President James K. Polk, who had run on a platform of Manifest Destiny and promised westward expansion, ordered Army commander Zachary Taylor to move forces into the disputed territory. As he wrote in his diary, “I stated to the cabinet that up to this time as they knew, we had herd (sic) 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.”
Polk sent Congressman James Slidell ahead of the army to negotiate with Mexico and offer to purchase even more Mexican land, including California, but Mexico refused. Troops were dispatched across the Rio Grande to confront Taylor’s army.
As Ulysses S. Grant, who was serving under Taylor at the time, would write in his memoirs:
“The presence of United States troops on the edge of the disputed territory furthest 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. I was very doubtful whether Congress would declare war; but if Mexico should attack our troops, the Executive [President Polk] could announce, ‘Whereas war exists by the acts of, etc.’ and prosecute the contest with vigor.”
Fighting broke out between Mexican and American troops in the disputed territory, Polk drew up his declaration of war, and he submitted it to congress.
The war ended in February of 1848, and resulted in about 17,000 American casualties (1,700 killed in action, another 12,000 dead from disease and injury and more than 4,000 wounded) and cost the lives of about 25,000 Mexicans. In the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, the U.S. gained about 525,000 square miles of Mexican territory (about 55 percent of its pre-war landholdings) in exchange for a lump sum payment of $15 million and the forgiveness of $3.25 million in Mexican debt owed to Americans.
It was similar to the terms Slidell had originally presented, but far less than what many wanted following the war. Expansionist Democrats, for instance, wanted the entire nation of Mexico. Though limited, this expansion of territory still added more fuel to the debate between abolitionists and anti-abolitionists . The abolitionists sought to prohibit slavery in any territory won during the war, and this dispute helped to keep the Northern and Southern states deadlocked right up to the Southern secession.
The Mexican-American war also served as training ground for many of the most prominent military leaders who would distinguish themselves during the American Civil War. A few of these included Grant, Winfield Scott, George McClellan, Philip Kearny, John C. Frémont, George Gordon Meade and Joseph Hooker for the Union; and Robert E. Lee, Joseph E. Johnson, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, PGT Beauregard, James Longstreet, George E. Pickett and Braxton Bragg for the Confederacy.
What began as an opportunity for growth and expansion of a fledgling nation managed to blossom into a war in the name of expansionism and imperialism. After the Spanish-American war, it seemed for a time that America was done expanding. Progressives in American politics with Theodore Roosevelt at the helm turned their attention inward, fighting battles of social evils and corporate monopolies. This introspection did not last long, however, as the Great War lurked just around the corner.
Today we have a major Presidential candidate initiating a war of words with Mexico. “I will build a wall,” Donald Trump exclaims, “And I will make Mexico pay for it.” Teddy Roosevelt did say, “Walk softly and carry a big stick,” but time will tell if The Donald’s stick is big enough to pull this one off…
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