Mexican-American War (Magill’s Guide to Military History)
Article abstract: At issue: The establishment of a permanent border between Mexico and the United States. Result: Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo established the permanent border between the United States and Mexico.
The United States, by the middle of the nineteenth century, had expanded its western frontier to the Mississippi River through purchases of territory from France and Spain. Many Americans, however, felt that the country had a manifest destiny to expand its horizons across the continent to the Pacific Ocean. Standing in the way of such an expansion was the even younger republic, the United Mexican States, which had achieved its independence from Spain in 1823.
At the invitation of the Mexican government, a substantial number of U.S. citizens had moved into Texas, setting up towns and ranches, often accompanied by their African slaves. In 1836, these Texan immigrants rebelled against their Mexican overlords. After defeats at the Alamo and Goliad, the Americans, under General Sam Houston, defeated the Mexican army of Antonio López de Santa Anna at San Jacinto, captured the Mexican leader following the battle, and forced him to acquiesce to their independence. However, they failed to establish a clear line of demarcation between Mexico and the new Texas Republic.
The U.S. government acceded to the wishes of the Texans and annexed their republic in 1845. The U.S. Congress declared...
(The entire section is 1830 words.)
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Mexican-American War (American History Through Literature)
After Texas entered the Union as a state in December 1845, rather than accepting the Nueces River as the United States's southernmost border (as the Republic of Texas had formerly agreed to do), in February 1846, President James K. Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to lead what Polk called an "observatory force" to assert a U.S. boundary at the Rio Grande. Mariano Paredes y Arrillaga, the president of Mexico, immediately declared a defensive war to defend his nation's border. After two years of bloody combat, in the spring of 1848 the United States and Mexico cosigned the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. According to the terms of this treaty, Mexico recognized the Rio Grande as the border of Texas, and the United States assumed $5 million of the unpaid claims that Mexico owed to U.S. citizens. For an additional $15 million, Mexico ceded over a half million square miles of northern California to the United States (retaining the area that is now the Mexican state of Baja California). The U.S. territory was then divided into the provinces of New Mexico and California, which later become the states of New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and California.
A PATRIOTIC IDEAL
At the time of the war's inception in 1846, the patriotic ideals in whose name the Mexican-American War was fought commanded all of the resources and symbols of U.S. patriotism. It was the first military campaign in which soldiers marched to the tempo of "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the national anthem, and it was the first war that was fought under the "stars and stripes" as the national flag. The Mexican-American War was also the first military campaign in which war correspondents were employed to report from the field. So many newspapermen were embedded in the ranks of the early volunteers that they were able to found newspapers of their ownopularly known as the "Anglo-Saxon press"n Mexico's occupied cities.
By 1846 most of the key figures from the American revolutionary generation were either dead or dying. Upon representing each military success in Mexico as a vivid reminder of the nation's revolutionary beginnings, war reporters encouraged the troops to model their actions in the field after the example of the revolutionary heroes. The press thereby propagated the fiction that the war was the collective expression of the sons and daughters of the revolution, who were ready to sacrifice their lives and the nation's treasure on behalf of the independence of the Mexican people. Through its depiction of the war as a collective ordeal that forged a sacred link with the Founding Fathers' generation, the press also empowered its readers to imagine themselves as participants in the foundational event of the national community.
There were few U.S. residents who did not have a family member or some friend involved in the fighting. In his Pictorial History of Mexico and the Mexican War (1848), John Frost, the war's unofficial historian, portrayed the actions that took place in Mexico as part of a providential design that elevated the United States itself into an heroic protagonist. Frost's popular history of the war legitimated the doctrine of Manifest Destiny that designated the United States as God's favored nation and that characterized the inhabitants of its territory as God's chosen people.
The soldiers who took part in the Mexican-American War and the citizens who supported it alike believed that this national ordeal would fulfill the ideals of the nation's Founding Fathers. In To the Halls of the Montezumas: The Mexican War in the American Imagination, Robert W. Johannsen has described how deeply this fantasy penetrated into the psyche of the U.S. peoples. It "was a war," Johanssen writes,
that was experienced more intimately, with greater immediacy and closer involvement than any major event in the nation's history. It was the first American war to rest on a truly popular base, the first that grasped the interest of the population, and the first people were exposed to on an almost daily basis. (P. 16)
Soldiers identified so powerfully with figures from the revolutionary past that they imagined themselves as supplying them with their flesh and blood as they headed off to do battle. Even though George Washington had been dead for nearly fifty years, General Zachary Taylor conjured up his spectral presence at the Battle of Buena Vista on 22 February 1847. After General Taylor reminded his troops that this was the date of their founder's birth, Taylor asked each soldier under his command to imagine his body taken up by the spirit of Washington's valor. As Washington's name resounded through their ranks, Taylor's men turned back a Mexican armed force that was five times greater in size. Taylor would subsequently call his troops' identification with Washington as the decisive factor in the victory that John Frost describes as the turning point in the war.
Soldiers in the field drew comparably remarkable inspiration from William Hickling Prescott's epic History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843). Upon reading Prescott's account of the Spanish conquest, U.S. soldiers propagated the belief that the Prescott epic foretold their second conquest of Mexico. As they envisioned the empires of Montezuma II (1466520) and Hernán Cortes (1485547) giving way to the irresistible force of the "empire of liberty" they were bringing to the Mexican people, the troops associated this contemporary struggle with events from the past of civilization itself.
In addition to Prescott's history of the Spanish conquest, the Texas-Mexican borderland furnished the cultural context into which the literature inspired by the Mexican-American War was placed. In the editorials he published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle from 1846 to 1848, Walt Whitman (1819892) evoked the memories of famous battles of the so-called Texas Revolution to establish a norm of dominance whereby the United States represented the hemisphere itself as a national entitlement. In relocating the origins of the Mexican-American War in the massacres that took place at the Alamo and in Goliad, Whitman described the entirety of Mexico as the site of a war crime: "The
But insofar as it reflected the soldier's willingness to make sacrifices in the interest of the country, the Mexican-American War was likewise crucial to the dissemination of the ideology of republicanism. The terms that writers invoked to celebrate the soldiers' heroismhe sacrifice of interest in the self for love of countrylso corroborated republican virtue. Soldiers in turn construed the battlefield as a fabulous space that recalled them to the ideals of honor and duty. The capacious expanse of republican ideology allowed its proponents to adopt utterly opposed attitudes toward the Mexican-American War without experiencing them as irresolvable contradictions. Those who supported the war in the name of republican ideals argued that it was the nation's moral responsibility to liberate Mexico from the chains of monarchical tyranny. Those who opposed the war invoked the very same ideals to argue that if American freedom was grounded in the consent of the people, the American people could not acquiesce to the exercise of military force over an unwilling people.
LITERARY CELEBRATION AND OPPOSITION
U.S. canonical writers exemplified republicanism's ambivalence in their variegated responses to the war. In his essay on the grounds for his civil disobedience, Henry David Thoreau (1817862) gave expression to the conviction he shared with Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803882), Margaret Fuller (1810850), and Herman Melville (1819891) that territories acquired by military force and administered without the consent of the governed were incompatible with the ideals of a constitutional democracy. In his novel Jack Tier; or, The Florida Reef (1848), James Fenimore Cooper (1789851) was also openly critical of President Polk's decision to use a predominately volunteer army, which Cooper viewed as responsible for an untoward cost in dollars and casualties. However in the campaign biography that he composed for Franklin Pierce in 1852, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804864) favorably portrayed the Mexican battlefields as the training grounds upon which Pierce developed the civic virtues of prudence and self-sacrifice that prepared him to lead the country. And Walt Whitman celebrated the Mexican-American War as an overturning of tyranny that inspired the revolutionary actions taking place throughout Europe in 1848. Despite their antithetical stances on the war, Cooper, Thoreau, Emerson, Fuller, and Melville based their opposition to it upon the same presupposition that led Hawthorne and Whitman to support it: that the United States was the guardian over the ideals of liberty that it was commissioned to propagate throughout the world.
But William Gilmore Simms's (1806870) reaction to the war was representative of a cadre of Southern writers who differed from their contemporaries from the North in that they did not attempt to reconcile the war with the United States' adherence to democratic institutions. Simms turned to an imagined Middle Ages to give romantic shape to this "nineteenth century crusade," which he believed essential to maintain the security of southern institutions. In his 1848 collection of verse Lays of the Palmetto: A Tribute to the South Carolina Regiment, in the War with Mexico, Simms connected the South Carolina volunteers' chivalric valor with the southern code of paternalism, honor, and duty through which the South also justified the institution of slavery.
But U.S. abolitionists invoked its complicity with the slave power to justify their unanimous condemnation of the war. Frederick Douglass (1818895) denounced the war as a violation of the democratically achieved rights of the all-but-defenseless Mexican people. William Lloyd Garrison (1805879) described the war as a conspiracy to expand the domain of the slave power. And John Greenleaf Whittier (1807892) singled out Mexico's abolition of slavery as one of the unstated the causes of the war. After exposing the ways in which the American people's patriotic sentiments had been manipulated to expand slavery's dominion, Whittier wrote a series of poems that he designed to dissociate the Mexican-American War from the nation's revolutionary ideals. In "Yorktown," the representative poem in this series, Whittier drew out vivid parallels between the Mexican people and the patriotic revolutionaries who opposed the slave power of the British Empire.
The historian Reginald Horsman suggests that these debates about the conduct of the war provoked the first widespread embrace of the Anglo-Saxon race as prototypical of the U.S. national identity. The U.S. literary figure James Russell Lowell (1819891) exemplified this trend when, after supporting the abolitionists' opposition to the war in The Biglow Papers (1848), Lowell also mitigated this criticism with the observation that it was "the manifest destiny of the English race to occupy this whole continent and to display there that practical understanding in matters of government and colonization that no other race has given such proof of possessing since the Romans" (Johannsen, p. 218).
Their promotion of Anglo-Saxon liberty led politicians as well as writers to racialize the Mexican population as nonwhite. In Our Army at Monterey (1847), the southwestern humorist Thomas Bangs Thorpe (1815878) characterized the Mexican soldier as the degraded biological product of different races "where the evil qualities of each . . . [are] alone retained" (p. 95). Thorpe invoked these racist stereotypes to explain why the conquest of Mexico should be understood as an expression of Anglo-Saxon liberty. In his prowar novel The Volunteer (1847), Ned Buntline (Edward Zane Carroll Judson, 1823886) invented a protagonist who lent support to the proslavery and white racist values to which President Polk had appealed when he characterized the racial heterogeneity of the Mexican people as the factor that made him chiefly wary of incorporating Mexico into the United States.
When the U.S. writers racialized Mexicans as non-white, they also racialized Mexican land and Mexican labor in ways that were intended to diminish the class and racial anxieties of the laborers who read about the war in the industrial cities of the North. In American Sensations: Class, Empire and the Production of Popular Culture, Shelley Streeby has persuasively demonstrated how class and racial hierarchies in northeastern cities were inextricably tied up with the scenes of empire building in Mexico. According to Streeby, popular sensational novelists who wrote about working-class culture redeployed this racial idiom when they wrote about Mexico. Viewed through the eyes of the white laborer from El Norte, the Mexicans ways of occupying lands and performing seemed unproductive and wasteful.
But whereas the abolitionists and transcendentalists appealed to tenets of republican ideology to discuss the war with the middle classes, the dime novelists promoted a form of nativism that drew upon working-class fears of foreign laborers, slave rebellions, rival empires, and papist conspiracies. The discourse of nativism assigned assumptions about race and gender that served as the idiom of working-class cultures. Insofar as nativism presupposed social hierarchies that reenforced commercial interests, nativism was inassimilable to republican ideology. But it was its very inassimilability to republican ideology that foregrounded nativism as U.S. republicanism's seamy underside.
In 1847 George Lippard (1822854), America's most widely read novelist, collaborated with the working class's ideology of nativism in his popular novel Legends of Mexico. After racializing the class division between the Mexicans and the working-class soldiers in the volunteer army, Lippard forged an imperial solution to the problems of industrial capitalism. In Legends of Mexico, he described Taylor's troops as an army of industrial workers, and then he identified these militant proletariats as the true agents of revolutionary social change in Mexico. In so doing Lippard used the racist idiom sedimented within the workers' nativism to place Mexicans in the spaces that had formerly been occupied by Irish, Italian, Bavarian, and other workers from ethnic minorities so as to advocate the incorporation of these particular immigrant laborers into an "American race."
Overall, the Mexican-American War powerfully influenced the ways in which the major issues of the nineteenth centurymmigration, race relations, free soil versus slavery, interhemispheric geopolitics, the question as to whether the United States was a republic or an empireere represented, discussed, analyzed, and evaluated. As the greatest of the American wars before the Civil War, the Mexican-American War might as a consequence have been expected to occupy a lofty place in U.S. history. But events from a nation's past only remain useful to its historians as long as they reflect and reinforce their generally shared assumptions. As a war of aggression that gave expression to expansionist ambitions, the Mexican-American War could not be integrated within the grand narrative of U.S. history that unequivocally commemorated U.S. purposes as altruistic, noble, and innocent. While it was considered a fulfillment of revolutionary ideals as it was taking place, this "forgotten war," as it is sometimes called, was eclipsed by the Civil War that drastically reduced its historical standing to the status of one of its tributary causes.
From the time of the war's conclusion in 1848, Mexican historians have joined with the Spanish-speaking artists, writers, poets, and denizens of the borderlands between the United States and Mexico in a collective effort to challenge historians' accounts of the war. But the assumptions that have driven and defined the historical scholarship about the Mexican-American War have made it extremely difficult for these alternative historiographical frameworks and analytic narratives to find a reputable place in the discussion of the war. Indeed, for many years the U.S. historians who analyzed the war did not merely fail to represent the Mexican writers' different accounts; because these omissions were consistent with the assumptions of U.S. historiography, historians did not even notice their absence.
But the reemergence of the question of empire and the interrogation of the strategies whereby U.S. historians had ignored that question has led to widespread questioning of the assumptions that formerly enabled U.S. historians to forget about the Mexican-American War. Although scholars conventionally located the origins of U.S. imperialism at the end of the nineteenth century, the reexamination of the Mexican-American war has led to the uncovering of a much longer history of empire in the Americas. Scholars in Chicano/a studies of the standing of Rosaura Sánchez, José David Saldívar, and Carl Gutiérrez-Jones (to name only a few) have uncovered a vast archive of testimonios from the 1840s that represent the history of U.S. interaction with Mexico in terms that promise to supply the representations of the Mexican-American War with a very different shape in the future.
See also Borders; Manifest Destiny; Slavery; Spanish Speakers and Early "Latino" Expression
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Donald E. Pease