What is the main point of chapter 8 in A People's History of the United States?

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shaddox5 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Chapter 8 of A People's History of the United States portrays the American nation as one obsessed with a desire to expand its territorial boundaries. The then-president of the United States, James K. Polk, was driven to fulfill "manifest destiny" and used the disputed border region between Texas and Mexico to help complete his mission.

Polk, a Democrat, provoked the Mexican army to attack Americans along the Rio Grande region of Texas. There was virtually no doubt that the United States would prevail in any conflict with Mexico. This victory over the U.S.'s neighbors to the south would open the west to American expansion all the way to the Pacific Ocean and the economic opportunities that body of water provided.

In "We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God," Zinn claims the ensuing war was little more than an immoral land grab done for the sole purpose of lining the pockets of wealthy elites. There was little in the way of political opposition to Polk, even from the rival Whig Party. A prevailing theme of the day justified expansion by claiming that exposing newly conquered lands to democracy improved life in those areas.

Zinn also hints at racist overtones as a driving motivator for the manifest destiny-based support for the war. While opposition did grow during the war, it is unclear to what extent unrest did exist. It is clear that some Americans of that era would have found themselves in agreement with Zinn and his assertions about this war. However, the elites were able to drive their agenda to its successful completion.

In the end, Zinn believes this war was fought for the benefit of the wealthy at the expense of the poor, a claim that can be made about almost any war. Manifest destiny would soon be realized, and the American nation would stretch from Atlantic to Pacific.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are two main points in Chapter 8 of A People’s History of the United States. You could combine the two and say that the one overarching main point is that the Mexican-American War was a bad war.

The first point that Zinn is making is reflected in the title of the chapter, “We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God.”  This is a sarcastic title.  Zinn is alluding to the fact that, in his view, the war with Mexico was all about conquest.  He says that American elites wanted to take Mexican land and were willing to provoke a war to get it.  This was a war motivated by Manifest Destiny, an idea which was based on the idea of American superiority. 

The second, and perhaps more important, point that Zinn makes in this chapter is that this was not a war that the American people really wanted.  Zinn sees history as being made by elites who pursue their own agendas even as the people try to resist them.  This war is no exception.  As Zinn says,

It was a war of the American elite against the Mexican elite, each side exhorting, using, killing its own population as well as the other.

Zinn argues that the elites pushed America into the war and that the elites benefited from the war.  Meanwhile, the common people did not really want the war. They protested the war and they (those who were in the military) deserted in large numbers during the war.  Even so, they were the ones who were made to bear the burden of the sacrifices that the war demanded.  In both of these ways, Zinn argues, the Mexican-American War was an ignoble moment in US history.

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The main point of this chapter is that while Polk, a Democrat, pushed for war with Mexico to acquire California and other lands the United States wanted, the Whigs (the opposing political party) did not really mount a serious opposition. Instead, because Americans wanted to push west and gain access to Pacific trade, they justified their actions as bringing democracy to the people they conquered. Their arguments were motivated in part by their belief in racial superiority, and very few politicians had serious misgivings about the result of the westward expansion in spreading slavery. Additionally, very few churches protested the Mexican-American War after it broke out, save for the Unitarians, Congregationalists, and Quakers.

In the end, however, the war was fought for the elite to gain access to new land. The troops were plagued by high rates of desertion, and the poor men (many of whom were immigrants) who fought in the war did not gain access to land. Desperate for money, many of the soldiers sold the land warrants the government had given them to speculators. The Mexican-American War primarily profited the elite at the expense of slaves (as the war spread slavery), the people who were conquered in formerly Mexican-controlled territories, and the poor men who fought in the army. 

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