Textbook for American Surveys
Texas Revolution & Mexican War
History sheds some interesting light on the controversial border between Mexico and the American Southwest. It's important to understand this history as we deal with issues like immigration, language and labor across the entire country. The U.S. signed the Adams-Onís Treaty in 1819, whereby Spain granted Florida (that Andrew Jackson had already invaded anyway) to the U.S., and the U.S. promised to never take the area south of the Red River (Texas). It was a handy treaty because Spain then ceded independence to Mexico in 1821, and the U.S. didn’t feel it had to abide by the Texas promise since Mexico wasn’t the country it signed the treaty with. Regardless, Mexico encouraged American settlement in its northeastern-most state, Tejas, in order to further populate and develop the area, giving away free land to Americans. The young Mexican government was beholden to free trade ideals and wanted to encourage trade with the U.S. It also wanted a buffer of settlers separating its valuable mines to the south from Apache and Comanche invaders.
The recipients of these land grants from Mexico were called empresarios, among whom the most famous and important were Moses Austin and son, Stephen (left). Empresarios would pay the Mexican government around $30 U.S. dollars (~$700 today) after 6 years if they successfully developed the land. Stephen F. Austin appreciated Mexico’s generosity and encouraged his fellow settlers to learn Spanish and serve in the Mexican military. Most of the Americans didn’t come to acculturate as Mexicans, though, but rather to Americanize the region. It was the height of the Jacksonian Era, and the U.S. was bursting at the seams with ambitions of western migration. East Texas defined the western boundary of King Cotton. Many of the settlers were cotton planters who brought a dedication to states’ rights with them; only now, the national power in question was Mexico’s. Mexico abolished slavery in 1829, and made Catholicism their state religion, both affronts to slaveholding Protestants accustomed to religious freedom. To tame the independent-minded Gringos, Mexico quit giving away land and tried to cut off immigration from the U.S. in 1830, but it was too late.
the tension, Mexico experienced a counter-revolution in its early
with a conservative dictatorship run by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna
replacing its original republican format. Mexico's early political
history was chaotic, with 14 men serving as president between 1824 and
'44. Tejas governor José Antonio Navarro
was an enemy of Santa Anna’s because Santa Anna had sided with
Spanish Loyalists during Mexico’s long struggle for independence from
1811-1821, and plundered San Antonio de Bexar
in 1813. As relations worsened, the diplomatic Austin served
as a go-between, lobbying the central government to at least separate
a single independent state from its neighbor to the southwest, Coahuila.
The two were originally bound
together as a double state, Coahuila y Tejas (flag, right). Meanwhile
Austin encouraged the white Texians (or
Texicans, or Texonians) to honor their Mexican citizenship. But
the British lost a
key ally and supporter in Benjamin Franklin by castigating him after
the Tea Party, so too the Mexicans alienated their biggest American
by jailing him in Mexico City.
Tejas was one part of a broader-based rebellion against the increasingly authoritarian Mexican government (click to expand on the map, right). The Texians grew unruly, seizing fortifications and the come and take it cannon at Gonzales, and surrounding the missionary-turned-presidio [fort] in San Antonio known as the Alamo in 1835. They allowed the trapped Mexican soldiers to escape, but declared independent statehood within Mexico. Santa Anna returned the following spring, 1836, flying a red flag of no quarter and aiming to put the Texians in their place. Two main roads led into Texas, one through Goliad near the Gulf Coast, and the other through San Antonio de Bexar defended by the Alamo. The troops awaiting Santa Anna in the spring of 1836 were not just empresarios, though; they included Americans from all over who had followed the story in newspapers that winter. The story unfolded just as America was starting to look west beyond the Mississippi and embrace Manifest Destiny, and just as steam-powered presses increased papers' circulation. The Catholic Mexicans were described as "tyrannical butchers in the service of the Pope." W.B. Travis was an Alabama slaveholder, Jim Bowie was on the run from the law, and Tennessean Davy Crockett (left) was a former U.S. Senator looking to re-establish himself politically. Crockett was a frontier politician in the Jacksonian mold, but broke with Old Hickory over the expulsion of eastern Indians. Upon arriving in Tejas, he agreed to serve in the militia to qualify for free land. This was as much an American as Texian fight.
Tejanos were also in the Alamo -- Mexican states-righters who allied themselves with white rebels. Early Hollywood renditions of the Alamo story, including D.W. Griffith's Martyrs of the Alamo (1915) and John Wayne’s definitive 1960 version (left), bleached scenes to not confuse white audiences. It wasn’t just white Americans vs. Hispanics, though, it was Mexicans vs. rebellious Hispanic and Anglo Mexicans (free Blacks also fought for independence, but not in the 2nd Alamo fight). Santa Anna’s forces surrounded the fort and, according to legend, everyone in the Alamo fought to the death after the long siege, highlighted by a climactic 90-minute battle. According to the journals of two Mexican soldiers, our only primary sources relating to the event, a few straggled out toward the end and were killed, including Crockett, though Santa Anna spared the women, children and slaves, and sent them off with cash and blankets. A Mexican soldier took the six white male prisoners to Santa Anna, who asked [in Spanish] "have I not told you before how to dispose of them?" Several soldiers plunged their swords into Crockett, including some into his heart as he lunged desperately toward Santa Anna before dying with an indignant, defiant look on his face. One of the reasons the story didn’t gain traction, despite its probable accuracy, is that it doesn’t make either side look good. It dilutes the everyone-went down-fighting version of the American story, and makes Santa Anna seem merciless. Generally, we shift our history around a bit here and there until it sounds like a story we want to hear. In any event, at least most of the people in the Alamo fought to the death.
The Texian forces to the east, led by Sam Houston, cut their losses and abandoned those in the Alamo in order
to fight another day. In the last entry to his diary, the resentful
“our bones will reproach our fellow countrymen for their neglect.” In
his defense, Houston had ordered the San Antonio area evacuated,
because he knew it would be impossible to defend, so the men who chose
to stay behind were defying his orders. Houston just sent them to the
Alamo to retrieve the ammo and destroy the fort, but they chose to
defend it. Around thirty
men finally made their way from Gonzales for relief, but it wasn't
enough. At least
Houston’s men could cash in on the victims' martyrdom with one of the
rallying cries in history, Remember the Alamo. The Battle
of the Alamo
was one of the most famous in
American history, partly because it symbolized fight-to-the-death
partly because it suggested Americans were the victims rather than the
aggressors in settling the frontier. Likewise, the other famous
battle in Western history was Little Bighorn
(Custer’s Last Stand). In that case, Indians rather than
Mexicans wiped out whites.
Things didn’t go any better (worse in fact) at Goliad, where Mexicans slaughtered 342 of the fort’s defenders. The remaining settlers hastily packed whatever they could and high-tailed it for the Louisiana border in the great Runaway Scrape. One advantage of such a scenario is that the pursuer never expects the fleeing army to turn back into them. That’s exactly what Houston and his men did, sneaking up on Santa Anna’s forces at San Jacinto, a swampy area near present-day Houston, rudely attacking them during their fiesta. According to legend, the general himself was predisposed with a practitioner of the world’s oldest profession – an indentured servant named Emily West who came to be known as the Yellow Rose of Texas. Houston sent Emily into the Mexican camp, and she was freed after accomplishing her mission. Santa Anna was still fumbling with his trousers when the Texians came out of nowhere, routing and brutalizing his troops in about 20 minutes. The Tejanos (like Juan Seguin, left) wore tags on their hats to avoid being killed by friendly fire. Houston's forces had surrounded the Mexican army and destroyed all the bridges around them. Santa Anna reluctantly signed off on Texas independence from Mexico in the Treaty of Velasco. The victors nicknamed their new country the Lone Star Republic because they could now take down the double-starred flag of Coahuila y Tejas and replace it with their own single-starred red-white-and-blue national flag of Texas (bottom, left). Santa Anna later claimed he’d only ceded the area as far south as the Nueces River, rather than the Rio Grande, an important distinction because the Rio Grande River was the main artery connecting the Santa Fe and Rocky Mountain fur trade to Europe.
its president, Sam Houston (right), the new Republic of Texas
(1836-45) expected annexation to the United States, but its admission
as a state quickly
bogged down in the brewing sectional crisis over slavery, and concerns
Texas’ debt. Texas would throw off the balance between Northern and
states, especially if it could sub-divide into five or six smaller
its constitution allowed. In the meantime, Houston fended off (and
courted) offers for
colonization from France and England, while the country filled up with
Americans. The new arrivals had no appreciation for Tejanos’
participation in the revolution, or their dignity as
humans, for that matter. They disenfranchised Hispanics and took their
land. As the saying went, “if a Mexican won’t sell you his land, his
widow will.” Some argue that, in a way, the story of Texas represents
the triumph of illegal immigration; only the immigration they're
talking about is from the U.S., not vice-versa. It
would more accurate, along those lines of thinking, to argue it was the
triumph of legal and illegal immigration, since Mexico's policy
vacillated between allowing and barring American immigration.
Slavery wasn't just controversial in the potential new state of Texas. Its extension was so divisive that, during the 1844 presidential election, front-runners like Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay were hesitant to talk about it at all. That left an opening for dark horse candidate James Polk (right) of Tennessee to emerge from the pack by promising both the North and South geographical prizes: Texas (and potentially the rest of the Southwest) would come in as slave territory, and Polk would support U.S. claims on Oregon as potential Free Soil territory. The U.S. and Britain shared the Oregon Country (left, click to enlarge), which then stretched up to the 54º40' parallel to include present-day British Columbia, per an 1816 agreement set to expire in 1846. Polk presumed the British wouldn’t be interested in defending such a remote territory with no Atlantic access. But the British called Polk out on his Bluff and Bluster strategy of promising 54º40' or Fight! They correctly surmised that Polk’s real ambition was to conquer Mexico and spread slavery, so they figured he didn’t want two wars at once. He quickly settled on halfsies, with Oregon divided along the 49th parallel -- the same straight line extending from Minnesota west. The Brits also wanted the line curved downward at the end to include all of Vancouver Island, and Polk again complied. Suffice it say, Northerners weren’t happy. From their view, they didn’t understand why the Oregon Boundary Dispute wasn’t the Oregon War, when Polk seemed intent on gearing up for a real one with Mexico.
rightly suspected, Polk was more dedicated to the cause of
spreading slavery into
the Southwest than he was tussling with the Brits over Oregon. And he
coveted the excellent deepwater port of San Francisco in northern
California, as did the English and French. But Texas was the top
William Henry Harrison died from pneumonia shortly into his presidency
in 1841, his VP John
Tyler (the other half of Tippecanoe & Tyler, Too)
dedicated himself to acquiring Texas for the U.S. It finally happened
toward the very end of his administration, but Mexico never
relinquished its claim on Texas, even after Santa Anna's loss at San Jacinto.
The U.S. annexed Texas as a state in 1845 and Polk moved to solidify
claims on the upper half of Mexico. Similar to its inconsistent trade
in lower Tejas, Mexico
had variously welcomed then banned American trade in Santa Fe. The area was a key nexus for furs, turquoise, blankets and silver
during the Rocky Mountain fur trade era of the 1820s and 30’s, and Americans defined it as being in far western Texas. By the
1840s, it was too
late to divert economic traffic along a north-south axis
toward Mexico City. Santa Fe was Americanizing, regardless of who its
official ruler was, as was California, especially after establishment
of the Old
Spanish Trail connecting Santa Fe to Los Angeles. In 1846, California underwent a sped up version
of the Texas independence movement
called the Bear
Revolt, this one also launched by an alliance of whites and
President Polk offered to buy the upper half of Mexico for $30 million, the part that really interested the U.S., but Mexico refused diplomat James Slidell’s proposal (along with another $3.75 million to settle the Rio Grande/Nueces dispute in Texas). Polk either feigned outrage or was genuinely upset at the show of disrespect. Slidell’s Rebuff was Polk's justification for a declaration of war against Mexico. But Mexico refusing to sell half of itself to the U.S. probably wasn’t the firmest grounds ever for war, even Polk realized, so he had American troops stir up an incident between the contested Nueces and Rio Grande rivers, which was then tacked onto the message. Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to march south of the Nueces from Corpus Christi and build Fort Texas across the Rio Grande from Matamoros, Mexico. Mexico took the bait and ambushed Taylor's dragoons (mounted cavalry), shedding "American blood on American soil" as Polk wrote in his war declaration. Ulysses S. Grant, later a famous general in the Civil War, was involved. As he put it, "We were sent to provoke a fight, but it was essential that Mexico commence it." Manufacturing incidents is a subtle art that one has to appreciate when well executed, but not everyone bought this one. Young Whig congressman Abraham Lincoln attached riders to all his bills questioning whether the area between the rivers was really even American to start with. They became known as Lincoln’s Spot Resolutions, and were virtually the only thing he was known for nationally prior to running for the Illinois state senate in 1858. John Quincy Adams, ex-president, said the coming war was for "slave owners and slave breeders," pure and simple. Henry David Thoreau authored his famous essay Civil Disobedience partly to protest the war. But Congress voted overwhelmingly in favor of Polk's declaration.
The U.S. easily took control of present-day New Mexico, Arizona and California in the first year of the Mexican War. Animated Map Mexico had invaded Texas during its nine-year stint as a nation, but the U.S. solidified its claim on Texas in the first year as well, with Taylor winning two battles along the border at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. The tougher part of the war was the southern half of Mexico. The U.S. sent one invasionary force led by Zachary Taylor south from Texas toward Monterrey, while a second led by Winfield Scott landed on the coast at Veracruz (left). Both moved toward Mexico City despite stiff resistance and struggles with guerilla fighters, malaria, dysentery and "black vomit" (the bloody disharge associated with malaria). American troops were outnumbered in almost every battle, but their troops were well-trained, and they had superior artillery (cannons). The Mexican military was antiquated, inefficient and over-staffed, but fought hard to protect its homeland. The Mexican government changed hands throughout the war, at various points evaporating altogether. Taylor's troops conquered Monterrey, but agreed to an armistice and allowed the Mexican troops to escape. Then Mexico's exiled leader, our old friend Santa Anna, approached the U.S. with an offer. If they would agree to smuggle him back into the country, he would settle on terms generous to the U.S. They complied and the Cat with Nine Lives [Santa Anna] reneged on the deal, brazenly demanding Taylor’s immediate surrender. Taylor (right) exhibited an admirable economy of language in his three-word reply: Go to Hell. By now, Polk wanted to rein in Taylor some and allow Winfield Scott to catch up, and not just for tactical reasons. There was a pattern of successful generals ending up in the White House -- Washington, then Old Hickory Jackson, Old Tippecanoe Harrison, and now Old Rough-n-Ready Taylor threatened to make it four, three with Old nicknames. The easygoing Taylor was popular among his men, and he didn't hide his ambition to become president. As it turns out, Polk didn’t run for a second term, and Zach Taylor sure enough won the 1848 election. That suited Polk well enough, since he eventually decided he prefered Taylor to the other prominent general, Winfield Scott, and it seemed that whoever emerged as the war's biggest hero would be the next president.
After bombing the coastal city of Vera Cruz from the sea, Winfield
Scott (Old Fuss-n-Feathers)
made an amphibious landing and moved west, while Taylor defeated Santa
Anna's forces in the north at the battle of Buena Vista.
Scott won the race to the capital through mountains and jungles aided
by a brilliant engineer and lieutenant, Robert E. Lee. After the climactic Battle of
Chapultepec outside Mexico City, one of Santa Anna's officers
purportedly muttered that "God was Yankee." By
the time U.S. forces got into the city (left), the government had
crumbled and it was
unclear whom to negotiate with. In
fact, it wasn’t clear who should do the
negotiating for the U.S. either, because Polk had already fired Nicholas Trist
diplomat on task traveling with the army. It seems that Trist’s final act of insubordination
was to delay his own firing with a 65-page counter-proposal. As a
of the U.S. government, he wrote up the treaty to end the Mexican War,
the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo,
signed by people who didn’t really run Mexico. Under
these circumstances, Congress didn’t have to
sign a treaty allowing
Mexico to retain the bottom 45% of their country but, then again,
have to sign any treaty. This feature of the Constitution makes it
and confusing for other countries to end wars with the America.
The U.S. had fought hard for two years to conquer the bottom half, but now didn’t seem to want it. Americans debated on Capital Hill and in the newspapers, and determined that Mexico had too many non-WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants) for their liking, though they didn't use that acronym. The "All of Mexico" movement also would've encountered fierce resistance from the Mexican population, who was already fighting a guerilla war against American troops. The U.S. took he upper 55% and paid Mexico $15 million – half what Slidell offered Mexico earlier for the same thing. Many Americans were baffled as to why the U.S. would pay anything for territory they just conquered, but the settlement at least put a better spin on what was basically a war of naked conquest. But adding insult to injury, Americans found gold in northern California just as the war was ending, worth far more than the Guadalupe settlement. U.S. Grant, who was not only a future Civil War general but also a two-term president of the U.S., wrote in his Memoirs that he regarded the Mexican war as "one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation."
Like the War of 1812, the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-48 was sectionally divisive, with Northerners (especially Whigs) skeptical of the war’s aims. However, unlike the War of 1812, the Mexican conflict failed to unify Americans upon its conclusion. Ironically, it caused more unity in Mexico, where despite the loss the war forged a sense of Mexican nationalism. But even in the first year of the three-year war, U.S. politicians argued over how to divide the Mexican Cession (below). The Democrats had always been unified North and South on supporting slavery, but now cracks began to show. Northern Democrat David Wilmot (PA) introduced legislation in the House to ban slavery in the Mexican Cession, signaling that party’s ultimate fracturing along regional lines, even though his bill failed in the Senate. From the Mexican War on, Americans argued for the next fifteen years over whether or not to extend slavery into new western territories, precipitating the Civil War. Names later made famous by that war – U.S. Grant, George McClellan, Robert E. Lee (right) and others – met at West Point and got their ears wet in Mexico, but ended up on opposite sides in the Civil War. As South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun presciently put it at the time, "Mexico is our forbidden fruit."