The Mexican War Essay, Research Paper
The Mexican War: Imperialism or Manifest Destiny
Liana R. Prieto (Fall 1995)
In the 1840s American pioneers were settling further west than they previously had. Congressman J.E. Belser of Alabama, when speaking of our westward expansion, said, “They might as well try to stop Niagara.” ( Nevin, 19 ). The country was in agreement with this statement when, in 1844, it elected James K. Polk to the White House. Lieutenant Colonel Ethan Allen Hitchcock wrote an eerily prophetic entry in his journal soon after Polk’s election. He wrote that Polk’s presidency would be “a step towards the annexation of Texas first and then, in due time, the separation of the Union” ( DeVoto, 169 ). While campaigning, Polk had promised to follow the call of Manifest Destiny to wherever it may lead him, including into foreign territory.
When Polk took office he was facing the possibility of two wars. We were jointly occupying the large area of Oregon with Great Britain. We wanted control of the whole of Oregon to the 54? 40′ parallel line. Neither nation was willing to compromise. At that time, Mexico controlled what is today the western United States. We desired this land for ourselves. There was also the dispute over Texas. Texas considered itself an independent republic and wanted to be annexed by the United States, but Mexico had never recognized its sovereignty. If we annexed a part of ‘their’ nation, they threatened a war. By not compromising, Polk was deliberately provoking two nations into war because he thought we wouldn’t have to fight either one in the end. Eventually we agreed to make the 49th parallel the dividing line between British and American Oregon. The threat of war with Great Britain had been dissolved, but we were still unable, or perhaps unwilling, to peacefully resolve the Mexican conflict. I will prove that the Mexican War was not an example of Manifest Destiny but a result of our nation’s hunger for an empire.
Most of the actions of the Mexican War were initiated and completed between 1846 and 1847, but the origins of it can be traced back much further. An infamous event in this fight was the seizure of the Alamo. In 1836, Texans were fighting for their independence from Mexico. The Mexican Army led by General Santa Anna attempted to seize the Alamo, a fort being held by 150 Americans. They valiantly held their ground for a few weeks. The 3,000 Mexicans finally broke the defenses of the Alamo. They took no prisoners. The bodies of the men were piled outside the fort and set afire. When the prospect of war with Mexico arose, “Remember the Alamo!” was again a popular chant.
Our annexation of Texas on December 29, 1845 was enough for the Mexican government to sever all diplomatic ties with Washington. We annexed not only the land of Texas, but its problems also. Between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande was an uninhabited piece of land that both Mexico and Texas claimed. Fighting over this area was the final excuse we needed to declare war on Mexico May 13, 1846.
Many questions are raised by our declaration of war. Why were we able to compromise with England, but not with Mexico? I feel the U.S. refused to compromise with Mexico because we didn’t consider them equals. Was Oregon any less a part of our Manifest Destiny than Texas or California? No. It was simply that, in the eyes of Americans, the Mexicans were not deserving of the territory they controlled. Another reason is that we recognized Great Britain, our motherland, as a very real threat to our nation’s security and stability. On the other hand, we thought a war with Mexico could be easily won. I believe the U.S. demonstrated, in its willingness to fight Mexico but not G.B., that it wished to build an empire. The motivation for the war was greed and nothing more.
Even as troops were marching west and south, Polk was secretly trying to negotiate a peace with Santa Anna. Mexico was itself on the brink of Civil War and negotiation with the Paredes government was impossible. Polk agreed to let Santa Anna, who was in exile in Cuba, to pass through the blockade in exchange for a suspension of hostilities. The agreement they worked out also included the ceding of a large amount of land and the establishing of the Rio Grande as the border between Mexico and the United States. Polk also suggested that American forces occupy the ports of Vera Cruz and Tampico to demonstrate American power to the world. Santa Anna requested good publicity in the American media. As soon as Santa Anna recovered power he immediately moved to strengthen the Mexican military. He also said that only the Mexican Congress could consider a peace agreement, and they wouldn’t be back in session for months. Polk honestly thought that after so much provocation he could still buy peace from one man. At this point, I believe if Polk’s plan had succeeded it would not have gone over well with the American public. He had sold them a war, and I don’t think they would have easily accepted peace as a substitute. They were convinced it was our destiny, and therefore there was nothing wrong with any war they wanted to fight. A war with Mexico would be an a righteous, easy to win war.
Supporters of the war labeled their cause Manifest Destiny, but there were actually many diverse reasons. As always, people had their own individual interests in mind when deciding whether or not to lend their support the war. The original thirteen states supported the war effort because they felt it would enable them to dominate the Middle West, which was gaining power in the Union. The South also wanted to seize empty lands to restore the power of balance between the North and South. It was also due to geography; it was only ‘natural’ to expand from coast to coast. The blind drive of imperialism, or Manifest Destiny as it was incorrectly dubbed, was the largest reason for support of the war.
The Whig Party initially opposed the Mexican War because they thought that the war would increase the power of the Democrats because they were the party fighting it. The nation was pushing for a war though, and the Whigs weren’t about to stand in the way of ‘destiny’. Whig Congressman Daniel Webster suggested they recognize the war, support it, and later blame the President ( DeVoto, 203 ). There were others in opposition to the war, but they remained a silent minority.
The war had gained the support of the masses, and now it had to be fought. Polk had always had clear objectives, just not a clear plan to achieve them. This is where Major General Winfield Scott stepped in and saved the day. Our army had no general staff to plan military campaigns, so Scott was solely responsible for many military operations. He devised a three-pronged offensive. General Taylor, already in Texas, would take Monterrey, Mexico. Another force would march on Chihuahua. Colonel Stephen Kearney was to march from Fort Leavenworth to Santa FE, New Mexico. Then he was to march to California where he would be assisted by Colonel Fremont and Commodore Sloat of the Navy. ( Lawson, 40 ) There was also to be a blockade of Mexico’s eastern ports. Scott himself led the last mission to Vera Cruz and on to Mexico City. Despite the fact that we didn’t have adequate resources and organization to equip, transport, and supply the army, we were victorious. Many of the men involved in the Civil War fought in the Mexican War, including: Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, William Sherman, George Meade, Jefferson Davis, “Stonewall” Jackson, and Robert E. Lee. Amazingly, due to strong military personnel and a lot of luck, we won the Mexican War.
As we were winning the war, discontent grew. In May we were making war to repel invasion, but by August we were making war to indemnify for claims and injuries and to overthrow a foreign government whose despotism menaced free institutions ( DeVoto, 203 ) Rising death tolls always sour support for war. The public was looking at the facts and facing reality. They discovered they didn’t want war,this one in particular. On May 13, 1846, calls of “Mexico or Death!” and “Ho for the Halls of Montezuma!” were heard echoing through the nation. Only months later, these same nationalistic, enthusiastic people were yearning for peace. As DeVoto so eloquently put it, “Mr Polk had lighted a firecracker and had a bomb explode in his face.” ( 197 ) One of the most outspoken critics of the war was Theodore Parker, Minister of the Twenty-Eighth Congregational Society of Boston. “It would be a great gain to mankind if we could spread over that country [Mexico] the Idea of America – that all men are born free and equal in rights, and establish there political, social and individual freedom. But to do that we must first make real those ideas at home.” ( DeVoto, 205 ) I agree with Parker that the war was not our destiny, it was a result of our greed. We wanted land and power. He realized we weren’t superior to Mexico in the least and should concern ourselves with not conquering them, but bettering ourselves. Dwindling support for the war was also due to Polk’s shortcomings, he didn’t measure up to the needs of public leadership. As discontent was spreading through the masses, the Whigs enacted the last phase of Webster’s plan: blame the President. On January 3, 1848, the House of Representatives adopted a resolution that decided the war had been “unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President.” (DeVoto, 448)
Mexico was dealt its final defeat by Major General Scott. Polk was reluctant to let Scott lead any expedition because he was a Whig. “I do not desire to place myself in the most perilous of positions,a fire upon my rear from Washington, and the fire in front from the Mexicans.” ( DeVoto, 198 ) Scott was aware of Polk’s doubts and lack of trust in him, but still, he labored at planning a victory. Polk finally allowed Scott to take control, but warned him a defeat would be all his own, while a victory would belong to the administration. Scott, being an honorable soldier, accepted the risk and followed his orders – to defeat Santa Anna. Soon after the success of his mission, he was relieved of duty. Polk replaced him with General Butler, a Democrat. Scott chose to remain in Mexico to help Commissioner of Peace Trist to negotiate a treaty. Trist tried, as Polk had, to arrange a peace with bribes and, as Polk had, failed. After this blunder, Polk revoked Trist’s power to negotiate a treaty. Still, Trist negotiated and signed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo on February 2, 1848. The Mexican government would recognize the Rio Grande as their northern border and cede the already conquered lands of New Mexico and California. The U.S. Would pay a $15 million indemnity and absorb all prior debts. Some Congressmen still wanted to hold out for more land, but the majority stood firmly against this. Congress didn’t think we should pay any indemnity, after all, we won. It can be said that we paid just to be fair; we had the land we had offered to pay $15 million for previously. I, and other cynics, believe that we paid the indemnity to relieve our guilty consciences. We had provoked Mexico into a war and then ’stole’ half of her territory. We realized the idea of Manifest Destiny was a farce and were trying to make up for being imperialistic. On March 10, 1848, Congress ratified the treaty, including the pay-off. Fifteen days later, the Mexican government ratified the treaty. We had achieved our goals with a both bloodshed and money.
Manifest Destiny exists only in theory. Our nation wanted land, and we took it by force. Billing it as destiny, or a mission from God, was a way to disguise our true motives. We wanted an empire, and now we had it.
None of the immediate causes of the Mexican War were beneficial to the Union. Congress and the political parties were in shambles. They were an accurate reflection of our nation as a whole, which was in chaos. DeVoto summed up the outcome of the Mexican War well, “The fact of the Mexican War is infinitely smaller than the fact, the complex of facts, which now had to be faced by the Congress and the people of the United States.” ( DeVoto, 477 ) The affairs of nations are shaped by the actions of men. The actions of Polk, Scott, Davis and others shaped our nation’s affairs in so much as they made the Civil War inevitable. “The United States will conquer Mexico,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said,”but it will be as the man swallows the arsenic which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us.” ( DeVoto, 476 )
The Mexican-American War was not a result of Manifest Destiny. I believe I have proven that it was a self-serving war motivated by well disguised imperialistic ideals. Abraham Lincoln accurately described what we had achieved by the Mexican War: an internal domestic empire. (DeVoto, 480 )
DeVoto, Bernard. The Year of Decision *1846*. Boston: Little, Brown and Company , 1943
Fehrenbacher, Don E. The Era of Expansion: 1800-1848. New York: Wiley, 1969
Lawson, Don. The United States in the Mexican War. New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1976
Nevin, David. The Mexican War. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1978