Two Nations on the Brink of War

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Two Nations on the Brink of War

At the Battle of San Jacinto, a very young Texan army under the leadership of feisty frontiersman Sam Houston (1793-1863; see biographical entry) had defeated a section of the much more experienced Mexican army. They had captured the famous Mexican general, Antonio de Lopéz Santa Anna (1794-1876; see biographical entry), and made him sign a treaty that recognized Texas as an independent nation. Texans and other U.S. citizens were proud and elated, but that mood was short-lived. When the dust settled, most Texans realized that they faced an uncertain and risky future.

Calls for the annexation of Texas

Although the population of U.S.-born settlers in Texas was higher than the Mexican population in the region, the Texans were far outnumbered when Mexico's total population—more than eight million—was considered. Mexico could raise a much bigger army than could Texas. Most U.S. citizens admitted that the victory at San Jacinto had been a lucky break. It was not likely that the Texan army could win a real, full-scale war if Mexico chose to wage one.

Thus, more and more voices began to call for annexation, meaning that Texas would become part of the United States. The benefits of statehood had to do not just with defense (not only against Mexico but against the various Native American nations in the area, who also considered the Texans invaders) but with culture. In their hearts and in their habits, the vast majority of U.S. settlers in Texas were still Americans. They still spoke only English and practiced the Protestant religions of the U.S. majority. And they wanted all of the rights and privileges that belonged to U.S citizens.

The Lone Star Republic makes its way

For the time being, however, the Lone Star Republic made its way on its own. In October 1836, the revolutionary hero Sam Houston became the little nation's first elected president. Five months later, the United States set up diplomatic relations with Texas (a formal way of recognizing that another country has a right to exist), followed by similar steps taken by France, Great Britain, and other European nations. During the next decade, the government of the Lone Star Republic would be troubled by problems of defense and debt, but Texas itself would continue to grow in population.

There were two main reasons why Texas was attractive to certain people in the United States. Those who supported expansionism (the movement to expand the United States beyond its already established borders) welcomed this new territory as a likely place for more and more U.S. citizens to settle. And if Mexico wanted a war, so be it, for then perhaps the United States could gain even more land than just Texas. The other reason had to do with an issue that was already complex and troublesome, and that would continue to divide the people of the United States during the next few decades. That issue was slavery.

The issue of slavery divides the nation

By the mid-nineteenth century, slavery had been practiced in the United States for almost two hundred years. During those centuries, Africans had been taken from their homes and transported under inhumane conditions across the ocean to North America (as well as to parts of South America, Central America, and the Caribbean islands). There they were made to work in the fields and in the homes of farms and plantations without wages and under harsh living conditions as well as the constant threat of punishment or death if they tried to escape. Supporters of slavery justified it as the only way to provide the vast numbers of agricultural workers needed to keep the U.S. economy going. Since Africans and other people of non-European heritage were viewed as racially inferior, it was not necessary to treat them equally, and it would be foolish and wrong to offer them the same rights as white people.

As the nineteenth century progressed, the United States began to change, however. A division between the northern and southern states began to develop, and this division would grow wider with the passing years. The North had become less dependent on agriculture and more dependent on trade and industry. These practices called for fewer workers, and as a consequence, there was no need to use slave labor. There had always been U.S. citizens in all parts of the country who disapproved of slavery, but now more northerners began to view the practice as being morally wrong. Eventually an abolitionist movement (whose members worked to end slavery) developed and grew in numbers and influence.

Meanwhile, the economy of the South was still based on agriculture. Southern farmers and plantation owners still depended on slaves to work their fields and harvest their cotton, rice, and other crops. Many southerners also were quite comfortable with and proud of their lifestyles and culture, and they did not want things to change. They felt that northerners understood neither the southern way of life nor the true nature of slaves and slavery. There were a few southern abolitionists, but most southerners viewed them with scorn and suspicion.

A delicate balance

During the first two decades of the nineteenth century, the number of states in which slavery was legal kept pace, more or less, with the number of states in which it was illegal. This balance was important, because neither side wanted the other to have too much power in Congress. To northerners, that might mean that laws would be passed that would keep slavery strong and benefit the South too much, and to southerners, it might mean that slavery would be outlawed altogether, or that their region might otherwise be hurt. As the nineteenth century progressed, the distrust between North and South seemed to grow by leaps and bounds.

The issue reached a crisis point in 1820, when Missouri applied to be admitted to the union as a slave state. If this happened, the delicate balance between slave and free (nonslave) states would be upset. As a result, northerners strongly protested Missouri's admission. The issue was resolved with an agreement called the Missouri Compromise, through which Missouri was admitted as a slave state and Maine (which had previously formed the northern part of the state of Massachusetts) was admitted as a free state, thus maintaining the balance. This agreement also prohibited slavery in any of the lands of the Louisiana Purchase (which included the present-day states of Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, part of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, most of Kansas, parts of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Louisiana) that were north of the Missouri border.

Texas becomes a slavery battleground

After the admission of Missouri as a state, Texas was to become the next great slavery battleground. Those who wanted not only to uphold, but to extend the practice of slavery, and thus increase the power of the slaveholding states, saw Texas as the natural place to do it. In fact, many Texans already owned slaves and were as determined to keep owning them as they were to carry unregistered guns. It was thought that since Texas covered such a huge area of land (several hundred thousand square miles), it might eventually be divided into two or even three separate states, all of them allowing slavery. That would give slaveholders more influence in the Senate, where each state would have two votes.

These, of course, were the very reasons northerners opposed the annexation of Texas. They feared that southerners would take control of Congress and thus dominate national life and politics. In addition, many northerners believed that slavery was evil and must be stamped out, not extended. Abolitionists were sure that all this talk of annexation was generated by a proslavery conspiracy. Abolitionists foresaw dire consequences if Texas was allowed into the United States, including the possible breakup of the union. A few proponents of Texas annexation also objected to the way that Texans had gone back on their promise to obey Mexico's laws and had, in fact, simply taken land that really belonged to Mexico.

By the 1830s, the U.S. Congress was divided between those in favor of annexing Texas and those against it, with each group continually vying for power. Meanwhile, the man at the helm of the nation between 1828 and 1836, President Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), was in favor of Texas statehood but did not want to take a firm stand on the issue. He was afraid that annexing Texas at this time would look too much like the United States was trying to steal land from Mexico. Jackson's successor and fellow Democrat (one of two major political parties of the period), Martin Van Buren (1782-1862), also favored annexation, but he too avoided the issue during his term as president.

The 1840 presidential election

During the presidential election of 1840, the annexation of Texas was an important issue. Van Buren was running for re-election, and it was believed that if he was elected he would push for Texas statehood. Van Buren's opponent was General William Henry Harrison (1773-1841), a hero of the War of 1812 (1812-14). Like most other members of the Whig political party, which was dominated by northerners, Harrison was against the annexation of Texas. Fearing that his stand on this issue would hurt his popularity with voters in the South, party members chose southerner and well-known annexationist John Tyler (1790-1862) as Harrison's vice presidential candidate in order to balance the Whig ticket.

The Whig's plan was successful and Harrison and Tyler won the election. However, the plan to avoid the annexation issue collapsed when Harrison died only one month after taking office. Now a man who was in favor of Texas statehood was the president of the United States. As the annexationists' hope for eventual success rose, so too did the Mexican government's fear. They sent warnings to the United States that the annexation of Texas would mean war. Tyler ignored these threats and tried repeatedly to push annexation through Congress. Each of his attempts was defeated by a narrow margin, as the antislavery representatives and senators banded together to defeat them.

Texans turn up the heat

Meanwhile, back in Texas, Mirabeau B. Lamar (1798-1859) had been elected the second president of the Lone Star Republic. Lamar had much more extreme views than Houston, and he did not agree with those who wanted Texas to join the United States. He thought the Lone Star Republic should not only remain independent but also take New Mexico and California from Mexico. Lamar's aggressive stance led to an ill-fated excursion in 1841, when he sent twenty-two goods-laden wagons to Santa Fe, accompanied by 265 soldiers. The goal of the trek was not only to open up a trade route between Texas and New Mexico but to convince residents of Santa Fe to become citizens of the Lone Star Republic.

The Mexican army, however, had gotten wind of the plan and troops were waiting for the Texans when they arrived at Santa Fe. They were captured and forced to march about 2,000 miles to a fort near Mexico City. Several died along the way, stirring anger among annexationists and serving for them as proof of Mexican cruelty. Another big topic of conversation and a focus for contempt toward Mexico was the issue of U.S. claims from the Mexican war for independence from Spain. Some U.S. citizens whose property had been damaged or lost during the conflict wanted payment from Mexico. A two-year investigation begun in 1841 concluded that Mexico owed $2 million to the United States, but Mexico made only three of the twenty scheduled payments.

Despite these very real complaints against Mexico, most Texans did not share Lamar's extreme views, and in 1841 the more moderate Houston was again elected president of the Lone Star Republic. Although he was not in favor of a full-scale war with Mexico, Houston did want to show the Mexican government that Texans were willing and able to respond to aggression. To drive home this point, Houston sent 750 troops across the Rio Grande river (which Texans were now claiming as the border between Mexico and the Lone Star Republic, even though the more northern Nueces River had previously been the boundary) into Mexico.

This expedition was supposed to be a simple show of force, but it turned into something more violent. When Houston ordered the troops to return to Texas, about half of them defied him and went on their own to attack the Mexican town of Mier. After a three-day battle, the Texans surrendered. The Mexicans immediately shot forty Texan soldiers, sending the rest to a fort near Mexico City.

The Mexicans take a strong stance

News of this incident fueled anti-Mexican feelings in both Texas and the United States, and some U.S. politicians started calling for a war with Mexico. The Mexicans, however, felt that the fault for the conflicts lay squarely with the Texans. Mexico's Minister of Foreign Affairs, José María Bocanegra (1787-1862) sent a strongly worded message that accused the U.S. government of trying to stir up trouble by encouraging the Texans to rebel. Bocanegra's message stated that if the United States refused to stay out of Mexican affairs, especially in regard to Texas, Mexico would take action. But as the 1844 election drew nearer, Mexicans waited nervously to see which way the wind would blow in regard to annexation. Since they had already used forceful, threatening words that they could not take back, annexation would mean war.

In Mexico's capital, Mexico City, and all around the large nation, there were many people who did not want to go to war with the United States. Mexico's president, José Joaquín de Herrera (1792-1854), who had replaced Santa Anna in a coup (sudden action taken to obtain power), was one of those who did not think it was a good idea. Even though Mexico had a strong military tradition and a particularly fine cavalry, he knew that the general morale of the soldiers was very low, especially since the government lacked the money to pay them. That might make them unwilling or unable to put up a strong fight against the United States. While it was true that the United States had a smaller army than Mexico, it also had a much larger population from which to recruit volunteers. Mexico's economy was still primarily agriculturally based, but the United States was an industrialized nation and could fairly easily produce the weapons, ammunition, and supplies that would be needed. Mexico had no navy at all, while the United States had a fairly strong one. All of these factors led many Mexicans to believe that they could not win a war against their northern neighbor.

An annexationist in the White House

The 1844 election pitted Whig candidate Henry Clay (1777-1852), who was opposed to the annexation of Texas and to war with Mexico, against Democrat James K. Polk (1795-1849; see biographical entry). Polk was such an enthusiastic expansionist and annexationist that his campaign slogan was "All of Texas and All of Oregon!" (At this time, the United States also was arguing with Great Britain over where to draw the boundary between the northwestern territory of Oregon and the British colony of Canada.) Polk also had his eye on California and New Mexico.

When Polk won the election, the Mexicans were in a difficult position. They could not abandon their hard-line stance, but they hoped that the United States would back down on the annexation issue. That did not happen, however, and on March 1, 1845, soon after Polk's inauguration, Congress passed a bill annexing Texas. As a result, Mexico felt that it had no choice but to regard this as a direct insult. Stating that the United States had taken control of Mexican territory illegally, the Mexican ambassador to the United States immediately cut off diplomatic relations (the formal ties between friendly nations) and returned to Mexico City. Texas now became the twenty-eighth state, adding an area of 267,339 square miles to the United States.

Taylor sent to Corpus Christi, Slidell to Mexico City

That summer, Polk took a bold military step when he ordered General Zachary Taylor (1784-1850; see biographical entry), a rugged frontiersman and veteran of several Indian wars, to lead about four thousand troops (nearly half the U.S. Army at that time) into Texas. Taylor set up camp at Corpus Christi near the Nueces River. For the moment, everyone knew, the Mexicans were unlikely to react unless the U.S. forces actually crossed the Nueces and entered the 200-mile stretch between it and the Rio Grande, the disputed border between Texas and Mexico. In early November, Polk made a major diplomatic move by sending Louisiana congressman John Slidell (1793-1871) on a special mission to Mexico. Slidell was to offer the Mexicans $5 million for what is now New Mexico and $25 million for California, on the condition that Mexico recognize the Rio Grande as the border between the two nations.

The benefits that such a deal would offer the United States were great. It would nearly double the size of the nation and would, through the ports of California, provide access to precious trade routes with Asia. (In fact, Great Britain and Russia also were interested in those ports, so the United States needed to act fast.) Learning of Slidell's arrival in Mexico City and of what he proposed, Herrera called a meeting of his cabinet made up of the top leaders of various government departments. The cabinet members were outraged, since they believed that the yanquis (Yankees) had already stolen Texas, and now they wanted even more territory. Several of the cabinet members thought Mexico should declare war immediately, but Herrera persuaded them to wait. He was in favor of negotiating with the United States, but the majority of cabinet members felt that agreeing to any kind of meeting with Slidell would send the wrong message to the United States, the message that Mexico had given in on the loss of Texas.

So, Herrera refused to see Slidell, who returned empty-handed to Washington, D.C. Polk considered the Mexicans' refusal to even meet with Slidell an insult. He felt sure the U.S. public would support a war with Mexico, and now he just needed an excuse to start one.

Most Americans support expansion

Newspapers all around the country were printing editorials in favor of expansionism. To many U.S. citizens, it seemed not only desirable but inevitable that their nation would push past its current borders into Mexico. This assumption was based largely on the racist belief that white people, those of unmixed European ethnic heritage, were meant to dominate and "civilize" this vast, richly endowed continent. In words that were to ring throughout the rest of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, journalist John O'Sullivan wrote (as quoted in Manifest Destiny and the Imperialism Question, edited by Charles L. Sanford) in the DemocraticReview that it was "our 'manifest destiny' to over-spread the continent allotted by Providence [God] for the free development of our expanding millions [of people]." Most Americans believed that due to their mixed blood, Mexicans were lazy and ignorant, and certainly not fit for leading North America into the future. As quoted in Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, the respected journal American Review urged Mexico to bow before "a superior population, insensibly oozing into her territories, changing her customs, and out-living, out-trading, [and] exterminating the weaker blood." As recorded by Karl J. Bauer in The Mexican War, even the liberal-minded poet Walt Whitman declared in the Brooklyn Eagle that "Mexico must be thoroughly chastised. Let our arms now be carried with a spirit which shall teach the world that, while we are not forward for a quarrel, America knows how to crush, as well as how to expand!"

Despite those confident words, the army that would be expected to "chastise" Mexico if war did come was not particularly impressive. In Mexico, soldiering was an honorable profession, and boys grew up dreaming of attending the National Military Academy on Chapultepec Hill near Mexico City. By contrast, the United States had traditionally depended on volunteers, or militias (armies made up of private citizens that could be called upon by the federal government in times of war). Many U.S. citizens had a low opinion of professional soldiers, and considered soldiering a last resort for those who lacked the skills to get better jobs. (In fact, a large percentage of soldiers were recent immigrants to the United States who often faced prejudice and unemployment.) Being a U.S. soldier was, indeed, a life full of hardships and danger, for the pay was low, the food and supplies scanty, and the discipline harsh. At this period just before the Mexican American War began, U.S. troops numbered only about 7,200 (well below the authorized number of 8,613), most of them scattered across the country to defend the frontier.

"Old Rough and Ready"

Fortunately, the army did have some good officers. One of these was General Zachary Taylor, who had earned the nickname "Old Rough and Ready" because of his very casual, even sloppy, dress and plain manners. Born in Virginia, but raised in Kentucky, the short, heavy Taylor was a veteran of battles against the Creek and Seminole Indians that had taken place in the southeastern United States several decades before. His calm, relaxed demeanor as well as his courage and toughness made him popular among the troops. (Taylor's horse, Old Whitey, was also known for its calm, hardly blinking an eye in the midst of gunfire and booming cannons.) Although popular with civilians and soldiers, Taylor was not seen as favorable with the army's commander-in-chief, General Winfield Scott (1786-1866; see biographical entry), who faulted him for his unprofessional appearance and lack of skill in tactics and strategy.

Another of Taylor's weaknesses was his neglect of sanitation measures in camp. Paying little attention to the connection between dirt and disease had dire consequences at the Corpus Christi army encampment during the last few months of 1845. There the troops lived a miserable existence, battling rattlesnakes, rain, and mosquitoes, sleeping in rotting tents, and drinking impure water. Thus in January, when Polk, who was tired of waiting for the Mexicans to make a move, ordered Taylor to take his troops across the Nueces and march toward the Rio Grande, about eight hundred soldiers suffering from a range of illnesses that included dysentery, fever, and snakebites had to be left behind. Taylor made the trip with about three thousand troops. Among them was a young lieutenant named Sam Grant, who would one day play an important role in the Civil War as General Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), and would also become the eighteenth president of the United States. David Nevin's book The Mexican War quotes Grant as he describes the journey from Corpus Christi and later remembers that his horse was a newly broken (trained) mustang who often disagreed with his rider "as to which way we should go and sometimes whether we should go at all."

A tense stand-off on the Rio Grande

Reaching the Rio Grande on March 28, Taylor's force made camp on a spot across from the Mexican town of Matamoros. Two days later, General Pedro de Ampudia (1805-1868) arrived in Matamoros with two thousand Mexican troops. He ordered Taylor to return to the Nueces River within twenty-four hours or face the consequences. Instead of retreating, Taylor responded by beginning work on a fort that was to be called Fort Texas. On April 11, General Mariano Arista (1802-1855) arrived on the scene and took charge of Matamoros. He soon ordered that sixteen hundred cavalry cross the river and take up positions a few miles from Fort Texas. This was intended as a menacing show of force, but in the end it actually gave Polk and Taylor the opening for which they had been waiting.

With the enemy camped so close to Fort Texas, Taylor sent out a sixty-three-member patrol to gather information on the Mexicans' position. A clash broke out on April 26, when the U.S. soldiers were surrounded at a ranch house by Mexican troops. It is not clear which side shot first, but in the exchange of gunfire, eleven U.S. soldiers were killed and the others (except for four who escaped), wounded or captured. On May 10, Polk received a message from Taylor. As quoted in John S. D. Eisenhower's book So Far from God, Taylor's message says that there was no doubt about it, the general "Hostilities may now be considered as commenced."

The United States declares war

The next day, Polk sent to Congress a declaration of war against Mexico. In it he boldly claimed that Mexico had "invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil" and that the United States was now "called upon by every consideration to vindicate with decision the honor, the rights, and the interests of our country." The war measure passed the House of Representatives the next day by a vote of 173 to 14. It cleared the Senate next, and was signed by Polk on May 13. The United States was now officially at war with Mexico. Congress quickly voted that $10 million go to finance the war effort. The regular army was to be increased to 15,540 troops, and the president was authorized to call up 50,000 volunteers. (By the end of the war, a total of about 100,000 served in the army, including approximately 60,000 volunteers.)

Despite dissent, most support the war

A few members of Congress did not agree with Polk's view of what had happened on the Rio Grande, or with this dramatic step the United States was taking. As quoted in Don Nardo's The Mexican American War, Representative Joshua Giddings (1795-1864) of Ohio called this "an aggressive, unholy and unjust war," and vowed that he would not participate in "the murder of Mexicans upon their own soil, or in robbing them of their country." Future president Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), then a young congressman from Illinois, agreed with Giddings and challenged Polk to reveal the exact spot upon which American blood had been shed on American soil. In Concord, Massachusetts, writer Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was jailed because he refused to pay his taxes, asserting that his money would not be used to support a war against Mexico. Against his wishes, however, Thoreau's friends soon got him out of jail by paying his taxes themselves. But the experience inspired him to write "Civil Disobedience," an essay on the idea that good citizenship sometimes calls for disobeying laws; it would become one of the most famous and influential writings in American history.

Just as Polk had expected, most U.S. citizens did not agree with these few dissenters, no matter how convincing their words and moral convictions might now seem. Pro-war rallies were held in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other cities, and young men lined up to volunteer for military service—more, in fact, than were even needed. It had, after all, been several decades since the United States had fought Great Britain in the War of 1812, and the memories of suffering and bloodshed caused by that conflict and by the American Revolution (1775-83) seemed lost in the wave of patriotism that rolled over the land. But there was plenty of patriotism on the other side of the border, too, as the Mexicans prepared for what they considered a fight for land that belonged to them. The Mexican army was forty thousand strong and, despite incompetence among many of its officers and miserable conditions endured by its enlisted men, its soldiers would soon demonstrate their considerable courage and toughness. The fight ahead would be neither as short nor as easy as some U.S. citizens assumed.

For More Information


Bauer, Karl J. The Mexican War. New York: Macmillan, 1974.

Downey, Fairfax. Texas and the War with Mexico. New York: American Heritage Publishing, 1961.

Eisenhower, John S. D. So Far from God: The U.S. War with Mexico, 1846-1848. New York: Random House, 1989.

Frazier, Donald, ed. The United States and Mexico at War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

Nardo, Don. The Mexican-American War. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books,1991.

Nevin, David. The Mexican War. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1978.

Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. New York: Harper and Row, 1980.

Web Sites

PBS Online. U.S.-Mexican War: 1846-1848. [Online] Available (accessed on January 31, 2003).

José Joaquín Herrera

Considered one of the finest presidents to lead Mexico in the turbulent years following the nation's independence from Spain, José Joaquín Herrera tried in vain to avoid war with the United States.

Born in Jalapa in 1792, José Joaquín Herrera joined the Spanish colonial army at a young age, reaching the rank of captain by 1811. In 1821, Herrera retired as a lieutenant colonel from the military and opened a store in the town of Perote. The next year, Mexicans gained their independence from Spain, and Herrera joined the new Mexican army. He was soon promoted to the rank of brigadier general.

In 1824, Herrera helped to overthrow Mexico's president, Agustín Iturbide, who had become a harsh dictator. Herrera served as Minister of War from 1832 to 1834 and held other positions in the government, including member of congress, for the next ten years. When the dynamic, but dictatorial, general and president Antonio Lopéz de Santa Anna was removed from power and exiled to Cuba in 1844, Herrera was elected interim (temporary) president. He won the presidential election of 1845, taking charge of a nation that was in political chaos and economically troubled.

As a moderado (moderate), Herrera tried to maintain a balance between his country's liberals, who favored a more democratic form of government and society, and conservatives, who supported strong central control and limited freedom and rights for the states. It was even more difficult to keep that balance on the issue of Texas independence. In 1836, U.S. settlers living in the Mexican state of Texas had proclaimed themselves an independent republic. Mexico never officially accepted this action, and the two nations were now on the brink of war.

Herrera thought that Mexico should recognize Texas as long as the Texans would promise not to become part of the United States. But in March 1845, the United States did annex Texas (made it a state). Mexico had previously promised that annexation would mean war, and now it seemed that they would have to make good on their promise. However, Herrera did not believe that war was not the answer and thought that Mexico could not hope to win against the United States. Although he wanted to negotiate with the United States, the majority of Mexican leaders, as well as much of the Mexican public, favored war. So when U.S. president James K. Polk sent a representative to Mexico to propose a deal by which Mexico would not only recognize the independence of Texas but give California and New Mexico to the United States for $25 million, Herrera refused to see him. This angered Polk, who was now waiting for a chance to declare war against Mexico.

Meanwhile, Herrera's opposition to war caused tension between himself andthe Mexican military. There was a revolt, and on December 30, 1845, Herrera was forced to resign the presidency, which was taken over by General Mariano Paredes y Arillaga. A leader with a very hostile attitude toward the United States, Paredes would be in office for only one year before being overthrown. Replacing Paredes was a familiar face in Mexican politics. Having convinced his people once again that only he could save Mexico, and having tricked the United States into allowing him past its naval blockade to enter the country, Santa Anna now returned to power.

The Mexican American War began in 1846 after U.S. troops stationed along the Rio Grande were attacked by a Mexican force. During the war, Herrera served as military commander of Mexico City, the nation's capital. The U.S. army won battle after battle, successfully fighting its way to the gates of Mexico City. There, in August 1847, they paused and suggested an armistice (halt in fighting during which peace negotiations may take place). Considered a sane and steady influence, Herrera was called upon to take part in peace talks. It soon became clear, however, that Santa Anna would not back down from his unreasonable demands, and the armistice was called off. The U.S. Army captured Mexico City on September 14, and the war was over. About five months later, with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe officially ending the war, Mexico lost almost half of its territory to the United States.

Understandably, many Mexicans were dissatisfied with the terms of the treaty and with their leaders who had negotiated it. They again turned to Herrera, electing him president in 1848. Herrera took over the presidency while the country was in a period of great instability. Mexico was in financial crisis since it had only the $15 million recently received from the United States as part of the treaty terms in the government's bank account. Herrera also had to deal with rebellions in Yucatán and other areas of the country. Yet, he ruled as well as, or better than, anyone could have expected, working especially hard on managing Mexico's debts by reducing the military budget.

In 1851, Herrera turned over the presidency to the duly elected Mariano Arista in the first peaceful transition of power that had been seen in Mexico since independence. (Unfortunately, Arista would later be forced from office in a military takeover.) Herrera died four years later in Tacubaya.

Sources: Crawford, Mark, Encyclopedia of the Mexican American War. Santa Barbara, CA: American Bibliographical Center-Clio Press, 1998; Frazier, Donald, ed. The United States and Mexico at War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

Manifest Destiny: John O'Sullivan's Famous Term

One of the forces that led to the Mexican American War was expansionism, the belief that U.S settlers could, should, and would expand across their national boundaries into the rest of the continent. Journalist John L. O'Sullivan (1813-1895) coined the famous term "manifest destiny" to describe that spirit as well as the idea that U.S. citizens had both a right and a duty to force their ideals on others. The term first appeared in the following article, which appeared in his own journal, the United States Magazine and Democratic Review in July 1845.


It is time now for opposition to the Annexation of Texas to cease, all further agitation of the waters of bitterness and strife, at least in connexion with this question. It is time for the common duty of Patriotism to the Country to succeed;—or if this claim will not be recognized, it is at least time for common sense to acquiesce with decent grace in the inevitable and the irrevocable.

Texas is now ours. Already, before these words are written, her Convention has undoubtedly ratified the acceptance, by her Congress, of our proffered invitation into the Union. The next session of Congress will see the representatives of the new young State in their places in both our halls of national legislation, side by side with those of the old Thirteen [a reference to the original thirteen colonies]. Let their reception into "the family" be frank, kindly, and cheerful, as befits such an occasion.

Why, were other reasoning wanting, in favor of now elevating this question of the reception of Texas into the Union, out of the lower region of our past party dissensions, up to its proper level of a high and broad nationality, it surely is to be found, found abundantly, in the manner in which other nations have undertaken to intrude themselves into it, between us and the proper parties to the case, in a spirit of hostile interference against us, for the avowed object of thwarting our policy and hampering our power, limiting our greatness and checking the fulfilment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.

Texas has been absorbed into the Union in the inevitable fulfilment of the general law which is rolling our population westward; the connexion of which with that ratio of growth in population which is destined within a hundred years to swell our numbers to the enormous population of two hundred and fifty millions (if nor more), is too evident to leave us in doubt of the manifest design of Providence in regard to the occupation of this continent. It was disintegrated from Mexico in the natural course of events, by a process perfectly legitimate on its own part, blameless on ours; and in which all the censures due to wrong, perfidy and folly, rest on Mexico alone.

California will, probably, next fall away from the loose adhesion which, in such a country as Mexico, holds a remote province in a slight equivocal kind of dependence on the metropolis. Imbecile and distracted, Mexico never can exert any real governmental authority over such a country. Already the advance guard of the irresistible army of Anglo-Saxon emigration has begun to pour down upon it, armed with the plough and the rifle, and marking its trail with schools and colleges, courts and representative halls, mills and meetinghouses. A population will soon be in actual occupation of California, over which it will be idle for Mexico to dream of dominion. And they will have a right to independence—to self-government—to the possession of the homes conquered from the wilderness by their own labors and dangers, sufferings and sacrifices—a better and a truer right than the artificial title of sovereignty in Mexico a thousand miles distant, inheriting from Spain a title good only against those who have none better. Their right to independence will be the natural right of self-government belonging to any community strong enough to maintain it.

Away, then, with all idle French talk of balances of power on the American Continent. There is no growth in Spanish America! Whatever progress of population there may be in the British Canadas, is only for their own early severance of their present colonial relation to the little island three thousand miles across the Atlantic; soon to be followed by Annexation, and destined to swell the still accumulating momentum of our progress. And whatsoever may hold the balance, though they should cast into the opposite scale all the bayonets and cannon, not only of France and England, but of Europe entire, how would it kick the beam against the simple solid weight of the two hundred and fifty or three hundred millions—and American millions—destined to gather beneath the flutter of the stripes and stars, in the fast hastening year of the Lord 1845?

Source: Manifest Destiny (1845). [Online] Available (accessed on January 31, 2003).

The United States Declares War on Mexico

After hearing that some soldiers under General Winfield Scott had been attacked and killed by Mexican troops in a disputed area of Texas near the Rio Grande, President James K. Polk sent the following declaration of war to the U.S. Congress.

Washington, May 11, 1846.

To the Senate and the House of Representatives:

The existing state of the relations between the United States and Mexico renders it proper that I should bring the subject to the consideration of Congress. In my message at the commencement of your present session, the state of these relations, the causes which led to the suspension of diplomatic intercourse between the two countries in March, 1845, and the long-continued and unredressed wrongs and injuries committed by the Mexican Government on citizens of the United States in their persons and property were briefly set forth.

The strong desire to establish peace with Mexico on liberal and honorable terms, and the readiness of this Government to regulate and adjust our boundary and other causes of difference with that power on such fair and equitable principles as would lead to permanent relations of the most friendly nature, induced me in September last to seek the reopening of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Every measure adopted on our part had for its object the furtherance of these desired results. In communicating to Congress a succinct statement of the injuries which we had suffered from Mexico, and which have been accumulating during a period of more than twenty years, every expression that could tend to inflame the people of Mexico or defeat or delay a pacific result was carefully avoided. An envoy of the United States repaired to Mexico with full powers to adjust every existing difference. But though present on Mexican soil by agreement between the two Governments, invested with full powers, and bearing evidence of the most friendly dispositions, his mission has been unavailing. The Mexican Government not only refused to receive him or listen to his propositions, but after a long-continued series of menaces have at last invaded our territory and shed the blood of our fellow-citizens on our own soil.

The grievous wrongs perpetrated by Mexico upon our citizens throughout a long period of years remain unredressed, and solemn treaties pledging her public faith for this redress have been disregarded. A government either unable or unwilling to enforce the execution of such treaties fails to perform one of its plainest duties.

We have tried every effort at reconciliation. The cup of forbearance had been exhausted even before the recent information from the frontier of the Del Norte. But now, after reiterated menaces, Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil. She has proclaimed that hostilities have commenced, and that the two nations are now at war.

As war exists, and, notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it, exists by the act of Mexico herself, we are called upon by every consideration of duty and patriotism to vindicate with decision the honor, the rights, and the interests of our country.

In further vindication of our rights and defense of our territory, I invoke the prompt action of Congress to recognize the existence of the war, and to place at the disposition of the Executive the means of prosecuting the war with vigor, and thus hastening the restoration of peace.

In making these recommendations I deem it proper to declare that it is my anxious desire not only to terminate hostilities speedily, but to bring all matters in dispute between this Government and Mexico to an early and amicable adjustment; and in this view I shall be prepared to renew negotiations whenever Mexico shall be ready to receive propositions or to propositions of her own.

I transmit herewith a copy of the correspondence between our envoy to Mexico and the Mexican minister for foreign affairs, and so much of the correspondence between that envoy and the Secretary of State and between the Secretary of War and the general in command on the Del Norte as is necessary to a full understanding of the subject.


Source: Steven R. Butler, ed. A Documentary History of the Mexican War. Richardson, TX: Descendants of Mexican War Veterans, 1995, pp. 67-71.

Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience": Inspired by the Mexican American War

Among the minority of voices speaking out against the war with Mexico was that of Henry David Thoreau, a New England writer and philosopher. Thoreau spent a night in jail for having refused to pay taxes that would go to support the war. In 1849, Thoreau was inspired by this experience to write the following essay (originally titled "Resistance to Civil Government") in which he asserts that citizens may sometimes have a moral duty to disobey their country's laws. The essay would become one of the most influential in U.S. history.

I heartily accept the motto, "That government is best which governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe—"That government is best which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which the will have. The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government. The standing army is only an arm of the standing government. The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure. This American government—what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity…

The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgement or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt.

There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing; who even postpone the question of freedom to the question of free trade, and quietly read the prices-current along with the latest advices from Mexico, after dinner, and, it may be, fall asleep over them both. What is the price-current of an honest man and patriot today? They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for other to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret.

I do not hesitate to say, that those who call themselves Abolitionists should at once effectually withdraw their support, both in person and property, from the government of Massachusetts, and not wait till they constitute a majority of one, before they suffer the right to prevail through them. I think that it is enough if they have God on their side, without waiting for that other one. Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.

I have paid no poll tax for six years. I was put into a jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. I wondered that it should have concluded at length that this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to avail itself of my services in some way. I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through before they could get to be as free as I was.

Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.

Source: Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau. [Online] Available (accessed on January 31, 2003).

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Two Nations on the Brink of War

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