Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump has ignited more than his share of controversies on the campaign trail. At least one lights a fire dangerously close to the foundation of a big chunk of the United States.
A couple of weeks ago, an eye-catching photo was taken at an anti-Donald Trump demonstration in California. It featured a young Hispanic boy standing before a Mexican flag holding a handwritten sign with the words Make America Mexico Again, presumably in parody of the Trumpian slogan Make America Great Again. The connection to Trump’s vow to send millions of illegal aliens back to Mexico also can’t be ignored.
But whatever the sign’s intellectual or motivational provenance, the message has a topicality beyond current election politics. May 2016 marks the 170th anniversary of the congressional declaration of war that culminated in America’s acquisition – from Mexico – of California and other vast tracts of what is now the American southwest.
The second quarter of the 19th century was a conflict waiting to happen.
The newly independent state of Mexico held nominal title to large territorial possessions inherited from imperial Spain. However, these territories were sparsely settled, making it difficult to defend sovereignty and enforce governance.
Meanwhile, a dynamic United States was feeling its expansionary oats. It was America’s “manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” Among other things, this meant stretching all the way to the Pacific.
The first flashpoint came in Texas and it was facilitated by a Mexican miscalculation.
Faced with relentless Comanche raids and encroaching American settlement, Mexican authorities had what seemed like a clever idea. The borders of Texas would be opened to American immigrants, who, wooed with generous land grants, would become both loyal Mexicans and a shield against the Comanches.
But things didn’t work out that way. By the early 1830s, the territory’s American population substantially outnumbered those of Mexican descent, at which point culture and geography quickly prevailed. As historian Pekka Hamalainen succinctly puts it, “Texas was simply too far from Mexico City and too close to the United States.”
Within a year of the 1835 settlers’ revolt, the independent Republic of Texas was proclaimed. All along, though, the objective was to join the United States and while a sceptical Washington rejected the first bid for statehood, Texas was formally annexed in 1845.
That set the stage for the second act.
Unwilling to accept the loss of Texas but unable to retrieve it by force, Mexico took special umbrage at the annexation and the way that it foreclosed any future possibilities. So diplomatic relations were promptly broken off and a boundary dispute centred on the Rio Grande produced an armed standoff. Eleven American soldiers were killed on what the Americans considered to be their side of the river.
For James Polk, the expansionary-minded Democrat who assumed the American presidency in 1845, this was a gift. He could now get approval for what he wanted, which went much further than securing Texas.
What Polk had in mind was the acquisition of the nominally Mexican territory that extended all the way to the California coast. Initially, he offered to buy it but was turned down. Now, though, having “invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil,” Mexico had provided him with a reason for war.
The ensuing Mexican-American War (1846-48) was a pretty one-sided affair, particularly in the west. California offered minimal resistance and, to quote journalist and author Robert Merry, the Americans took New Mexico “without firing a shot or shedding a drop of blood.” When the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo wrapped everything up, the United States had acquired territory roughly equivalent in size to western Europe.
At bottom, it was an illustration of the difference between reality and theory. Yes, imperial Spain had bequeathed nominal title to Mexico in 1821. But when push came to shove, as these things invariably do, Mexico could neither populate nor defend those claims.
Notwithstanding the huge territorial gains, the war was controversial in the United States, being opposed by most Whigs (precursors of modern Republicans). And much liberal opinion today looks askance at it. Indeed, former American vice-president Al Gore declared it to be “condemned by history.”
Still, whatever Democrat presidential nominee-in-waiting Hillary Clinton’s private sympathies might be, I suspect that adopting Make America Mexico Again as an official campaign mantra would be several bridges too far.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.