Mexico and the United States share historical experiences. Both nations experienced periods of colonization, revolution, and independence. However, the experiences of each nation through these periods differ greatly. A cursory examination of these experiences helps to understand how each nation benefited, or suffered, from the legacy of those experiences. My aim is to understand the trends that brought each nation to war in 1846. I am not establishing blame, justifying actions, proclaiming heroes, or identifying villains.
The United States
Initially, Britain ruled its North American colonies with a light hand. American colonists enjoyed a significant degree of autonomy. Most people living in the thirteen colonies that became the United States were (excluding natives and African slaves) of British origin, and they well understood British legal tradition. A tradition that held that the rights of citizens were natural, they existed and were not granted. The English monarchy could not infringe on those rights. Citizens were entitled to political representation. Justice was administered locally. Taxation required representation. Personal property was protected. Colonial legislatures considered domestic concerns. Colonists stood in local courts. These were only part of the American colonial legacy.
Colonial militias provided for the common defense, allowing most people access to arms. Merchants developed a robust trade network, within and outside the empire. Literacy was high and enlightenment ideas were widely disseminated. While freedom of religion was not universal, most people could find areas where their faith was acceptable. Although natives and African slaves were excluded, a great number of American colonists could accumulate wealth and possess weapons. Bringing these things together: a good measure of independence in governance, religion, trade, and defense coupled with opportunity for wealth and high literacy contributed to development of a common American identity.
Mexico’s colonial experience reflected the Spanish Empire’s legal, commercial, religious, and racial realities. Mexico was governed by a Viceroy, appointed by the Spanish crown. Audiencias, were governing bodies that existed just below the viceroy. Roman Catholicism was the only authorized religion and the church provided a point of commonality. Racial distinctions dominated every aspect of life in colonial Mexico. Spaniards born in Iberia (peninsulares) held all positions of importance. People of Iberian ancestry who were born in the Americas (criollos) occupied lower positions of authority. Indians and castes (those of mixed race) were barred from all positions of authority. Non-whites were not permitted arms and Indians were provided a separate court system because it was believed they were incapable of understanding Spanish society.
Racial exclusions into economic life. Spain’s primary concern in Mexico was the extraction of silver. A monopoly was erected around the production of silver. Indian and caste labor mined ore for the Spanish treasury. Mexicans were forced to purchase goods shipped from Spain (often produced elsewhere in Europe) at extremely high prices. Indians were forced to pay a tribute which perpetuated their impoverishment. Spain exercised monopolies in other industries such as tobacco. These monopolies stifled the development of trade networks outside the empire.
Considering Mexico’s ethnic composition (18% Iberian, 22% castes, and 60% Indian) it easy to understand the racial challenges Mexico inherited from its colonial period. Other realities presented challenges to the development of a common Mexican identity. Mexico’s geography offered few ports for maritime commerce, and isolated large portions of the colony from central authority in Mexico City. Illiteracy rates were high. Many people were unaware of developments in other parts of Mexico or the world beyond. All challenges Mexico’s colonial administrations did little to correct.
Henderson, Timothy J. A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and Its War with the United States. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007.
Henderson, Timothy J. The Mexican Wars for Independence. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009.