Colonial Eras to Independence
Once I began studying the Mexican American War, it became apparent that my original writing plan (Mexican- American War: Part 2/ Research and Writing Plan) would not provide an understanding of the conditions that existed in Mexico and the United States in 1846. If the purpose of this history is to identify the factors that contributed to the war’s outbreak, execution, and outcome, I needed more than a superficial understanding of each nation’s history immediate to the outbreak of war. 1846 did not emerge from the abyss, disconnected from previous events. Until I took on this project, I had not studied this subject in significant detail. Every class I have had seemed to examine other events from the period in detail while rushing past the Mexican American War. We examined the War of 1812, the Era of Good Feelings, Jackson, Indian wars, and the growing slavery divide. We talked about Manifest Destiny.
Attention given the Mexican American War, as the subject, seemed parenthetical and disappointingly simplistic. Always the same narrative: the greedy US attacked its weaker neighbor. Manifest Destiny, and racism, emboldened Euro- Americans to assume a righteous speciality, justifying its blatant land grab. A Jacksonian puppet (but tyrannical) president James K. Polk, engineered the conflict, manipulated information, over-ruled his military leaders, and condemned his nation to a coming Civil War. Texas and Oregon are usually given some attention. Polk bullied and manipulated his way to settlement with Britain over the Oregon boundary. Americans migrated to Texas (mostly illegally), ignored Mexican authority, rebelled, and asked the US for statehood. A plea that was rebuffed for a fear that admitting a new slave state might cause a civil war. While the narrative contains truth, I think it is quite problematic and begs many questions. I will begin with basic questions that are consistent throughout the period, and then expand upon those questions as my research continues. It is important to understand that this is not an attempt to victim blame Mexico for the war. I am not looking for victims or heroes. The purpose is to understand how Mexico and the U.S. arrived at 1846. In this post I will examine the questions in the historical context of the period to 1821.
My first set of questions rising from this narrative revolve around the question: what about Mexico? This narrative strips Mexico, and her leaders, of agency. They are viewed as mere victims, helpless to the rapacious Americans. I always wondered if Mexico had, in any measure, contributed to the situation. More questions arise from the first: if Mexico was indeed the weaker neighbor, why was Mexico the weaker neighbor? If issues pertaining race were festering in the U.S., would the Mexico of the early 1800’s not also share the same racial problems that plagued most of her New World neighbors? If racial issues existed in Mexico, did Mexico’s racial issues contribute to her purported weakness? Another issue common to New World nations during this period was Old World interference. Because Mexico had only recently emerged from her colonial period: to what extent did Old World events contribute to Mexico’s situation? And finally: what other internal and external pressures influenced conditions in Mexico?
First, in 1821 it was not obvious to all that Mexico was militarily the weaker neighbor. Some in Europe (principally the European Monarchies) believed that U.S. survived her revolution and (less directly) and the War of 1812 because of help from France and Spain. They believed that the U.S.’ rapid expansion came at the expense of Indian groups that lacked unity and were inferiorly armed. They reasoned that America’s Indian Wars were conducted at her doorstep and that America’s failed invasions of Canada had demonstrated her inability to conduct a land war on a continental scale. In 1821 Mexico’s standing army was much larger than the U.S.’. A closer examination would show that Mexico’s army was insufficiently equipped, poorly trained, and under motivated. In 1821, many people closer to North America better understood the growing military gap between Mexico and the U.S.
Economically, Mexico was the weaker neighbor in 1821. Mexican leaders hoped that they could revitalize the silver trade that had once made Spain a dominate power. Unfortunately, most of the infrastructure associated with mining were destroyed during the War of Independence. Other industries, tobacco and food production also required rebuilding. Much of the labor force had been displaced during the war. Newly independent Mexico’s population was impoverished, her industries and many cities were in ruins, and she was now completely severed from her previous trade networks. Because New Spain’s financial services were provided by the Roman Catholic Church, which had seen much of its wealth confiscated during the Napoleonic Wars and Mexico’s Wars of Independence, Mexico needed to develop domestic financial institutions. Much of Mexico’s territory was under-developed and under populated before the War of Independence when the Spanish colonial government had, at times, struggled to maintain control of the colony’s vast territory. Mexico needed to attract settlers to develop its territory so establishing political stability and economic opportunity was of vital importance. In the world of the time, it was not enough to claim territory, nations had to develop territory to maintain control. Mexico’s leaders understood this and finding a way to populate the countries northern lands quickly was of primary importance.
Mexico was indeed beset by racial issues. Some were common to the New World (slavery) and others were particular to Mexico. Spain’s colonial policies had imbedded racial divisions deep into society and an independent Mexico had to deal with those fractures. At the point of Independence, political and economic opportunity was only available to a thin layer of society. Only people of Iberian ancestry enjoyed the hope of political and economic freedom. Internal barriers even divided Iberian factions. Peninsulares and creoles viewed each other with suspicion. Mixed race people existed in a social limbo. With independence, creoles and some mixed race (castes) suddenly found that their access to opportunity had improved. Without the connection to Spain, an internal political and economic elite needed to emerge, and few had experience in governing. Indians occupied a space outside the mainline economy and political structures. Separate legal and economic systems existed for Indians. Like most New World nations, an independent Mexico needed to come to grips with the racial legacy of her colonial past. With at least sixty per cent of the population having little to no hope of real improvement, Mexico was challenged more than many other nations.
From the moment independence was achieved, Mexican officials feared Spain would attempt to re-establish control over their former colony. As Europe reorganized after the defeat of Napoleon, monarchical powers expressed a desire to re-establish their former empires. Mexican leaders understood that they needed to defend against potential European intervention. Mexico received a measure of relief from those fears with the opposition Britain and the U.S. expressed to Spanish ideas of reconquest in the New World (the Monroe Doctrine). If Britain and the U.S. were not otherwise occupied, independent Mexico would have some time to establish control over their new empire. Military conquest was not the only means by which a European power might gain control of new territories. If Mexico remained under-developed, the country presented richer nations a prime target for economic exploitation.
Spain’s experience during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic period had left the empire’s colonies in a state of confusion. Two of the empire’s most critical institutions, the monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church, had suffered multiple assaults during this period. Church authority was challenged, church property had been confiscated to pay for the endless wars in which French designs compelled Spanish participation. Mexican leaders sought to re-establish the Roman Catholic Church’s place of prominence making it the only approved religion. In the eyes of Mexico’s lower classes, the Spanish king represented a benevolent father. Loyalist peninsulares fostered this idea to control the population. Most poor only supported independence movements when they were told (untruthfully) that the revolution was acting for the monarchy against French machinations. Those that assumed authority in an independent Mexico had to convince a doubting public of their intentions.
Jurisdictional reforms enacted during the junta period, the concentration of force, the large pool of people with military experience, a system of local patronage all helped sustain regional authority. During the War for Independence, loyalist and rebel leaders had bestowed military commissions to encourage patronage. Patronage, along with several other factors, contributed to the entrenchment of regional strongmen. Mexico’s new central government would have to create a financial system, encourage economic development, foster settlement of under-populated provinces, create a national military, defend their territory against foreign nations, to continue Spain’s unsuccessful effort to defeat the Indian nations living in the north, and convince a doubting public to support them. They needed educate a largely illiterate nation. They needed to bring a sense of commonality to people who felt little connection to each other, to join the nation’s disparate groups, and to reign in the power of the strongmen.
In colonial Mexico, only peninsulares were allowed arms. Only they, and a few prosperous creole families, could afford the means of force. The arms, people, and animals required to assert control belonged to relatively few people. The concentration of force had contributed to the amazing number of people who had died during the War of Independence. A relative few were able to resist the majority because of an imbalance of power. Ten thousand farmers with pitchforks could not overthrow hundreds of peninsulares with guns. Too few well-armed peninsulares, too ill-armed poor rebels created a situation were neither could attain victory. Mexico bled. A low-end casualty estimate from the War of Independence is 500,000 dead. A number that produced at least 500,000 grievances the new government needed to heal. Mexico was in a race to settle territory and had just lost a staggering amount of capital, both financial and human.
The United States
A second set of questions pertaining the United States arises from the accepted narrative about the Mexican- American War. How did the U.S. become the stronger neighbor? Was the U.S.’s insatiable desire for more land a primary reason war? Did a racial component contribute to war with Mexico? What is Manifest Destiny? Because many of the major questions pertaining to the U.S. have yet to develop, I will contextualize my questions and answers to the period to 1821.
Although some did not believe it, the United States in 1821 was already the stronger neighbor. Simply counting the number of men in arms is greatly misleading. So is attributing a greater amount of battle experience to the Mexican army. America’s standing army may have been smaller than Mexico’s, but America’s army received better training, food, and arms than their Mexican counterparts. After achieving independence, the United States had expanded trade networks which would benefit military supply, established a military academy, and fought in continuous wars against Indians. While the Indian Wars were fought at the U.S.’ doorstep, the U.S. had grown quite large by 1821 and supply was no less complicated. A large, competent officer core had emerged from the nation’s experience in the War of 1812 and the Indian Wars. Although Mexicans had been involved in Spain’s Indian Wars and in their own War of Independence, the U.S. had an advantage in military organization in 1821.
The U.S. was also stronger economically than Mexico. In the previous section I noted the devastation of Mexico’s industry and commerce that occurred during their War of Independence. Although the U.S. had recently suffered invasion from British forces, in 1821 the nation was further removed from that disruption than was Mexico. American trade networks were quickly re-established. America also benefited from geography. Mexico had one Gulf port, the U.S. had many ports along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. American trade was less concentrated, making it harder to disrupt and easier to rebound. Political stability contributed to economic growth. Having more time to develop had benefited the U.S.
Demographic trends were also pushing the U.S. toward becoming North America’s dominant nation. Until the 1840’s, immigration was not a major factor in America’s remarkable growth. Organic growth in form of a prodigious birthrate supplied the United States with a great advantage in human capital. With a population that had doubled every twenty years, the United States was a nation of people looking for opportunity. In an agrarian society, land equals opportunity. The development of land allowed for the accumulation of wealth through farming or trade, and North America beyond the Appalachian Mountains was available and under-developed land. Native Americans would argue regarding the land’s availability. Because they existed outside the U.S. legal framework, and were not united, they were left to resist expansion piecemeal. By the end of 1821, the U.S. added Missouri, the first new laying completely west of the Mississippi River. U.S. expansion to the Pacific seemed inevitable.
Most Americans viewed people of non- European descent as being inferior. Indeed, in the 19th Century most people viewed all people outside their own group as inferior. Americans also believed in the superiority of their social systems. Most Americans understood the remarkable growth of the United States as evidence of that superiority. Eastern North America is a bountiful land. It is well watered and forested with many natural resources. It well suited for the type of human development that existed in the period. Agricultural and forestry products, and light manufacturing. It is not hard to understand that citizens of the early U.S. noticed the gifts around them, understood the opportunities presented, and came away with a sense of uniqueness. Changes had occurred that opened the nation’s political and economic opportunities to more people. New state constitutions had eliminated, or eased, property restrictions to voting. Participation in the system was increasing.
It is, in part, from these observations that the concept of Manifest Destiny would develop. Many Americans considered their situation and saw it as evidence of their speciality. They lived in a place of abundance, they could control a good measure of their situation, their children had opportunities, and they were accumulating wealth. The benefits of life in the United States was evident. They, and the land itself, was blessed. The seed of what John O’Sullivan would later call America’s Manifest Destiny had sprouted and was growing by 1821. I personally do like to use the phrase “Manifest Destiny.” In all the books I have read and the audio books and podcasts I have listened to, few can agree on its definition. To many it assumes a religious fervor, to others it is an ideology, to others it more a national mood.
One major issue that gnawed at the American story and threatened to end that story. Slavery stood against the United States’ founding principles. By 1821 two general tracks regarding slavery were developing in the U.S. First, opposition to slavery was growing in some areas, mainly the northeast. At the U.S.’ founding people were willing to compromise over the issue in order to establish the nation. As time passed and slavery expanded, more people were finding slavery to be intolerable. Second, slavery expanded as the U.S. expanded. Mainly across the south. From Georgia through Alabama and Mississippi, into parts of Tennessee and Kentucky, and finally to Missouri the use of slaves continued to grow. As compromise continued, a growing number of people in the north opposed slavery and defenders of slavery were becoming increasingly entrenched. With Missouri statehood, the prospect of slavery extending into new territory was becoming less tolerable.
When, in 1821, Mexico achieves independence from Spain the new nation faces many challenges. Leaders needed to address a wrecked economy, an impoverished people, a divided populace, establish a clear political philosophy, create a military, defend an empire, promote organic growth, attract settlers, and to exert sovereign control of its territory. Little in Mexico’s colonial past had prepared its people for independence. With independence, Mexico had assumed responsibility for an empire it was ill prepared to defend or develop. Common people had few means to compel their rulers to address their needs. The loss of half a million people during its War of Independence created a serious demographic problem. Mexican development required capital, human and economic. Newly independent Mexico wanted for both. Mexican leaders needed to establish political stability to secure investment and to encourage growth.
In 1821, the U.S.’ westward advance was well underway. Although the young nation had faced challenges from Britain, America flourished. Territorial expansion continued, birthrates remained remarkably high, access to economic opportunities and political participation were increasing. A quasi-federal system left significant authority to local government. Most Americans exercised their right to arms, which also defused power. Immigrants continued to come. Americans were developing a sense that they were part of something unique. Most people believed in the system they had a stake in and had a hand in determining their future. Slavery continued to be the issue that presented the United States her greatest challenge. Would the number of people who found its existence intolerable continue to grow? How would its practitioners react when challenged?
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.
Glendhill, John. Mexican History 1810-1940: A Chronological Summary of the Main Events. http://jg.socialsciences.manchester.ac.uk/Peasants/mexican_history_since_1810.html. Accessed May 11, 2019.
Hyde, Anne F. Empires, Nations, and Families: A New History of the North American West, 1800-1860. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011.
Morgan, Robert. Lions of the West: Heroes and Villains of The Westward Expansion. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2012.
Ron Current. History of the Alamo: Part 1. Still Current. May 29, 2017.
Ron Current. Texas and the Alamo. Still Current. December 11, 2014. Accessed April 27, 2019
It’s good to read some history that doesn’t rely on the cheap-and-easy of heroes and villains, and the background on Mexico is particularly valuable because, even though I read some Mexican history a hundred or so years ago, it’s been a missing piece of the puzzle for me. Thanks.
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For me, the purpose of history is to understand how the heroes and villains found the space to operate. Thank you for reading and commenting.