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War and Peace between Mexico and the United States in the 18th and 19th Centuries

Summary and Keywords

The Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) formed the background for independence movements in the Americas. Great Britain increased its colonial land and was forced to make reforms in order to govern its territory, as was Spain, in order to modernize. Their subjects felt the consequences. Because of their experience in politics, those from the Thirteen Colonies resisted and eventually declared independence in 1776. France had been weakened by its losses and recognized the Confederation in 1778, before drawing Spain into the short fight. Because they were less important than their territory in the West Indies, Great Britain recognized their independence in 1783, ceding them the territory up to the Mississippi. The French Revolution allowed them to strengthen their government, trade as a neutral country, and purchase Louisiana in 1803.

New Spain was unfortunate in that it was a valuable viceroyalty of Spain, and, as it did not have allies, its long and bloody fight broke apart the administration. Upon achieving independence in 1821, it found itself in a deplorable situation. Impoverished and without political experience, it aroused the ambition of new trade countries and of the United States, the uninhabited territory to its north. To populate it, Mexico offered facilities and attracted American settlers, who violated the conditions that had been set and declared independence in Texas, joining the United States in 1845.

Mexico’s political inexperience, coupled with the siege coming from Spain, France, and the United States, prevented the country from consolidating a system of government and reviving its economy. By 1840, it exhibited a substantial contrast with the United States, which had a stable government, a connected and productive territory, and a growing population. In 1845, after annexing Texas, population reached nearly 20 million, while Mexico scarcely had 7 million.

By the time the United States initiated the attack, the result was foreseeable. Various armies were invading, and their fleets seized the ports in February 1847. New Mexico and California had been invaded and annexed, and the occupation was a heavy burden, as President Polk forced Mexico to pay. The bitter peace treaty was signed in 1848, and the United States’ newly annexed territory stretched to the Pacific.

Keywords: Constitution of 1812, Adams-Onís or Transcontinental Treaty, Constitution of 1824, concessions, Las Siete Leyes, Organic Bases, monarchists, purists, moderates, Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

In 1846, with the pretext of defending Texas, the United States invaded Mexico, seeking to conquer New Mexico and California. The defeat seemed inexplicable because, at the time of the Declaration of Independence of 1776, there existed a substantial asymmetry with the Thirteen Colonies that favored the vast, rich, and prosperous viceroyalty of New Spain, “the most precious jewel of the Spanish crown.” The Thirteen Colonies that made up the Confederation were productive but less important to their mother country than the West Indies. The New Spain economy had achieved great degrees of development in every sector, but its cornerstone was mining. The importance of its silver, vital to commerce and European wars, had incorporated New Spain into the transatlantic market. During the Napoleonic wars, silver would prove indispensable for the wars’ main contenders, and, upon obtaining independence, silver would turn the colony into the continent’s most threatened country.

However, the Thirteen Colonies had enjoyed a certain autonomy and political experience that would protect them during some of the large reforms made by Great Britain during the Seven Years’ War (1757–1762). France gave up Canada and eastern Louisiana, expanding Britain’s North American territory and forcing Britain to reorganize. Britain created a department to control its newly acquired land and established armies, maritime surveillance, and new taxes to compensate for the costs of war. The Spanish Monarchy, which had supported France, obtained eastern Louisiana and decided to modernize the colonies’ administration, and throughout America the changes would provoke unrest for its inhabitants.

The settlers had political experience and few ties to their mother country, and immediately protested and debated their rights. Great Britain, which had been in the middle of a parliamentary crisis since George III was crowned (1738–1820), responded with fluctuating policies that radicalized the American reaction and led to an armed struggle, stirring sympathy in Europe. France, embittered by its losses, decided to recognize the Confederation of the United States of America in 1778, and pulled Spain into the fight. This alliance and the diplomatic isolation of Britain ensured that the fight would be short and as bloodless as possible. Independence was recognized in 1783, with Britain surrendering western Louisiana up to the Mississippi, multiplying the United States’ territory many times over. Thus the Confederation was formed with full powers accorded to the nations.

The Confederation faced problems that were navigated and solved thanks to the political experience of its founders upon the creation of the federal republic in 1789, just in time for the French Revolution to break out. Americans were thus able to ease into the control of their government without interferences, expand trade due to their neutrality, buy the part of Spanish Louisiana that Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) regained in 1800, and threaten the Floridas that Spain decided to relinquish in 1817, in exchange for a clearly defined border between the United States and New Spain. Therefore, in the time it took for Mexico to achieve independence, the United States had multiplied its territory and its population, and had built a dynamic economy.

The story of the United States’ southern neighbor was less fortunate. The Bourbon Reforms took advantage of New Spain’s prosperity, favoring its mother country and stripping assets from the viceroyalty. Additionally, the reorganization of the government and the economy sought to strengthen the crown’s power and gain resources for the empire. The anti-corporate reforms weakened the church, which was the main instrument of social control over the powerful Mexican Consulate, to favor the provincial traders as a subsequent basis for the confrontation between the state elites and those of the capital. The reforms also aimed to reverse the decision to include New Spain in the transatlantic market and reorganize the territory under the management of more efficient public officials, strengthen the crown’s power, and divide the upper echelons of the colonial regime on the eve of the Spanish crisis in 1808. The reforms provoked discontent, but close ties with the mother country and its assets delayed the rebellion.

However, the taxes, voluntary loans, and forced loans affected every social class, and the Act of Consolidation in 1804, seizing the church’s liquid capital, sparked unrest, and added to the nation’s other grievances.

Given this backdrop, the abdication of the kings in 1808 allowed New Spain to enjoy new autonomy, but this was cut short by a coup d’état organized by peninsular business owners and officials. This triggered a violent rebellion in a European context that did not favor liberal struggles. The importance of the kingdom, the contrast between social classes, and the lack of allies prolonged the bloody and costly conflict. By 1821, the population had tired of the disorder, and the prestige of the crown had dissipated, allowing insurgents and royalists to confront each other. Alliances were formed, and independence was achieved that same year.

Thus, before gaining independence, the asymmetry that in 1776 had favored New Spain began to turn and, by 1846, was complete. The United States had increased its territory and multiplied its population to nearly 20 million, while Mexico still had only 7 million. The economic contrast was stark. The United States’ success had attracted thousands of European migrants, and the dynamism and construction of communications favored economic and territorial expansion. The Mexican economy, meanwhile, had become paralyzed and open to profiteering.

The Mexican State Is Founded

When Juan O’Donojú, the last Jefe Político, arrived, he realized that the viceroyalty had been lost. To maintain a relationship, he signed the Treaty of Córdoba with Agustín de Iturbide (1783–1824), in which they recognized the independence of the Mexican Empire, headed by a member of the Spanish royal family. Spain, however, did not recognize the independence, threatening to reconquer Mexico and leading the way for Iturbide to be crowned.

Mexico’s prosperity had vanished and left the Empire without resources, political experience, or international recognition, and it was not long before its collapse in March 1823. The territory appeared to be on the brink of fragmentation, but only Central America, annexed in 1822, separated from the empire. The historic and administrative ties and the establishment of federalism helped keep the rest intact. However, the regionalism established a radical federalism in the Constitution of 1824 that forced the federal government’s economy and military force to depend on the states, preventing it from effectively defending the republic. The loss of one-half of its workforce in the war and the precarious financial footing of the new state, along with a contrasting multi-ethnic social foundation, the power gained by the army, and numerous external threats, complicated its transition from monarchy to republic. The lack of political experience in the country produced instability, and, in order to combat it, the government was forced to try out various systems of government.

Britain recognized Mexico’s independence in 1825 because of the commercial importance of its mining industry and its strategic value. Mexico was able to drive the Spaniards from San Juan de Ulúa, but required two substantial loans from the British, and, when it was not able to revive finances in the public sector, it could not pay the interest it owed, which became a nightmare for the governments involved.

The Constitution of 1824 accorded significant power to the Legislative Branch and allowed it to invade the Judicial Branch and the states’ sovereignty. The primary vote widely favored demagogy and factionalism that prevented a peaceful transfer of power following the 1828 presidential elections. The occupying armies maintained the elections’ illegality, discrediting the federal system until it toppled in 1835.

The Utopia of Colonization

Until the acquisition of western Louisiana in 1763, the Spanish Empire had limited foreign migration, a policy that they relaxed in order to populate the northern regions of New Spain. The crown allowed French Canadians, Irish Catholics, and several Protestants: Anglo-American Tories in 1786, Prussians, and Dutch settlers. However, Napoleon forced Spain to relinquish Louisiana in 1800, and Spain, concerned about its former subjects, offered them land and other facilities to establish themselves in Texas. When the United States acquired western Louisiana in 1803, it expected Texas to be part of the purchase. Washington had an expansionist project and a copy of the map of New Spain produced by Baron Alexander Von Humboldt (1769–1859). After the fight for independence began in New Spain, however, Spain had closed the border to prevent Anglo-American mercenaries from joining the struggle.

This led to the failed attempt to populate Texas. Miguel Ramos Arizpe (1775–1843), representative of New Spain, insisted before the Cádiz Cortes (1810–1812) the urgent need to drive settlement to Texas, equip it with a port, and remove the military government, as the current border defined by the Adams-Onís Treaty (1819) did not prevent infiltration from North America, for whom colonization was still a priority. Spain reiterated its approval for its former subjects from Louisiana and the Floridas to settle in Texas, an offer made to Moses Austin (1761–1821), former Spanish subject from Missouri, who had requested license to colonize Texan land with a settlement of 300 families. The town of San Antonio de Béxar backed the project, and the governor Antonio M. Martínez (1760–1823) eventually sent the request to the commander general of internal provinces, Joaquín de Arredondo (1778–1837). Along with the Provincial Council, he approved it on January 17, 1821. When Moses died, his son Stephen Austin (1783–1836) resumed his work. In August, he arrived with sixteen people to explore the terrain with the approval of the governor, who had granted 640 acres of land to each settler. However, the 300 families had to be Roman Catholics from Louisiana of good morals, according Article 12 of the Constitution of the Spanish Monarchy, which declared that the region was and would continue to be “Roman Catholic Apostolic.” This undermined the religious intolerance and abolition of federalism that the settlers viewed as an affront, since Austin and the settlers were committed to a centralist and intolerant monarchy. On June 28, 1821, the Spanish Cortes enacted a colonization law that would remain in force until its substitution by the Mexican law of 1824 and its Article 28 that prohibited the ingress of slaves and declared free those who had been brought to Spanish land. Austin seems to have supposed that the same laws governed Texas that governed Louisiana and authorized the importation of slaves.

Austin returned to Texas in 1822 with several families, and Martínez advised him to approve his license now that Mexico had gained independence. He arrived in Mexico at the end of April and found Anglo-American and European applicants, but Austin had a license, knew the language and the land, and had already carried out projects to improve Texas. The Colonization Committee of the First Congress was forced to gather the requests and hear proposed laws in August of 1822. All of them restricted their search to Catholics, with a preference for those who were “native to the country” or “military” and nomadic Texas tribes; they prohibited slave trading and declared all children of slaves free at the age of fourteen, or upon entering national territory. The law was approved in January 1823 by the National Board, ratifying Austin’s contract.

The empire fell in March, causing Austin to require new approval. The Governmental Board signed his grant and the Mexican impresario Martín de León’s (–1833) contract on April 14. The other representatives had to wait until 1825 to have their grants processed in Saltillo.

Texas would have preferred to achieve statehood in 1824, but its sparse population meant it would be either federal land or part of Coahuila, and Congress decided it was a district of Coahuila. A political leader would supervise the town halls and party leaders. The command of the northeast continued to monitor Coahuila, Texas, Nuevo Léon, and Tamaulipas. The Constituent Congress of 1824 proposed the abolition of slavery, but after the consultation—of Jared E. Groce (1782–1836) on whether emancipation would affect the hundred slaves that had been brought to Texas, doubt arose as to whether freedom had priority over property, and it was decided that it would be too costly, and was postponed. Lucas Alamán (1792–1853) insisted that the vacant land belonged to the nation and that the federal government should control it, but Congress left the issue of colonization to the states in a law passed on August 24, 1824.

Mexico, convinced that the United States’ secret to success was colonization, decided to improve their conditions and began virtually giving away land. Only land that was 20 leagues from the border and 10 from the coasts would remain under federal control. Preference was given to the Mexicans and indigenous people “of all nations in the State, as well as the nomadic tribes that exist within it.” The government prohibited the sale of granted land, and the decree of July 13, 1824, prohibited the ingress of slaves.

The Congress of Coahuila y Tejas enacted their Law of Colonization on March 24, 1825, and Austin was able to substitute the word “Catholics” with “Christians,” a change that turned out to be irrelevant because the Constitution of 1824 declared that “Roman Catholic Apostolic” was the only religion tolerated. The prevailing attitude was to abolish slavery, but Anglo-Americans allowed it to remain a pending issue for the state’s Constituent Congress. In his memorial, Austin insisted that slaves had been introduced in accordance with imperial law and that they were non-African family servants; therefore, they were exempt from any emancipation law, and he requested authorization to remove them from Texas. He realized that they would be able to keep those that had been brought into Texas and, if they were lucky, their children as well until the age of fourteen, without maintaining the institution and prolonging the ingress of slaves until 1840, when slaves’ grandsons would be freed at the age of twenty-five and granddaughters at the age of fifteen.

The United States’ economic crisis and the attractive offer from Mexico did not discourage immigration, despite Mexico’s anti-slavery stance. In Austin’s 1823 grant, the land was free. The state of Coahuila y Tejas was sold for a nominal price: 30 pesos for a plot of 4,428.4 acres of pasture, 2.50 pesos for 177.1 acres of drylands, and 3.50 pesos for irrigated land. A household could generally obtain a site of twenty-four plots for livestock and another for agricultural land for 117 pesos, to be paid out over a period of four years. 30 pesos included all of the costs: 27 pesos for measurement and registration (2 for sealed paper, 15 for the land commissioner, and 10 for the notary). A contractor charged 60 pesos and received five plots (23,025 acres) for each 100 families he introduced. In the United States, a plot of land was much more expensive and had to be paid for in cash. The 150 settlers who arrived in 1822 numbered 1,800 by 1825 (443 of whom were slaves). Texas had been populated by missions and prisons, and, to withstand attacks from indigenous groups, they had a military organization and substantial social solidarity. Austin was appointed lieutenant colonel of the militia and was given broad-reaching authority and responsibility by the Provincial Council that lasted until the State Constitution was enacted in 1827. Austin drafted the Instructions and Regulations for the mayors to relieve some of his responsibility, and enjoyed the favor of federal and state authorities. He obtained other contracts: in 1825, he received a contract for 300 families; in 1827, one for 500 families near Galveston Bay and another for 100 more families; and in 1828, a new one for 300 families. The Galveston contract, which was on federal property, was a prize for having help to subdue Edwards’s rebellion in 1826. Only the colonies belonging to Austin, Martín de León, and Green De Witt were deemed legal; the majority of the rest were irregular and overlapped with other properties. Most settlers were not Catholic and owned slaves, and the lack of surveillance allowed illegal migrants, persecuted criminals, and defected soldiers to enter. Conflicts arose from the overlap in land grants and the nature of the people who lived on the border. One example is Haden Edwards, who had a contract for 800 families in Nacogdoches, on land already inhabited by Mexicans. An ignorant drifter, Edwards overestimated his own authority. He demanded that all Mexicans who lived on the land show their deeds, and rigged the local elections to ensure that an Anglo-American would become mayor. The Mexicans complained to the State Congress, and his grant was voided. Austin advised him to try to reach an agreement, but Edwards chose to leave for Louisiana to sell his grant. His brother Benjamin stayed and tried to turn Nacogdoches into the Republic of Fredonia. The Mexican troops and Austin’s militia subdued him, and the incident alerted the government of the danger that the colonists could provoke, and General Manuel Mier y Terán (1789–1832) was sent to establish a border.

The United States had recognized Mexico in December of 1822, but Monroe (1758–1831) did not send a foreign minister until the British government appointed theirs in 1825. Joel R. Poinsett (1779–1851) was appointed by the United States government because he was familiar with the country from his time as an envoy in 1822. His instructions included purchasing Texas and moving the border toward the Rio Grande. His attempts clashed with the established border from the Adams-Onís Treaty (or Transcontinental Treaty), which had been signed in 1819 and was still in effect. His insistence that Mexico compromised by returning escaped slaves prevented the signing of the trade agreement. Because of his political meddling, he became a target for attacks, and Vicente Guerrero (1783–1831), president of Mexico and grand master of the Yorkino Freemasons, called for him to step down in 1829. Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) appointed the speculator Anthony Butler (1787–1849) to replace him. He unscrupulously signed the trade agreement and received complaints from North Americans that would be used to pressure him.

Problems Arise in Texas

The problems that arose in Texas have been attributed to culture shock and the supposed “military dictatorship,” and, although contact between people of different cultures and values did complicate the relationship, as did the resentment felt by Mexicans for the colonists’ privileges, life on the border favored cooperation. There was no dictatorship prior to 1841, and the commanders of the northeast were honorable officials such as Anastasio Bustamante (1780–1853) and Manuel Mier y Terán (1789–1832).

The 1827 Constitution of Coahuila y Tejas caused problems when it demanded that many administrative processes be carried out in Saltillo, where the congressional headquarters were located. However, the true breaking point was Mexico’s antislavery stance and the imposition of duties when the tax exemptions ended. Most colonists were slave owners from the south and rejected the Hispanic tradition, which stated that “the master could manumit his slaves without official or judicial license. The slave, if cruelty treated, could institute judicial proceedings for sale to another master.”1 Differences ensued following the debates surrounding the Constitution of Coahuila y Tejas, which aimed to abolish slavery. When Austin was questioned on the matter of how he would compensate slave owners, he simply declared “freedom of wombs”: “In the state no one may be born a slave; once this Constitution is displayed in every district’s center; and following a period of six months, the ingress of slaves is also forbidden under any pretext.”

The settlers flouted the law, signing contracts upon entering Texas declaring that their slaves would be freed and given pay for working for their masters. A minimum salary was required beginning at the age of eighteen, from which food and clothes were deducted, thus ensuring that servitude would be inherited from generation to generation. Austin validated the contracts, but on September 15, 1829, Mexican president Vicente Guerrero ordered the emancipation of all slaves in the republic. An exception was quickly made for Texas, but fear had already struck the colonists.

Until 1830, the Mexican government only had vague ideas about Texas. Mier y Terán had succeeded in creating a border in accordance with the Adams-Onís Treaty, establishing garrisons and defense measures, and reporting back on general conditions. He brought three scientists with him for this purpose. Mier y Terán noted the discrepancies between foreigners and Mexicans, and characterized the colonists as “poor day laborers who didn’t have four or five thousand pesos to buy a plot of land in the North … for the most part, they are hard-working and honest.” The fugitives, thieves, and criminals were in Nacogdoches. He sent his report with a commissioner on November 14, 1829, seeking to encourage Mexican and European colonization and instate a new political leader in Nacogdoches to monitor the region. However, Mier y Terán left for Tampico to rebuff the Spanish reconquista expedition and therefore did not witness the wave of annexationist immigrants who arrived in 1829, such as Sam Houston (1793–1863) and wealthy settlers from Alabama. Mier y Terán could not have foreseen the problems that followed. Jackson instructed Butler to acquire Texas, letting rumors fly that a purchase was imminent. Austin expressed his opposition to Mier y Terán over this transfer.

Mier y Terán’s report arrived in the hands of Lucas Alamán, the new foreign minister, at the beginning of 1830. He was pressed to draft a new colonization law, which received approval on April 6, 1830. Colonization was entrusted to the federation and monitored by a commissioner. It authorized slaves who were in established colonies, but insisted that settlers complied with the law and did not allow the introduction of new slaves. It prohibited colonization “on international borders in the states and territories that share a border with another nation.” It suspended land contracts that had not been populated or that did not comply with this law. It offered land and support to poor Mexican families to establish themselves in Texas and created eight garrisons that Mier y Terán, the appointed commissioner, baptized with indigenous names in order to Mexicanize the region.

The law provoked unrest among the colonists and concern from the state government that it could lose control of its territories. In his Reflections from June 6, 1830, Mier y Terán criticized the ban on Anglo-Americans as imprudent and the ban on bringing new slaves across the border as inoperative, stating that they were easily taken advantage of “with false identity cards.” He also expressed concern that they would push colonists toward “the interests of the North, an issue on which they currently oscillate.” He admitted to detesting slavery, but did not turn a blind eye to the interests of the nation, which demanded that he temporarily tolerate their ingress “to secure Mexico’s place in the cotton market.” He deemed an administration of justice law urgent, “the fairest complaint that they have.”

Mier y Terán and the vice president Bustamante informed Austin of the proposed legislation, and the Mexican minister in Washington, José María Tornel (1789–1852), disseminated the prohibition. It was Mier y Terán’s intention that the law did not harm the colonists, and ordered the consul in New Orleans to expedite passports for the colonies of DeWitt and Austin, who issued them certificates that would allow them to cross the border.

With very few resources, Mier y Terán organized the defense of Texas, but was not able to reach Mexican colonists—only several peaceful indigenous groups. He proceeded to invalidate any colony with fewer than 150 inhabitants. Sterling G. Robertson, who had arrived with fifteen families in October, was granted permission to join Austin’s colony. Robertson took advantage of his election as representative to the State Congress to request that they process the approval of his contract. In Saltillo, Austin found out that it would be given to Gabriel Laisné of France, and requested it for himself and his partner. Robertson sued him.

Mier y Terán reduced the scope of the 1830 law, but the unrest it had caused was exacerbated by another that limited work contracts to ten years. Two events in particular led to the first outburst: the suspension of property deeds given to squatters and the opening of a customs office in 1832. Mier y Terán preferred to recognize the lands of those who were illegally established, having settled in prohibited areas (the coast and the borders), but according to the law of 1830, the titles would be issued by federal authorities. The commander of Anáhuac, Colonel David Bradburn (1787–1842), highly unpopular for refusing to return runaway slaves in Louisiana to their owner, prevented state agents from issuing deeds. The slave owner hired Texan William B. Travis (1809–1836), who threatened to organize a rescue attack. Bradburn imprisoned him and turned his case over to the military court. Facing the threat of rebellion, however, Bradburn was forced to flee.

Mier y Terán appointed foreigners to facilitate communication with the settlers and named George Fisher chief officer of the customs office in Anáhuac. Establishing a customs office, however, proved to be a delicate matter following years of tax exemptions, and Fisher became unpopular as well. The issue culminated when North American vessels—with the support of the settlers—fired at Mexican officers to avoid paying. Mier y Terán dismissed Fisher, but in response to Austin’s disapproval, he reminded him of all of his privileges:

The custom fees are required of the settlers in Tejas, just as they are of Mejicanos everywhere, and only in Brazoria does it cause a commotion … You say that the people of Tejas have valid complaints … You ought to tell them it is because nobody knows where the laws have been violated … they are privileged in the República Mejicana … throughout the eastern coast of the American continent, from Hudson Bay to Cape Horn. In what port of what nation are taxes for commerce not required? Where is a customs office not found?

However, General Santa Anna had announced plans in January of 1832 to depose Bustamante. Mier y Terán was able to ensure that the revolt did not affect the northeast, but the disembarkment of José Antonio Mexía (1790–1839) on Brazos Santiago Island on June 26 to seek Texan support anguished him. Mier y Terán had communicated to Austin news of a two-year extension of tax exemptions, but Austin complained again that Texas was “full of Indians and bad people.” Ill, depressed, and convinced of Texas’s failure, Mier y Terán committed suicide on July 3, perhaps destroying the last chance to keep Texas.

Mexía returned to Veracruz with troops from Nacogdoches, leaving the boarder unguarded. An act in support of Santa Anna was signed in San Felipe, which attacked the “Bustamante’s military tyranny” and “the arbitrary acts of Commander Mier y Terán.” A group of Anglo-Americans convened in October to request that the prohibition of migration from the United States be repealed. They also sought deeds for the illegal settlers and separation from Coahuila. A second convention decided to draft a constitution for the state of Texas and sent Austin to Mexico City. The town council of Béjar objected to their method of protest, which did not align with Mexican laws.

Santa Anna was triumphant, and the elections favored the radicals in Congress. Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794–1876) and Valentín Gómez Farías (1781–1858) were elected in the executive branch, but Austin arrived at an inopportune moment: the government was facing a military rebellion and a cholera epidemic during a period of unrest due to a law that exiled enemies of the regime. Congress postponed their response to Austin, who, growing impatient, wrote to the town council of Béjar on October 2, asking that they proceed to organize their government as a “state” without waiting for the government’s answer. However, Congress rescinded the restriction on Anglo-American migration and granted a tax exemption, and Santa Anna explained to Austin that it was not possible for Texas to separate at that time, but that the state would make reforms.

Austin left, unsatisfied, in December, but his letter to the Béjar town council had been delivered to the government, and Vice President Gómez Farías ordered Austin’s arrest in Saltillo, accusing him of treason. In several letters, Austin expressed that it was better for Mexico to sell Texas “before losing it,” further aggravating his situation.

The state government enacted the reforms it had promised: the number of town councils in Texas was increased, a department was created in Brazos, trial by jury was approved, English became the language of legal and administrative matters, and Jefferson Chambers was appointed Superior Court Judge. General Juan N. Almonte (1803–1869) arrived in Texas to report on the situation. Austin’s trial was complicated, but Santa Anna freed him, though Austin chose to remain in Mexico City, where he enjoyed city life and published his book, Exposición al público sobre los asuntos de Tejas (“Exposition to the Public Regarding the Affairs of Texas,” 1835), clarifying that Texans only wished for separation from Coahuila. He finally returned to Texas via New Orleans in July of 1835 and found that everything had changed: speculation was rampant, and annexationists dominated the region.

The Texan “Revolution”

The reinstatement of the customs office in Anáhuac in 1835 burst the bubble of discontent. The complex national, state, and Texan situations all allowed for manipulation by the annexationists. In the national context, radicals had been discredited, and in 1835, they were replaced by moderate federalists in the Congress and the cabinet. They were in favor of reducing the civic militia, which some states hoped would guarantee their autonomy. Zacatecas and Coahuila y Tejas refused to obey the order, and the federal government’s mediating efforts failed. Zacatecas was subjected to the constitutional order imposed by the military that occupied the capital, although there was no direct confrontation. Within the state, groups from Saltillo and Monclova fought to be the new capital, which provided another favorable opportunity for the Texans.

Coahuila y Tejas feared that the army would work against them, and the Congress authorized the government to move the capital to any part of the state. The governor was imprisoned for his anti-constitutional actions, a fact that was used by the Texans as a pretext to revolt. When the governor later fled to Texas, the colonists failed to acknowledge him. Division was also prevalent in Texas. Speculation divided the impresarios. For the colonists, it was an issue of whether to remain a part of Mexico or separate. Travis took advantage of the governor’s imprisonment to instigate the removal of the remaining Mexican troops in Texas—although the colonists in the west did not agree. On January 8, however, he called a meeting to organize volunteer troops and begin the fight.

The centralists in Mexico used the threat of Texan independence as well as the states’ rebellion against the authority of Congress as proof that federalism was causing the disintegration of the territory. They promoted the idea of change in the government system.

The Mexican government was slow to act. Commander Martín Perfecto de Cos (1800–1854) was ordered to avoid all provocations and concentrate his troops in Béjar, but his incompetence and the rumor that the Mexican army was advancing to free slaves caused a stir among the Texans. The rebellion escalated with the arrival of Lorenzo de Zavala (1788–1836), an enemy of Santa Anna with numerous vested interests in the province. With the offer of land, “Texan Committees” formed in the United States to provide volunteers, weapons, and money. Houston organized the volunteers while Austin took charge of the militias.

The Mexican Congress’s establishment of federalism on October 6, 1835, turned out to be the ideal pretext for the Texan convention to break its “pact” with Mexico on November 3 and organize a provisional government. Texas did not declare independence in order to maintain federalist support. A mission from Texas departed for the United States to seek help, while the Mexican troops, besieged in Béjar, surrendered on December 14 and abandoned their arms, leaving the fortified Alamo.

Mexico decided to accelerate their expedition commanded by Santa Anna with a largely improvised army. They began entering Texas in January, followed by Santa Anna’s army, who took the Alamo on March 6. The convention had declared Texan independence on March 2 and elected David G. Burnet (1788–1870) and Lorenzo de Zavala president and vice president, respectively. The Declaration of Independence, directed toward the United States, was reminiscent of the declaration of 1776. It justified the separation in response to the supposed “military” tyranny, which had violated the guarantee of “republican institutions” that Mexico had offered when they invited settlers to colonize “the deserts.” They cited complaints such as the impossibility of gaining statehood for Texas, Austin’s prison sentence, the nonexistent “trial by jury,” the lack of an education system, religious intolerance, and “the dispatch of emissaries, paid by the government, to incite the natives to murder the inhabitants. The majority of these claims were false and overlooked the lobbying of the impresarios for land grants from centralist monarchies, the violation of the religious requirements, the ingress of slaves, and the fact that, in spite of its disconnect from the Hispanic tradition, trial by jury had been established in 1834. As Andreas Reischtein states, by the year 1834, 90 percent of complaints lodged by Texas had been resolved.2 They made no mention of slavery in order to remain neutral on the controversial United States issue and to avoid alienating support from the north, but the Constitution of Texas declared slavery a permanent right.3

Jackson announced the neutrality of the United States in an internal Mexican problem, but he did not enforce his position, as state authorities in the United States openly supported Texas. A deluge of volunteer soldiers into Mexico obligated the Mexican Congress to issue an order declaring them pirates. This measure did not justify Santa Anna’s decision to execute the soldiers who surrendered in Goliad, since the regulations stated that a “surrender … must be observed religiously, in accordance with the law of nations.” Santa Anna’s cruelty dampened the loyalty of many colonists.

Losing Texas was inevitable. Mexico’s bankruptcy and outside threats impeded the government’s operation, and the setback that took place in San Jacinto on April 21, as well as the absurd obedience of Vicente Filisola—when he followed orders from an imprisoned Santa Anna to retreat beyond the Rio Grande—meant that they would not have enough resources for another expedition and sealed Mexico’s fate. The separation of Texas, the US participation in the struggle, and Jackson’s recognition of the Texan Republic several days after his presidential term deteriorated relations between the two countries.

The Centralism of the Siete Leyes

While Santa Anna was on his doomed expedition to Texas, the Mexican Congress had initiated the long process of drafting the Siete Leyes (“Seven Laws”). Drawing inspiration from European centralist liberalism, the congressmen established a complicated system of government. To do away with the double sovereignty that had interfered in the federal republic’s procedures, the states were turned into departments. Popular representation was restricted by instating a census-based vote, and city councils were reduced, but the separation of powers and a space for administrative and political autonomy were preserved in the departments. A fourth branch, the Conservador, was created, designed to control the other three, and, in order to protect individual people from abusing the power, a declaration of “Mexican rights” was included. Although the vice presidency was eliminated and the presidential term lengthened to eight years, the executive branch remained weak, subjected to the Conservador and Legislative powers, as well as the Governmental Board. To resolve the government’s bankruptcy, the control of public finances remained in the hands of the national government. The excess of “checks and balances” rendered the 1836 Siete Leyes ineffective and paralyzed the government. The Siete Leyes, which took effect on January 1, 1837, became associated with the loss of Texas, and provoked federalist uprisings and the separation of Yucatán and the Californias.

Santa Anna returned to Texas via Washington, where he met with President Jackson, who expressed his interest in buying Upper California. Disgraced by signing the Treaty of Velasco, which recognized Texan independence, Santa Anna’s political sensibilities told him it was time to withdraw from politics. He did not return until 1838, having redeemed himself after losing a leg fighting the French blockade.

The elections ended in Anastasio Bustamente’s favor, but he began his administration in a delicate situation. He was without resources, and northern Mexico had taken up arms as a result of federalism. He was also threatened, in 1838, by claims from France and the United States for the losses they suffered in the revolts and claims that they had been subject to forced loans and abuse by authorities, almost all of which were wrong or exaggerated. France presented an ultimatum in March and blockaded the ports. The United States, which was suffering from a severe economic depression, accepted Mexico’s offer to bring the complaints before an international court.

France lacked the resources to maintain a true blockade and seemed to remain stuck in Veracruz. Great Britain, affected by the maritime blockade, pressured France to negotiate peace in a great show of force at the base of the port. Mexico was forced to go further into debt to pay the unjust claims.

Bustamante attempted to promote a Siete Leyes reform, but was impeded by the unpopular Conservador branch. In 1840, he seemed poised to begin the process when a federalist movement in the capital interrupted him, the guilty parties went unpunished, the government was discredited, and people began to feel that centralism was no longer functioning. Two proposals were soon introduced: a military dictatorship or a monarchy with a European prince. José María Gutiérrez de Estrada (1800–1867), in a letter to Bustamante, suggested the monarchy, which provoked a scandal obliging Gutiérrez to seek exile in in Europe, where he would continue his efforts to make his idea a reality.

In 1841, Mexico received notice that Great Britain had recognized Texas, giving the administration its coup de grace. Politicians were convinced of Texas’s loss, but it was a popular cause, and the Texan insistence on the Rio Grande border (it had previously been the Nueces River) prevented Mexico’s official recognition. In 1840, Foreign Minister Juan de Dios Cañedo (1786–1850) boldly proposed discussing it with the Governmental Board. He appointed a committee headed by Lucas Alamán to give a ruling. The committee ruled to recognize Texas under the conditions that Texas agreed that it would not join any country, that it would pay an indemnization, and that France and Great Britain would guarantee the Mexican border. But the notice leaked, impeding their discussion, and Cañedo resigned.

Faced with scarce resources, Congress imposed a tax of 15 percent on imported items and bankrupted foreign businesses, while discontent was grew due to the delayed constitutional reform. Foreign traders in Veracruz resorted to releasing a statement against Bustamante, sending an agent to meet with the three most important generals: Santa Anna in Veracruz, Paredes y Arrillaga (1797–1849) in Guadalajara, and Gabriel Valencia (1799–1848) in Mexico City. On August 8, 1841, General Paredes defied President Bustamante, called for a congressional meeting, and demanded the repeal of the 15 percent import tax. Valencia and Santa Anna declared their support for Paredes, and the army advanced into the capital. In Tacubaya, on the outskirts of Mexico City, the army declared the suspension of constitutional order, and Bustamante surrendered. On October 9, a dictatorial regime was established, with Santa Anna as provisional president until Congress could enact a new constitution.

The Moderate Dictatorship and a New Constitution

The monarchy, federalism, and centralism had failed, and it was assumed that the dictatorship would reinstate order and solve the treasury problems. The moderates collaborated with Santa Anna initially, but it was not long before they became disillusioned. They accepted the dictatorship with the hope that a constitutional Congress would restore the federal system and began to concentrate on winning the elections. The supporters of the movement were compensated: soldiers were promoted, and foreign traders received tax cuts, the right to acquire property, and a liberal policy to report unexplored mines. However, their honeymoon with the dictatorship quickly dissipated in March 1842, when the dictator imposed new taxes such as the head tax that each male was obligated to pay annually.

The army trusted in their ability to control the elections, but the federalists won the majority and dominated Congress, thus sealing their destiny, since the federalist projects turned out to be unacceptable. Santa Anna retired to his farm, and the interim president, Nicolás Bravo (1786–1854), organized protests against Congress and later ordered its dissolution on December 19, 1842. He selected a Board of Dignitaries to write the Constitution.

The three most active legislators were imprisoned while the Bases Orgánicas, or Organic Bases, were discussed. They corrected several errors in the Siete Leyes, such as eliminating the tyrannical Conservador branch, strengthening the executive branch, and expanding departmental representation. They maintained the centralization of revenues, but increased the departments’ budgets. Although moderate federalists did not approve of the new project, they preferred a legal order to dictatorship and were relieved when Santa Anna swore them in on June 12, 1843.

Santa Anna, interested in reclaiming Texas and the Yucatán, manipulated and won the presidential elections. Following their recognition of the Republic of Texas, Great Britain had been pressuring Mexico to do the same and avoid losing California, but Santa Anna felt confident that many Texans maintained loyalty to Mexico and that his northern army was strong enough to hold off attacks from Texas in 1841 and 1842. He made an unrealistic plan to regain control of Texas and the Yucatán, granting considerable autonomy to both. He sent the message to Texas with a freed prisoner from an expedition to New Mexico who may have never delivered it, but Texan president Sam Houston was already negotiating terms for his annexation to the United States. After a long period of negotiations, Yucatán achieved a special status and temporarily rejoined Mexico.

Santa Anna was elected in January 1844, but in his absence, Valentín Canalizo (1794–1850) served as interim president. Santa Anna did not return to Mexico until June 4, rushing to arrive in time for a visit from a North American agent sent by John C. Calhoun (1782–1850) to inform him of Texas’s annexation to the United States following the treaty signed by Washington and the Republic of Texas on April 12, 1844.

The agent attempted to neutralize Mexican minister Juan N. Almonte’s protest of Texas’s annexation plans, claiming it was necessary to stop Great Britain’s ambitions. Almonte communicated his confidence to the Mexican government that the Senate would not approve the treaty, but Foreign Minister José María Bocanegra (1787–1862) instructed him to warn the U.S. government that Mexico would consider annexation of Texas a declaration of war.

Shortly after arriving in June, Santa Anna took office as constitutional president and requested resources for an expedition to Texas. However, the Congress, dominated by federalists, proved to be an obstacle that was already convinced of losing Texas, and hoped to abide by the laws. They saw Santa Anna,’s expedition as useless and distrusted him, but reluctantly approved the funds. They received notice that the US Senate had rejected the treaty, and Santa Anna postponed the expedition, although the budget had disappeared in the urgency of paying overdue debts. However, the opposition demanded accountability, and discontent grew.

Mariano Paredes y Arrillaga, hungry for power, took advantage of the unrest to revolt against the government. Santa Anna took an army to subdue him, and the interim president Canalizo and his cabinet decided to suspend constitutional order and dissolve Congress. This time, Congress did not acquiesce. On December 6, amid shouts of “Constitution and Congress,” Congress began a civic movement with the support of the judicial branch, the City Council, the garrison, and inhabitants in the capital. They apprehended Canalizo and two ministers, and, in accordance with the Organic Bases of the Governmental Board, José Joaquín de Herrera (1792–1854) occupied the provisional executive role. The movement stirred hope in the country. Santa Anna, arrested in Veracruz, was supposed to stand trial, but his prison became a center for conspiracy, and he was exiled.

Herrera faced a delicate situation. With no resources, federalists were anxious to restore the 1824 Constitution; and with the country facing threats of United States expansionism and a monarchic conspiracy orchestrated by the Spanish government, Herrera tried to stall the U.S. expansion by recognizing Texas, as Great Britain had insisted they do in order to save California. British minister Charles Bankhead had succeeded in getting Santa Anna to agree to conditions to recognize Texas several days before he was ousted. The outlook was bleak for Mexico. James Polk’s (1795–1849) presidential campaign capitalized on expansionist sentiment, and John Tyler (1790–1862) had secured the approval of the annexation treaty of Texas, presenting it as an internal matter so that it could be approved by Congress through a joint resolution on March 1, 1845.

Herrera’s government, avoiding war with the United States, agreed to begin negotiations with Texas. When news of the annexation treaty’s approval arrived, Mexico was forced to sever relations with the United States so that they would not have a reason to invade Mexican territory. Despite constitutional limitations, Herrera sent an offer to negotiate with Texas, but the message was untimely: it arrived with the annexation treaty, and in July 1845, a convention approved Texas’s annexation to the United States.

Herrera was a federalist, and upon his election, there was hope that he would restore the 1824 Constitution. However, he considered it inconvenient, faced with the threat of war, and instead worked toward reforms on the Organic Bases to increase departmental budgets and autonomy. The decision was a prudent one, but federalists abandoned their support for him.

Polk was willing to risk war in order to obtain California, but he preferred negotiations, fearing that he might fuel sectionalist divisions, and he chose to follow two strategies. The first was to send an agent to Havana to bribe Santa Anna into facilitating the signing of a treaty. The second was to ask the Mexican government if he would consider receiving a commissioner. Aware of his weakness, the government accepted on the condition that he send a “special commissioner to solve the pending issues”: that is, the annexation of Texas and the severance of relations. Polk ignored the conditions and appointed John Slidell (1783–1871) minister plenipotentiary, with instructions to pressure Mexico to pay their claims and offer propositions to buy the territory. It was a complete insult to the Mexican government because (1) although behind schedule, Mexico was already repaying its debt, and the amount was not large; and (2) the United States had completely overlooked the break in relations and did not acknowledge Texas. Instead, the notice that Herrera had agreed to meet with the agent set off the rumor that Herrera planned to “sell Texas and California,” and radicals, monarchists, and Paredes took advantage of the unease that followed to conspire against the government. Paredes was dangerous, as he supported monarchism and controlled Reserva, the most important division of the army. On December 14, Paredes revolted, and before the end of the month, General Valencia joined the movement. Upon Valencia’s abandonment, Herrera stepped down and returned to his home.

On January 2, 1846, Paredes arrived in Mexico. On January 4, the Board of Representatives of the departments elected him interim president. Without the support of the legislative assemblies, Paredes took control by force. With a mix of legalistic tricks and acts of coercion, he disposed of the authorities who opposed him and held elections for a Congress that would decide on the political administration of the country. The monarchist Alamán drafted the order that restricted the eligibility of representatives to miners, landowners, military members, clergy, and professionals—an elitist representation.

The Spanish minister in Mexico, Salvador Bermúdez de Castro (1811–1870), immediately established and financed newspapers to build a monarchist campaign. The propaganda was violently attacked in pamphlets and other press, as well as the correspondence directed at Paredes himself, who had accused Herrera of refusing to support the army. Paredes quickly proved himself unable to solve Mexico’s treasury problems and focused on domestic policy, weakening his defense.

The threat from the United States followed its course. Slidell, confident that the new government would be more receptive, remained in Mexico, but was not welcome. Polk, anxious to provoke war, ordered General Zachary Taylor (1784–1850), who was stationed in Corpus Christi, to march toward the Rio Grande as soon as he heard the news that Herrera had refused to meet with Slidell. Thus, Polk had ordered him to enter Mexican territory, or at the very least into disputed territory. Taylor arrived at the Rio Grande in March and began to construct a fort facing Matamoros.

Paredes counted on support from Europe, since the Spanish plan had the approval of France and Great Britain. He hoped that the Oregon issue would provoke a dispute between Great Britain and the United States. Faced with the political crisis caused by the propaganda and the call for Congress, Paredes was forced to declare republicanism and announce that the system of government would be decided by Congress. His declaration was not reassuring, and on April 15, a revolt erupted in Acapulco, of federalists who considered the election and Paredes’ government illegitimate. The revolt was directed by General Juan Alvarez (1790–1867), and it was not long before the movement had spread to Mazatlán and Guadalajara. Gómez Farías, who was in contact with Santa Anna, prepared to overthrow Paredes. Paredes diverted part of the army in an attempt to subdue the federalists in Guadalajara, but was unsuccessful. His errors multiplied. He had ordered Mariano Arista (1802–1855) to retreat from his command of the Army of the North for refusing his support, and, after two other changes in command, he called on Arista again, provoking divisions among the key leadership.

Taylor had sent a message to Polk on April 25, informing him of an incident between the two countries on the Rio Grande, concluding that “hostilities may now be considered as commenced.” The letter was sufficient cause for Polk to request five thousand men for the campaign from the governors of Texas and Louisiana. Everything was prepared for war with Mexico, and Polk sought to negotiate the Oregon dispute with Great Britain. Britain wanted to avoid war, and in May, they agreed on a border on the 49th parallel instead of the 52nd, thus allowing Polk to concentrate his attention on his southern neighbor. On May 6, Polk received Taylor’s message and discussed the situation with his cabinet. He drafted a message to declare war and sent it to Congress on May 11. The message began by justifying Taylor’s presence on the Rio Grande as a fulfillment of his duty to defend the Texan border. He accused Mexico of aggressing the United States by committing multiple offenses:

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.

Polk asserted that, by refusing to meet with Slidell, Mexico had left no other alternative but war, for which he was requesting authority and resources. The Chamber of Deputies quickly approved his requirements. In the Senate, Calhoun’s group demanded that they distinguish between war and defense measures, and the Whigs did not agree that Mexico was guilty. However, because the war was popular, Polk obtained his “war bill.” He immediately dispatched orders to fleets in the Pacific and the Gulf to block Mexico’s ports. He reiterated his orders to Commodore John D. Sloat (1780–1867) to take San Francisco. The war secretary instructed Colonel Stephen W. Kearny (1794–1848), stationed in Missouri, to request troops from the governor and march to Santa Fe, and instructed Worth (1791–1849), who was in command of a small troop, to head for Chihuahua.

Meanwhile, on May 8 and 9, battles had taken place in Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, where the United States’ superior artillery and Arista’s tactical errors secured Mexico’s defeat. Taylor occupied Matamoros and began his advance into the interior, demonstrating that US intentions were far from defensive. Winfield Scott (1786–1866), the highest-ranking officer, was in command of the troops, but Polk disliked him and opted for Taylor.

The occupation required organization. The invading army set out requirements for the towns they occupied: they were told to provide places for the troops to set up, houses for the officials, and provisions for them to restock. In the ports, they lowered taxes and directed them toward financing the occupation, because Polk insisted that Mexico pay for it. Troops were formed by the army and volunteers of the states that were not controlled by Taylor or Scott. The lack of authority created problems in punishing volunteer soldiers for rape, murder, assault, and robbery, particularly in Texas and Arkansas. In a cave outside of Saltillo, volunteer soldiers from Arkansas found families seeking refuge and slit the men’s throats and scalped them in front of their wives and children. Because the war was covered by the penny press and illustrated by drawings and daguerreotypes, the US public learned of the army’s excess brutality. They began to demand the end of the war that was corrupting its citizens and possibly counteracting the expansionist movement that they hoped would end in victory with the annexation of all of Mexico.

Farther west, the invasion began with trade in New Mexico, and the slow infiltration of California increased in the 1840s. The “filibuster” John Frémont (1813–1890), who was sent into California in December 1845, with permission to conduct a scientific expedition, began perpetrating assaults to obtain weapons and horses, and he was soon expelled. Shortly after, he encountered Commander Sloat on the coast, arriving to proclaim California’s independence on July 4, 1846. Sloat was unaware of the state of war, but assumed that Frémont had instructions, and occupied Monterrey on July 7 and San Francisco two days later. When Robert Stockton (1795–1866) arrived to take command, he marched to Los Angeles, where he declared the annexation of California to the United States.

The massive invasion from the United States did not help Mexico to unite. The first defeats shocked the country and discredited both the army and the government. They also quashed the monarchist project, forcing the Spanish minister to suspend production of his newspapers. On June 6, Congress convened and no one mentioned the change in the system of government. They instated Paredes as provisional president and recognized that Mexico was in a state of war. A proclamation declared that “the government, in the natural use of its defense of the Nation, will repel the aggression initiated and sustained by the United States of America against the Mexican Republic, having invaded it.”

Paredes found himself isolated for having failed in defending and restoring order to Mexico. He felt obliged to lead the military, knowing that his government would collapse. He began his march on August 4, when the garrison at the armory announced its support for Santa Anna and the 1824 Constitution. Paredes was apprehended and exiled.

Federalism Restored during the War

The reinstatement of the 1824 Constitution was met with hope. General Mariano Salas (1787–1867) and Gómez Farías took charge of the interim government and held elections for a new Congress. Santa Anna was prepared to return, and his agreement with Polk’s agent allowed him to cross the blockade. His conduct ruled out the threat of treason, but news of the agreement filtered through the press and weakened the military front, creating distrust in the supreme leader of Mexican forces.

The power struggle between moderate and radical federalists paralyzed government operations and the elections, and the return to a federalist regime distracted attention from the war. The confusion between new and old practices forced the states and municipalities to focus on their recently recovered autonomy, with less attention on collaborating for defense. The national government was left with complete responsibility for the war, with its revenues reduced to quota and customs taxes. The states had to pay a contingent to support the federal government but only few did, and the customs taxes disappeared as a result of the blockaded ports, since the invading troops collected the fees.

Once the war had begun, the result was predictable. The asymmetry between the two countries was accentuated. Each had a similar amount of territory, but the United States had nearly 20 million inhabitants, whereas Mexico barely had 7 million. Mexico’s bankruptcy and stagnant economy contrasted with its neighbor’s prospering market. Both countries suffered from political division and factionalism, but territorial ambitions in the United States neutralized these issues while, in Mexico, they prevented any effective governing.

The contrast between the two armies was even more striking. The Mexican military, small given the size of the country, was not professional or disciplined. Due to a lack of resources, they had obsolete weapons and insufficient supplies, horses, and ammunition. Their inadequate administration and health services, made up of a group of women who followed the troops with their children, hindered their ability to mobilize. Their antiquated artillery had a short range, and the ammunition they had did not always match their weapons. They lacked volunteer soldiers, especially in the north, where men often stayed home to protect their families from Native American attacks. Because of the ammunition shortage, the few volunteers they did have shot a gun for the first time on the battlefield. The lack of services meant they had to abandon injured soldiers, which, combined with their defeat, caused depression among the troops.

The United States, by contrast, had professional army officials and thousands of volunteers as well as resources to train them. Accustomed to using weapons, the army mobilized several troops at once and relied on modern weapons and the best artillery in the world, according to Eisenhower.4 Volunteer soldiers were regularly replaced, and the victories and the enthusiasm for the territory they gained imbued them with optimism. In the two armies, problems between the leaders and the politicians interfered with their decisions. Polk had avoided putting Scott in command, but was forced to accept that he would lead the army that followed “the route of Hernán Cortés from Veracruz to Mexico City.”

At the end of August, Taylor was approaching Monterrey, Kearny occupied Santa Fe, and Santa Anna disembarked in Veracruz. On September 14, he arrived in Mexico City but immediately departed for San Luis Potosí to organize the defense. On the way, he received word that Monterrey had surrendered on September 23. In San Luis Potosí, Santa Anna was busy obtaining funds and organizing his troops and volunteers. He ordered the fortification of San Luis Potosí and trained volunteers, but the press attacked him for not advancing, and he decided to take his troops to meet Taylor. It turned out to be a poor decision in the middle of winter, due to the scarce provisions and lack of shelter, rather than letting Taylor wear out his troops in the desert between Saltillo and San Luis Potosí. The intense cold caused substantial casualties, but Taylor and John Wool had time to choose a better location to defend themselves. Santa Anna attempted unsuccessfully to cut off their communication with Saltillo, and on February 22 and 23, the Mexican army waged their most hard-fought battle on unfavorable terrain. The United States Army’s superior artillery did not prevent the Mexican soldiers from forcing the United States army to pull back several times. The Battle of Buena Vista could have been a victory for Mexico, but due to the lack of water and provisions, the generals decided to retreat to a better location to continue fighting. By dawn, Taylor noticed their retreat with great relief, but did not pursue them. The Mexican troops suffered considerable losses on the march back.

Meanwhile, in the capital, radicals and moderates were fighting for power. Santa Anna had been elected president, but Vice President Gómez Farías remained in charge, distrusted for his radicalism. In January 1847, he issued an order authorizing the government to occupy and sell church property in order to raise 15 million pesos.5 The church had collaborated with loans and guarantees for private credit, so the order generated opposition. Moderates believed that they would have to remove Gómez Farías in order to unify national resolve, and they organized a rebellion in Mexico City with a militia composed of upper-class young people, nicknamed the “Polkos.” This movement was underway during the Battle of Buena Vista and Scott’s landing in Veracruz.

Mexico had been invaded on many sides with its ports blocked and occupied until mid-1848. Yucatán, to keep the United States out of Campeche and Sisal, declared itself neutral. In 1848, following a brutal indigenous uprising, Yucatán turned to the possibility of annexation with the United States or Spain to save itself.

All of these invasions were not in defense of Texas—they were a war of conquest. Kearny and Alexander Doniphan left Missouri on June 5, 1846, for Santa Fe. New Mexico was unguarded, and its governor, Manuel Armijo (1801–1853), was unable to organize a defense, allowing Kearny to occupy the major towns. By August 18, he occupied Santa Fe and declared that New Mexico would belong to the United States. The New Mexicans rebelled, but they were considered traitors and cruelly stifled.

After organizing a government, Kearny left for California on September 25 while Doniphan left for Chihuahua. The governor, Angel Trías (1809–1867), was defeated in Sacramento in February 1847, and Chihuahua was occupied by the US Army.

Kearny’s arrival in California in December was timely. The Californios had recaptured Los Angeles, leaving the United States in a difficult situation. Kearny’s forces were able to regain control of Los Angeles on January 10, 1847, solidifying California’s annexation to the United States.

On March 7, 1847, seventy ships arrived in Veracruz driven by Scott’s forces, and on March 9 they bombarded the port. Bad weather delayed the landing, but the attack resumed on March 23 and lasted for four days. The town, suffering from bombings, fires, and lack of food, could not sustain the resistance, and on March 27 they surrendered. Scott established his headquarters in Santa Anna’s estate, while the troops advanced to Xalapa.

Upon his arrival in Mexico City, Santa Anna reclaimed the presidency to restore order. He repealed the January 15 decree in exchange for a loan from the church, while the moderates reformed the Constitution. They eliminated the vice presidency, guaranteed human rights, and strengthened the national government.

Santa Anna led his troops to Veracruz and once again chose a poor location: Cerro Gordo. Scott’s officials pinpointed the best flanks from which to besiege them, and on April 18, the US troops were able to quickly defeat the Mexicans. Santa Anna tried to rejoin his troops in Orizaba, but without resources, he was forced to leave for Puebla. He did not secure support and decided that the only alternative left was for him to concentrate on defending Mexico City.

General William Worth invaded Puebla on May 15 with no resistance, and on May 28, Scott entered, joined several days later by Nicholas Trist (1800–1874), the United States commissioner, to negotiate peace. For the Mexicans, defeat seemed inevitable, and depression was pervasive. Congress had taken away the executive branch’s power to negotiate peace, leaving Santa Anna without resources or support in his attempt to fortify the capital. Once again, he disregarded recommendations to fortify the south, in case Scott avoided any direct routes.

Scott waited for reinforcements and began his march on August 7. By August 16, part of his troops had arrived in the south of Mexico City. On August 20, General Valencia failed in a desperate attempt to detain his advance on Padierna. That same day, another army attacked the Convent of Churubusco, which was defended by the troops led by General Pedro María Anaya (1795–1854) and General Manuel Rincón (1784–1849), as well as Saint Patrick’s Battalion, a unit made up mostly of Irish-American soldiers who had deserted the US Army. When the plaza surrendered, the deserters were court-martialed and hanged. Those who escaped hanging were branded with a “D” for “deserter” on their cheeks.

Following this defeat, an armistice was reached, and Trist presented his conditions for peace to the commissioners appointed by Santa Anna. Since the president no longer had the authority to sign a peace treaty and the territorial demands were unacceptable, the truce ended on September 6. Hostilities resumed on September 8 with battles in Casa Mata and Molino del Rey. On September 13, the last battle took place in Chapultepec, and by nightfall, the invaders began entering the gates into the city. The military command considered a defense impossible and ordered the army to retreat in order to avoid more bloodshed.

The City Council negotiated guarantees for the population with General Scott. However, once the mob saw the advancing army, they tried to defend their city, and the inequality between the armed invaders and the civilians wielding rocks and sticks resulted in a bloody two-day saga. Scott declared a state of siege and announced that any civilian who attacked him would be killed. Calm was slowly restored. On September 15, with the striped flag waving above the National Palace, the invaders celebrated their victory with liquor while the city mourned their dead and Santa Anna stepped down as president. In accordance with the Constitution, he ordered that the Supreme Court President Manuel de la Peña (1789–1850) assumed the presidency and that the federal government left for Querétaro. When he could not garner support to organize a resistance, he left in exile.

With the city occupied, the invaders began to enjoy leisure and entertainment activities. Theaters opened their doors and dance halls and game rooms, and pool halls appeared. Coffee shops, bars, and pulque taverns filled with new customers. Daguerreotypists set up booths where soldiers could have their portraits taken for 5 pesos or buy images of Mexican landscapes as souvenirs. English-language newspapers appeared, and the US soldiers’ money revived the economy. The officials lived in private homes, and City Hall had to provide public buildings to house troops.

Reluctantly, De la Peña assumed the presidency on September 27 in Toluca and marched to Querétaro with a group of soldiers and government officials. There he met other members of the army, civil servants, and politicians. It was difficult to regularize government operations, but the moderates forced Congress to reconvene and regain support from the states, since many had shunned the government. By November, several governors had come to Querétaro, and Congress, having obtained a quorum, could hold sessions again. They appointed Pedro María Anaya president, a post that he would alternate with De la Peña. The election of the new Congress would have to wait until they reconvened in May to ratify the peace treaty.

The country’s situation was depressing: it had been destroyed by the war and the invaders’ excessive behavior, a large part of the territory was occupied, and its income sources were controlled by the United States. Several states were subjected to indigenous uprisings or invasions from the north. The radicals wanted to fight to the end, while the monarchists were preparing for an insurrection. Part of the bourgeoisie preferred to give Scott the dictatorship, while other purists favored complete annexation. Faced with these circumstances, the moderates’ effort to preserve the existence of the nation was admirable.

Signing the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

Mexico’s fragile government faced the threat of losing territory, while the United States’ victories bolstered the ambitions of Polk, who ordered Trist to return. Trist, unaware of this, had been pressured to communicate his willingness to negotiate peace with the Mexican government, via the British foreign minister. The foreign minister appointed Bernardo Couto (1803–1862), Luis G. Cuevas (1800–1867), and Miguel Atristáin (1806–1880) as commissioners at the same time that Trist received orders to return to the United States. The British minister and the Mexican government urged him to stay, given the delicacy of the situation. Trist harbored serious doubts, but was convinced that Washington did not understand the circumstances, and decided to remain in Mexico.

In January 1848, the difficult negotiations began. The British consul, a usurer who had recently bought the expired concession for a railroad in Tehuantepec, attempted to intervene, but Trist was able to stop him. Mexico invoked international law to defend the country’s rights, but Trist—although he found Polk’s demands unjust—adhered to the original instructions. He did not accept the Nueces River border, nor did he relinquish San Diego to Mexico. He reduced the reparations to $15 million. It should be noted that this was not a payment for conquered territory, but for damages and the proration of Mexico’s foreign debt that corresponded to the amount of land that was ceded. Mexico managed to keep Baja California and secured the land that connected it to the state of Sonora. Mexico also ensured the rights of Mexicans in the land that was lost in the agreement. Article XI, the only section that was favorable for Mexico, obliged the United States to defend Mexico’s northern border from indigenous attacks, but was never fulfilled. Finally, the treaty was signed on February 2, 1848, in the town of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Trist’s wife describes the scene:

Don Bernardo Couto remarked to him [Trist], “this must be a proud moment for you; no less proud for you than is humiliating for us.” To this Mr. Trist replied, “we are making peace, let that be our only thought.”—But said he to us in relating it. Could those Mexicans have seen into my heart at that moment, they would have known that my feeling of shame as an American was far stronger that theirs could be as Mexicans. For though it would not have done for me to say so there, that was a thing for every right-minded American to be ashamed of, and I was ashamed of it, most cordially and intensely ashamed of it. This have been my feeling at all our conferences, and especially at moments when I had felt it necessary to insist upon things which they were averse to … I should have yielded in every instance. Nothing prevented my doing so but the conviction that the treaty would then be one which there would be no chance for the acceptance of by our government. My object throughout was, not to obtain all I could, but on the contrary to make the treaty as little exacting as possible from Mexico, as was compatible with its being accepted at home. In this I was governed by two considerations: one was the iniquity of the war, as an abuse of power on our part; the other was that the more disadvantageous the treaty was made for Mexico, the stronger would be the ground of opposition to it in the Mexican Congress.6

Polk received the treaty on February 19. He did not hide his displeasure with Trist’s audacity, but as he had followed Polk’s orders and the electoral race had begun, he remitted the treaty to the Senate. The Senate omitted Article X, referencing Texan territory, and approved the rest on March 10.

Given its precarious circumstances, Mexico accepted the change. Signing the treaty allowed congressional elections to be carried out in the occupied states, but the government found itself in a difficult situation, as Congress had taken away the executive branch’s power to sign treaties. The contents of the treaty were not revealed until Congress convened again, but this did not prevent attacks from monarchists and purists.

When Congress assembled on May 7, Manuel de la Peña introduced the treaty. In his speech, he reminded Congress of the circumstances in which they had been entrusted with the government, and the necessity of recovering their occupied land. Despite their apprehensions, the Mexican congress ratified the treaty. On May 30, the United States senators A. H. Sevier and Nathan Clifford (1803–1881) arrived in Querétaro to exchange approval with Minister de la Rosa (1804–1856). President-elect José Joaquín de Herrera relocated to Mexico City in mid-June, once the invading army had left.

The war had important consequences. The United States had strengthened its continental power and bound Mexico’s destiny to its own. The aggression and the unjust war left a deep wound in the Mexican spirit, but it also encouraged national awareness and illuminated the nation’s political projects. The French invasion of the 1860s would therefore encounter a more united Mexico.

Unfortunately, Mexico continued to be the object of pressure from its citizens and filibusters’ adventures. In 1853, Washington imposed the Gadsden Purchase, forcing Mexico to give up another piece of its territory and annul Article XI in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Discussion of the Literature

The Mexican-American War was the first war reported by the Mexican press. The invasion had scarcely begun when the penny press sent reporters, illustrators, and photographers to the front and began publishing illustrated articles: victories, exoticism, and the excesses of the volunteer soldiers. Between 1847 and 1852, war books appeared, such as Edward D. Mansfield’s The War with Mexico. A History of its Origins and a Detailed Account or the Victories Which Terminated in the Surrender of the Capital.7 Other books condemned pro-slavery interests, such as William Jay’s A Review of the Causes and Consequences of the Mexican War, recorded unpleasant topics, including G. N. Allen’s Mexican Treacheries and Cruelties: Incidents and Sufferings in the Mexican War, or offered a synthesis of Mexican history.8

Beginning in 1850, when California became a free state of the Union, the sectionalist issue began to overshadow the subject that would reappear several decades later as part of academic history or research companies, such as that of Hubert Howe Bancroft, who published The History of the North American States and Texas, 1801–1889.9 A paper read in the American Historical Association by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 titled The Significance of the Frontier in American History indirectly influenced the historiography of the war by emphasizing the importance of conquering the west.10

In the 20th century, the war reappeared during times of other international war. World War I inspired a highly influential book that placed blame on Mexico for the war: Justin Smith’s The War with Mexico, as well as George L. Rives. The United States and Mexico, 1821–1848.11 During World War II, several books on the subject appeared, including Bernard de Voto’s The Year of Decision: 1846, Alfred Hoyt Bill’s Rehearsal and Conflict: The War with Mexico, 1846-1848, and Ray Allen Billington’s Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier.12

The enormous postwar changes disseminated works produced by universities and historians, who preferred serious and original interpretations. Among these, the works by Frederick Merk and David M. Pletcher stand out.13 Pletcher carried out impressive research to place the war in its international context. Although he accused Mexico of provoking the war, two decades later, he recognized in a video produced by KERA Dallas for PBS that it had been a war of US aggression.

Although the literature continued to privilege the theme of “the winning of the west,” the 2003 Iraq War aroused interest in the causes that justify international wars, perhaps with the suspicion that many were false, as was the case with Iraq. On the invasion of Mexico, nine titles appeared between 1846 and 1848, including Amy S. Greenberg’s A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico.14 It is important to note that, in addition to choosing the descriptor that Ulysses Grant gave to this war, qualifying it as an invasion, Greenberg also depicts the scenario of the United States and analyzes the people who determined the war or those who moved to reject it, including Polk, Polk’s wife, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, and Nicholas Trist. The book demonstrates the complexity and contradictions of the event and tackles themes that have often been relegated to the background, such as the volunteer soldiers’ massacres, rapes, and excessive force that were covered by the press and horrified the population, leading them to reject the war and the acquisition of territory.

The topic was further marginalized in Mexican historiography, likely due to the embarrassment surrounding a period of loss and instability. One of Mexico’s best works on the war, Apuntes para la Historia de la Guerra con los Estados Unidos, was drafted by fifteen congress members, politicians, journalists, and government officials in Querétaro during the Mexican occupation as a way to kill hours of spare time and hopelessness, allowing them to discuss causes, decisions, and battles.15 Three writers and legal experts wrote the final version of the information that was compiled on the origins and development of the war with testimonies of a number of participants. It was published in 1848. Decades later, José María Roa Bárcena, who witnessed the war at a young age, began to document his experience and read Untied States books on the war, eventually publishing Recuerdos de la Invasión Norteamericana 1846–1848 por un joven de entonces.16 Manuel Balbontín published his diary titled La invasión Americana de 1846 a 1848.17

In the 20th century, various summaries or monographic books, Spanish translations of books from the United States, and part of Polk’s diary from 1846 to 1848 were published. The hundred-year anniversary of the war sparked a wave of translations and books such as Breve Historia de la Guerra con Estados Unidos by José C. Valadés, renowned historian, as well as several disseminated works.18 The 150th anniversary of the war motivated a collective research project to document the entirety of the Mexican context during the war, from the point of view of the states as well as the capital, in order to reveal the complexity that the country was experiencing during its desperate situation lacking funds and a professional army with obsolete weapons and a profoundly partisan division, invaded by a country with resources, a professional army, and modern weapons. The result was predictable. The book, México al Tiempo de su Guerra con Estados Unidos, was coordinated by Josefina Zoraida Vázquez.19

Primary Sources

Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico City (AGN).

Archivo Histórico del Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City.

Archivo Histórico de la Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, Mexico City (AHSREM).

Archivo Histórico de la Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, Mexico City (AHSDN).

Colección José María Lafragua, Biblioteca Nacional, Mexico City.

Foreign Office. Mexico (FO 50). Public Record Office, London, United Kingdom.

Genaro García Collection, Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin (BLAC).

The National Archives of Washington (NAW), Records of the Department of State, Despatches from the United States Ministers to Mexico 1823–1906, vol. 13, microfilm 97, roll 14, March 26, 1848-February 2, 1850.Find this resource:

    The National Archives of Washington (NAW), Records of the Department of State, Diplomatic Instructions of the Department of State 1801–1906, vol. 16, microfilm 77, roll 112, November 10, 1845-April 6, 1854.Find this resource:

      Archivo Histórico de la Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, Mexico City.

      A Continent Divided: The U.S.-Mexico War, Center for Greater Southwestern Studies, University of Texas at Arlington, Library Special Collections.

      The Mexican-American War (1846–1848), The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, Western Americana.

      Amy Greenberg, “A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. invasion of Mexico,” Penn State University.

      “The U.S.-Mexican War (1846–1848),” Dallas, Texas; 1998; Kera-TV, North Texas Broadcasting System, executive producer, Sylvia Komatsu; director, Ginny Martin; writer, Rob Tranchin; 2 videos. Honored with a National Emmy Award. Chapter one and chapter two.

      Further Reading

      Alcaraz, Ramón, et al. The Other Side: Notes for the History of the War between México and the United States. New York: Burt Franklin, 1850.Find this resource:

        Bauer, K. Jack. The Mexican War, 1846–1848. New York: Macmillan, 1974.Find this resource:

          Fuller, John O. The Movement for the Acquisition of all Mexico. New York: Da Capo Press, 1969.Find this resource:

            Greenberg, Amy S. A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2012.Find this resource:

              Merk, Frederick. Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963.Find this resource:

                Pletcher, David M. The Diplomacy of Annexation: Texas, Oregon and the Mexican War. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1973.Find this resource:

                  Rives, George Lockhart. The United States and Mexico, 1821–1846: A History of the Relations Between the Two Countries from the Independence of Mexico to the Close of the War with the United States. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1913.Find this resource:

                    Roa Bárcena, José María. Recuerdos de la Guerra con Estados Unidos, 1846–1848. Mexico City: Porrúa, 1968.Find this resource:

                      Smith, Justin H. The War with Mexico. Gloucester, MA: Macmillan, 1919.Find this resource:

                        Vázquez, Josefina Zoraida. México al tiempo de su guerra con Estados Unidos. Mexico City: El Colegio de México, Fondo de Cultura Económica, Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, 1996.Find this resource:

                          Vázquez, Josefina Zoraida. La intervención norteamericana en México. Mexico City: Secretaria de Relaciones Exteriores, 1996.Find this resource:


                            (1.) Hans Baade, “The Law of Slavery in Spanish Louisiana, 1769–1800,” in Lousiana´s Legal Heritage, ed. Edward F. Hass (Pensacola, FL: Perdido Bay Press, 1983).

                            (2.) Andreas Reischtein, Rise of the Lone Star: The Making of Texas (College Station: Texas A & M, 1989).

                            (3.) Congress shall not pass laws prohibit bringing their slaves into the Republic … nor shall Congress have power to emancipate slaves; nor shall any slave holder be allowed to emancipate his or her slaves without the consent of Congress, unless he or she shall send his or her slave or slaves without the limits of the Republic.

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

                            (5.) The peso and the dollar had the same value until 1895.

                            (6.) Robert W. Drexler, Guilty of Making Peace: A Biography of Nicholas P. Trist (New York: University Press of America, 1991), 129–130.

                            (7.) Edward D. Mansfield, The War with Mexico. A History of its Origins and a Detailed Account or the Victories Which Terminated in the Surrender of the Capital (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1848).

                            (8.) William Jay, A Review of the Causes and Consequences of the Mexican War (Boston: Benjamin B. Mussey, 1849); and G. N. Allen, Mexican Treacheries and Cruelties: Incidents and Sufferings in the Mexican War (Boston: Lieut. G. N. Allen, 1847).

                            (9.) Hubert Howe Bancroft, The History of the North American States and Texas, 1801–1889 (San Francisco: The History Company, 1889).

                            (10.) Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History (New York: Henry Holt, 1893).

                            (11.) Justin Smith, The War with Mexico (New York: Macmillan, 1919); and George L. Rives, The United States and Mexico, 1821–1848 (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1913).

                            (12.) Bernard de Voto, The Year of Decision: 1846 (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1950); Alfred Hoyt Bill, Rehearsal and Conflict: The War with Mexico, 1846–1848 (New York: A. Knopf, 1947); and Ray Allen Billington, Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier (New York: Macmillan, 1949).

                            (13.) Frederick Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History: A Reinterpretation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963); David M. Pletcher, The Diplomacy of the Annexation: Texas, Oregon and the Mexican War (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1973).

                            (14.) Amy S. Greenberg, A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2012).

                            (15.) Ramón Alcaraz et al., Apuntes para la Historia de la Guerra con los Estados Unidos (Mexico City: Ignacio Cumplido, 1848).

                            (16.) José María Roa Bárcena, Recuerdos de la Invasión Norteamericana 1846–1848 (Mexico City: Edición de la Librería Madrileña de Juan Buxo y Cía, 1883).

                            (17.) Manuel Balbontín, La invasión Americana de 1846 a 1848 (Mexico City: Tip. de Gonzalo A. Esteva, 1883).

                            (18.) José C. Valadés, Breve Historia de la Guerra con Estados Unidos (Mexico City: Patria, 1947).

                            (19.) Josefina Zoraida Vázquez, México al Tiempo de su Guerra con Estados Unidos (Mexico City: El Colegio de México, Fondo de Cultura Económica, Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, 1996).