The military history of the American Revolution is more than the history of the War of Independence. The Revolution itself had important military causes. The experience of the Seven Years’ War (which started in 1754 in North America) conditioned British attitudes to the colonies after that conflict was over. From 1764, the British Parliament tried to raise taxes in America to pay for a new permanent military garrison. British politicians resisted colonial objections to parliamentary taxation at least partly because they feared that if the Americans established their right not to be taxed by Westminster, Parliament’s right to regulate colonial overseas trade would then be challenged. If the Americans broke out of the system of trade regulation, British ministers, MPs, and peers worried, then the Royal Navy would be seriously weakened. The War of Independence, which began in 1775, was not the great American triumph that most accounts suggest. The British army faced a difficult task in suppressing a rebellion three thousand miles from Britain itself. French intervention on the American side in 1778 (followed by the Spanish in 1779, and the Dutch in 1780) made the task still more difficult. In the end, the war in America was won by the French as much as by the Americans. But in the wider imperial conflict, affecting the Caribbean, Central America, Europe, West Africa, and South Asia, the British fared much better. Even in its American dimension, the outcome was less clear cut than we usually imagine. The British, the nominal losers, retained great influence in the independent United States, which in economic terms remained in an essentially dependent relationship with the former mother country.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1807 invasion of Spain and Portugal set in motion a transatlantic imperial crisis that, within two decades, resulted in Spain’s losing nearly all of its American possessions. Typically, the founding of most Spanish South American nations is attributed to the heroic leadership of the great liberators: Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín. While San Martín is most famous for organizing the Army of the Andes that carried out the liberation of Chile, parts of Peru, and eventually, in 1822, reunited with Bolívar in Ecuador, his time in western Río de la Plata building his army is less understood. From 1814 until 1817, General San Martín took up residence in the western Río de la Plata (Argentina) city of Mendoza to build an army capable of defeating Spanish rule in Chile and Peru. To receive permission to cross the Andes westward into Chile, San Martín needed more than soldiers well trained in European military style and horses: he needed to negotiate with the local Pehuenche people—part of the broader Mapuche peoples of southern Chile and western Río de la Plata—who had successfully resisted Spanish conquest for centuries. Before San Martín could cross the Andes to invade Chile, he participated in two interethnic diplomatic rituals known as parlamentos in Spanish and koyang in Mapudungun, with the Pehuenche. Nearly forty recorded Spanish–Mapuche parlamentos had taken place in Chile and near Mendoza since 1593. In the two 1816 parlamentos, interpreters translated the negotiations between Pehuenche representatives and San Martín over the exchange of horses, the giving of gifts, the recognition of Pehuenche dominion, and permission for the Army of the Andes to cross the mountains west to Chile. While San Martín chose to spread news of this agreement to confuse the Spanish forces in Chile as to the location of their crossing, opting not to cross Pehuenche lands, these parlamentos nevertheless speak to the power and importance of Pehuenche political traditions during the Age of Revolution.
Francisco de Miranda (March 28, 1750, Caracas, Venezuela—July 14, 1816, La Carraca, Spain) was a Spanish American revolutionary who after a career in the Spanish Army from 1783 devoted his life to the cause of Spanish American independence. The various designs of Miranda in the 1780s–1800s were founded upon the idea of a military liberation expedition to Spanish America led by him and organized with the support of a power (Great Britain, United States, France) in conflict with Spain that would then foment existing discontent and lead to a wide-scale revolt and independence. Though these plans failed, as did his attempt to organize an expedition from New York without the support of any power (1805–1807), in 1810 the revolution in Spanish America started without his participation as a consequence of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain. Miranda was called to Caracas and eventually led the short-lived First Venezuelan Republic in 1812. After its defeat he spent the last years of his life in Spanish jails. Miranda’s failure influenced the South American revolutionaries who adopted the tactics of unconditional warfare against the Spanish troops from 1813. A shrewd and sophisticated expert in world affairs and political intrigues and an acclaimed military commander, Miranda was persistently trying to use the conflicts between great powers to achieve his goal though he knew that these powers’ leaders were eager to use him as a trump card against the Spanish Empire in their geopolitical games. His contacts ranged from US Founding Fathers, British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and Viscount Melville to the Prussian king Friedrich II and the Russian empress Catherine II. He was a respected peer in the high society of the European “republic of letters” in the Age of Enlightenment. In the United States his friends belonged to the Federalist Party, which represents an interesting phenomenon since Federalists are usually viewed as being generally skeptical toward foreign revolutions. In Spanish America Miranda’s ideas received no support until 1810–1812, as his failed expedition clearly shows—this is an excellent example of the interplay between “evental history” (histoire évenémentielle) and the longue durée, demonstrating how fast and unpredictable radical historical change may be. In spite of this long political solitude, Miranda entered the Spanish American symbolic pantheon as the precursor of independence.
Irving W. Levinson
The Mexican-American War ranks among the most consequential events in the history of both nations. Although the casus belli for the United States’s May 12, 1846, declaration of war was the Mexican ambush of a U.S. Army patrol in the disputed Nueces Strip on April 25 of that year, two underlying causes rendered conflict inevitable. The dispute over Texas was the first, and the desire of both nations to control the Mexican provinces of Nuevo Mexico and California was the second. President James Knox Polk identified the acquisition of that territory as the principal objective of his administration. The conflict also remains noteworthy for the extent to which the political milieu in both countries proved as important as events on the battlefields. In México, a devastating war of independence (1810–1821), multiple violent overthrows of the federal government, the failure of two constitutions to produce a structure acceptable to both conservatives and liberals, and enmities generated by the socioeconomic structure severely limited México’s growth, tranquility, and potential for armed resistance to an invader. In the United States, the national unity evident at the outbreak of the war faded in the face of sectional rivalries, unexpectedly high casualties, and declining relations between the executive and legislative branches. The military phases of the war fall into two segments. In the first, forces considerably smaller than those deployed in later phases of the war fought in Texas and in the Mexican provinces of Nuevo Mexico, California, Tamaulipas, and Nuevo Leon. When United States victories in northern Mexico failed to produce the anticipated Mexican surrender, the second phase of the conflict began on March 9, 1847, with General Winfield Scott’s invasion of central Mexico and ended with his entrance in Mexico City on September 14, 1847. In the following seven months, both governments sought to obtain the best terms. A rising tide of violent rural rebellion in Mexico and a rising tide of Whig opposition to the Polk administration in Washington served as catalysts during the negotiations. Two agreements, the February 2, 1848, Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and the March 6, 1848, Truce Agreement brought hostilities a close. Consequences of the conflict included the Mexico’s loss of 525,000 square miles of territory, the emergence of the United States as the dominant continental power, the dispossession of many Mexican citizens living in what had become U.S. territory, and the reestablishment of Mexican sovereignty over territories in rebellion.