During the early to mid-nineteenth century the United States began to acquire increasing amounts of land by drafting treaties with former European powers: France, in the Louisiana Purchase which more than doubled the size of the United States, Spain in the Adams-Onis Treaty which granted the United States the Florida region, and Great Britain in the Oregon Treaty which set the Washington state border at the 49th parallel, which separates the U.S. and Canada. These new acquirements of land left the United States hungry for more. As southern farmers began to move into the Mexican territory of present-day Texas, they “promised” the Mexican government to become Mexican citizens and abide to the laws of Mexico since they were in Mexican territory (Faragher, 2003). More and more southerners began to move into Texas which ultimately resulted in the independence of Texas, the admission of Texas to the Union, and the catastrophic events that proceeded. The Mexican-American War was an immediate action taken due to the border dispute with Mexico after Texas gained its independence from Mexico and was annexed by Congress. The United States’ reactions to the Mexican-American War varied greatly among the population; many reactions were positive while many were negative, but neither types of reactions prevailed the most common.
Background and Causes of the War
Mexico gained independence from her original ruler of Spain in 1821 (PBS), so Mexico was not too enthusiastic about letting a territory fall from its possession. However the Comanche Indians, a war-like Native American tribe that plagued parts of Texas territory, created an irritation for the Mexicans. To counter this reoccurring issue, the Mexican government handed over 18,000 square miles of land within Texas to Moses Austin who passed it on to son Stephen F. Austin (Faragher, 2003) . Following these events, more and more Southerners began to move to Texas and outnumbered the native Tejanos. As an agreement for residing in Mexican territory, migrants has to become Mexican citizens and convert to Catholicism, but few upheld the promises (Faragher, 2003).
Further south in Mexico City, a new government came into control that took firm control over Texas. The Mexican government outlawed slavery in 1829 (Scully, 2012) which provoked Texans because a majority came from the South, and because they came from the South they brought slavery along with them, which was a crucial aspect of their economy. Hence, the new settlers from the South had an alternative agenda on their mind, the takeover of Texas. War finally broke in 1835 when a small volunteer army captured San Antonio, but was later defeated by Mexican General Santa Anna in what became known as the Battle of the Alamo (Faragher, 2003). Next, General Sam Houston retaliated and defeated Santa Anna in a series of following battles. Santa Anna finally signed a treaty which placed the boundary of the new Republic of Texas at the Rio Grande, but Mexican Congress refused to accept Texas independence. To the Mexicans, the Republic of Texas’s border was fixed at the Nueces River and the Americans believed it to be the Rio Grande.
In the next provoking event, the U.S. Congress annexed Texas in 1845 (Faragher, 2003), just before President James K. Polk entered into office. President Polk was an expansionist, which meant that he wanted to obtain the remaining land to the west of the Mississippi River. After the Mexican government refused a payment from Polk for Mexican territory, Polk sent a military expedition into area Mexicans considered soil. Conflict between American and Mexican soldiers broke out, and Polk persuaded Congress to declare war on Mexico in his message:
Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil…War exists, and, notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it, exists by the act of Mexico herself. (Polk, 1946)
Reactions to the Mexican-American War
The Mexican-American war, often referred to as “Mr. Polk’s War” (Faragher, 2003), sparked contradicting opinions among the American public. In Congress, the idea of war was highly supported, due to the fact that the Whigs and Democrats joined together and passed the war measure 40 to 2 (Zinn, 1980). However, a handful of politicians discredited the war effort and President Polk, as well as a decent amount of the general population. In fact, a number of American soldiers participating in the Mexican-American war began to lose interest.
After Congress declared war on Mexico, rallies were held in the largest cities of the U.S. in which thousands of young men attended to volunteer for the army. Poet Walt Whitman wrote in the Brooklyn Edge, “Yes: Mexico must be thoroughly chastised! Let our arms now be carried with a spirit which shall teach the world that…America knows how to crush…as well expand” (Zinn, 1980). This shows that patriotism or pride in one’s country motivated Americans to support and enlist in the war. In addition, many people believed in Manifest Destiny, a belief that the United States would overspread the continent, which single handedly played the most significant role in the support of the war. This is expressed by one of the numerous articles written by John O’ Sullivan in “Annexation”:
Texas has been absorbed into the Union in the inevitable fulfillment of the general law which is rolling our population westward; the connexion of which with that ratio of growth of population which is destined within a hundred years to swell our numbers to the enormous population of two hundred and fifty millions (if not more), is too evident to leave us in doubt of the manifest design of Providence in regard to the occupation of this continent. (O’Sullivan, 1845)
O’ Sullivan was trying to show the American people that they should not doubt the war and wonder what it was even for. He endeavored to convince Americans that westward expansion is crucial because the population would grow at a very swift rate, which would also require an increase in size of the country.
Although a majority of the United States supported the Mexican-American War, many individuals discredited it and President Polk. Some believed that the war’s purpose was to extend slavery. The American Anti-Slavery society said the war was “waged solely for the detestable purpose of extending slavery...in Mexico” (Zinn 1980). Also, Henry David Thoreau, a writer from Massachusetts, refused to pay his poll tax because he believed the money would go towards the war, and was jailed (Zinn, 1980). In Thoreau’s essay, “Civil Disobedience,” he insists, “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law...you may see a file of soldiers…marching in admirable order…against their wills...against their common sense and consciousness” (Thoreau, 1849). Thoreau claimed that he did not abide to the law because he believed that the government had started an unjust war. He therefore believed that when a societies’ government no longer held to their original doctrines and performed outrageous or blasphemous actions, the people of the governed land should not be passive and take drastic measures in rebelling against the government.
The American armies were initially enthusiastic, motivated by patriotism and pay, during the Mexican-American war. Soon this spirit began to dissipate, signified an anonymous man who published an observation in the newspaper the Cambridge Chronicle:
Neither have I the least of “joining” you, or in any way assisting the unjust war against Mexico. I have no wish to participate in such “glorious” butcheries of women and children as were displayed in the capture of Monterey, ect….Human butchery has had its day…And the time is rapidly approaching when the professional soldier will be placed on the same level of the bandit…(Zinn, 1980)
This exposes that a good number of the soldiers fighting for the American army were brutal toward even the civilians of Mexico, most likely as a result of the view that the Anglo-Saxons were far superior to all others. Desertion in the U.S. army also began to grow. The total amount of deserters during the war was 9,207 (Zinn, 1980). The cause of desertion was most likely related to the fact that many soldiers believed that they were participating in unnecessary and pointless battles, in which many civilians were terrorized.
The events of the Mexican-American War stirred up numerous reactions in the United States. Government officials almost unanimously supported the war and the two opposing political parties of the time actually came together and agreed on a decision that would set the future for the United States. Many pro-war rallies took place throughout the most densely populated areas of the U.S. that illuminated the patriotism and nationalism ordinary citizens had for their country. However, many Northerners believed that the Mexican-American war was just a way for Southern slave owners to extend their market westward. At the same time certain individuals protested the government and their pro-war policies, encouraging others to do so through inspiring articles and essays. Overall, the reactions of the Mexican-American War greatly varied from positive to negative throughout the expanding United States and defined the attitudes, views, morals, and overall policies of the American people during that period.
Faragher, J. (2003). Out of many: A History of the American People. (3rd ed., pp. 399-404). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
O'Sullivan, J. (1845, July). Annexation. United States Magazine and Democratic Review, 17(1), 5-10. Retrieved from http://web.grinnell.edu/courses/HIS/f01/HIS202-01/Documents/OSullivan.html
PBS. (n.d.). Mexican Independence from Spain. Retrieved from
Polk, J. K. (1846, May). A special message calling for a declaration of war against Mexico. Senate Floor President Polk's Address to Congress, Washington D.C. Retrieved from http://www.dmwv.org/mexwar/documents/polk.htm
Scully, L. (2012, October 28). Conflicts over slavery cause the Texas Revolution and lead to the Mexican American War. Retrieved from http://mlktaskforcemi.org/pathways/conflicts-over-slavery-cause-the-texas-revolution-and-lead-to-the-mexican-american-war/
Thoreau, H. D. (1849). Civil Disobedience . Retrieved from http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/WALDEN/Essays/civil.html
Zinn, H. (1980). A People's History of the United States. (Teaching ed., pp. 113-124). New York, NY: The New Press.