Massachusetts Rep. Robert C. Winthrop uttered the catchphrase that pushed two countries to war, “manifest destiny,” in Congress on Jan. 3, 1846, a phrase that first appeared in print in 1845 to describe the notion that it was our country’s divine mission to occupy the continent from sea to sea.
The country was heading toward war with Mexico following the admission of Texas as the 28th state on Dec. 29, 1845. Mexico, called a late stage in the breakdown of the Spanish Empire, won independence from Spain in 1821, but that independence was followed by a nearly uninterrupted series of revolts. Texas won independence from Mexico in 1836 after Sam Houston defeated Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto, but Santa Anna’s successors rejected the agreement and still considered Texas a Mexican province.
Relations between Mexico and the United States had been bad for decades, and they deteriorated further in the first half of 1845 when Congress began discussing the annexation of Texas. On March 6, Gen. Juan Almonte, the Mexican minister in Washington, protested the proposed annexation and requested passports to leave the United States, and on March 28, the Mexican government notified United States Minister Wilson Shannon that diplomatic relations were severed. When Texas accepted Congress’ joint resolution for annexation on July 4, 1845, the Mexican people were outraged.
John Slidell was appointed minister to Mexico and was instructed to offer up to $40 million for New Mexico and California and the Rio Grande as the boundary for Texas. John Black, the U.S. consul in Mexico City, reported on Oct. 17 that the Mexican government was willing to receive a commissioner if U.S. naval forces off Veracruz would withdraw, and on Dec. 16, Mexico refused to receive Slidell because it agreed to a commissioner, not a minister. Only friendly countries exchanged ministers.
Although not at war, the United States was preparing. Gen. Zachary Taylor in June 1845 was ordered to move to a point near the Rio Grande to defend Texas and with 1,500 troops reached the Nueces River by July 31. Mexico considered the Nueces the southern border of the Mexican Department of Texas, and the area in Texas between the Nueces and the Rio Grande eventually became the excuse for war.
Taylor reached the Rio Grande on March 24, 1846, and on April 25, 1,600 Mexican cavalry attacked a reconnoitering party of 63 soldiers, killing 11, wounding five, and capturing the rest. U.S. politicians cried that American soldiers had been killed on American soil, a flimsy excuse for war because the site of the attack was in the no-man’s land between the Nueces and the Rio Grande.
The war caused a marked division in public opinion. Much of the nation was infected by war fever, but many U.S. citizens viewed the war as plot to extend slavery. Henry D. Thoreau was imprisoned for one night after refusing to pay a poll tax in protest against the war and published an article in 1849 called Resistance to Civil Government, later posthumously titled Civil Disobedience. Ralph Waldo Emerson published an article attacking the war as a spurious land grab.
The war ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, named for the town in which it was signed on Feb. 2, 1848. The treaty took effect on May 30 and established the Rio Grande as the Texas border and ceded California and the New Mexico territory, which comprised Nevada and Utah and parts of Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, to the United States. It increased the size of the United States by about 500,000 square miles, about a 17-percent increase in area. Its cost was 13,000 U.S. lives and $100 million in military expenditures.
The Mexican War added California to the United States a year before the Gold Rush, and it is intriguing to ponder a United States that had no influx of California gold, Nevada silver or Texas oil. The addition of the Southwest enriched our art, architecture and food, and out of conflict arose a culture enriched by the spices and traditions of Spain and Mexico.
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