U. S. - Mexican War: Part I
Mexican War for Independence
Why did Mexico go to war with the United States? Prior territorial claims (e.g. Florida) had been resolved without war. Most of what the United States took from Mexico had no particular strategic or economic value, particularly not to the Mexicans. From the perspective of the 1840’s, Northern Mexico was useless and forbidding desert, infested with savage nomadic Indians. The United States clearly had an interest in securing a Pacific Coast presence, but Mexico already had Pacific ports, and did not need the Missions of Alta California. Parts of Texas and California clearly had great potential for agricultural development, but in the 1840’s these areas were undeveloped and very sparsely populated, with only a few thousand Hispanic inhabitants. New Mexico was a relatively successful colony, with tens of thousands of residents, but the New Mexicans were sick and tired of paying taxes to a government in Mexico City that provided nothing in return, especially not military assistance against the belligerent Navajos and Apaches. Thanks to trade on the Santa Fe Trail to Missouri, New Mexico was beginning to feel closer to the Anglo-American States than to Mexico City. In short, the United States was thriving and growing, Mexico was not.
The thirteen former colonies of the United States of America declared independence in 1776. In 1781 and again in the War of 1812, the fledgling States defeated armies of the British crown. The nation which resulted was very different from Mexico. Native Americans in North America were never integrated into Anglo-American society: they were not civilized, agricultural people like the natives peoples of Mexico, and did not survive European invasion and diseases in sufficient number to create a laboring class. The Anglos had to import African slaves. Despite slavery and plantation system in the Southern colonies, however, a feudal or aristocratic system never took root in the United States.
Unlike Mexico, the Church did not unite the States. To the contrary, several colonies were founded by religious dissenters of distinctly different and antagonistic Protestant sects. This encouraged immigrants from a variety of places, such as Germany and Central Europe. During the late 1840’s, in particular, there was a massive wave of immigraiton from Ireland, fleeing the Irish Potato Famine.
Spain, on the other hand, was the very antithesis of religious freedom. Spain was founded on religious war, the Reconquista, and its unity and identity as a nation were forged on the anvil of religious intolerance and the conservative reaction to the Reformation. The institutions of intolerance, such as the Inquisition, were exported to Mexico. Jews and Protestants were not welcome.
The most significant difference, however, was government. In the United States, law and order was sufficiently stable to allow commerce and industry to flourish, take risks, and encourage investment and development. This is not to argue that some facet of the U.S. legal system was inherently superior: if it is, the comparison with Mexico does not prove it. The basic difference was that the United States had a government --any government-- and Mexico did not. In the years leading up to the U.S.-Mexican war, Mexico was in a state of anarchy or despotism, which discouraged growth.
In Mexico, conditions were not ripe for independence until 1808, when Napoleon III defeated King Ferdinand VII in the Napoleonic Wars, and installed his brother as ruler of Spain.
At that time Mexican society was divided into three layers or castes: gachopines, aristocratic native Europeans, criollo, Mexican-born Spaniards, and a peasant class consisting of mestizos, Indians, and a few Africans. In class struggle between the rich and the poor, the Church and the middle class sided with the gachopines.
Miguel Hidalgo y Costillo, a priest, was a well-educated liberal. He was among the rare but historically significant Mexican clergy who were sympathetic to the Indians. Hidalgo taught Indians to plant olives, mulberries and grapevines and to manufacture pottery and leather. When a plot to overthrow the Viceroy was exposed, soldiers were sent to arrest Hidalgo. Hidalgo mobilized the natives and set out for Mexico City.
When the peasant rebels reached the next village en route to Mexico City, they acquired a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint whose image was a woman of color. La Virgen de Guadalupe became the banner of the revolutionary forces.
Mexico’s “declaration of independence” was Hidalgo’s el Grito de Delores on September 16, 1810. By tradition, the cry is “¡Mexicanos, viva México!”, but because the term "Mexico" at the time meant Mexico City, historians doubt that Hidalgo cried “¡Viva Mexico!” He might have said: "¡Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!" "Death to bad government!" or “Death to the Gauchopines!”. In any event, Mexican Independence Day is September 16, in honor of el Grito and not, as many North Americans seem to think, May 5 (Cinco de Mayo) which is the anniversary of a Mexican victory over the French army in the Battle of Puebla, in 1862.
Hidalgo was captured and executed by the Spanish, and the rebellion dissolved into a guerilla war, marked by considerable hatred and bloodshed, unlike the war between the British Empire and its break-away colonies, which was a traditional European military struggle between more-or-less professional armies. As a result, however, when Spain allowed Mexican independence in 1821, Indians became citizens and slavery and serfdom were abolished. African slaves in the United States had to wait until 1863 for emancipation.
In short, independence resulted from internal strife in Europe. It was not a victory by a united, revolutionary front in the Americas. Mexico was left without any real government, exposed to plunder from within and without. The first new government was a monarchy under Augustin Iturbe, one of the aristocrats who had negotiated independence. Iturbe proved to be an inept monarch, however, and the Republic of Mexico was established in 1824. By the 1830’s the Republic had devolved into a military dictatorship. In the 1840’s, that dictatorship lacked sufficient political power to deal with pressure from the United States in any effective way, either by negotiation or by armed resistance. As a result, the Yanqui imperialists took half the country.
Conditions leading up to the war:
El Grito, Hidalgo and the War for Independence:
U.S. Mexican-War, Part II: Yanqui Imperialism