February 7, 1998
A DEFINING TREATY FOR NATION’S DESTINY
JOHN J. MILLER
This week marks the 150th anniversary of the largest expansion of U.S. territory since the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. But you probably won’t hear much about the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War and delivered the American Southwest to the United States – at least nothing good.Many modern historians now consider it a shameful episode of our nation’s past, an act of irredeemable imperialism in which a big and brutish (and white) country beat up a small and helpless (and Latino) one. Hispanic magazine recently labeled the treaty a blatant “land grab.” Latino activists regularly plead their hardships by chanting “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”
The treaty, however, deserves to be honored as one of the great American accomplishments of the 19th century, the single most important step in fulfilling the United States’ Manifest Destiny as a country spreading across a continent from sea to shining sea. It placed an enormous amount of mostly unsettled land within the jurisdiction of the United States, including all of Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and Utah, as well as parts of Colorado, Oklahoma, and Wyoming – thereby securing the benefits of peace, prosperity, and American citizenship for the region’s future inhabitants, who today number more than 40 million. At a minimum, you would think, the treaty should have a commemorative stamp for its sesquicentennial, or at least a congressionally mandated national awareness day.Unfortunately, it has neither. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo suffers from an ignominious reputation nowadays because it appears to dramatize the complaints of discrimination and mistreatment routinely made on behalf of Hispanics by their self-appointed civil rights leaders. Just as African-Americans must overcome the far-reaching legacy of slavery, the thinking goes, so must Mexican-Americans persevere in a country that stole their ancestors’ land.
Yet the story of how America grew is much more complicated than that. In the early 1840s, the whole American West was sparsely settled, largely unmapped, and politically unorganized. The overlapping territorial claims of Great Britain, Mexico and the United States spawned international intrigue. The United States sent diplomats to Mexico City offering to buy much of the Southwest. Great Britain and the United States quarreled over where to draw lines in the Pacific Northwest. Mexico repeatedly threatened to invade the newly independent country of Texas, which had just won its freedom at the Battle of San Jacinto. Great Britain sent emissaries to Texas, urging it to reject annexation into the United States in return for a brokered peace with Mexico. Russia loomed in the background as a constant threat, too.
Mexico’s grip on its far northern frontier was incredibly weak. It had inherited the land claims made by 16th-century Spanish explorers, who were followed over the next three centuries by a trickle of colonists. The central government was highly unstable. After Mexico’s independence in 1821, every constitutionally elected president, with one exception, had fallen to a coup. Geographic isolation also made political control almost impossible. Mexico had so little influence over the north, writes historian David J.Weber of Southern Methodist University, that its “frontier society [was] more fluid and open to new ideas, new people, and new initiatives.”
This openness allowed Americans to begin settling the region in large numbers, especially in Texas. “Where others send invading armies,” complained the Mexican secretary of state, “[the Americans] send their colonists.” Mexico actually banned immigration to Texas from the United States in 1830. The law appears to have had no practical effect, however, because the Americans kept on coming. These newcomers helped Texas forge strong commercial ties with the United States, fueling the drive for independence in 1836 and statehood nine years later. Armed revolts against the government also erupted in California and New Mexico, although only the Texans broke away from Mexico. For the others, it seemed simply a matter of time.
Thanks to skillful diplomacy on both sides, Great Britain and the United States were able to settle many of their differences at the bargaining table by establishing a border at the 49th parallel that remains in effect today. British jingoists, however, called for seizing California. President James K. Polk was desperate to prevent this from happening. He sent troops to a contested section of the border along the Rio Grande. Polk’s message to Mexico in 1846 was clear: Sell now or prepare to fight.
The Mexicans decided to fight. They attacked, sparking a war that led to their humiliating defeat within 18 months. The only question during the peace negotiations was how much land they would forfeit the United States and for how much money. Although they eventually ceded vast holdings, many considered them lucky to keep what they did. They probably would have lost Baja California, for example, if they had not intercepted private correspondence marking the peninsula an American objective but not a deal breaker.
Even if the Mexican War had been avoided, or if the Mexicans had managed to win a few of the battles, the end result probably would not have been greatly different. The American Southwest wasn’t so much torn away from a persecuted Mexico as irresistibly drawn into an expanding United States. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo simply formalized the inevitable. And this week we should celebrate its birthday.