Saturday, April 9, 2016

Did James K. Polk Engineer the Mexican-American War to Steal Much of Texas and the Southwest From Mexico?

1910 Tuck's postcard
As students, we’re taught to believe America is always on the side of right, and would never start a war just to steal land from another country, right?

It’s an interesting thought, but history doesn’t quite bear it out.

James K. Polk was probably the most unsociable, drab, stick-in-the-mud ever to be elected president. Fun was a four letter word in his book. Sports, drinking, dancing, anything to do with being around people didn’t make his A-list. He was short, scholarly, lived for his work, and avoided face-to-face conversations and confrontations whenever possible.

About the only thing Polk had going for him was his friendship with Andrew Jackson. Jackson’s support pushed Polk into the White House.  And, the general made sure Polk understood the two key goals of his presidency were to annex Texas and Oregon.

Four years, a war, and several treaties later Polk would accomplish it all.

After Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836 most citizens of the Lone Star State favored annexation by the United States. Americans weren’t as sure about the idea. President Martin Van Buren worried the move could trigger a war with Mexico. Both, the Democrats and Whigs, worried it could cause a split in Congress over slavery in the new territory. As a result, annexation was a moot point until President John Tyler raised the issue in 1844.

The Senate voted annexation down in June of 1844. Tyler brought the issue before Congress again in early 1845. This time it passed on March 1st, and Texas was admitted to the Union as a state on December 29th.


In the fall of 1845, President Polk offered Mexico five million dollars if they would recognize the Southwestern Boundary of Texas at the Rio Grande. He offered another five million dollars for New Mexico, which at that time included parts of Nevada and Utah. Polk also made a twenty-five million dollar offer for California. When Mexico refused his offers, Polk decided to force the issue. He sent General Zachary Taylor and 3,000 troops to Corpus Christi, Texas. In March of 1846, General Taylor moved his forces into the disputed territory between the Rio Grande and Nueces Rivers.

1908 postcard
About a month later a detachment of Mexican Cavalry crossed into the disputed territory and engaged in a minor scuffle with a small force of American soldiers. Polk used the attack as an opportunity to declare war on Mexico. His proclamation issued on May 11th said: “Mexico…invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil.” Two days later Congress approved Polk’s declaration of war.

The Declaration was hotly debated. The New York Daily Tribune published an editorial on May 15th, 1846 saying: “Three months ago, if a party of our people had gone down to the Rio Grande, halted opposite of Matamoros, threatened that city with cannon, and blocked the River, they would have been marauders and land pirates, and everybody would have admitted that Mexico was justified in so treating them.”

They followed those words up declaring “…our troops and not Mexicans, are the actual and wrongful invaders.”

Congressman Abraham Lincoln protested the war demanding that Polk should identify the “exact spot” where the Mexican Army “shed American blood upon the American soil.”

It was obvious to almost everyone the United States provoked Mexico into a war it was trying hard to avoid. Even today Mexico labels what we call the Mexican War, The United States Invasion of Mexico.

Polk’s excuse for sending troops was a promise he made to protect Texas after its annexation. He ordered the army to prepare for war, positioned naval vessels near American ports, and sent General Taylor with 3,000 troops to Corpus Christi, Texas. His thinking was it would be a short war, with just a few minor engagements, and then Mexico would resume negotiations for the land purchases he desired.

As it turned out the war lasted two years, cost over one hundred million dollars, and claimed the lives of nearly thirteen thousand Americans.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, that ended the war, was signed on February 2nd, 1848. It required the United States to pay Mexico fifteen million dollars and settle a little over three million dollars in claims of American citizens against Mexico. In return, the border with Texas was set at the Rio Grande, and the United States received California, New Mexico, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado. The area was complimented by the Gadsen Purchase in 1853 -1854. America purchased portions of Arizona and New Mexico for ten million dollars.

When it was all said and done, the United States stole or purchased, (depending on how you look at it), nearly one-third of Mexico’s land. For the first time, the country stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast.

The one downside was its effect on the slavery issue.

Congressman David Wilmot tried to add a provision to an appropriations bill on August 8, 1846, that would have outlawed slavery or involuntary servitude in areas acquired as a result of the Mexican conflict. The Wilmot Proviso, as it came to be known, was hotly contested by Southern states and failed to pass. Wilmot tried to revive it in 1847, and again in 1848 when he tried to tack the measure onto the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

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