Mexican American War and Effect on Mexicans in US Territory

The Mexican American War and Effect on Mexicans in US Territory

Theresa Seavello, December 2016

The United States is a representation of long standing freedom. A ‘Shining Nation on a Hill’, and ‘what a Democracy should look like’. Although, history sometimes tells about another side to America, and how it became the nation it is today. Slavery, imperialism, and prejudice haunts the history of this country, and like any type of nightmare—wishes to be forgotten. The United States government has acknowledged many of its wrongdoings, such as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and for slavery and the prejudice of the Jim Crow laws. Although the United States apologizes from time to time, many of the shady events in its history have still been ignored or covered up by false pretenses. One of these events is the conquest of the Mexican-American war. This war in 1845-1848 was a purely territorial war where the United States, under President James K. Polk, fought to take land and resources from Mexico. I want to explore just why the war was fought, and I want to investigate what happened to the Mexicans living in the United States’ newly acquired territory when the border jumped them.

As before mentioned, the Mexican-American war was a purely territorial war. President Taylor wanted to annex Texas after the territory won a war of independence from Mexico. Mexico threatened the United States with war if they annexed Texas, but Taylor still tried and failed to annex twice before finally succeeding in 1845 with the backing of Polk. Polk became president on the platform of the expansion of the United States, and quickly went to work on upholding his promise. Why did the United States want to expand? Many historians agree that one of the root causes of the war with Mexico was due to greed. On, the article written on the Mexican-American war reads, “The Nation that trumpeted the ideals of freedom, democracy, and justice for all had invaded and conquered a much weaker country. For no more noble reason than greed, the United States had taken Mexican lives and stolen Mexican land.”[1] The United States was under the impression of the Manifest Destiny, which began in Colonial times. Protestants believed it was their divine right and duty to spread the protestant religion across the North American continent.[2] According to Dennis R. Hidalgo, a historian from Virginia, “In 1845 John O’Sullivan coined the term ‘manifest destiny’ in reference to a growing conviction that the United States was preordained by God to expand throughout North America and exercise hegemony over its neighbors… He argued for ‘the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions’”[3] Hidalgo called the idea of manifest destiny an “obvious defense of what is now called Imperialism”.[4] It is clear to see that the United States was hungry for land and colonies, and in the race of Imperialism, the Manifest Destiny was a great cover for the United States to use for claiming the Mexican-American war noble and prophecy-fulfilling. Another historian Alejandro Lugo also agrees with the concept of the United States covering up Imperialism and says, “Imperial impulses do travel by many other names, more often than we dare to want to know. [the terms] ‘dispersed ruination’ associated with ‘imperial debris’ show there may be remnants that slip from immediate vision, detritus that is harder to grasp–intimate injuries that appear as only faint traces, or deep deformations and differentiations of social geography which go by other names.”[5] Again, this explains that this way of covering Imperialism under the name of something else still results in the same consequences only under a different guise.

After the annexation of Texas, President Polk drove United States military forces into Mexico, effectively beginning the fighting of the war against an under resourced Mexico. After the capture of Mexico City, Polk drafted the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Mexico ratified the treaty, and the United States gained almost half of Mexico’s territory, including much of modern day Utah, California, Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico.[6] This new land also came with new inhabitants— the natives on the land and the new population of Mexican Americans. What happened to this new group of people after the border they knew was thrown over them? They were suddenly faced with a forced situation of citizenship and had to make a decision based on these new circumstances. According the Article VII of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States government outlined three different options of the Mexican Americans to choose from in regards to their new situation.

Mexicans now established in territories previously belonging to Mexico, and which remain for the future within the limits of the United States, as defined by the present treaty, shall be free to continue where they now reside, or to remove at any time to the Mexican Republic, retaining the property which they possess in the said territories, or disposing thereof, and removing the proceeds wherever they please, without their being subjected, on this account, to any contribution, tax, or charge whatever.[7]

The first clause of the article explains that the Mexicans who were living in the land that became part of the United States because of the treaty, will be allowed to remain there or go back to Mexico, and they can bring/ keep everything that belongs to them without being charged a fee or a tax. But, the Mexicans living in the territory must make the decision to claim United States citizenship, or claim to retain their Mexican ‘character’. Those who did not make the decision to officially claim will automatically become citizens, as stated in the next paragraph.

Those who shall prefer to remain in the said territories may either retain the title and rights of Mexican citizens, or acquire those of citizens of the United States. But they shall be under the obligation to make their election within one year from the date of the exchange of ratifications of this treaty; and those who shall remain in the said territories after the expiration of that year, without having declared their intention to retain the character of Mexicans, shall be considered to have elected to become citizens of the United States.”[8]

The treaty uses the word “character” to refer to retaining Mexican culture, and that hints towards the attitudes of the United States about assimilation and the Mexicans living in the new United States territories. The notion of Mexican character is brought up again in Article IX.

The Mexicans who, in the territories aforesaid, shall not preserve the character of citizens of the Mexican Republic, conformably with what is stipulated in the preceding article, shall be incorporated into the Union of the United States, and be admitted at the proper time (to be judged of by the Congress of the United States) to the enjoyment of all the rights of citizens of the United States, according to the principles of the Constitution; and in the meantime, shall be maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their liberty and property, and secured in the free exercise of their religion without restriction. [9]

The United States with this treaty is making a clear distinction between the Mexicans and the Americans. As we see in the above article, yes—Mexicans can elect to become citizens. But, the government is going to decide how much of a citizen they can become and when.

This is contradictory and again, shows the opinions the United States has towards the Mexicans They can choose to deny their Mexican heritage and culture, and become citizens of the US, BUT there is no guarantee as to when they can get full rights of citizens—such as voting. They do have access to their unalienable rights, but the Mexicans were being treated as if they were visitors to the United States, not forced on the other side of a boundary between two countries. In the article The Border Jumped the; a map of Mexicans, the Mexican American war was described as “the great gringo land-grab of 1848. Some [Mexicans] are recent arrivals; others trace their roots to long before the map was redrawn. They didn’t jump the border-it jumped them.” [10] Since the United States Government fought an unnecessary war for Imperialism under the guise of the Manifest Destiny, the least they could have done was guarantee immediate citizenship. The land grab presented a new population in the United States and the new population should have had an immediate say in what was going to happen in the new government that was forced upon them.

The United States has a shadowed side of history that many overlook, including the government itself. The effects of the Mexican American war are prevalent today not only in the size of the United States but also in the population. We see news reports on border control, immigration policies, humanitarian disasters, and all of these are hot topics of the current presidential campaign. Although the past in the United States isn’t squeaky clean, these types of issues need to be addressed and fixed before becoming an out of control issue. The stereotypes and the prejudice against Mexicans and Mexican Americans should have been fixed when the United States was so desperate for their land and resources, but indifferent to the people. Just remember that especially today during current political discussions regarding Mexicans, they did not jump the border, the border truly in fact jumped them.


[1] “Peace, But at What Cost.” Mexican-American War. (October 27, 2016).
[2] Hidalgo, Dennis R. “Manifest Destiny.” In Dictionary of American History, 3rd ed., edited by Stanley I. Kutler, 222-225. Vol. 5. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003. U.S. History in Context (accessed October 27, 2016).
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5 Lugo, Alejandro. “Occupation, religion, and the voidable politics of empire at the US-Mexico border.”Religion and Society 6 (2015): 98+. Global Issues in Context (accessed November 10, 2016).
[6] Callahan, J. M. “Mexican-American War.” In Dictionary of American History, 3rd ed., edited by Stanley I. Kutler, 339-342. Vol. 5. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003. U.S. History in Context (accessed October 24, 2016).
[7] Government, U.S., and Mexico. “Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.” In Westward Expansion: American Journey. Woodbridge, CT: Primary Source Media, 1999. U.S. History in Context (accessed October 27, 2016).
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] “The border jumped them; A map of Mexicans.” The Economist, February 1, 2014, 25(US). U.S. History in Context (accessed October 27, 2016).
[10] Ibid.

Further Reading

Bauer, K. Jack. ”The Mexican War, 1846-1848.” New York: Macmillan, 1974.

Greenberg, Amy S. A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico. New York: Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, 2013.

McClellan, George B. and Thomas Cutrer. The Mexican War diary and correspondence of George B. McClellan. Baton Rouge. 2016.

Callahan, J. M. “Mexican-American War.” In Dictionary of American History, 3rd ed., edited by Stanley I. Kutler, 339-342. Vol. 5. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003. U.S. History in Context (accessed October 24, 2016).

Hoganson, Kristin. “A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico by Amy S. Greenberg.” The Journal of the Civil War Era 4, no. 1 (2014): 111-13. doi:10.1353/cwe.2014.0008.

O’Rourke, David K. “Our war with Mexico: rereading Guadalupe Hidalgo.” Commonweal 125, no. 5 (1998): 8+. U.S. History in Context (accessed October 27, 2016).

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