Beyond the Border: The Partition of Mexico Revisited
By Richard D. Vogel
Copyright © 2013 by Richard D. Vogel
Permission to copy granted
The US invasion and partition of Mexico in the mid-19th century redrew the map of North America and shaped the future of both countries. The international border established by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo has divided the Mexican people for over a century and a half. In view of the growing Mexican American population in the American southwest and the contributions of Mexican citizens to the US economy on both sides of the border, the rights of the citizens of both nations need to be redefined.
Unholy Wars 1
The reason for the hostilities between the United States and Mexico in the 19th century, traditionally glossed over by US historians, was hotly and openly debated at the time. It was expressed most clearly by ex-president John Quincy Adams when he rebuked the hawks in the US House of Representatives in May of 1836, ten years before the invasion of Mexico took place:
“Your war, sir, is to be a war of races—the Anglo-Saxon American pitted against the Moorish-Spanish Mexican American—a war between the northern and southern halves of North America; from Passamaquoddy to Panama. Are you prepared for such a war? And again, I ask, what will be your cause in such a war? Aggression, conquest, and the reestablishment of slavery where it has been abolished. In that war, sir, the banners of freedom will be the banners of Mexico, and your banners, I blush to speak the word, will be the banners of slavery.” 2
What was at stake was clear to Mexican observers as well. José María Tornel, the Mexican Secretary of War in 1836, laid it out:
“The loss of Texas will inevitably result in the loss of New Mexico and the Californias [Alta y Baja]. Little by little our territory will be absorbed, until only an insignificant part is left to us. Our destiny will be similar to the sad lot of Poland [Poland had been partitioned in the 18th century and was not reunited until after World War I]. Our national existence, acquired at the cost of so much blood, recognized after so many difficulties, would end like those weak meteors which, from time to time, shine fitfully in the firmament and disappear.” 3
The hunger for more territory for slavery was the driving force of the times—a force that would ultimately lead to civil war in the United States. 4
The Republic of Mexico which had only gained independence from Spain in 1824 became the target of US expansion. The Gulf Coast Mexican states of Coahuila y Texas, Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Tabasco, Campeche, and Yucatan were as suitable for slave plantations as the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Slavetraders also wanted to establish an international slave market in Galveston because the importation of foreign-born slaves had been outlawed in the United States.
Adding fuel to the fire, the fledgling republic universally opposed slavery in its founding constitution:
“Article 2. Slavery is forbidden in the United Mexican States. Slaves who enter national territory from abroad shall, by this act alone, recover their freedom and enjoy the protection afforded by the laws.”
It was clear to everyone at the time that the Republic of Mexico presented a clear and present danger to the institution of slavery in the United States.
Control of Texas was viewed by slaveholders as critical.
Ex-US President Ulysses S. Grant called it theft:
“The occupation, separation and annexation [of Texas] were, from the inception of the movement to its final consummation, a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed for the American Union.” 5
The occupation and separation of Texas from the Republic of Mexico was the first covert military action directed against a sister republic by the United States of America.
The occupation began with the influx of Anglo-American immigrants who began arriving in 1824. Many of them, secretly and in direct violation of Mexican law, brought their human property with them.
Stephen F. Austin, a slaveholder who brought the first 300 Anglo families to Texas, conveyed the ultimate goal of the occupation in a letter to his cousin written in 1835:
“Texas must be a slave country. It is no longer a matter of doubt. [All italics are in the original] The interest of Louisiana requires that it should be, a population of fanatical abolitionists [Mexican citizens!] would have a very pernicious and dangerous influence on the overgrown slave population of that state. Texas must, and ought to become an out work on the west, as Alabama and Florida are on the East, to defend the key of the western world—the mouths of the Mississippi….To conclude—I wish a great immigration this fall and winter from Kentucky, Tennessee, every where, passports, or no passports, any how. For fourteen years I have had a hard time of it, but nothing shall daunt my courage or abate my exertions to complete the main object of my labors—to Americanize Texas. This fall, and winter, will fix our fate—a great immigration will settle the question.” 6
The question was settled that coming spring, not by the mass immigration that Austin called for, but by the military action of a small cabal of slaveholders supported by the United States government.
The military separation of Texas from the Republic of Mexico was spearheaded by Sam Houston, the slaveholders’ agent who crossed over the border from Louisiana in 1832 soon after meeting with US President Andrew Jackson in Nashville, Tennessee. Houston took charge of the war faction of the Anglo colonists and began agitating and organizing for military action as soon as he arrived.
Hostilities broke out at Gonzales on October 1835 and ended at the battle of San Jacinto in March 1836. Units from the Southwest Military Division of the United States Army under the command of General Edmund Gaines, another champion of slavery, had crossed the Louisiana border and were waiting in east Texas to ambush the Mexican army which was pursuing fleeing Anglo colonists, many with their contraband slaves. The troops never saw action because the anti-slavery Anglo colonists discovered the plan and, fearing co-optation by the slaveholders, turned back to face the Mexican army on their own. They won the battle of San Jacinto but lost the initiative when President Jackson praised Sam Houston as a national hero.
After the defeat of the Mexican army, both Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston called for the immediate annexation of Texas by the United States, but the move was blocked temporarily by anti-slavery forces.
The Republic of Texas which lasted until 1845 became the western outpost of the empire of slavery and the staging area for the invasion of Mexico. The annexation of Texas was the prelude to the war, but hostilities did not break out until a US Army reconnaissance patrol provoked an attack by Mexican soldiers in the disputed area of south Texas.
Ulysses S. Grant condemned the incursion into Mexico in his Memoirs:
“I…to this day regard the war that resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.” 7
Map 1 offers an overview of the major campaigns launched by the United States against the Republic of Mexico. The present account of the war is a summary of the decisive military encounters. (For a definitive account see: Stolen Birthright: The US Conquest and Exploitation of the Mexican People.)
The key to the success of the invasion of Mexico was the ruthless use of newly developed artillery against both military and civilian targets. Three crucial battles—Palo Alto, Buena Vista, and Veracruz—illustrate how firepower secured victory for the USA.
Palo Alto was the trial by fire of the new artillery tactics. Confronted by Mexican soldiers blocking the incursion route through south Texas to Matamoros, the artillery battery with the invasion force deployed just out of range of Mexican muskets and opened fire with 18-pound cannons charged with grapeshot and 6-pound cannons firing exploding shells.
Ulysses S. Grant who witnessed the battle later wrote:
“The Infantry stood at order arms as spectators, watching the effect of our shells upon the enemy, and watching his shots so as to step out of their way. It could be seen that the eighteen-pounders and howitzers did a great deal of execution. On our side there was little or no loss while we occupied this position.” 8
In this first encounter, the principle of fire superiority that was to insure success was adopted as military doctrine.
Fire superiority was further refined at Buena Vista when US cannons double-charged with canister shot were fired directly into the ranks of the Mexican infantry stopping its advance. This battle tactic of using cannons as gigantic shotguns contributed to the United States victory in Mexico and was used with equally devastating results by both sides in the American Civil War.
At Veracruz sustained artillery fire from heavy siege mortars was directed at military personnel and civilians alike.
During the four-day siege of Veracruz throughout which the US commander would not allow the evacuation of civilians, American forces fired 6,700 rounds of artillery, a total of over 463,000 pounds (210,000 kilograms) of munitions into the city. Nearly one-third of the missiles (half of the total weight) were massive 10-inch mortar shells fired from Army shore batteries that struck haphazardly inside the city walls or exploded in the air, showering razor-sharp shrapnel on Mexican soldiers and civilians alike. The American Navy fired another 1,800 rounds into the city.
The final tally of death and suffering at Veracruz was as lopsided as the battle itself. Mexican officials estimated 400 to 500 civilian and 600 military casualties inside the city—United States forces lost thirteen men killed and fifty-five wounded.
The unrelenting bombardment of Veracruz determined the outcome the war—Mexican officials facing the same ruthless enemy at the gates of Mexico City six months later, surrendered.
The partition of Mexico that crowned the US invasion shaped the future of both nations.
The partition of Mexico imposed by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo gutted the new republic. Map 2 depicts the scope of the spoils of war.
Mexico was forced to cede Upper California and the territory of New Mexico (later to become the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming) to the United States—a total land area of 529,000 square miles (1.37 million square kilometers). Including Texas, the USA expropriated a total of 915,000 square miles (2.37 million square kilometers) of land from its southern neighbor.
The list of loses is long:
- Texas was critical. In 1836, Secretary Tornel had warned:
“It is impossible for us to give up more than 200 leagues of coastline, depriving ourselves of our most extensive facilities for the construction of shipyards, the shortest and most advantageous commercial routes, the most fertile lands of the republic, and the best resources of the nation.” 9
- Lost to Mexico were all of Alta California and the bountiful high plains of Texas and Colorado, the Llano Estacado, and the Edwards plateau, vast areas that have produced enormous wealth in minerals, oil, beef, cotton, corn, sugar, and other agricultural commodities
- Gone were the Central Valley in California, the Gila River Valley in Arizona, the Mesilla Valley in New Mexico, and the Rio Grande Valley which extends through the heart of New Mexico and continues along the border of Texas to the Gulf of Mexico, rich agricultural lands that would come to feed so much of the US population.
- Stolen from the Mexican people were the treasures of the Sierra Nevada, the lower Rocky Mountains, and the upper portions of Sonora and Chihuahua that have produced immense fortunes in gold, silver, copper, and other minerals.
- Expropriated were the vital rivers and abundant forests of the American southwest.
- Captured by the USA were the key seaports of California and Texas—Yerba Buena (San Francisco), San Pedro, San Diego, Corpus Christi, and Galveston—all destined to become thriving centers of commerce and industry.
- Denied to Mexico were the important trade centers of Sonoma, Santa Clara, San Juan Bautista, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, San Fernando, Los Angeles, La Mesa, San Gabriel, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, El Paso, Del Rio, Laredo, and San Antonio—the Spanish names protest the theft.
- Swallowed up by Anglo land speculators and bankers within a generation were the prime properties in the American southwest owned by Mexicans for generations and guaranteed under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
Mexico’s loss was the United States’ gain.
And some in the US wanted more.
President Polk was disappointed in the final terms of the treaty. He and other slaveholders had coveted the fertile land of the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, and Chihuahua for slave plantations. The primary American negotiator at Guadalupe Hidalgo was recalled for failing to demand more. 10
Others wanted it all.
The “all Mexico” movement in the USA wanted to occupy the whole country and enslave the entire population. US Vice-president George M. Dallas summarized their position at the New York State Democratic Convention in 1847 in a toast to: “A more perfect Union; embracing the entire North American continent.” 11 The certainty of stiff Mexican resistance and the political opposition of anti-slavery forces in the States ultimately led to the abandonment of the “all Mexico” plan.
Back for more—the Gadsden Purchase
The partition of Mexico wasn’t over when the invading army withdrew in 1848. Land speculators in the United States realized that accepting the Gila River as the international boundary as agreed to in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo cut them off from the flat land south of the river that was the natural route for a southern US transcontinental railroad and contained vast deposits of mineral resources. They enlisted the government to negotiate with Mexico for portions of northern Sonora and Chihuahua. Under threat of reinvasion and facilitated by a $200,000 bribe to Mexican President Santa Ana, the Gadsden Purchase was ratified transferring another 30,000 square miles (77,700 square kilometers) of Mexico to the USA. The price for the US was 33¢ per acre—the loss to Mexico was priceless.
The final tally of the land grab is staggering—29 percent of the landmass of the lower forty-eight states of the USA originally belonged to Mexico.
The overall impact of US expansion on Mexico was exactly what Tornel had feared.
The Mexican Experience
The Mexican experience with the USA since the partition has direct bearing on the relationship between the United States and Mexico today.
Chart 1 presents a chronology of that experience.
Each of the events recorded in chart 1 had profound impact on Mexican citizens and their descendants on both sides of the border.
Here’s what happened:
- Mass immigration during World War I was encouraged in order to meet the agricultural manpower demand created by the US participation in the European war. The need at the time was so great that Anglo agents, with the approval of the US Border Patrol, traveled throughout northern Mexico actively recruiting workers.
- The Great Depression put an end to that demand and mass deportation ensued. Between 1930 and 1940, an estimated 250,000 to 350,000 Mexican workers and their families, many of which included American born children (and therefore American citizens) were deported. The Mexican population in the United States dropped an estimated 40 percent during this ten-year period.
A precedent had been set—Mexicans would be welcome in the USA when their labor was needed and deported when it was not.
- That pattern was repeated on a massive scale during World War II. In 1942 theBracero Treaty to supply Mexican workers for US agriculture was ratified by both governments. By 1964 when the program was officially terminated 4.6 million Mexican citizens had worked under temporary contracts in the States. It should be noted that although the war ended in 1945, the demand for cheap labor from Mexico kept the program alive for another nine years. (For a full account of the Bracero Program see: “Transient Servitude: The US Guest Worker Program for Exploiting Mexican and Central American Workers”.)
- Operation Wetback, which occurred right in the middle of the period covered by the Bracero Program, offers keen insight into ongoing efforts to establish a permanent guest worker program. During 1952 and 1953 when an estimated 1.3 million undocumented immigrants were deported, almost 400,000 Mexican citizens were brought into the country under Bracero contracts, offering a preview of how any new guest worker program will function—jobs in the US will be available to Mexican citizens, but only under terms and conditions dictated by employers and enforced by the government.
- The Border Industrialization Program (BIP) of 1965 was implemented to exploit the labor pool of Mexican workers that had been deported after the termination of the Bracero Program and, unable to find work in the interior, had settled in Mexican border towns. The success of the maquiladora manufacturing system developed under the BIP was the first step in the mass offshoring of US manufacturing jobs to Mexico under NAFTA.
- The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) expanded the maquiladora manufacturing system from the Border Industrial Zone to the entire country. Offshore manufacturing soared under NAFTA. By the year 2000, approximately 1.3 million workers were employed in over 3,000 plants across Mexico. In 2006, 88% of those plants were American owned and were paying an average $2.10 per hour, one-tenth of the average US manufacturing wage according the International Labor Organization. NAFTA plants contribute billions of dollars to the United States economy annually.
- The high demand for Mexican labor in the States and a de facto open border policy that began in the late 1980s and continued through the early years of the 21st century resulted in the largest mass migration of workers and their families in history. It is estimated that almost 10 million migrants from Mexico alone entered the United States to live and work, contributing their share to the economic growth of the period. Of these immigrants, it is estimated that 65% were undocumented. It is these migrants, both documented and undocumented, and their children who are changing the demographic profile of the USA.
- Endgame, the Border Patrol operation to “deport all deportable aliens” by the year 2012 in preparation for a new guest worker program (rebranded “managed migration”) is currently operating under the label Secure Communities. Deportations have continued to escalate in recent years, reaching a high point of over 400,000 in 2012 and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) dragnets continue to disrupt Hispanic communities across the nation.
The question of the day for Mexican Americans and Mexican citizens and their families in the United States and Mexico is whether they face a future of transient servitude and division under a US policy of managed migration or live as free men and women.
The answer lies in looking beyond the border.
Beyond the Border
Map 3 offers a snapshot of the demographic and political situation in the American southwest today.
Hispanic Americans, primarily Mexican Americans and undocumented Mexican citizens living and working in the US are concentrated in the American southwest, the same territory expropriated from the Republic of Mexico by the annexation of Texas and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In many of the major cities of the southwest they already represent a plurality or an absolute majority of the residents and the working population.
The concentration of Hispanics in the southwest is remarkable. The Hispanic population of New Mexico is approaching 50% of the total while in Texas and California it is nearing 40%.
The Los Angeles Hispanic community holds a clear plurality of 48.5%, while in Houston they are close behind with a plurality at 43.8%. The Hispanic population of San Antonio enjoys an absolute majority of 63%.
Beginning in New Mexico and traveling south on the Rio Grande the concentration increases geometrically: the Hispanic proportion of the population of Albuquerque is 46.7%; Las Cruces, 56.8%; El Paso, 80.7%; Del Rio, 84.1%; Eagle Pass, 95.5%; Laredo, 95.6%; McAllen, 84.6%, and Brownsville, 93.2%.
The future looks even brighter—the Hispanic population is the fastest growing demographic group in the United States, accounting for more than half of the nation’s growth in the past decade. This trend is set to continue through 2050.
These Americans and Mexican immigrants, as well as millions of families in Mexico, are cut off from their relatives and communities on the opposite side of the militarized border. Their growing population and the contributions that they have made to the American economy on both sides of the dividing line demand a solution that goes beyond the border.
There is a straightforward political answer to the dilemma—a US-Mexico Free Movement of Citizens (FMC) Agreement which recognizes the right of citizens of Mexico and the United States and their family members to move and reside freely within the territory of the two nations.
Because such an agreement can be put into practice through a memorandum of understanding between the two governments involved, an FMC agreement does not require comprehensive immigration reform on the part of either country.
A US-Mexico FMC Agreement is not unprecedented—since 2004 over 500 million citizens of the European Union have enjoyed the right to move and reside freely within the territory of the 27 member states.
Mexican American citizens and the citizens of Mexico have waited for justice long enough.
NAFTA is by big business and for big business.
So were The Bracero Program and the BIP.
Managed migration schemes are nothing but guest worker programs demanded by big business and for big business.
The US-Mexico FMC Agreement is by the people and for the people!
Here is a draft of the proposed US-Mexico Free Movement of Citizens (FMC) Agreement in downloadable pdf format:
1This heading comes from the memoirs of ex-president Ulysses S. Grant who had been a junior officer in the invasion of Mexico and commander of Union forces in the American Civil War. He categorically condemned both wars: “…both in my estimation [were] unholy”. Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: The Library of America, 1990), 38.
4Grant offered his studied opinion on the conflict; “The Southern Rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.” Grant, 42.