Printable Version

A Controversial War
Digital History ID 553

Author:   Ramon Alcaraz

Annotation: In 1842, the commander of the Pacific squadron of the United States, mistakenly thinking that his country and Mexico had gone to war, invaded California and captured the region's capital at Monterey. He then returned it after discovering that there was no war.

The Mexican War was extremely controversial. Its supporters blamed Mexico for the hostilities because it had severed relations with the United States, threatened war, refused to receive an emissary, and refused to pay damage claims of United States citizens. Opponents denounced the war as an immoral land grab by an expansionist power against a weak neighbor that had been independent barely two decades. The war's critics claimed that Polk had deliberately provoked Mexico by ordering American troops into disputed territory. A senator declared that ordering Taylor to the Rio Grande was "as much an act of aggression on our part as is a man's pointing a pistol at another's breast." Critics argued that the war was an expansionist power play dictated by an aggressive slaveocracy intent on acquiring more land for cotton cultivation and more slave states to better balance against the free states. Others blamed the war on expansion-minded Westerners who were hungry for land and on eastern trading interests who dreamed of establishing a Pacific port in San Francisco to increase trade with Asia.

Although the story of war with Mexico tends to be overshadowed by the Civil War, the conflict had far-reaching consequences. It increased the nation's size by a third and created deep political divisions that threatened the nation's future.

In 1850 a group of Mexican writers offered their perspective on the meaning and significance of the Mexican War.

Document: To explain...the true origin of the war, it is sufficient to say that the insatiable ambition of the United States, favored by our weakness caused it....

The North Americans...desired from the beginning to extend their dominion in such a manner as to become the absolute owners of almost all this continent. In two ways they could accomplish their ruling passion: in one by bringing under their laws and authority all America to the Isthmus of Panama; in another, in opening an overland passage to the Pacific Ocean, and making good harbors to facilitate its navigation....

In the short space of some three quarters of a century events have verified the existence of these schemes and their rapid development. The North American Republic has already absorbed territories pertaining to Great Britain, France, Spain, and Mexico. It has employed every means to accomplish this--purchase as well as usurpation, skill as well as force, and nothing has restrained it when treating of territorial acquisition. Louisiana, the Floridas, Oregon, and Texas have successively fallen into its power....

While the United States seemed to be animated by a sincere desire not to break the peace, their acts of hostility manifested very evidently what were their true intentions. Their ships infested our coasts; their troops continued advancing upon our territory, situated at places which under no aspect could be disputed. Thus violence and insult were united: thus at the very time they usurped part of our territory, they offered to us the hand of treachery, to have soon the audacity to say that our obstinacy and arrogance were the real causes of the war....

Mexico has counted on the assistance, ineffectual, unfortunately, but generous and illustrious of a Clay, an Adams, a Webster, a Gallatin.... Their conduct deserves our thanks, and the authors of this work have a true pleasure in paying...sincere homage of their gratitude....

From the acts referred to, it has been demonstrated to the very senses, that the real and effective cause of this war that afflicted us was the spirit of aggrandizement of the United States of the North, availing itself of its power to conquer us. Impartial history will some day illustrate for ever the conduct observed by this Republic against all laws, divine and human, in an age that is called one of light, and which is, notwithstanding, the same as the former--one of force and violence.

Source: Ramon Alcaraz et al., eds. The Other Side: Or Notes for the History of the War Between Mexico and the United States (New York: 1850), 2-3, 30-32.

Copyright 2021 Digital History