Friday, February 1, 2008

The Mexican-American War and the Reconquista Movement

By Ned Barnett - (c) 2008

Note - On April 6, 2008, I added a section discussing the so-called "reconquista" and it's historical precedents and the claims of its adherents. This is included as an addendum at the end of this article.

I recently had the opportunity to contribute to an article on the Mexican American War, one that became the basis of a fascinating quiz. You can check that quiz (and the article) out at:

As you review the answers, you'll note that a fair number of the "approved answers" (but not all, by any means) seem to reflect current Mexican sensibilities - a few of these are worth noting:

1. Although Polk was eager for a variety of reasons to launch the war, this war was not triggered solely by the US. Among other factors, the Mexican dictator Santa Anna (whose biography is a fascinating blend of popular elections and dictatorial power-grabs) was still smarting over Texas independence. As the President and General-in-Chief who lost Texas to the Texicans, Santa Anna was loathe to admit that the border between Texas and Mexico might be at the Rio Grande, as the successful Texicans claimed, rather than 100 miles farther north as he liked to claim. The article maintains that there was no justification for the Rio Grande border, but that just isn't accurate. The source who claimed that the Texicans had no justifcation for claiming the Rio Grande as their southern border has clearly not studied the war of Texas Independence, which included battles fought along the Rio Grande (and below that line, in what was and is indisputably Mexican territory). That fertile lowland flood-plain was sparsely settled by both sides, and ownership was - at best - clearly open to debate, and more likely firmly drawn and claimed by the successful Texicans under Sam Houston.

2. Despite what one source cited in the article - Sister Maria Eva Flores, director of the Mexican American Studies Center at Our Lake of the Lake University - said, Mexican nationals of Spanish descent were not dispossessed of their land by the outcome of the war. The US had a long tradition (dating from the Louisiana Purchase and the acquisition of Florida from Spain) of honoring land grants made prior to the US acquisition of new territory, and this tradition (and law) was honored both by Texas (when it won independence from Mexico - and freedom from Santa Anna's dictatorship) and by the US after the Mexican-American war. Many of those Spanish landowners (and their families) went on to become wealthy and politically-powerful leaders of society in Texas, in California and elsewhere in former Mexican territory. I am sure that some felt that they'd "lost their country;" however, at that time, Mexico had held independence for barely two decades, and the country (as a country) was still in flux - still in the process of coming together as a nation-state. There was relatively little of what we'd now consider "nationalism" - and a great deal of prejudice and racism ("Spanish" settlers often felt they had more in common with European-Americans than with Indio and Mestizo citizens of Mexico).

3. This war was, to a great degree, about African chattel slavery and the Cotton South. The Deep South was painfully aware that, as the number of free states increased, they ran the risk of being out-voted in the U.S. Senate - and they saw the Senate as the bulwark which protected their "peculiar institution." To Southerners (and President Polk was from Tennessee - General Winfield Scott was a Virginian and General Zachary Taylor was a slave-holder from Louisiana), conquests to the south was a way of ensuring the survival of the Southern Slavocracy. There were other reasons, to be sure, but that was an important reason for the war.

4. California was less of a reason than the article suggested. California was largely settled by US citizens, and had already begun making moves toward becoming - as Texas had done - an independent country, free of Mexican overlordship. Polk knew this - and while some (mostly Hispanic) revisionist historians contend that the war was really about the take-over of the port of San Francisco, I am convinced that the war was really about Texas and the vast expanse of land between Texas and California - territory South and West of the Louisiana Purchase, land that included New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. Some (primarily Southerners) wanted to annex some or all of Mexico below the Rio Grande (General Scott proposed taking it all), but cooler and wiser heads prevailed.

5. The article is right that the US bought the lands it took over. What the article doesn't mention is that Santa Anna - cash-strapped and greedy as ever - actually initiated at least one of the purchases (the Gadsden Purchase, which added to Arizona's southern-most territories), concluded in 1853. He came to us with the offer; and, when the Mexican War was finished, he was no "reluctant virgin" at the negotiating table - he drove a hard bargain for the lands the US acquired, and got top dollar for those lands, and he worked hard to keep the US at the bargaining table until he'd sold off what he considered worthless Indian lands, uninhabitable by whites - which is how most educated people in 1848 viewed most of New Mexico and virtually all of Arizona, Nevada and Utah. Based on what the U.S. had paid Napoleon for the Louisiana Purchase (i.e., all the lands watered by the Mississippi and Missouri basins) and what the U.S. later paid to the Czar for Alaska (Seward's Folly), Santa Anna did indeed drive a hard bargain, in 1848 and again in 1853. The very fact that he brought the U.S. back to the negotiating table in '53 to buy the Gadsden land-strip suggests that he was far from reluctant to sell off "worthless" lands for gold American dollars. That doesn't make Santa Anna - or the Mexico he ruled - a "victim" of "Yankee Imperialism," and it tends to put the lie to those who advocate some kind of divine right to Reconquista.

6. The article implies that, late in his life, President Grant called the war unjust - he indeed did call it unjust in his autobiography - finished barely days before he died of throat cancer - but he also called it unjust DURING the war, and repeatedly did so for the rest of his life. A patriot and soldier, he did his duty in that war (heroically, winning medals and promotion for personal bravery while under fire), but he had his own views about the justice of that war. In this he was joined by others - including a young Robert E. Lee (chief engineering officer to General Scott) - as well as yet other American soldiers who went on to become generals on both sides in the civil war. In fact, as the article pointed out correctly, most American Civil War generals on both sides earned their combat spurs in the Mexican American war.

All in all, a fascinating article/quiz, throwing light on a little-known aspect of American history - one that, with our current border problems, is apparently becoming more relevant than it's been for the past 150 years.

ADDENDA - The Reconquista - based on a myth, debunked by facts

Reconquista is based on a false premise - that Texas, California and the lands in the American Southwest were taken at gunpoint from a reluctant Mexico.

That's not the case, and a careful review of the history of the Texas War of Independence, the California independence movement and the Mexican-American war demonstrates that these lands were transferred either in wars of independence (which must be seen as legitimate by Mexicans, as that's how they won their independence twice -first from Spain and later from France's puppet, Maximillian I) or by purchase at what had to be above fair market value.

Historically speaking, here are a few key points to remember:

1. After Texas became a U.S. State, Mexico asserted a claim that the border with Texas was the Neuces River, 150 miles north of the Rio Grande - however, ever since Santa Anna granted Texas its independence in 1836, the Rio Grando had been the recognized and de facto border between Mexico and Texas.

2. Though some political elements in the U.S. were clearly in favor of war, Mexico actually initiated hostilities on April 24, 1846 when it attacked a U.S. Army cavalry patrol in disputed territory, killing 11 American soldiers; then attacked again on May 4, when it began the bombardment of Fort Texas near what is now Brownsville.

3. At the conclusion of the war, Santa Anna was not forced at gunpoint to cede or sell lands - in fact, the cash-strapped dictator consciously and intentionally extended the negotiations until he got top dollar for lands he considered to be worthless desert good only for indigenous hunter-gatherer Native Americans.

4. Five years later, Santa Anna initiated sales negotiations and ultimately sold further Mexican lands to the U.S. (the Gadsden Purchase), lands identified as potentially useful for a future Southern transcontinental railroad. Santa Anna was again cash-strapped and saw selling more worthless desert to the U.S. as a way out of his financial problems.

5. Land sold to the U.S. by Mexico in 1848 involved 500,000 square miles - an area smaller than either Louisiana (828,000 square miles) or Alaska (586,412 square miles) - yet the price paid for previously Mexican territory was more than twice than that paid for Alaska and roughly the same paid for the much larger and more valuable Louisiana.

Santa Anna indeed struck a hard bargain and the U.S. paid more than top dollar for the lands ceded by Mexico after the war. Santa Anna got the same dollar value as had Napoleon for Louisiana - for a largely unpopulated desert area 350,000 square miles smaller than resource-rich Louisiana, the purchase of which more than doubled the size of the United States. More to the point, while Napoleon sold the U.S. well-watered, game-rich land thought ideal for farming and ranching, Santa Anna sold the U.S. barren desert lands thought useful only for connecting - as an unpopulated, inhospitable land bridge - the Atlantic-focused United States with potentially-valuable Pacific Coast ports south of the Columbia River.

Making the other comparison clear, Alaska was nearly 20% larger - at 586,412 square miles - than the 500,000 square miles of land Santa Anna sold to the U.S. Though called Seward's Folly in 1867, and although those Alaskan lands netted the Czar less than half of what Santa Anna received, frozen but resource-rich Alaska was nonetheless deemed more valuable - if only for its timber, fish and game, than the land Santa Anna sold to the U.S.

Compared to both precedents, Santa Anna got one hell of a deal for somebody now claimed to have "no choices." Beyond that, the Gadsden Purchase six years later pretty much nails it that Santa Anna saw land-sales to the U.S. as a reliable way of digging himself out of financial crises - not something forced on him, but a viable option in financially-troubled times.

6. Here's a fact usually ignored or glossed over by reconquistadores. Neither California nor Texas were part of Mexico during the Mexican-American War. California declared its independence on June 15, 1846, several weeks before the start of the Mexican American War - two full years before the U.S. successfully concluded the war with Mexico and began land negotiations with Santa Anna. While this fact was acknowledged in the treaty ending the war, the fact of California's independence had long-since been established - by Californians - before a formal declaration of war between the U.S. and Mexico.

In this, California was no different from Texas, which had taken its independence from Mexico ten years earlier, in 1836. In fact, this was no different than Mexico's independence from Spain in 1823 or its later independence from France's puppet, Maximillian I. If it's OK for Mexico to achieve nation-statehood via declarations of independence, surely this same principle applies to independent Texas and California - sovereign states that only later decided to become part of the United States.

Bottom line - this land transaction now objected to by the reconquista movement was in accord with common practice in the mid-1800s - it had both precedent and antecedents. The price paid for what everybody conceded was conventionally worthless, largely-unwatered desert land - was well above fair market value. This land transaction - though it followed a war - was not negotiated at gun-point - otherwise why did the U.S. pay so much for land-grants smaller than either Louisiana or Alaska?

Further, this transaction wasn't negotiated reluctantly by Santa Anna - as demonstrated by the later Gadsden Purchase, which he initiated.

Finally, despite revisionist reconquista "historians," neither California nor Texas were part of this land-exchange - both had become independent nations prior to joining the U.S., and prior to the Mexican-American War.

Together, that pretty much puts paid to the politically-popular but factually-incorrect claims of the Reconquistadores.