[It is] the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment in liberty and federative self-government entrusted to us. -- John L. O'Sullivan, New York Editor, 1845
Every great fortune, it is said, is the fruit of some great crime. Was America's tearing away of the Southwest and California from Mexico such a crime, an act of imperial aggression? Was our war with Mexico the "most unjust war in history", as Ulysses S. Grant, a veteran of that war, described it? Among the Blame America First precincts today, and south of the Rio Grande, this belief is widespread. But to see the critical distinction between naked aggression and Manifest Destiny, we must review the history of 1835-48, when the United States doubled in size to reach the Pacific.
As far back as the early 1820s, Americans setting out for the West began to take up an offer from a newly independent Mexico to settle in Texas. By 1835 more than thirty thousand Americans lived in Texas, where they outnumbered the Mexican population ten to one. Among them were adventurers like Jim Bowie, inventor of the eighteen-inch knife they called the "genuine Arkansas toothpick", Davy Crockett, frontiersman and former congressman from Tennessee, and Sam Houston. On March 27, 1814, Ensign Houston had been first to leap the Creek barricades at Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa, where eight hundred braves had fought to the death. Houston's commander at Horseshoe Bend had been Andrew Jackson.
Allowed to enter Texas on the condition that they become Mexican citizens and Catholic converts, these settlers still thought of themselves as Americans and chafed at the demand that they give up their U.S. citizenship and convert to an alien faith. After a series of revolutions in Mexico City thrust into power the brutal and corrupt General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who set aside Mexico's liberal constitution and began to repress the Texans, even moderates like Stephen Austin, son of Moses Austin who had been invited in by Mexico to settle Texas, thought it time to declare independence. In 1835 the Texans rose in rebellion and chased the weak Mexican army garrisons over the Rio Grande.
But the Mexican dictator was determined not to lose his province. Leading 7,000 troops, Santa Anna crossed the Rio Grande and encountered 180 defiant Texans holed up at Alamo mission. Crockett and Bowie were among the defenders. For twelve days the Texans held off Santa Anna's army. When the frustrated and enraged Mexicans finally over-ran the mission, they put every last man and boy to the sword. Moving east, Santa Anna encountered another band of Texans at Goliad. Outnumbered ten to one, these Texans surrendered.
In violation of the surrender terms, the Mexicans roused the prisoners from their sleep, marched them a short distance from the town, and shot them in cold blood on Sunday morning, March 27. Like the slaughter at the Alamo, the massacre at Goliad sent aroused volunteers flocking to join Houston's army.1 "Exterminate to the Sabine!" was the war cry of Santa Anna's army as it continued east. For thirty-eight days, Houston's small force retreated. At the juncture of Buffalo Bayou and San Jacinto River, Houston halted, wheeled and surprised the Mexicans at their siesta. With cries of "Remember the Alamo!", "Remember Goliad!" and "Death to Santa Anna!" the Texans stormed the Mexican camp, slaughtered six hundred soldiers, and captured seven hundred. Santa Anna was discovered cowering in the grass, disguised as a common soldier.
The Texans wanted vengeance, but Houston knew the prize he had. On May 14, 1836, the quaking Mexican leader was coerced into signing two treaties. The first declared an end to the fighting and called for a Mexican withdrawal; the second, which was secret, recognized the Texas republic, with its border on the Rio Grande. Texas was an independent nation. But no sooner had Santa Anna been turned loose and sent home than he repudiated what he had signed.
Do We Really WantTexas?
Texas was now free, but its situation was precarious. Unrecognized by a brooding Mexico with a population two hundred times as great, the Lone Star Republic sought the protection of the Eagle; Houston wanted immediate U.S. annexation and statehood.
Jackson was hesitant, for, inevitably, the dreaded slavery issue had reared its head. In the clamor for statehood, northern abolitionists saw a plot by slave states to increase their power in Congress. William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator, dipped his quill pen in abolitionist acid:
Texas is the rendezvous of absconding villainy, desperate adventure, and lawless ruffianism - the ark of safety to swindlers, gamblers, robbers, and rogues of every size and degree. Its distinguishing characteristic is unmitigated depravity. Nothing homogeneous is found among its population, except a disposition to extend and perpetuate the most frightful form of servitude the world has ever known, and to add crime to crime.
Fearful that annexation would divide his party and defeat his heir, Vice President Van Buren, and perhaps even ignite a war with Mexico, Jackson proceeded with caution. Not until his last day in office, a year after San Jacinto, and only after both houses of Congress had voted to recognize Texas, did he recognize the independence of Texas.
Texas was now Van Buren's problem. Yet no sooner had he taken office than the Panic of 1837 struck, the result of the economic turmoil following Jackson's war with Nicholas Biddle's Bank of the United States. The Philadelphia banker had foolishly challenged Jackson in terms certain to arouse the old warrior: "This worthy President", Biddle had boasted, "thinks that because he has scalped Indians and imprisoned judges, he is to have his own way with the Bank. He is mistaken." Biddle misread his man. "It is trying to kill me, but I will kill it", Jackson told friends of Biddle's bank. Inaugurated for a second term, the President yanked all government deposits out of the BUS, persuaded Congress not to renew its charter, and effectively starved it to death. He then put the government deposits into state-chartered banks, derided by foes as "pet banks." Less responsible than the BUS, these banks began multiplying the number of bank notes in circulation. Money expanded by 50 percent, creating a speculative boom in land and stocks. The boom of 1835-36 began the Panic of 1837, inherited by the luckless Van Buren.
His plate full, Van Buren put Texas on the back burner. When the Texans petitioned again for statehood, "the Little Magician" brushed them aside. Spurned again, Houston withdrew the offer, and, still fearful of Mexico's dictator, began to court Great Britain. The British Parliament was receptive. An independent Texas would block America's westward expansion. British merchants were enthusiastic, too. If the Texans could be persuaded to embrace free trade, British goods could enter Texas duty-free and be easily transported to the southern and western United States, undercutting Yankee manufactures. Texas could also become a source of Britain's cotton and a magnet to lure the free-trade South away from the high-tariff North. The American South could be converted into a virtual colony of the Empire.
In an independent Texan Republic, Britain and France thus saw a means to divide the upstart Americans and establish a bulwark against Yankee expansionism. Both recognized the Lone Star Republic. So the situation simmered.
Tyler's Dream,Adams' Threat
Eight years after San Jacinto, a worried John Tyler sat brooding in the Executive Mansion, a President without a party. Tyler, a Calhoun Democrat, had been put on the Whig ticket in 1840 to win Southern Democrats to William Henry Harrison. "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too" had carried the nation, and Tyler took office when the sixty-nine year-old Harrison, a month after being sworn in, succumbed to pneumonia contracted during a two-hour inaugural speech he made in the cold, without wearing an overcoat.
"His Accidency" needed an issue to win the presidency in his own right in 1844, and thought he had found it in the annexation of Texas with its appeal to a South that saw in the Lone Star Republic a new slave state - and indeed the possibility Texas might be broken up into as many as five new slave states with ten senators. John Quincy Adams, the country's sixth president, now serving in the House, saw the same possibility, only he saw it as a threat to the Union. Adams issued a warning:
We hesitate not to say that annexation. . . WOULD BE IDENTICAL WITH DISSOLUTION. It would be a violation of our national compact . . . so deep and fundamental . . . as, in our opinion, not only inevitably to result in a dissolution of the Union, but fully to justify it.
Adams was threatening secession, and, again, Americans began to talk of disunion. In 1814 New England Federalists had threatened to secede over "Mr. Madison's War." In 1820 there had been rumbles of secession if Missouri were allowed into the Union, giving the slave states a two-vote margin in the Senate. Even the aging Jefferson had heard a "fire bell in the night." In 1832 Calhoun's South Carolinians were ready to secede over the "tariff of abominations." Now, Tyler's proposed annexation of Texas was threatening to break apart the nation.
But Tyler was determined to go ahead. His agents assured Texans that if they would request annexation again, two-thirds of the Senate would vote to take Texas in. Relying on his assurances, Texans swallowed their pride and for the third time requested admission.
Calhoun Returns to the Cabinet
Fate intervened to kill Tyler's dream. Captain Robert F. Stockton had persuaded Congress to build the Princeton, a revolutionary frigate designed by the Swedish engineer John Ericsson, inventor of the screw propeller. Princeton carried two revolutionary, smooth-bore, twelve-inch wrought-iron guns. One, brought from England by Ericsson, was called "Oregon"; the other, designed by Stockton, cast in an American foundry, was "Peacemaker." Both had been tested, but on a gala cruise down the Potomac, "Peacemaker" exploded, killing Secretary of State Abel Upshur, who had been handling the Texas negotiations. For Tyler the tragedy was not unmitigated. The blast that killed Upshur, the secretary of the navy and a state senator, also delivered into Tyler's arms the senator's daughter, Julia Gardiner, whom the President proceeded to make the second Mrs. Tyler and mistress of the Executive Mansion.
Upshur's post was now offered to Calhoun, who, seeing himself as Tyler's successor, quickly accepted. Believing that statehood for Texas was a foregone conclusion, the Senate unanimously approved Calhoun's nomination, assuming his role was to negotiate a favorable settlement with the British over Oregon. But success required a subtlety of which Calhoun proved incapable. To Northerners and Westerners, the annexation of Texas was an appealing way to frustrate Britain's anti-U.S, policy. To Calhoun, annexation meant added political weight for the South. Unfortunately, Calhoun immediately conflated the Texas issue with slavery.
The British had long been working to abolish slavery in Texas. In Old Hickory's eyes, England's motives were not altruistic, but the darkest - to destabilize his beloved Union: "Would not . . . our slaves in the great valley of the Mississippi [be] worth nothing, because they would all run over to Texas, and under British influence, liberated, and lost to their owners!" Calhoun agreed. And when the new secretary of state received a note from British Minister Richard Pakenham, he used his reply to instruct the envoy. Slavery, wrote Calhoun, was being misrepresented. It was not an institution of brutality and force, but of piety and love that benefited master and slave alike. Moreover, the U.S. government was obliged to defend the institution, would do so, and intended to annex Texas to keep Britain from undertaking, via diplomacy, to free its slaves.
Calhoun's letter quickly found its way into the press, and North and West were suddenly arrayed against the South - over Texas. In a thundering oration to the young men of Boston, John Quincy Adams came close to calling for a civil war of emancipation:
Your trial is approaching. The spirit of freedom and the spirit of slavery are drawing together for the deadly conflict of arms. The annexation of Texas to this union is the blast of the trumpet for a foreign, civil, servile, and Indian war, of which the government of your country, fallen into faithless hands, have already twice given the signal - first by a shameless treaty, rejected by a virtuous senate; and again by the glove of defiance, hurled by the apostle of nullification, at the avowed policy of the British empire peacefully to promote the extinction of slavery throughout the world. Young men of Boston: burnish your armor, prepare for the conflict, and I say to you, in the language of Calgacus to the ancient Britons, think of your forefathers! Think of your posterity! Tyler's treaty went down to crushing defeat. With a two-thirds Senate vote needed for approval, the annexation of Texas was rejected, 35 to 16.
The Dark Horse
Jackson was sick: "I fear Texas is gone from us and in the embrace of England. Houston has been most cruelly treated." He poured out his contempt on "those craven hearted Senators, Traitors to the best interests of our country, and to our Glorious Union. . . . [Must we now] go to war with England and France, to gain Texas, offered to us in peace and honorable terms, [and] rejected for political effect[?]" Old Hickory saw in British maneuvers a violation of the Monroe Doctrine. Britain was seeking a protectorate in Texas, Jackson believed, a satellite nation set down in the path of his Union.
As the election of 1844 approached, the divisions grew bitter and deep. Dixie "fire-eaters" demanded "Texas or disunion!" Texas was "the all absorbing question, stronger even than the presidential", said Calhoun. "If lost now, it will be forever lost; and, if that, the South will be lost."
Jackson had written off Henry Clay, the probable Whig candidate, as "a dead political Duck!" when he learned Clay was opposed to annexation. Then, Jackson was handed a letter written by his successor. Angling to return to the White House, Van Buren, the front-runner for his party's nomination, had joined Clay in opposition to annexation to remove the divisive issue from the election. Certain his old friend and protege would ride the Texas issue back to the White House, Jackson could not believe what he was reading. "It's a forgery", he raged, "Mr. Van Buren never wrote such a letter." Sadly, Mr. Van Buren had.
Worse still, the man from Kinderhook refused to change his position. Jackson wrote to Francis P. Blair, editor of the Globe, which had published the Van Buren letter:
I am quite sick really, and have been ever since I read V.B. letter . . . . Texas [is] . . . the . . . key to our future safety. . . . We cannot bear that Great Britain should have a Canedy on our west as she has on the north. . . . Some good democrat must be selected with Polk [as Vice President]. . . . Can Wright be brought out and will he pledge himself, will Woodbury, or Buchannan [sic]?
By now, James K. Polk's supporters were calling regularly at the Hermitage, and the fellow Tennessean had pledged to conduct a campaign on the issues dearest to Jackson's heart: annexation of Texas and the settlement of the Oregon boundary dispute in favor of the United States.
As the Baltimore convention opened, Van Buren had a majority, but Senator Robert J. Walker of Mississippi pushed through a rule requiring support of two-thirds of the delegates for nomination. The hurdle proved too high for the Little Magician. The convention deadlocked and history's first "dark horse" candidate emerged. Back-room kingmakers stitched together a ticket of Polk and George Dallas of Pennsylvania. The convention chant began: "Polk and Dallas! Texas and Oregon!"
Polk carried the convention and, narrowly, the election. But from November 1844 to March 1845, Tyler was still president and determined to annex Texas to secure his place in history. The British, meanwhile, worked feverishly to create the satellite state of Jackson's fears. Lord Aberdeen, the foreign secretary, hatched a plan to have Britain, France and Mexico sign a treaty guaranteeing the independence of Texas; but France was fearful of offending the United States, and Mexico dithered. "You always do everything too late", an exasperated Aberdeen told the Mexican minister.
Unable to win a two-thirds vote for a treaty, Tyler settled for a joint resolution of Congress by simple majorities in each house. Annexation passed in Tyler's final hours as president.
Jackson had been right. An independent free-trade Texas, supported by Britain and France, would have blocked America's expansion to the Pacific, lured the Southern states away from the North, and been in endless conflict with the Union over smuggled goods, fugitive slaves, and tariff-free imports. "Let us take [Texas] now", the old general thundered, "and lock the door against future danger." America did.
Jackson's life work was now over. As he wrote a friend, "I have the pleasure to inform you that Polk and Dallas are elected and the Republic is safe. . . . I am now like Simeon of old having seen my country safe, I am prepared to depart in peace. . . . I await with resignation the call of my God." On June 8, 1845, the call came.
Polk's Patience Runs Out
Texas now belonged to us. But Polk s ambitions did not end at the Rio Grande. His eyes were on California. To negotiate its purchase and resolve a dispute over the Texas border, Polk authorized an envoy, John Slidell, to go to Mexico City. Mexico insisted that Texas' border was the Nueces River; the Texans held it to be 120 miles further south, at the Rio Grande. The disputed territory was immense, amounting to scores of thousands of square miles. When Slidell's mission became public, however, he was rudely treated by the Mexican government and denounced by a fiercely nationalist Mexican press. "Be assured", Slidell wrote back to Polk, "nothing is to be done with these people until they shall have been chastised." Polk had reached the same conclusion.
When revolution erupted in Mexico, vaulting to power a faction that spoiled for a fight with the United States, Polk decided to settle the boundary dispute - if necessary by force. He ordered Brigadier General Zachary Taylor to the Rio Grande. "Old Rough and Ready" marched to the river and built a fort overlooking Matamoros. On April 11, 1846, Mexican General Pedro Ampudia arrived on the opposite bank with three thousand troops and demanded Taylor's withdrawal. Taylor responded by blockading the river. Hotheads in Mexico City were clamoring for an invasion to recapture Texas and the minister of war had predicted his army would have an easy time of it, as the force would face only "some miserable colonists, a few hundred adventurers, and a handful of speculators from New Orleans and New York."
At a May 9 cabinet meeting Polk discussed a declaration of war on Mexico for defaulting on its debts and its treatment of the Slidell mission. Secretary of State Buchanan, an ardent expansionist along with the rest of the cabinet, was not averse to war, but wanted to maneuver Mexico into firing the first shot. That night, word came from Taylor that on April 25, Mexican troops had crossed the Rio Grande and fired on his men, killing sixteen. Two days before, Mexico's president had declared a "defensive war" on the United States. His cabinet now united, Polk drafted a war message and sent it to Congress on May 11. What he wrote was not a wholly objective rendering of recent events:
The cup of forbearance had been exhausted even before the recent information from the frontier. . . . But now, after reiterated menaces, Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil. She has proclaimed that hostilities have commenced, and that the two nations are now at war.
News of the U.S. casualties inflamed Congress, and Polk's declaration was cheered through the House, 174-14. The Senate vote was 40-2. "Destiny beckons us to hold and civilize Mexico", said Buchanan.
Begun with patriotic passion, the Mexican War would come to be denounced as Jimmy Polk's War by Whigs and abolitionists who saw in it a plot to expand the slave states. One congressman called it "unholy, unrighteous, and damnable." Were he a Mexican, said Ohio Senator Corwin, he would say to Americans: "Have you not room in your own country to bury your dead men? If you come into mine, we will greet you with bloody hands; and welcome you to hospitable graves."
In 1847 a newly elected congressman from Illinois introduced what came to be known as the "spot" resolution, demanding to know the exact spot on which Americans had been fired upon. Representative Abraham Lincoln's "spot" was not for certain on "American soil", as Polk claimed; it was on the U.S.-claimed territory that was in dispute. But if the U.S. Army was on disputed land, so was the Mexican army; and the Mexicans had fired first and drawn first blood. The truth: Polk was determined to hold Texas to the Rio Grande and keep California out of the clutches of the British, even at the price of war.
Mexico, with an army five times the size of the U.S. Army, and a press even more bellicose, had gravely miscalculated. It assumed that Polk's desire for negotiations meant the Americans were afraid to fight. The British press encouraged Mexico in its hubris. As "an aggressive power", sniffed the weekly Britannia, America "is one of the weakest in the world . . . fit for nothing but to fight Indians." The Times of London echoed the contempt: "The invasion and conquest of a vast region by a State which is without an army and without credit, is a novelty in the history of nations."
That Polk desired a peaceful resolution of the conflict is evident from his acceptance of a plea from President Santa Anna, who had been impeached and banished to Cuba. The "Butcher of the Alamo" asked to be allowed to return to Mexico to negotiate a settlement. Polk ordered the scoundrel passed through the U.S. blockade. Yet once: home, Santa Anna rallied to the Mexican cause and called for the expulsion of the Americans.
Polk finally concluded that to end the conflict, the United States would have to seize all disputed territory and dictate terms. Tasked accordingly, Taylor's army pushed deep into northern Mexico where it routed Santa Anna's army at Buena Vista in "a splendid picture-book battle on a sun-soaked plain" where Taylor's son-in-law, one Colonel Jefferson Davis, distinguished himself by breaking up a Mexican cavalry charge.2 Colonel Stephen Kearny moved out of Fort Leavenworth, captured Santa Fe and drove west to San Diego and Los Angeles. Commodore J.D. Sloat had already occupied Monterey and declared California part of the United States. Sloat acted on secret orders from the secretary of the navy to strike instantly if he heard "with certainty" war had broken out.
Polk now held all the land he wanted, but the Mexicans were still full of fight. The President determined to end the war by occupying the enemy capital. An army under Major General Winfield Scott was sent by ship to Veracruz, where it seized the city in three days and took the road trod three centuries before by Cortes. In a brilliant feat of generalship, Scott fought his way, six battles in five months, to the Mexican capital. Among his officers were Captains Robert E. Lee and George B. McClellan, and Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant. Now, for the first time in history, the Stars and Stripes flew over a foreign capital.
Traveling with Scott was Nicholas P. Trist, chief clerk of the State Department, whom Polk had authorized to negotiate. Trist was now writing himself a page in history. Though orders had been sent recalling him, Trist ignored them and returned with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which transferred to the United States all of Texas and the northern half of Mexico - l.2 million square miles, including California. Mexico's debts up to $3.25 million were to be taken over by the United States and the Mexican government was to be paid an additional $15 million.
Polk accepted. On February 21, 1848, the day that Trist's treaty arrived at the Senate, John Quincy Adams, who had served his nation for five decades, suffered a paralytic stroke in the House chamber. The voice of the "Old Roman" was never to be heard again.
Suspicious, jealous of rivals, and not given to sharing credit, Polk fired poor Trist and replaced Scott with a Democratic major general. But the Senate approved what was now Polk's treaty 38-14, and the Mexican War was history. Polk had enlarged U.S. territory by an area as great as had been acquired by the Louisiana Purchase, but some Americans expressed disappointment that he had not annexed Mexico in its entirety. They were wrong. Manifest Destiny was never about imposing American rule on alien peoples; it was about extending the frontiers of American liberty and freedom.
Even as he was going to war, Polk was negotiating a settlement with Britain of the Oregon Territory that extended from the northern boundary of today's California to the southern tip of Alaska, from the Rockies to the Pacific, an immense tract equal in size to Great Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Austria, Holland and Belgium combined. The British agreed to split the land at the 49th parallel.
Thus did James Polk give his country clear title to Texas, virtually all of New Mexico and Arizona, Nevada, California, Oregon, Idaho and Washington, and vast tracts of Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. He had pledged to serve one term and kept his word. In four years Polk had done all that he had promised to Old Hickory.
"My . . . great labor has exceedingly exhausted me", the small and sad-faced man wrote in his diary in his last year in office. Pledges fulfilled, his nation almost doubled in size, the "last man of yesterday" went home to Tennessee in March 1849 and, within a hundred days, Young Hickory was dead - the most underrated president in American history. Imperialism or Manifest Destiny?
Again, then, the questions: Were Texas, the Southwest and California the fruits of a great crime? Was the Mexican War a war of aggression against a weak, vulnerable neighbor? Was it "the most unjust war in history"? The answer to all three is no.
Texas had won its independence honorably in 1836 in a struggle for freedom from a brutal dictatorship. The Texas rebellion was as legitimate as the Mexican revolution of 1821. Americans in Texas outnumbered the Mexicans ten to one in 1835, and had a right to declare independence of a distant tyranny and create a government of their own choosing. While the United States had hardly been neutral in Texas' war of independence, these were, after all, Americans fighting Mexicans.
Moreover, the United States waited nine years before acceding to Houston's entreaties for annexation. Not once in those years had Mexico made a serious attempt to recapture its lost province. By 1845 an independent Texas had been recognized by the United States, Britain and France, and Mexico's rights there were no greater than British rights in Virginia in 1789. As an independent republic, Texas had the right to determine its own destiny and America a right to accept its plea to enter a union of free and independent states.
The Mexican War had not been started by U.S. soldiers on Mexican soil, but by Mexican soldiers on disputed land that Santa Anna had signed away to the Texans. Mexicans had fired the first shots and inflicted the first casualties. Assuming that Polk's desire for negotiations meant he would shrink from war, Mexico underestimated him and the fighting spirit of the U.S. Army. As has often proven true, it is not the size of the dog in the fight, it is the size of the fight in the dog. The Mexicans belatedly came to appreciate Tocqueville's insight: "The truth is well understood in the United States as anywhere else: the Americans are already able to make their flag respected; in a few years they will make it feared."
As for the hoary claim, widely believed at the time, that Texas' war of independence and its annexation were part of some "slaveholders' plot", historians have found little evidence to substantiate this charge. Adams, who raged that annexation was grounds for secession, had himself sought to purchase Texas in 1825. Most Americans wanted Texas for the same reason they had wanted Florida, Louisiana, the Southwest, California and Oregon - to expand to the continental limits.
Annexation of Texas, the Southwest and California was Manifest Destiny, not imperialism. These lands were contiguous and largely empty. Indeed, most Americans recoiled at the idea of colonizing Mexico or making Mexicans a subject people. Warned Calhoun, "Mexico is to us the forbidden fruit; the penalty of eating it would be to subject our institutions to political death."
Out of the vast open territory taken from Mexico would be created seven states. Each would enter the Union with the same rights as the original thirteen. Every citizen of those states, including those of Spanish heritage and Mexican descent, would become a full citizen of the United States. Spanish loyalists in California, who had rebelled against Mexican governors sent north, preferred Americans as overlords. Indian tribes like: the Pueblos rejoiced that they now had Americans, rather than indifferent Mexicans, to defend them from roving Apaches. The Mexican War was an historic inevitability. Two emerging countries collided along a disputed frontier, and the stronger prevailed.
Was Washington's admonition against foreign wars violated by the Mexican War? The opposite is true. Texas was on our continent, its annexation as natural an acquisition for an expanding United States as the taking of the Northwest Territory, the Louisiana Purchase and the accession of Florida. In contrast, both Clay and Calhoun opposed any intervention in Europe, when revolutions shook every throne on the continent during the last year of the Mexican War. Said Clay:
Far better is it for ourselves . . . and for the cause of liberty, that, adhering to our wise, pacific system, and avoiding the distant wars of Europe, we should keep our lamp burning brightly on this western shore as a light to all nations, than to hazard its utter extinction amid the ruins of fallen or falling republics in Europe.
Calhoun called for a "masterly inactivity" toward Europe: "If we remain quiet . . . and let our destinies work out their own results, we shall do more for liberty, not only for ourselves but for the example of mankind, than can be done by a thousand victories." And so it was that those warriors of Manifest Destiny, Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk, remained true to the teachings of Washington.
1 Alexander DeConde, A History of American Foreign Policy (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1963), p. 183.
2 Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager, The Growth of the American Republic, vol. 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), pp. 601-2.
Patrick J. Buchanan is a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. This piece is excerpted from his forthcoming book, A Republic, Not An Empire: Reclaiming America's Destiny (Regnery).Essay Types: Essay