Origins of the War

The origins of the war can be debated endlessly, although most will affirm that the majority of the fault lies with The United States and its expansionistic tendencies. Manifest destiny was a popular doctrine that had been circulating in the US for some time. It involved the belief that Americans had a divine right to bring the western hemisphere under their influence because of their superior level of industry and culture. The western hemisphere was their domain, to be controlled by the US for the well being of all involved. Indeed, before and throughout the duration of the war there were some that actively advocated the annexation of all of Mexico, in the belief that Mexicans could never govern themselves for their own good. Although this philosophy never eventuated, it highlights the sheer arrogance of the American ethos is the attitude to the Mexicans.

Manifest destiny was further encouraged with the election of Polk prior to the war. Polk was a confirmed expansionist; he was elected on the platform of bringing both Oregon and Texas into the union. He asserted that he received a mandate from the electorate, all be it by a small margin, to proceed with his antagonizing of the Mexicans. It was certainly Polk who initiated the commencement of the war, at least in terms of actual confrontation. Polk sent a contingent of American troops under the command of General Zachary Taylor into the now annexed Texas to guarantee its sovereignty. When Polk ordered Taylor into the disputed Rio Grande area, he effectively insured a war by stationing American troops on what the Mexicans held to their sovereign territory. Polk further encouraged the Mexicans to commence open conflict by leaving Taylor with precious few men in the face of a significantly larger Mexican force, inciting the Mexicans to try their hand against the Americans. It is commonly assumed that the Mexicans actually fired the first shot of the war by ambushing an American patrol in the Rio Grande area, although it is unknown as to whether this occurred on the Mexican or American side of the border. Although this directs guilt towards the Mexicans, they were left with little option other than to retaliate against the Americans for the border intrusions.

The origin of this border dispute that lead to the commencement of the war was undoubtedly instigated by Polk with the annexation of Texas, resolved by congress in 1844. Mexico still considered Texas to be a breakaway province, and hence the annexation was considered to be an invasion of Mexican territory by the US. The annexation, in effect, transferred the border dispute between Texas and Mexico in to a US Mexican concern, in effect an undeclared war between the two nations.

Despite the plea of innocence, Mexico cannot escape blame for the war. Mexico´s contribution was more the result of a series of blunders and poor judgement than the blatant and deliberate antagonisms of the  US. These mistakes can be traced back to Mexico´s invitation to American citizens to settle in Texas, in an effort to increase trade and raise tax revenues. There were some 35,000 Americans in Texas by the time of independence, and also many in California and New Mexico. These were southern Americans, pro-slavery and fiercely independent. They ignored Mexico´s requirements to convert to Catholicism and other such requirements, perhaps making their succession attempts inevitable.

In addition, Santa Anna´s bloody attack on The Alamo, giving no quarter to the surrendering Americans, gave rise to a wave of pro-nationalism and anti-Mexican sentiment, particularly in Texas but also across the US as well, especially in the southern states. This fueled the fire of war, and made it easier for Polk to justify the war to the American people.

Perhaps Mexico´s greatest fault lied in their inability to ever form a controlling central government capable of negotiating with a foreign state or forming a co-ordinated defense of the country. This made Mexico´s rich and fertile northern lands easy pickings for the expansionistic US, which saw Mexico as a state incapable of ever successfully governing themselves. The Mexicans were incapable at any time of conducting useful negations with the US. Indeed, the US had made a number of offers to purchase the desired lands peacefully and at a reasonable price. In any case, Mexico never held these lands with any real degree of strength, and would have been better served retiring their enormous national debt rather than insuring another war for themselves which they could never win. ¨As usual the government was on the verge of bankruptcy¨1, and a war was the last thing the country needed. Mexico was hopelessly ill prepared for war. ¨Nearly all the infantry carried old flintlock muskets, discards from the British army. Knowing little of military drill, soldiers commonly fired from the hip without careful aim, to avoid the recoil. The Mexicans had a few good light cannons, but most were old and markedly inferior to the American artillery. Since the gunners had little training, maneuvers were out of the question¨2

The country was awash with political turmoil throughout the war, indeed, throughout the century, making it near impossible for them to ever conduct a sound defense of the country. Monarchist plots, revolutionary movements and army mutinies were almost monthly occurrences. One example, that sealed the fate of the war, was the army’s refusal to leave Mexico City and defend Veracruz against the landing American invasion fleet. With their foot in the door, the Americans were insured victory, particularly after the battle of Cerro Gordo. However ¨ironically, Mexico, thanks to its history of confusion, mismanagement, and humiliation, was better prepared psychologically? than the United States.¨3

Mexico´s greatest attribute but also their greatest handicap was the waves of overflowing nationalism that was felt throughout the country. It was a force to be reckoned with by Mexico´s ruling elite. Politicians were incapable of approving events that may have been regarded as anti-nationalistic, for example selling the US the desired territories before the war or suing for peace during it. Santa Anna, after returning from exile in Havana during the war to lead Mexico, both as president and as commander in chief of the armed forces, was unable to call for peace upon his return, as he had promised the Americans, precisely because of this fear of being branded a traitor. In the end, it only ensured that the defeat of Mexico was even more thorough than had ever been expected.

President Polk

The war of 1846 involving Mexico and the United States well demonstrates the overall history of European settlement in the western hemisphere. The war was one of an increasingly imperialistic US and the still floundering Mexican republic. The war perhaps best demonstrates the very nature of the two newly independent states; the decisiveness and sophistication of the US system and the political and militant confusion that typified Mexico throughout the 19th century and well into the next.

The war produced a number of important players, perhaps none most important, at least from the American perspective, as President James K. Polk. No examination of the war can be conducted without an analysis of President Polk´s involvement. He was an expansionist and a Jacksonian, “and like any good Jacksonian … [he believed] the president must dominate the government and be the very symbol of the common man.”4 He was unbending on many issues, rarely compromising, as shown in his attitude towards the Mexicans. “On the few occasions when he agreed to compromise, as in the case of Oregon, he acted slowly, reluctantly, and with an air of self-righteousness. Also, he tried to spread the responsibility as broadly as possible.”5

There can be little doubt that Polk was anxious to engage a war with Mexico in order to increase the territorial profile of the United States. His diary gives the impressions that he always had designs on the vast territory only nominally held by Mexico in the south and west. When congress passed his war bill approving the commencement of the war with Mexico, Polk described it as “a great triumph for the administration.”6 He stated his “purpose to be to acquire for the United States, California, New Mexico and perhaps some others of the Northern Provinces of Mexico.”7

President Polk and European Influence

One aspect of Polk’s personality that affected not just the Mexican War but also other important events of the time, such as the Oregon question, was his blatant anti-European views. In September of 1845, Polk was anxious to negotiate with Mexico in order to obtain a settlement without a war. He proposed to send a Minister to Mexico, but keeping the appointment a strict secret for if were to “be known to the British, French, and other foreign Ministers at Washington, [they] might take measures to thwart or defeat the objects of the mission.”8 And again on 7th of August, 1846, in regards to the appropriation of two million dollars for reaching a settlement of peace with Mexico, Polk debated with himself as to whether or not to make the congressional sessions secret. He eventually decided to make an open request, as a confidential message would “excite universal curiosity in our own country… [and] moreover, excite the jealousy and alarm of foreign Powers as to our designs upon Mexico.”9 Indeed, European powers had an interest in obstructing US expansion, and had previously attempted to halt the US extending its influence over the continent. However, despite Polk’s fears and Mexico’s constant pleas for assistance, the European powers, most notably Britain, refused to intervene. Britain had just settled the difficult Oregon question with the United States, and had no with to engage in a costly and expensive war with the US. “Britain could not undertake a war in which she would bear the principal burden against an enemy with whom she had no quarrel of her own and in behalf of an ally who had ignored all previous advice.”10 Aberdeen, in correspondence with Bankhead in Mexico on 31st May, 1846, stated, “solely in consequence of their willful contempt of that warning, [the Mexicans] have al last plunged headlong down the precipice from which the British Government spared no effort to save them.”11

President Polk and General Taylor

Polk’s entire diary is at times a chronology of his personal battles and intricate politics with those closely connected to him. He almost reached the point exasperation with the bureaucracy and red tape involved with congress, his cabinet and most importantly his generals in Mexico. Appointing the generals and then dealing with them was a source of perpetual frustration for Polk.

First and foremost on Polk’s list of grievances appears to be General Z. Taylor, Polk’s commanding general in northern Mexico. Polk’s continuous attacks in his diary are quite remarkable in their ferocity. Initially, Polk appeared to have confidence in Taylor, despite Taylor’s differing political views. On 26th of May 1846 Polk states that he “sent a message to the senate… nominating General Zachary Taylor of the army a Major-General by brevet, for his gallant victories obtained over the Mexican forces on the Del Norte.”12 However, Polk’s opinion soon changed. This stemmed predominantly from what he believed to be Taylor’s incompetence in the field. “General Taylor, I fear, is not the man for the command of the army. He is brave but he does not seem to have resources or grasp of mind enough to conduct such a campaign…Though he is in the country with means of knowledge which cannot be possessed at Washington, he makes no suggestion as to the plan of campaign, but simply obeys orders and gives no information to aid the administration in directing his movements. He is, I have no doubt, a good subordinate officer, but from all the evidence before me I think him unfit for the chief command.”13 And again on the 15th of the same month, Polk wrote, “[General Taylor] seems to act as a regular soldier, whose only duty it is to obey orders. He does not seem to possess the resources and grasp of mind suited to the responsibilities of his position. He seems disposed to avoid all responsibility of making suggestions or giving any opinions”14 One of Taylor’s actions that particularly infuriated Polk was that granting of an eight week armistice after the battle at Monterrey on the 20th of September. “In agreeing to this armistice General Taylor violated his express orders and I regret that I cannot approve his course. He had the enemy in his power and should have taken them prisoners, deprived them of their arms… and preserved the advantage which he had obtained by pushing on without delay farther into the country.”15 Polk even believed that had “Taylor captured the Mexican army and deprived them of their arms… it would have probably ended the war with Mexico”16 Polk’s opinion was upheld by others involved in the war. “The cabinet were unanimous in the opinion…that he had committed a great error.”17 In addition, on the 14th of November, 1846 Polk wrote “the cabinet fully discussed the conduct of General Taylor and were agreed that he was unfit for the chief of command, that he had not mind enough for the station, that he was a bitter political partisan and had no sympathies with the administration, and that he had been recently controlled… for political purposes.”18

He was also scathing of Taylor’s attitude to his administration. “It is perfectly manifest that General Taylor is very hostile to the administration and seeks to cause a quarrel with it…. He is evidently a weak man and has been made giddy with the idea of the Presidency. He is most ungrateful, for I have promoted him, as I now think, beyond his deserts, and without reference to his politics. I am now satisfied that he is a narrow-minded, bigoted partisan, without resources and wholly unqualified for the command he holds”19 Polk was correct in assuming Taylor’s anti-democrat sentiments. In January of 1847 Taylor published a letter in the New York Express “uttering unfounded complaints, and giving publicity to the world of the plans of campaign contemplated by the government.”20 This information undoubtedly found it way into Mexican hands, if not damaging US prospects in Mexico, at least aiding the Mexicans in their defense of the country.

Perhaps the crowning event in the antagonism between the President and his general was Taylor’s movements around Monterrey. Taylor was to occupy Monterrey and the passes around it and hold his position. However, as Polk describes, Taylor committed a series of errors. He separated his supplies from his army, moved on Monterrey with an inadequate force and took up position too far in advance of Monterrey.21 The result was a battle that caused Polk great pain. “It was a severe battle. Many valuable officers and men fell, and among them my old friend Col. Archibald Yell…He was a brave and good man, and among the best friends I had on earth, and had been so for twenty-five years”22 The effect that this had on Polk’s relationship with Taylor is unclear. Polk appears to be a man who attempted to separate personal rivalry and distaste from business. Indeed, he frequently states this fact and criticizes those who allow politics to enter into the running of the country. In any case, Polk’s opinion of Taylor was firmly established by this point. He believed Taylor to be incompetent and devious, and there was little that could be done to change his opinion.

US Politics

Constantly at the forefront of Polk’s problems during the Mexican war was the political maneuvering necessary to obtain any kind of result for the administration. He frequently complained that there where those who obstructed his moves. “Several officers [in the army in Mexico] are politically opposed to the administration and there is reason to apprehend that they would be willing to see the government embarrassed”23 Included amongst those who Polk believed were opposed to him was the press. In regards to the sending of Trist to Mexico in order to negotiate a peace, Polk wrote “had his [Trist’s] mission and the object of it been proclaimed in advance at Washington I have no doubt that there are persons in Washington, among them the editors of the National Intelligencer, who would have been ready and willing to have dispatched a courier to Mexico to discourage the government of that weak and distracted country from entering upon negotiations for peace. This they would do rather than suffer my administration to have the credit of concluding a just and honorable peace… If the war is protracted it is to be attributed to the treasonable course of the federal editors and leading men”24 Polk’s whole attitude towards the Mexicans was also at times criticized by the press. Having settled the Oregon question successfully and peacefully with England, Polk´s attitude towards the Mexicans was one of aggression: ¨We must take redress for the injuries done us into our own hands. Having forborne until forbearance was no longer a virtue or patriotic… we must treat all nations, whether great or small, strong or weak, alike, and… take a bold and firm course towards Mexico¨25 However it is obvious that not all Americans shared this view. As the Chicago Democrat put it; Why should we not compromise our difficulties with Mexico as well as with Great Britain?… If it is wicked to go to war with England for disputed territory, it is not only wicked but cowardly to go to war with Mexico for the same reason¨26 However Polk rejected these claims. ¨We go to war with Mexico solely for the purpose of conquering an honorable and permanent peace. Whilst we intend to prosecute the war with vigor, both by land and sea, we shall bear the olive branch in one hand and the sword in the other; and whenever she will accept the former, we shall sheath the latter¨27 These political games were a source of constant frustration for Polk. One more than one occasion he laments that he anxiously awaits the conclusion of his term to be rid of these political battles.

President Polk and General Scott

A second important relationship to be examined is Polk’s relationship with General Scott. Scott was perhaps the best general in the United States at the time of the war, a fact recognized by Polk’s advisors. It his notes on Polk’s diary, Allan Nevins describes him as the “most interesting [and] the most impressive figure of the diary”28 Scott was successfully dealt with a number of important situations, such as the war of 1812, the Black Hawk War, persuaded the Cherokees to resettle, and again triumphed in Mexico in the face of a difficult administration and daunting terrain.29

The antagonism between Scott and Polk caused great difficulty for the United States in carrying out the war. Scott was politically opposed to Polk’s democrat administration. As Polk wrote “General Scott was not only hostile, but recklessly vindictive in his feeling towards the administration.”30 Hence Polk was reluctant to appoint Scott as head of the army in Mexico. However, there was little Polk could do except appoint the popular general. “I have strong objections to General Scott… Nothing but stern necessity and a sense of public duty could induce me to place him at the head of so important an expedition. Still I do not well see how it can be avoided. He is General-in-Chief of the army… he is the highest officer in command in the army”31 Polk himself was anxious to appoint Col. Benton to the command, but again politics opposed him. Indeed, Col. Benton approved of Scott “as the best we could do, although he had no confidence in him”32 One of the most interesting diary entries Polk made was in relation to the conversation he held with Scott on 19th of November 1846. Polk attempted to, as he put it “let bygones be bygones”33 an entrust Scott with his confidence. Polk was surprised at the reaction of Scott to his appointment. “He expressed himself as being deeply grateful to me and said he would show me his gratitude by his conduct when he got to the field. He was so grateful and so much affected that he almost shed tears… He left, apparently the most delighted man I have seen for a long time, and as he retired expressed his deep gratitude to me”34 However this happy state of affairs between the two was to soon disintegrate. Less than two months later Polk was again fuming at the indiscretion of his general in talking to the press. A publication appeared in a New Orleans paper outlining the plans for the campaign in Mexico. Polk believed that “this could only have gotten to the public through General Scott… [who] from his inordinate vanity or from some other cause has given it out.”35 In addition Polk was critical of Scott’s actions in the field, although Scott’s success was without reserve. “General Scott has undoubtedly committed a great military error by breaking up the post at Jalapa and leaving his whole rear exposed to the enemy”36

President Polk, Trist and the difficulties with Scott

With the series of victories obtained by Scott at Veracruz and Cerro Gordo, Polk believed it was time to reopen negotiations with Mexico. He entrusted this important mission to N.P. Trist. Trist was recommended by Buchanan, who he described as “an able man, perfectly familiar with the Spanish character and language.”37 Trist indeed was an intelligent man, well experienced and well suited to the task at hand. However “he was inclined to a visionary kind of self-conceit, and was at times lacking in sober perspective and common sense. Polk was destined to find him an insecure support”38 Trist was soon to find himself at odds with Polk for his actions. On 21st of April, 1847, the details of Trist’s mission were published in the New York Herald with “remarkable accuracy.”39 This greatly angered Polk, as he described “I have not been more vexed or excited since I have been President than at this occurrence.”40 Polk was inclined to blame Mr. Derrick, a clerk in the Department of State. However, it could be supposed, given Trist’s vanity and sense of self-importance, that he himself leaked the information. Trist further frustrated Polk in his negotiations with the Mexicans. As Polk wrote on 21st of October, 1847, “Mr. Trist in other respects had in his conferences departed from his instructions and the simple duty with which he was charged…He had no right to depart from his instructions, and I disapprove his conduct in doing so…in this he has committed himself and embarrassed future negotiations. His course is much to be regretted.”41 And again on 23rd of October, 1847 Polk wrote “Mr. Trist has managed the negotiation very bunglingly and with no ability.”42

If Trist and Scott frustrated Polk separately, then together they near infuriated him. When Trist reached Mexico and joined Taylor’s camp, prepared to enter into negotiations with the Mexicans, he found a hostile Scott suspicious that Polk had sent another civilian agent to supersede him. Scott sent a defiant letter to Trist, and Trist’s response was equally as aggressive. The result was that neither party was willing to correspond with the other, and much time was wasted. Polk was furious. “The protraction of the war may properly be attributed to the folly and ridiculous vanity of General Scott.”43 Neither was Trist to escape Polk’s wrath; “I gave him [General Benton] a statement of the unfortunate collision between General Scott and Mr. Trist in Mexico and said that in consequence of it the golden moment to conclude a peace with Mexico had probably been suffered to pass, and expressed the opinion that the duration of the war might be indefinite.”44 Eventually, once Scott was assured that Trist was not there to over rule him; the two resolved their differences. Scott even managed to be self-effacing. After the battle of Cherubusco on the 20th of August, 1847, after crushing Santa Anna’s army, the war was practically over, and Scott could enter Mexico City whenever he wanted. “But Scott unselfishly gave up the personal glory of at once occupying Mexico City because he felt that such action might delay a favorable peace.”45
Scott and Trist’s failure to co-operate, in reality and despite Polk’s complaints, probably didn’t affect the duration of the war. However, they clearly demonstrates the difficulties Polk had in directing the war from Washington and having to rely on agents. The reasons for these problems between Polk and Taylor, Trist and Scott are not clear. Polk attributes most of it to political adversity and personal ambition. Obviously each had their faults, most notably their own sense of self-importance and their aspirations, but Polk’s shortcomings cannot be overlooked. He was evidently a difficult man to work under, and highly suspicious of those he directed. The only thing that can be said for any of them with any certainty is that they made the ambitions of Polk all the more difficult to obtain.

President Polk and Santa Anna

An important event to note in relation to the war was the meetings between Polk and the agent of Santa Anna, Col. Atocha, on the 13th and 16th of February 1846. Santa Anna had been driven from Mexico in January of 1845 after a year of corruption and deceit as President. He was now waiting in comfortable exile in Havana for a chance to resume power in Mexico. Scholars are nearly universal in their opinion that Santa Anna was untrustworthy and self interested; “in reality he was a charlatan”46 Col. Atocha was in Washington solely to represent the desires of Santa Anna. He stated to Polk that “soon Santa Anna might be in power again in Mexico… [and] that Santa Anna was in favor of a treaty with the United States [giving the United States upper California and New Mexico, as Polk desired] and mentioned the sum of thirty million dollars.”47 In addition, Col. Atocha stated that Santa Anna had expressed his surprise that the United States had withdrawn its naval forces and Taylor’s army in the north from Mexico. As he told Polk, “when they [the Mexicans] saw a strong force ready to strike on their coasts and border they would… feel their danger and agree to the boundary suggested.”48 It is remarkable to note the treasonable actions of Santa Anna. He was evidently willing to betray his country (and Polk) for power. Here was a man openly corroborating with the enemy of his country in order to further his own political ambitions. “No one has ever found evidence of this, but Santa Anna’s patriotism was then, as always, shaped to serve his own interests. The most that can be said for him on this occasion is that his advice was as harmful to the United States as to Mexico.”49 Polk was highly suspicious of both Santa Anna and his envoy. He stated that “Col. Atocha is a person to whom I would not give my confidence. He is evidently a man of talents and education, but his whole manner and conversation impressed me with the belief that he was not reliable, and that he would betray any confidence reposed in him, when it was in his interests to do so.”50 And so Polk did not confide in Atocha, nor Santa Anna, keeping his options open for the war.

Slavery in the new states

There can be little doubt that the US expansionism of the early 19th century had a profound impact on the commencement of he US civil war. The question of slavery in the soon to be annexed territories was frequently raised, in particular by Buchanan. “He spoke of the unwillingness of the north to acquire so large a country that would probably become a slaveholding country if attached to the United States… [and Buchanan said] that if we attempted to acquire all this territory the opinion of the whole world would be against us, and especially as it would become a slaveholding country, whereas while it was in possession of Mexico slavery did not exist.”51 Despite the concerns of Buchanan, Polk thought the slavery quite irrelevant to the matter of war. On the 8th of August, 1846 congress passed a bill citing that no territory gained from Mexico should ever be a slave holding state, an act Polk described as “a mischievous and foolish amendment.”52 With the benefit of hindsight one can perhaps be critical of Polk’s indifference to the slavery question. The can be little doubt the enormous acquisition of territory gained from Mexico and the question as to its status had a great influence on the factors that eventually lead to the commencement of the civil war.


The war of Mexico and the United States that lead to the dismemberment of Mexico and perhaps the US civil war played a greater part in the history of North America than most give it credit for. Massive territorial expansion was achieved by the US and Mexico was condemned to internal strife for decades afterwards. Polk contribution was instrumental in both causing and concluding the war. His constant battles with his subordinates and his difficulties in dealing with his generals severely hampered the conducting of the war. It is evident that Polk was a difficult man to work with; he was demanding and gave no room for failure. But nonetheless, he achieved for the United States acquisitions of territory unseen since the Louisiana Purchase. His diary gives an intricate insight into the political maneuvering and vicious infighting that occurred (and occurs) in the arena called the White House. While the infighting with his generals and disputes with Congress appeared to have failed to affect the course of the war, it perhaps helps to highlight that Polk did not have to commanding respect and charisma of his predecessors, such as Jefferson or Jackson. His election was the result of a compromise, and this can be contrasted with his uncompromising presidency; he spared not the Mexicans until he had gained precisely what he desired, and then, with a faint touch of modesty, announced his victory to the American people. He exposed the pains and rewards of leadership in all their glory and misery. He could at times be a difficult man, however, in the end, he concluded his term with a successful air of having achieved something worthy of a president

5 Responses to “The Mexican American War”

  1. 1 Anonymous April 5, 2008 at 12:15 am

    Hi folks,
    I really enjoyed this artical.
    I hope you enjoy it to!


  2. 2 SaQueena Williams February 10, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    what about the american revolution?

  3. 3 May 13, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    The arrogance and imperialism of the U.S. majority lives on today in the internal political expression toward minorities and immigration and outwardly toward third world countries. It is something inbred by centuries of conflict with other nations that was brought here from Europe. Do you get my drift…

  4. 4 May 13, 2011 at 10:26 pm

    While somewhat informative for those who have not studied the war with Mexico and the story of the acquisition of the Southwest, this article suffers from lack of skill in writing and presentation of the material and should have been subjected to proper editing–at least to corrections from proofreading. We have a right to expect a higher level of scolarship from the Friends of the American Revolution.

  1. 1 Pages « Friends of the American Revolution Trackback on October 22, 2008 at 12:34 pm

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