When we think of immigration we tend to think of people crossing over nation-state borders, from one country to another. These borders seem somehow solid in our collective mind, yet they normally only exist within treaties, maps, and in perceived ideas of community. But in many ways, borders are arbitrary distinctions, attempting to separate one from another but instead creating unique spaces, or borderlands that house a give and take, push and pull, amalgam of culture and people.
In this episode, we are going to be talking about how the United States’ southern border formed and how ideas of race and manifest destiny came to define what it meant to be an American or an immigrant.
We Belong Here:
Manifest Destiny, Immigration and the Treaty of Hidalgo
Produced by Dan Wallace and Elizabeth Garner Masarik
Edited by Averill Earls and Marissa Rhodes
Transcribed by Elizabeth Garner Masarik
Dan: When we think of immigration we tend to think of people crossing over nation-state borders, from one country to another. These borders seem somehow solid in our collective mind, yet they normally only exist within treaties, maps, and in perceived ideas of community. But in many ways, borders are arbitrary distinctions, attempting to separate one from another but instead creating unique spaces, or borderlands that house a give and take, push and pull, amalgam of culture and people.
Elizabeth: In this episode, we are going to be talking about how the United States’ southern border formed and how ideas of race and manifest destiny came to define what it meant to be an American or an immigrant.
I’m Elizabeth Garner Masarik
And I’m Dan Wallace
And we are the History Buffs
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On a whole, white Americans had implicitly believed that they had a right to as much of North America as they wanted. That was evident in numerous Indian treaties, the Northwest Ordinance, the Louisiana Purchase, in the Indian Removal Act of 1830- and other such documents and treaties. This belief wasn’t given an official name though, or vocabulary however until 1845 when journalist John O’Sullivan wrote that “it is our manifest destiny … to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”
But the idea of manifest destiny didn’t just rest on physical space. It also rested on white Americans understanding of race, intellect, and power.
White Americans came to believe they were a nation divinely ordained for great deeds. This, coupled with a growing fascination in an Anglo-Saxon racial heritage provided the rationale that the suffering inflicted on others had to lie on the others’ racial weaknesses.
This belief in the supposed “superior” qualities of the Anglo-Saxon race ultimately supported the rationale for overpowering northern Mexico as well as Native American peoples.
White Americans views about northern Mexico were also colored by ideas that carried over from the Black Legend of the 16th and 17th century and stemmed from Elizabethan and Protestant attitudes towards Catholic Spain. As an example of this type of race thinking, historian Arnoldo De Leon highlighted a speech given in 1821 by U.S. senator Henry Clay where Clay stated “by what race should Texas be peopled?” Should it become “a place of despotism and slaves of the Inquisition and superstition?”
So he’s essentially playing off Protestant, anti-Catholic attitudes prevalent in America and highlighted that American attitudes toward Spain’s influence on the borderlands was colored by old ideas about the Black Legend and the Inquisition.
Ideas of “blood purity” also colored thinking about the inhabitants of northern Mexico and
Mexicans. They were viewed by white Americans as racially inferior because they were of “mixed blood.” Historian Americo Paredes argued that no theory had more impact on Anglo views of Spanish Mexicans than the “doctrine of miscegenation, which held that the progeny of racially-different parents inherited the worst qualities of each.”
Historians of Latin American have written extensively on the Spanish ideology of blood purity in colonial and Iberian Spain. Ideas of pure Spanish blood and tainted black and Indian blood were pervasive in the 16th and 17th century Spanish colonies. These notions of “pure” and tainted blood carried on well into the 19th and 20th centuries.
But, the preoccupation of blood purity was not relegated to the Spanish alone as seen in this quote by Texan, Sam Houston regarding his thoughts on blood purity, or “mixed blood” Mexicans in a speech where he asked his compatriots if they “would bow under the yoke of these half-indians?”
Houston went on to say that “the vigor of the descendants of the sturdy north will never mix with the phlegm of the indolent Mexicans.”
So, ideas of blood purity were not specific to colonial Spanish elites but were understood by Anglo Americans as a form of debasement, and a justification for the Anglo Saxons of North America to expand their territory into northern Mexico.
The Mexican-American War 1846-1848 was a prime example of American westward expansion in the name of Manifest Destiny. The war dramatically changed the geographical boundaries of the United States as well as its demographics. It is estimated that over one hundred thousand Mexicans and indigenous Native Americans were affected by the annexation of northern Mexico.
Hostilities between Spain, and then Mexico in 1821 when Mexico became an independent nation and between the United States dated back many years before the Mexican-American War took place. In 1819 Spain and the United States signed the Transcontinental Treaty in which Spain ceded all of Florida to the United States and the U.S. had given up claims to Spanish lands south of the 42nd parallel. Nevertheless, white Americans began to enter the region in ever increasing numbers. Some were invited and some were not.
Mexico attempted to develop the region of northern Mexico that we now know as central and south Texas by offering land grants to Americans in exchange for bringing settlers to bolster the population in the area. a Connecticut farmer named Moses Austin, and later his son Stephen F. Austin were the first to colonize the region with American farmers. The Austin’s received a large land grant and then re-sold smaller tracts of land to American settlers. Many of the Americans who came to the Texas settlements never fully recognized Mexico’s sovereignty or claims to the land.
Although slavery was illegal in Mexico, many American settlers brought their slaves to Texas. Mexico enacted inconsistent laws governing slavery, first banning it altogether, then allowing slaves to enter the nation but regulating mandatory gradual abolition. But the Texas immigrants had developed a cotton economy dependent on slave labor and were determined to preserve and grow slavery in the settlement areas. In 1824 Stephen F. Austin devised a set of regulations for his colony that set harsh rules for slaves who attempted to escape and punished free people who helped runaway slaves. In 1830 Austin stated that “Texas must be a slave country.”
By 1830 the Mexican government, realizing it was losing it’s grip on the region annulled existing land contracts and barred future emigration from the United States. In 1835, Mexico’s ruler General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana sent an army to Texas to impose central authority. This sparked alarm and revolt in Texas and led to the Texas War of Independence. Mexico recognized Texas’s independence in 1836. In 1837 the Texas Congress petitioned to become part of the United States but both Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren avoided annexing Texas because of the political disputes that adding another slave state to the Union would bring. Regardless, thousands of slave holders poured into Texas between 1836-1845.
In 1844 a letter by secretary of state John C. Calhoun was leaked to the press, linking Texas statehood directly to the strengthening of slavery. This bolstered some southern leaders hopes that Texas would be divided up into several states, thus increasing the slave power in Congress.
Pressure mounted by pro-slavery factions and the continuing ideology of manifest destiny pushed president James K. Polk to acquire California and disputed lands in Texas. Polk sent an emissary to Mexico, offering to purchase California, which the Mexican government refused. At the same time however, Polk directed American soldiers under Zachary Taylor to move into the disputed lands in Texas, making conflict with Mexican forces inevitable. When fighting inevitably broke out, Polk stated that Mexico had “shed blood upon American soil,” although Mexico claimed that the land in question was part of Mexico, and called for a declaration of war. And obviously Mexico didn’t see that as American soil, because it was disputed land, so the Mexicans felt that Americans were encroaching on their sovereign territory.
Elizabeth: Many northern abolitionists were firmly against the Mexican War, fearing that the actual reason for acquiring new territory was for the expansion of slavery. In 1846 Henry David Thoreau was jailed for refusing to pay taxes to a government who he deemed as supporting slavery in its expansion into Mexico. He wrote, “On Civil Disobedience” defending his action and just as a side note, this essay became an important influence to later advocates of nonviolent resistance like Martin Luther King and Muhatma Gahndi.
Dan: So from the get go this was a pretty contentious war. Instead of focusing on all the battles, I want to talk about the war’s conclusion and the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, where I think there was a lot of interesting action. In September of 1847, General Winfield Scott had taken control of Mexico’s capital, Mexico City and was hoping for peace negotiations to begin. With his was Nicholas Trist who was a chief clerk of the U.S. State department and was serving on behalf of President Polk. Earlier that summer Trist came with the draft of a treaty that had many of the same features that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo would ultimately have. This included U.S. control of Alta and Baja California, the Rio Grande would be recognized as the southern border of Texas, or the border between Mexico and the U.S. In exchange the U.S. would give Mexico 20 million dollars and it assume up to three million dollars in the claims that U.S. citizens had against the Mexican government. But this initial treaty didn’t really get anywhere, as negotiations broke down. The U.S. and General Scott felt like the only way to get peace was by force, so that’s why in September he was in Mexico City. But the official treaty ending the war wasn’t signed until Feb of 1848. So the idea of taking the city by force to end the war probably didn’t happen as quickly as Scott and Polk had assumed it would, or wanted it to. During the months in between the U.S.’s taking over of Mexico City and the signing of the treaty, Polk was facing intense criticism back home. Elizabeth had already brought Henry David Thoreau and Civil Disobedience along with him, many abolitionists were against the war because they were afraid of slavery spreading into the land that the U.S. took. And there were also people with less admirable anti-war beliefs that didn’t want to share the new land that the U.S. took, with Mexicans who were already living there. All throughout history we see this, we see racial tensions intensify when space becomes, or threatens to become shared.
Polk also faced a lot of criticism from other politicians. In November of 1847 Henry Clay gave a speech in Lexington, KY where he denounced the war and criticized Polk. Clay wanted to get out of Mexico and he didn’t even want to take any land. Which was controversial amongst politicians and didn’t do Clay any favors politically. But he really stood up for what he believed in. And he said this in a slave state no less, where people would have been all for expanding slavery into the newly acquired lands. But he felt that the war did not reflect well on the U.S. and the U.S. government. This speech also inspired none other that Abraham Lincoln who was a Congressman at the time. Lincoln gave a speech in front of Congress which was later known at the Spot Resolutions and he called out Polk and he asked where the exact spot was that U.S. blood was spilled on U.S. soil. Going back to what Elizabeth said the war started because the belief that Mexicans were aggressive to U.S. troops on U.S. soil. But this was a contested fact, or perhaps an “alternative fact” by today’s standards. And this speech Lincoln gives was actually a pretty big deal for Lincoln who was relatively unknown at the time. And here he is issuing this rebuke against the president. But where he differed from Clay was in regards to the acquisition of land. Lincoln didn’t really rule out the possibility of adding new territory, nor did he really address the issue of slavery.
So Polk’s facing criticism from both the public and from politicians, but despite all this he remained committed to the idea that Mexicans were the aggressors of the war. At his third address to the Congress, which was kind of like the State of the Union, except that the didn’t give a speech like we do today, he actually just wrote a letter to Congress. In this address Polk made it clear that he wanted Mexican land. And that the war wasn’t going to end until California was a part of the U.S. But months had gone by and there was still no end to the war and it wasn’t making Polk look good nor was it making him very happy. So Polk calls for Trist to return to Washington, effectively relieving Trist of his diplomatic duties. In Polk’s mind, Trist had failed but Trist felt like he was making progress. More than that, Trist knew that the majority of Americans did not want this war to go on. He himself didn’t think it was very just and he was afraid that if the U.S. stopped negotiating the war would continue and he saw the effects that the war was having on soldiers who were not only dying but they were also drinking and gambling. He didn’t think this was a positive thing for American character. He also knew that the longer the war lasted, pro-war Democrats would just say “hey, let’s just take over the whole country.” And Trist didn’t want that either. So Trist does not leave. He doesn’t leave Mexico. What was also encouraging for Trist was Mexico’s new provisional president, Manuel de la Pena y Pena, who was also reading the terrain and knew that if Mexico didn’t sign a treaty that eventually the U.S. would just take the whole country over by force. So in refusing to leave Trist writes Polk a sixty-five page response explaining his beliefs and explaining why he won’t leave. And you have to remember that it wasn’t until mid-century when telegraphs made communicating easy, so correspondence between Mexico City and Washington D.C. took some time reach one another. So plenty of time goes by that Polk might think that Trist is returning. But he’s not. He’s no longer officially representing the U.S. government but he stays to negotiate a treaty, which is a pretty crazy thing when you think about it. So Trist and his Mexican counterparts meet in this town of Guadalupe Hidalgo and this is where they eventually sign the treaty. And this treaty is basically everything that Polk wanted in the first place. Everything that was seen in that initial draft treaty that Trist came with. Uh, the only difference was that the U.S. would not acquire Baja California but instead of having to pay 20 million dollars, Trist negotiated it down to 15. The treaty also gave certain civil rights to Mexicans living in the territories that the U.S. would acquire. And again the Rio Grande would become the border between the U.S. and Mexico.
So as they are there signing the treaty, one of the Mexican diplomats, right before he picks up his pen, turns to Trist and says, “this must be a proud moment for you. No less proud for you as it is humiliating for us.” To that Trist replied, “we are making peace, let that be our only thought.”
But deep down Trist didn’t really believe in what he was doing. He admitted to his family later that, “could those Mexicans have seen into my heart at that moment, they would have know that my feeling of shame as an American was far stronger than theirs could be as Mexicans.”
Elizabeth: Those that lived in the land annexed by the United States had three choices; they could leave their homes and retreat past the U.S. border but still retain rights to their lands in the U.S., they could stay on their land and choose to keep their Mexican citizenship if they officially declared they wished to do so, or they could stay and within one year they would be presumed to be American citizens after the allotted time.
Mexicans who decided to stay within the new borders technically became Anglo or white due to Naturalization Act of 1790 that only allowed the naturalization of “free white persons” of “good character” to become citizens of the United States. However, after annexation most Anglo Americans did not regard Mexican heritage residents as white and thus deserving of equal protections of American citizenship.
The 1870s and 80s saw railroad expansion and a huge cattle boom in Texas, which brought thousands of Anglo immigrants into the area. Most of these white immigrants came from Southern states and brought Southern racial prejudices with them.
Historian Katherine Cohen-Benton illuminated the formation of racial categories along the U.S.-Mexican border when Anglo distinctions of “white” and “Mexican” changed into categories of “American” and “non-American” during this period. This made Mexican heritage residents with roots in America and Mexico targets of racial discrimination, land seizure, and violence.
Over a span of about 50 years Anglos became numerically dominant in Texas but people of Mexican heritage still maintained a majority in the south Rio Grande Valley. Still, as Anglos continued to immigrate into Texas they imposed Jim Crow-type laws that included Mexicans in their racial restrictions.
Anglos also systematically took Tejano lands. Tax rolls show that from 1900 to 1910 Spanish surnamed families lost more than one hundred and eighty-seven thousand acres of land in two counties in South Texas. Over half of Spanish-surnamed land was ceded to Anglos in Hidalgo County alone.
The rights granted to Mexicans annexed in the Mexican-American war were slowly chipped away. Numerous court cases overturned Mexican land provisions guaranteed in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and granted thousands of acres of land belonging to Mexicans to newly arrived Anglos. These court outcomes revealed how American ideas of Manifest Destiny affected not just populations throughout the borderlands but the laws and justifications of the developing nation.
But the region could still be a give and take environment. the borderlands maintained that the area provides a give and take environment, where cultures and nation states meet and play off one another ultimately becoming something different through contact. theory of this space as borderlands, allowing them to show the push and shove, contact and violence that cultures face when meeting in an overlapping space.
Historian Rodolfo Acuña asserted that in order to understand the history of the American West, the history of conflict between the United States and Mexico must be a central tenet of analysis. He argued the colonization of Mexico by the United States was a conquest of violence that enacted a system of racial privilege and hierarchy.One of the main tenets of Chicano scholarship in the borderlands argues that Mexican peoples are not new immigrants to America but have a long, rich, and difficult relation to the area. The common misperception that Mexicans as an ethnic group new to the United States obscures the legacy of American colonization.
So from the get go this was a pretty contentious war, and instead of focusing on all of the battles, I want to talk about the war’s conclusion and the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo where I think there was a lot of interesting action.
Dan: In September of 1847 General Winfield Scott had taken control of Mexico’s capital, Mexico City. And was hoping for peace negotiations to begin. With Winfield was Nicholas Trist who was a chief clerk of the US state department and he was serving as a diplomat on behalf of president Polk. Early that summer Trist came with a draft of a treaty that had many of the same features that the T of GH would ultimately have. This included US control of Alta & Baja California, and the Rio Grande would be recognized as the southern border of Texas. In exchange the US would give Mexico 20 million dollars and it would assume up to 3 million dollars in the claims that US citizens had against the Mexican government. But this initial treaty didn’t really get anywhere as negations broke down. So the US and general Scott felt like the only way to get peace was by force so in September on 1847 he took the control of Mexico city. Now this was September, but the official treaty ending the war was signed until February of 1848, so the idea that taking the city by force to end the war probably didn’t happen as quickly as Scott and Polk had assumed it would or wanted it to. During the months in between the US’s taking over of MC and the signing of the treaty Polk was facing intense criticism back home. Elizabeth brought up HDT and civil disobedience, many abolitionists were against the war because they were afraid of slavery spreading into the land that the US took, and there were also people with less admirable anti-war beliefs, who didn’t want to share the new land the US captured with the Mexicans who were already living there, all throughout history we see racial tensions intensify when space becomes or threatens to become shared.
Polk also faced a lot of criticism from other politicians, famously Henry Clay in November of 1847 gave a speech in Lexington KY denouncing the war and really criticizing Polk. Clay wanted to get out of Mexico and he didn’t even want to take any land, which was controversial amongst politicians and didn’t do Clay any favors politically, but he really stood up for what he believed in, and he said this in a slave state no less, where people would have been all for expanding slavery into newly acquired lands. But he felt the war did not reflect well on the US and the US govt. This speech also inspired none other than Abe Lincoln, who was a congressman at the time. Lincoln gave a speech in front of congress, a speech later to be known as the spot resolution and he calls out Polk and asks where the exact spot was where US blood was spilled on US soil. Going back to what Elizabeth said, this war started because of the belief that Mexicans were aggressive to US troops on US soil, but this was a contested fact, perhaps an alternative fact by todays standard. And this speech Lincoln gives was actually a pretty bug deal for Lincoln, who was relatively unknown at the time, and here he is issuing this rebuke of the president. But where he differed from Clay was in regards to the accusation on land, Lincoln didn’t really rule out the possibility of adding new territory, nor did he really address the issue of slavery.
But despite all this criticism that he faced from the public and from other politicians, Polk remained committed to the idea that the Mexicans were the aggressors. At his 3rd address to congress, kind of like a state of the union, but in this address Polk made it clear that he wanted Mexican land and basically that California was going to be part of the US, but there was still no end to the war and months had been going by and it wasn’t making Polk look good nor was it making him very happy. So Polk calls for Trist to return to Washington, effectively reliving him from his diplomatic duties. In Polk’s mind, Trist had failed. But Trist felt like he was making progress. More than that, Trist knew that the majority of Americans did not want this war to go on, he himself didn’t think it was very just, and he was afraid that if the US stop negotiating the war would continue and he saw the effects war was having on the soldiers, not only were they dying but they were also drinking and gambling and he did not think the war was doing positive things for American character. He also knew that the longer the war lasted pro-war democrats would just say hey lets take the whole country then, and Trist did not ant this either. So Trust does not want to leave. And so he doesn’t. What was also encouraging for Trist was Mexico’s new provisional president Manuel de la Pena y Pena. Who also was reading the terrain and knew that if Mexico didn’t sign a treaty eventually the US would just take the whole country over by force. So in refusing to leave, Trist writes Polk a 65-page response why he’s not leaving. Now remember, It wasn’t until mid-century when telegraphs made communicating easy, so correspondences between Mexico city and DC took some time to reach one another. So time goes by where Polk might think Trust is returning, but he’s not. He is no longer officially representing the US govt but he stays to negotiate a treaty. Trust and his Mexican counterparts meet in the town of Guadalupe Hidalgo and this is where they sign the treaty. And this treaty was basically everything that Polk wanted when he sent trust with the initial draft treaty, except the US would not acquire Baja California, but instead of having to give 20 million Trist negotiated it to 15. The treaty also gave certain civil rights to Mexicans living in the territories the US would acquire. The Rio Grande would become the border.
So as they are they’re signing the treaty one of the Mexican negotiators turned to Trist and said “” and Trist replied “”
But deep down trust was not proud of what he was doing he admitted to his family later “”
He didn’t believe in the cause and what the US was doing but he knew the war had to end. And again, to reiterate what I think is a fascinating point, he basically ends this war by himself with no authority from the US government to do so.
So Trist signs the treaty and sends it backs to Washington where it makes it there in about 17 days. So it was singed but was not official yet it still had to approve by Polk and the senate. When the treaty makes it to Polk, Polk finds himself kind of trapped, this treaty was not exactly what he wanted or promised to his supporters. He had people in his cabinet, Like James Buchanan, a future president, who thought they could get more land. But Polk also felt the pressure from the antiwar advocates and he knew how unpopular the war had become. He reflected on this moment saying “”
He also felt that is he didn’t sign the treaty congress would stop financing the war and he would basically end up with nothing. So, reluctantly he signs the treaty, and it passes in congress, the war comes to the end. All thanks to Nicholas Trist how seems like this unsung hero who ends a war. But Polk didn’t want to give trust any credit, Polk called him an impudent and unqualified scoundrel and withheld Trist’s pay that he earned while in Mexico and Polk basically ended Trist’s career and held this hatred of Trust to his grave. And no one came to trusts aid either; it wasn’t until his 70th bday in 1870 that congress finally decided that they pay Trist the money he was owed. Nicholas Trist ends this war but is forgotten in history and was forgotten at the time.
Right he looks good from our perspective, he did have the moral high ground but he did disobey the order of the president so there is that
Early months of 1848 war comes to an end, and US gets this land, but we have to remember that with the US gained all this land, but there were people already living in this land
Elizabeth: And what’s interesting is that for Mexican Americans and even Native Americans who have struggled for their equality have gone back to the treaty of Hildago as the document that promises them right.
I think this story is important to us as we continue to have immigration debates and talk about building a wall between Mexico and America, it might be worth remembering that at one point a lot of country was Mexico. And communities and families had lived there and have their roots in land that is the US and yet they often live as outsiders. I think I could really push this point further, but I think it might be one that’s worth leaving there for right now. Because at the very least its worth considering this perspective.
Show Notes & Further Reading
Americo Paredes, With His Pistol in His Hand (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1958).
Rodolfo Acuña, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, vol. 1 (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1972).
Laura E. Gomez, Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race (New York: New York University Press, 2007).
Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny : The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).
Raymund A. Paredes, “The Origins of Anti-Mexican Sentiment in the United States,” in Race and U.S. Foreign Policy in the Ages of Territorial and Market Expansion, 1840-1900, ed. Michael L. Krenn (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1998).
Arnoldo De Leon, “Initial Contacts: Redeeming Texas from Mexicans, 1821-1836,” in Race and U.S. Foreign Policy in the Ages of Territorial and Market Expansion, 1840-1900 (New York: Garland Pub., 1998).
Katherine Benton-Cohen, Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands, (Harvard University Press, 2011).
Amy S. Greenberg, A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico, (Random House, 2012).