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A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and Its War with the United States
THE UNITED STATES AND MEXICO,
Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, at a time when the United States was the world's oldest and most successful federal republic. In those days Mexico and the United States were very roughly comparable in size and population, and among the leadership of both countries there were enthusiasts for the ideals of progress, reason, science, and democracy. It is true that the United States was easily twice as wealthy as Mexico, but Mexicans tended to attribute this disparity to Spain's tyrannical mismanagement of its colonial economy. With independence, they expected soon to close the gap.
In fact, however, any similarities between the two nations were superficial, while the differences were profound--and all of the differences worked to Mexico's disadvantage. Some knowledge of those differences is essential to understanding why Mexico and the United States went to war in 1846, and why that war went so disastrously for Mexico.
The United States and Mexico had both been colonies of European powers, but they were heirs to very different colonial legacies. Britain had distanced itself far more thoroughly from the medieval heritage than had Spain: it had limited the power of its monarchy, nurtured a robust private sector, championed the impersonal rule of law, and broken the religious monopoly of the Roman Catholic Church. A good portion of the British elite embraced the ideas of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, and Britain's colonists eagerly seconded that embrace. That is, many of the most prominent leaders in Britain and its colonies believed that reason should trump tradition; that progress and change should be welcomed rather than feared; that individuals should be equal before a clearly codified law and free to advance in life on the basis of merit rather than bloodlines; that sovereignty should be more or less popular and government should incorporate checks and balances as safeguards against corruption and tyranny; that wealth was not finite but was infinitely expandable through free trade, which would reward hard work and ingenuity, and that even the poor could prosper if they energetically pursued their own material self-interest; that the trend toward increasing social equality was something to be welcomed; and that citizens should be free to believe, say, and publish whatever they wished. Enthusiasm for such ideas--collectively known during the nineteenth century as "liberalism"--created a powerful bond among the ruling classes of the British Empire, one that would stand the founders of the North American republic in good stead as they forged their new nation.
While one group of Mexican leaders greatly admired all of the enlightened notions that so captivated the founders of the United States, another group of entrenched Mexican oligarchs clung to medieval habits with a ferocious tenacity. Even if there had been a consensus that liberal ideals were desirable, conditions in Mexico made it far more difficult for the Mexicans to implement liberal policies. When the French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville praised the United States Constitution--the first instance of liberalism codified as a national charter--he described it as "one of those beautiful creations of human diligence which give their inventors glory and riches but remain sterile in other hands." To illustrate what he meant by "other hands," he asked his readers to consider the case of Mexico, which adopted a similar charter in 1824 and experienced only "anarchy" and "military despotism." To a far greater extent than Anglo-America, Hispanic America clung to a tradition where rights were defined by inherited privilege; where social inequalities were said to be established by God and were considered necessary to maintain social peace; where the king made all important decisions; where law was chaotic and readily abused; and where the economy functioned at the government's pleasure. In Mexico the colonial centuries had left a legacy perhaps too powerful to overcome, at least in the short term.
Differences in historical tradition were accentuated by sharp differences in land and people. Despite the self-serving claims of British American colonists that they had tamed a barren wilderness, the lands of North America were of course inhabited. But the natives were too scattered, weak, and unorganized to put up successful resistance, leaving them vulnerable to ruthlessly efficient extermination or relocation at the hands of whites. Nor was there a large, settled peasantry capable of stout resistance, such as existed in both Mexico and the Old World, so individual landownership and the pursuit of enlightened self-interest encountered fewer obstacles. British North America boasted its share of land barons, but big landowners were far from holding a monopoly of land, and unlike in Mexico there was no Roman Catholic Church claiming extensive corporate property and privilege. Accordingly, in the United States wealth circulated fairly freely, and ordinary citizens could hope to gain land and opportunity.
Few in British North America boasted titles of rank that set them much above their fellows. In contrast to the stuffy elitism of the Old World, lineage was of scant concern to the Anglo-Americans. People enjoyed differing levels of wealth and power, of course, but in general the poor in America were less poor than their Old World counterparts, and the rich were less rich. "No novelty in the United States struck me more vividly during my stay there," wrote Tocqueville in the 1830s, "than the equality of conditions. It was easy to see the immense influence of this basic fact on the whole course of society."
Anglo-Americans tended also to believe that universal education not only inculcated the values of good citizenship but also aided economic growth and therefore should be universally available. In the early nineteenth century education was fast becoming available to all white, and even to a few black, Americans. By the 1830s the United States was among the world's most literate societies. Many Mexican leaders shared the sense that public education was vital to social health, but they encountered formidable obstacles to implementing successful educational programs, and the overwhelming majority of Mexicans remained illiterate throughout the nineteenth century.
Of course, in the United States slaves, Indians, and indentured servants were not held to be "equal" to free white Americans, and they did not enjoy citizenship rights. The enslavement of blacks and the dispossession of Indians were glaring exceptions to nearly every principle that U.S. elites claimed to hold dear, and these original sins would nearly capsize the republican experiment. That crisis, however, remained decades away. Indentured servants, at least, would gain freedom upon fulfilling their contracts, whereupon they merged into a free white population that afforded most of them considerable opportunity. Anglo-Americans scarcely entertained the idea that Indians and blacks should enjoy full citizenship rights and so believed that their interests could blithely be ignored. The politically engaged people of the United States were ethnically homogeneous. In the first decades after independence American leaders seldom tired of pointing out, with inordinate pride, that theirs was a republic of white men.
Mexico's social makeup was far more complicated and muddled than that of the United States, its past more violent and traumatic. Modern Mexico was born in 1521 amid the spectacular violence of the Conquest, where Spanish adventurers led by the intrepid conquistador Hernán Cortés laid waste to the opulent Aztec Empire, which claimed several million subjects. The capital of that empire, Tenochtitlán, was an engineering marvel, home to some two or three hundred thousand people, more than lived in contemporary Madrid or Paris. That great city was reduced to a stinking rubble after a months-long battle. The horror and devastation of the conquest was followed by a veritable holocaust for the native population: over the ensuing decades millions of Mexico's indigenous people perished from overwork and abuse and waves of epidemic Old World disease to which they had no immunity. Even so, the indigenous population was too large and stubborn to be eradicated or removed, so the Spaniards and Indians reached certain accommodations. Spaniards were heirs to a tradition wherein the conquered were made to serve the conquerors, which fit well with their plans and culture. Spanish gentlemen eschewed manual labor, but there was plenty of manual labor to be done--in the fields, in the mines, in the carrying trades. Simply put, nonwhites became the working classes of colonial Mexico, since white skin was all it took to elevate a man to the status of New World nobility.
For all their brutality and callousness, in fact the Spaniards were great innovators in the area of race relations. They were arguably the first people to seriously ponder the implications of intercultural contact on a vast scale. Yet while learned clerics at Spain's universities debated the worth of the Indian race, their counterparts, the bold missionaries to the New World, were busy carrying out an experiment in social engineering that, although done with compassionate intentions, had unfortunate consequences that are still felt today. They deemed the native peoples of America to be perpetual children, fledglings whose tender wings would never permit them to leave the nest. Accordingly, they designed a paternalistic regime full of special protections and a few onerous requirements, one that inculcated dependence and a fair degree of isolation from white society. Indians held certain inalienable communal lands, lived in semiautonomous villages, had law courts designed specifically to hear their charges and complaints, were not permitted to carry guns or swords, could not enter the priesthood or other professions, were not permitted to borrow more than five pesos, and were required to pay a race-based head tax. Relying on such blatant paternalism, the friars hoped to protect the Indians as far as possible from the corrupting influence of white civilization.
In some ways they succeeded all too well. Indians lived in self-governing villages; most did not learn Spanish or adopt many Spanish ways; they were able to preserve many of their pre-Columbian beliefs and practices, albeit in somewhat distorted forms; they remained, for the most part, desperately poor and outside the market economy; and their interactions with people from outside their culture were limited and characteristically hostile. All of this remained largely true as Mexico entered the nineteenth century and the era of its independent existence. Policymakers in Mexico thus confronted obstacles that their neighbors to the north did not. The Indians, who accounted for perhaps about 60 percent of the population, were unassimilated, illiterate, and unable to speak what white elites deemed to be the national language. One writer at the time of the U.S.-Mexican War reckoned that perhaps three-quarters of Mexico's indigenous population had not yet heard the news of Mexico's independence from Spain.
Some 22 percent of Mexico's population consisted of castas, a generic term for people of mixed race. The conquistador Hernán Cortés himself had helped kick off this trend by fathering an illegitimate son by his Indian interpreter, Doña Marina (better known to history as La Malinche). Other conquistadors and early settlers followed suit, bringing into being a class of mestizos, persons of mixed Indian and European blood. Adding to the racial mix were enslaved Africans, brought to work in the mines and on sugar plantations. Blacks, in turn, produced offspring with Indians and whites. (In Mexico such offspring were called zambos and mulattos respectively.) In a country that was in theory sharply divided by race--there was a "Republic of Spaniards" and a "Republic of Indians"--the castas fit into no officially recognized category. For the three hundred years of the Spanish colony, they inhabited the uncomfortable margins of society, with few opportunities for advancement. Only one institute of higher learning in all of Mexico admitted castas, the undistinguished Colegio de San Juan de Letrán, where the meager curriculum included courses in how to beg for alms.
Not surprisingly, castas tended toward fairly menial occupations: they became artisans, muleteers, hacienda overseers, domestic servants, and market vendors. The more they tried to gain respect and social standing, the more the whites insisted on their own racial "purity." In the late colonial era whites took to devising rather bizarre new racial designations based on the intricate intermingling of white, Indian, and African blood. The closer those mixtures came to whiteness, the more respectable they became, but it was never quite possible to erase the stain of nonwhite blood in the eyes of the white elite. By the time of Mexico's independence, castas were the fastest-growing element of the Mexican population, yet their status remained oddly undetermined. Their pretensions to power and respect would provoke some of the most gruesome episodes in the history of the early Mexican Republic.
Mexico's racial situation, then, was a good deal more complex than that of the United States. There was one blessing: by the end of the colonial era Mexico had relatively few enslaved blacks (some eight thousand, perhaps), most of them concentrated in the torrid coastal regions. The institution of slavery was entirely negligible to Mexico's economy. Mexico therefore was able to suppress that institution with relative ease, affording it one of its few advantages over its northern neighbor.
This single blessing, however, did not make Mexico's racial sins any less damning than those of the United States. The Indians and the castas suffered grotesque marginalization and poverty. Nineteenth-century visitors to Mexico City, who arrived expecting to experience the fabled elegance of the old colonial capital, were inevitably scandalized by the sight of thousands of dark-skinned people living out of doors and in the most appalling squalor: clad in dirty rags, covered with frightful sores and wounds, living from crime or begging. The well-to-do residents of the capital developed a colorful lexicon of disparaging terms to describe these despised people: los léperos, la canalla, los sansculottes, la chusma, el populacho--all translating, with varying shades of emphasis, to "the rabble." Brantz Mayer, who served as secretary of the U.S. legation in Mexico during the 1840s, left a vivid portrait of the famed Mexican lépero, with his long, vermin-infested hair, torn and stinking clothing, wild eyes, and "features pinched by famine into sharpness." Such people spent their days around the markets and shops that sold pulque--the fermented juice of the century plant that was the intoxicant of choice among Mexico's poor--"feeding on fragments, quarreling, drinking, stealing and lying drunk about the pavements, with their children crying with hunger around them."
The relatively better-off working people of the city--who were mostly mestizo and were generally included in the category of "rabble"--tended to live in first-floor apartments that routinely flooded during the rainy season, contributing to a shockingly high mortality rate. Children under the age of three accounted for a third of all deaths in the city. In the countryside famine was a recurring nightmare, as were periodic epidemics of smallpox and matlazahuatl, a disease re-sembling smallpox that affected Mexico's Indian population exclusively. Some estimates place Mexico's illiteracy rate as high as 99 percent. Where Alexis de Tocqueville was impressed with the overwhelming equality he found in the United States, another European traveler, the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt, found the opposite in Mexico. He described it with brutal simplicity: "Mexico is the country of inequality. Nowhere does there exist such a fearful difference in the distribution of fortune, civilization, cultivation of the soil and population."
Nature itself dealt rather perversely with Mexico, exacerbating that "fearful difference" of which Humboldt spoke and making it difficult for Mexicans to forge a cohesive nation. Most of Mexico's fertile land is concentrated in the tropical highlands at the country's center, and that area was home to the largest portion of the Mexican population. The remaining population was scattered throughout a rugged and often harsh landscape. The difficulties of transportation and the tremendous variation in land and resources helped to make Mexico a country of regions. Common allegiance to a remote king and an official Church afforded some coherence during the colonial period, but those bonds were weakened or destroyed with independence, and nothing appeared to replace them. Outside the capital city most Mexicans tended to identify with their own locality, often referred to as la patria chica or "little homeland." Family, community, and local political bosses mattered, while the nation as a whole remained a troublesome abstraction. While in the United States the land's topography contributed to social equality and national sentiment, in Mexico it encouraged diversity, inequality, and conflict. The midnineteenth-century writer Mariano Otero lamented this phenomenon in a sentence that seemed to encapsulate the woes that haunted his generation: "In Mexico there is not, nor is there a possibility of developing, a national spirit, because there is no nation." This exaggerated regionalism, joined to the appalling divisions of race and class, would emerge as one of the country's most intractable problems during its early decades, and it would contribute greatly to the outbreak and course of the U.S.-Mexican War.
Excerpted from A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and its War with the United States by Timothy J. Henderson. Copyright © 2007 by Timothy J. Henderson. Published in May 2007 by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
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