Workers Vanguard No. 933
27 March 2009
Mexican-American War: Prelude to American Civil War
Finish the Civil War!
For Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
We print below, edited for publication, a presentation by Jacob Zorn of the Spartacist League at a February 28 New York City forum.
This forum is being held in celebration of Black History Month. This is the first time that there is a black president of the United States, which in its own way is historic, especially given the history of black oppression in this country. American imperialism is bogged down in two increasingly unpopular wars and occupations abroad and an economic crisis that deepens each day. Thus, for the bourgeoisie, the fact that there is now a black president, not to mention a president who can put together an English sentence, is used to try to give a facelift to this brutal system, in order to refurbish its very threadbare “democratic” credentials—even as the capitalists plan to jack up brutal exploitation and oppression here and abroad.
Voting for the Democratic Party is counterposed to the interests of the working class and oppressed. During the elections, the Spartacist League called to break with the Democrats and for a class-struggle workers party. We did not vote for the Democrats. Nor do we think that a black president will serve to eliminate racial oppression here in the United States. Black oppression is deeply rooted in the history of the development of capitalism here, and only socialist revolution, which places the wealth of society in the hands of the multiracial working class, can liberate black people and all of the oppressed. This is why we call to finish the Civil War and for black liberation through socialist revolution.
In 1846, the United States invaded Mexico. When the United States finally left, it was only after forcing Mexico to give up about half of its national territory, including all or most of modern-day California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada, as well as Texas. In this forum, I want to look at how the oppression of black people here in the United States is rooted in the history of the United States, how the U.S. invasion of Mexico was a key part of this history, and how workers struggles in the United States and Mexico are inextricably linked.
The war was fought by the Southern slavocracy in order to further the expansion of the slave system into new land, as a way of solidifying the slave system’s domination of this country. The United States in the early 19th century was integrated into the developing world capitalist system, and the North had begun to develop into a very dynamic capitalist power. But this growth was hampered by the slave system in the South, which dominated the U.S. politically and economically. This coexistence of slavery and capitalism could not continue indefinitely. By the middle of the 19th century, what was called the “irrepressible conflict” came ever closer to breaking out into the open. The U.S. invasion of Mexico was an important signpost in the lead-up to the Civil War. As Marx put it in an article he wrote in 1861, during the Civil War:
“The present struggle between the South and the North is, therefore, nothing but a struggle between two social systems, the system of slavery and the system of free labour. The struggle has broken out because the two systems can no longer live peacefully side by side on the North American continent. It can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other.”
—“The Civil War in the United States” (1861)
Here in the United States, the invasion of Mexico is often either ignored or justified as inevitable; this was certainly my experience growing up in Arizona, which is part of the land taken from Mexico. In Mexico the war is much better known. No town or village is complete without its memorial or street dedicated to the “Boy Heroes” who fought against the U.S. There, the invasion is used to bolster Mexican nationalism, with its premise that the country needs to stand as one, regardless of class differences, to maintain eternal vigilance against the monolithic aggressor across the Río Bravo. As Marxists here in the “belly of the beast,” it is necessary to oppose any instance of U.S. aggression toward Latin America and to stand for the class solidarity of the working class throughout the Americas—to fight for workers revolutions throughout the continent, from Alaska to Argentina. Part of this is understanding the 1846 invasion of Mexico and why it happened.
At the same time, it is important to understand the class forces that contributed to the invasion. Yes, on the part of the United States the war was based on a desire to take over Mexican land, with a good deal of anti-Mexican, anti-indigenous and anti-Catholic bigotry thrown in. But more fundamentally, the invasion of Mexico was developed out of the historic division of the United States between capitalist and slave systems. This very division led, less than 20 years later, to America’s second revolution, the Civil War, which smashed the Southern slave system and paved the way for the unfettered development of capitalism in the United States.
For us, as for Marx and Engels, not to mention Frederick Douglass and the millions of slaves in the South, the Civil War was a just war on the side of the North. This is ABC. It’s embarrassing that one has to assert this, but it still seems to be far beyond the grasp of many even so-called Marxists, like for example the Progressive Labor Party. They recently debated for several months about the Civil War in the pages of Challenge—and seemed never to have really reached a conclusion (see “PL vs. Karl Marx (and Abraham Lincoln),” WV No. 919, 29 August 2008). For us, the problem is that the task of black liberation was not completed, and black oppression remains integral to American capitalism.
In order to understand this, it’s necessary to understand the role of slavery in the early United States. The basic task of a bourgeois revolution is to create a unified bourgeois nation: in this sense, the first American Revolution was incomplete. During the War of Independence against Britain, the “founding fathers,” both in the North and in the South, agreed that the 13 colonies would be better off outside the control of the British Empire. But they represented different propertied classes: the budding Northern bourgeoisie and the Southern slaveholding landowners. In 1776, both the Northern merchant capitalists and the Southern planter aristocracy supported independence from the British imperial system, and for several decades it was beneficial for both to coexist in the same economy and the same country.
The new republic was not an equal partnership—the Southern slavocracy was in control. Without understanding this, the entire first half of American history doesn’t make a lot of sense. Increasing cotton production in the 19th century clinched a common economic interest between the plantation owners of the South and the Northern bankers and merchants who profited from the export of cotton to Britain and its manufacture into goods. The “slave power” of the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution was codified a decade later in the U.S. Constitution, which was written in 1787.
When he was running for president, Barack Obama claimed “the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution.” This is a lie: while the Constitution never actually uses the word “slave,” it gave the slave South extra power, despite the fact that its population grew at a much slower rate than the free North. The “three-fifths clause” not only declared a slave three-fifths of a person, but also gave slaveowners extra power within the electoral system. And then there is the Senate, which gives each state the same representation regardless of its population. And when the Constitution was written, the Senate was not elected. Southerners held the presidency more often than not for most of the history of the early United States. This made it all but impossible to legally abolish slavery. Thus both in economic terms and in political terms, human slavery was the cornerstone of the early American republic.
Slavery eventually died out in the North, where the last state to abolish slavery was New Jersey in 1846. By the mid 19th century, Northern capitalism had developed to such a point that it was increasingly fettered by the Southern slavocracy. The envelope for this tension was often expansionism. From the original 13 colonies, the United States had already grown extensively, especially with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Both the slave South and the capitalist North shared expansionist aims. This was later called “Manifest Destiny.” But this expansion meant different things for each section. Northern capitalists and farmers wanted to expand to the west. This included much of what was then called Oregon—which is not only the current state of Oregon but also much of western Canada, which was claimed by Britain. They wanted to expand a market for manufactured goods, obtain raw materials, develop a hinterland for the North, and expand toward Asian markets through the Pacific Rim.
The Southern slaveowners wanted to expand the slave system and deepen its power over the country in order to guarantee that slavery would continue to exist. Immigration and population growth in the North threatened to offset the three-fifths clause, and new free states would mean less power for the slave South in Congress. So politicians from both sides concocted a series of so-called “compromises” to maintain the North/South balance. One example is the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which divided the Louisiana Territory into slave and free zones.
No sooner had one “compromise” been effected than the next crisis would arise. In 1861, after the Civil War broke out, Marx explained this:
“The progressive abuse of the Union by the slave power, working through its alliance with the Northern Democratic party, is, so to say, the general formula of United States history since the beginning of this century. The successive compromise measures mark the successive degrees of the encroachment by which the Union became more and more transformed into the slave of the slave-owner. Each of these compromises denotes a new encroachment of the South, a new concession of the North.”
—“The American Question in England” (1861)
The Democratic Party at the time was, in the South, the main party of the slaveholders. In the North, it comprised both merchant capitalists who traded with the South and the urban poor. In both regions, it was thoroughly racist.
Plantation-based cotton agriculture is very hard on the soil, especially as it was practiced in the South. Therefore the slavocracy had a constant demand for new land. Many Southerners wanted to create what they called an “empire for slavery,” which would include much of Latin America and the Caribbean, in order to make sure that there would always be plantation slavery in the United States. British military power was an obstacle to the North’s wish to expand to the northwest in Oregon, but Mexico appeared to be a scintillating morsel to the slave South.
Mexico After Independence
Both the U.S. and Mexico bore the marks of their colonizing powers. British North America, including later the United States, was largely based on the mercantile model of Britain, which was by the mid 18th century one of the most dynamic European economies and the first industrial capitalist country. Spain by this time was one of the most backward and bankrupt European powers; it had already squandered the wealth that it had taken from its American colonies. Rather than develop the productive forces of New Spain, the Spanish crown focused on getting as much gold and silver from its colony as it could and sending this wealth back to the Iberian Peninsula. Between 1808 and 1821, Spain was beset by various problems in Europe, and it lost control of its empire. Almost all of its American colonies became independent in this period, the exceptions being Cuba and Puerto Rico, which remained Spanish colonies until the United States took them in the Spanish-American War in the late 1890s.
I want to touch on African slavery in Mexico for a moment. The Spanish were in fact the first European power in the Americas to use African slaves. And the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean, such as Santo Domingo, were based on slavery. The first black slaves arrived in Mexico with Hernán Cortés, and slaves were important in early colonial Mexico—something that is often ignored by contemporary Mexican nationalists. But the main source of labor in Mexico was indigenous peasants, not African slaves, and by the 19th century slavery had died out in Mexico. So at its independence, Mexico abolished slavery, but this was more a symbolic than a real act—except, as we’ll see, in Texas.
Shortly after its independence in 1821, Mexico was crippled by the legacy of Spanish colonialism, which had left the country underdeveloped and economically weak and heavily indebted. Mexico was very unstable; it had no real central government. Its extreme southern territories, including modern-day Guatemala, and its far northern territories were not under control of Mexico City. Between independence in 1821 and 1861, Mexico had 56 presidents, suffered several coups, and faced invasions by Spain in 1829 and France in 1838 in addition to the U.S. invasion in 1846. Mexico, in short, was not a modern nation-state. Local caciques opposed central control and political power alternated between Federalists who favored a decentralized government and conservative Centralists who wanted to place power in the hands of the government in Mexico City. One of the central figures in this period was the adventurer General Antonio López de Santa Anna, who himself ruled Mexico eleven times.
The U.S. had long had its eyes on Latin America. One example of this was the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which told European countries to keep their hands off the Western Hemisphere. Mexico—or as the Spanish colonialists called it, New Spain—was particularly enticing for the United States. At the same time, the United States was pulling northern Mexico into its economy, and central Mexico was very distant. Just to give an example, one of the largest settlements in far northern Mexico was Santa Fe, New Mexico, and it took 60 days to get to Santa Fe from Missouri. But to get to Santa Fe from Mexico City it took some six months! As the Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz allegedly put it almost a century later, Mexico was so far from God and so close to the United States.
I want to talk a bit about Texas, because it’s quite important. By the 19th century, Spain had already lost its territories in Florida and Louisiana. In 1819, the U.S. had signed a treaty with Spain, the Adams-Onís Treaty that established the boundary between the U.S. and Spanish territory at the Sabine River, and the U.S. renounced “forever” any claim to Texas—but Spain was still worried that its sparsely populated northern territory was vulnerable. So to populate the northern part of its territory, the Spanish government encouraged English-speaking North Americans, so-called Anglos, who were mainly citizens of the United States, to settle in Texas. The newly independent Mexican government continued the same policy. These immigrants were required to formally convert to Catholicism, which was the only legal religion in Mexico at the time, and the idea was that they would become Mexicans. But many of the immigrants had very little intention of actually doing so. Instead, they were mainly Southerners who wanted to extend slavery as far as possible into Mexican territory.
The first large-scale Anglo settlement in Texas was founded by Moses Austin and his son Stephen. By 1825, it had 1,800 inhabitants; 443 of them were slaves. Soon, Anglo immigrants and slaves outnumbered Mexicans in Texas ten-to-one, although it’s important to keep in mind that Native Americans outnumbered both. The links between far northern and central Mexico diminished even more as trade with the increasingly dynamic United States grew, and the Mexican government was too weak to force the Americans in Texas to do much of anything.
Slavery was a very special issue in this relationship. It was illegal in Mexico but was central to the economy in Texas, just as it was in the economy in the Southern United States. The Mexican government saw limiting slavery as a way to rein in these settlers, and it repeatedly reasserted its opposition to slavery, while not doing much to actually limit its practice in Texas. In 1829, the Mexican president Vicente Guerrero abolished slavery but allowed Texas to maintain slavery as long as no more slaves were admitted. The Texans got around even this by forcing their slaves to sign so-called “contracts” with their masters that virtually guaranteed their perpetual servitude.
The Texas “Revolution”: Pro-Slavery Coup d’Etat
There’s a lot of mythology about what’s called the “Texas Revolution” of 1835-36, in which Texas broke away from Mexico. But at bottom this was a slaveholders’ rebellion, fought to guarantee the existence of human slavery. Sometimes it is depicted as a reaction to a growing Mexican central government—this is what I was told when I visited the Alamo several years ago. I haven’t forgotten. But as veteran American Trotskyist Richard S. Fraser put it in an unpublished study of the development of black oppression in the United States, “The colonists didn’t care what government sat in Mexico City as long as slavery was tolerated. What they feared was that a stronger central government would most assuredly move against their practice of slavery.” Stephen Austin, a founder of Texas, himself argued: “Texas must be a slave country.” And in fact, as a state, Texas would become fervently pro-slavery and joined the Confederacy in the Civil War. The University of Texas has something called the “Handbook of Texas Online” and it describes:
“The Texas Revolution assured slaveholders of the future of their institution. The Constitution of the Republic of Texas (1836) provided that slaves would remain the property of their owners, that the Texas Congress could not prohibit the immigration of slaveholders bringing their property, and that slaves could be imported from the United States (although not from Africa). Given those protections, slavery expanded rapidly during the period of the republic.”
Many slaves in Texas saw the Mexican army during the so-called “revolution” as an army of liberation. Since Mexico had abolished slavery, slaves in independent Texas escaped to the south. As one former slave put it: “All we had to do was walk, but walk south and we’d be free as soon as we crossed the Rio Grande. In Mexico you could be free.” At least 4,000 slaves escaped to Mexico in the 1840s and 1850s.
The Texans of course defeated General Santa Anna in 1836 and won de facto independence, although it’s a funny type of independence, because as soon as they became independent many Texans wanted to join the United States. The slavocracy wanted to annex Texas, but to do so threatened to undo the balance between the North and South and also to provoke war with Mexico, which did not recognize Texas’s independence.
Now as I mentioned earlier, there was a shared expansionism in both the North and the South. This was called Manifest Destiny, the idea that God had a unique plan for white, English-speaking, Protestant North Americans to conquer and “civilize” all of America. By the 1840s, the slavocracy and the Northern capitalists were increasingly at odds over the nature of this destiny, of this expansionism. To the North, it was tied to the growth of capitalism, the expansion of free labor and markets and more influence in Congress. Oregon, as I said, was very important. To the South, expansionism meant increasing the reach of slavery and bolstering its power in government. The more the country expanded, the greater the tensions between slavery and capitalism became.
At the time, Texas remained a lightning rod. Many Southerners were anxious that Britain would try to make Texas a client state and abolish slavery there. James Polk, a Southern Democrat, was elected president in 1844 as a militant advocate of Manifest Destiny. Polk, like many American presidents, was a representative of the slavocracy: he owned a 920-acre plantation and 34 slaves—he bought 19 of them while he was president of the United States. According to historian Joseph Wheelan, he was “an unrepentant slaveholder” who “as a congressman had consistently sided with Southern interests in blocking attempts to interfere with slavery” (Invading Mexico: America’s Continental Dream and the Mexican War, 1846-1848 ). In his presidential campaign, Polk promised to expand into Oregon and to annex Texas. In 1845, under this pressure, lame-duck president John Tyler—himself a slaveholder from Virginia—announced the annexation of Texas.
This was a provocation against both Mexico and the Northern free states and would lead to a war with each. The pretext for invading Mexico was the border between Mexico and Texas. The border between Texas and the rest of Mexico had always been the Río Nueces, but after annexing Texas, the United States claimed that the border was actually the Río Bravo del Norte (called the Rio Grande in the United States), which is some 160 miles to the south. This not only meant making Texas bigger, but also it expanded the U.S. claim to much of New Mexico as well, which concretely meant the possibility of creating several more slave states. In his Personal Memoirs, former president Ulysses S. Grant, who fought in Mexico, argued: “The fact is, annexationists wanted more territory than they could possibly lay any claim to, as part of the new acquisition.”
The U.S. provoked a war with Mexico by stationing troops in this disputed area and then, when an American soldier was killed, claiming that, in Polk’s words, “American blood has been shed on American soil.” This was the first in a list of lies that have been used by the U.S. to justify invasions of different countries—the USS Maine (Cuba), the Gulf of Tonkin (Vietnam) and most recently supposed “weapons of mass destruction” (Iraq).
In the war, the U.S. had a three-pronged strategy. Stephen Watts Kearny invaded westward, into New Mexico and California (the latter with John C. Frémont). Zachary Taylor invaded northern Mexico, occupying Monterrey, and Winfield Scott invaded Mexico City from the Caribbean port city of Veracruz. Polk wanted a short war; he feared that if the war lasted too long, Taylor and Scott, who were Whigs, would become too popular. However, the war lasted longer than he expected, since Mexico did not surrender until forced to. The Marine Corps’ hymn still celebrates this invasion, asserting the U.S power in the “Halls of Montezuma,” that is to say, in Mexico City.
The war served as a testing ground for future military leaders in the Civil War and was the first war in which West Point graduates played a key role. From Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson on the Confederate side to George McClellan and U.S. Grant on the Union side, most of the commanding officers in the Civil War had fought in the invasion of Mexico.
Many of these officers had very different takes on the war. In the case of Grant, he later called the war “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” To use one example, there’s the northern city of Monterrey, which was occupied for almost two years. Historian Miguel Ángel González Quiroga describes how “the city was subjected to a furious onslaught unlike any it has witnessed before or since. The fighting left devastation and ruin that converted the town, in the words of one eyewitness, into a vast cemetery.”
Even though Mexico had a larger army, the U.S. won the war. This was a reflection not of Manifest Destiny but of the superior organization and wealth of the United States. Incidentally, Karl Marx thought that the United States won despite its leadership. He called General Scott “a common, petty, untalented, carping, envious cur and humbug.” The Mexican army was officer heavy; at one point, Santa Anna commanded an army of 24,000 officers and only 20,000 enlisted men. According to historian Josefina Zoraida Vázquez, the “conditions of the [Mexican] army were disastrous, it was tired, poorly fed and unarmed, it was large but untrained and confronted an army that was small, but disciplined, equipped, fed and regularly paid” (De la Rebelión de Texas a la Guerra del 47 ). One thing I’ll mention about the U.S. side, it should be noted that many Catholic Irish and German immigrants in the U.S. Army resented the Protestant leadership, and there were even Irish-American soldiers who defected to Mexico, forming the San Patricio Battalion. Remember that during the 19th century, anti-Irish and anti-Catholic bigotry was rife in the U.S.
Furthermore, the Mexican government was divided; it was unstable and unable to mobilize the resources necessary to fend off the United States. Mexican soldiers—largely indigenous and mestizo peasants—had little incentive to fight for a largely white landlord class of hacendados. During the war, there were numerous changes of government in Mexico itself and there were rebellions, for example, in southern Mexico. As many as 200,000 people died or were dislocated in the so-called Caste War of Yucatán by 1848. The Mexican army was used to attacking other Mexicans, not fighting foreign armies. The U.S. also had better artillery. And to top it all off, Mexico was led by General Santa Anna—who was more concerned with holding on to his own power than winning the war. And as we will see, the war itself was not popular in the Northern part of the United States.
[TO BE CONTINUED]