Workers Vanguard No. 934
10 April 2009
Mexican-American War: Prelude to American Civil War
Finish the Civil War!
For Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
We print below, in edited form, the conclusion of a presentation by Jacob Zorn of the Spartacist League at a February 28 New York City forum. Part One was published in WV No. 933 (27 March).
Why did the United States invade Mexico? As Marxists, we understand that there were class interests at play; the main class pushing for the war was the slavocracy. As veteran American Trotskyist Richard S. Fraser put it, “The war was fought not just for conquest in general but more particularly to extend slavery and the political power of the slave system.” The slave power’s goal of expanding slavery through invading Mexico was not a secret. One Georgia newspaper stated that taking territory from Mexico would “secure to the South the balance of power in the Confederacy [i.e., the United States], and, for all coming time give to her the control in the operations of the Government” (quoted in James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era ). In his Personal Memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant recognized that the annexation of Texas was “from the inception of the movement to its final consummation, a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed for the American Union.”
The invasion was very unpopular among Northerners, and they derided it as “Mr. Polk’s War,” referring to then-president James Polk, a Southern Democrat. William Lloyd Garrison, one of the leading abolitionists of the day, argued in the Liberator: “We only hope that, if blood has had to flow, that it has been that of the American, and that the next news we shall hear will be that General Scott and his army are in the hands of the Mexicans.” In 1846, Frederick Douglass denounced the annexation of Texas as “a conspiracy from beginning to end—a most deep and skillfully devised conspiracy—for the purpose of upholding and sustaining one of the darkest and foulest crimes ever committed by man” (Belfast News Letter, 6 January 1846).
The war was a catalyst. It caused the Southern slave masters and the Northern capitalists to become less and less compatible. It made clear, as Abraham Lincoln put it in a famous speech in 1858, that “this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” Many Northerners felt betrayed by Polk’s 1846 compromise with Britain over Oregon—which relinquished American claims to large parts of Canada and set the current U.S.-Canadian border—and opposed the invasion of Mexico. Lincoln, at the time a newly elected Whig Congressman from Illinois, denounced President Polk as a liar for declaring that Americans had been killed on American soil. Lincoln was representative of an increasing section of the Northern bourgeoisie, which, while willing to tolerate the continued existence of slavery in the South, opposed its extension and wanted to limit the extension of the slave power. Before the invasion, Northerners in both parties had been willing to accept the domination of the slavocracy; in the aftermath of the invasion, both parties were increasingly torn apart between their Northern and Southern wings. Former Democratic president Martin Van Buren of New York opposed the annexation of Texas and the extension of slavery; he broke from the Democrats, eventually running for president on the Free Soil party ticket in 1848.
David Wilmot, a Democratic Congressman from Pennsylvania, expressed this hostility when he attached a proviso to the appropriations bill for the invasion in 1846 that banned slavery from any territory taken from Mexico. The House of Representatives passed this proviso in both 1846 and 1847, but the Senate voted against it in both years because the South dominated the Senate. The Wilmot Proviso shows that the contradictions between the slave system in the South and the capitalist system in the North could no longer coexist in the same country. This did not mean that various representatives of both sides did not try other compromises, but these attempts were increasingly fruitless.
The End of the War
In 1848, with U.S. troops occupying much of the country, including Mexico City, Mexico signed a peace treaty with the United States—the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The treaty set the border at the Río Bravo [Rio Grande], giving the United States almost half of Mexico; in exchange, the U.S. agreed to pay Mexico $15 million and promised to keep Indians living in the United States from attacking Mexico. Even so, many Southern expansionists complained that the United States didn’t get enough: many slaveholders wanted their “empire for slavery” to extend through all of Mexico into Central America, into the Caribbean and maybe even down to Brazil.
Shortly after the war, with the discovery of gold, thousands of migrants moved into California. There is a very interesting book that recently came out called The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War (2007) by Leonard Richards, which shows how many Southerners wanted to expand slavery to California. In 1854, the United States purchased la Mesilla—currently southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico—in order to build a railroad through to California. In the United States this is usually called the Gadsden Purchase, after James Gadsden, who was the U.S. envoy who dealt with Santa Anna over this question. It is usually remembered because Gadsden was a railroad executive who stood to benefit personally from the Gadsden Purchase. It could also be called the Gadsden-Davis purchase, since Secretary of War Jefferson Davis supported the railroad as a way of connecting California to the South and expanding the power of the slavocracy over the Southwest. Davis, who also had fought in the U.S. Army in the invasion of Mexico, of course would become the leader of the Confederacy in the Civil War.
Southerners did not give up their desire to expand southward. A decade after the Mexican-American War, one Southern leader argued: “I want Cuba. I want Tamaulipas, [San Luis] Potosí, and one or two other Mexican states; and I want them all for the same reason—for the planting or spreading of slavery.” Then there were the so-called Filibusters, Southern-backed Americans who tried to set up pro-slavery governments, who invaded various places in northern Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Among the most famous of these was one Dr. William Walker, who even briefly made himself president of Nicaragua in 1856. One of the things he did in his time there was to try to return slavery to Nicaragua. The U.S. also unsuccessfully tried to purchase Cuba from Spain. There was still plantation slavery practiced in Cuba. In 1898, of course, the United States fought a war against Spain to take Cuba along with Puerto Rico and the Philippines; by this time, although slavery had already been abolished, the U.S. did manage to export Jim Crow-style discrimination to these countries.
Even though the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo gave U.S. citizenship after one year to those Mexicans in the new U.S. territory, these Mexicans faced racist discrimination. Many Mexican landholders had their land north of the Río Bravo stolen from them. And Mexicans were also subjected to racist attacks by sheriffs, Texas Rangers and armed vigilantes. Between 1848 and 1928, mobs lynched at least 597 Mexicans in the U.S. The Native Americans who lived in the territory were also subjected to genocidal attacks, just as they were on the Mexican side.
For Mexico, the loss of so much of its national territory increased its instability. It would be too simple to say that the invasion of Mexico by the U.S. in 1846 led to the later U.S. imperialist domination of the country, but it did play an important role in stunting the development of Mexico. By the last quarter of the 19th century, when Mexico was under the bloody dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, American capitalists owned much of the wealth of Mexico and kept the country subjugated to enrich American imperialism.
Marxists and the Invasion of Mexico
When we were working on the flyer announcing this forum, I suggested the headline, “The Mexican-American War: A Marxist Analysis.” Luckily, we didn’t go with this, but it’s actually a lot trickier issue than it sounds. As Marxists in the United States, we oppose the predatory expansion of the U.S. Nonetheless, in 1846 the United States was not, in a Marxist sense, imperialist. Imperialism doesn’t just mean a big country taking over a little country’s land, but is, as Lenin explained, the last stage of capitalism, an epoch of wars and revolutions in which the world economy comes into violent collision with the barriers imposed by the capitalist nation-state. In 1846, the United States was still a developing capitalist economy and the American bourgeoisie was still, objectively speaking, a progressive class: its task of destroying chattel slavery was still outstanding.
Today, of course, the United States is the most powerful imperialist country and there is nothing progressive about the American bourgeoisie. It keeps Mexico and Latin America subjugated through trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA] and, if necessary, through military force. We wrote in the Programmatic Statement of the SL/U.S., “For Socialist Revolution in the Bastion of World Imperialism!”:
“A workers government in the U.S. would also return to Mexico certain contiguous regions, predominantly Spanish speaking, of the Southwest which were seized from Mexico. This internationalist gesture would powerfully undercut the anti-Yankee nationalism that the Latin American ruling classes use to tie the workers to them and would be of significant value in extending support to proletarian revolution throughout Latin America.”
Although they chafe at the domination of the U.S., Mexican and other Latin American capitalists fear their own working class even more. They use the Mexican-American War, La Invasión Norteamericana, the North American Invasion as it’s called, along with the ongoing U.S. oppression of Mexico, to tout the lie that Mexican workers and capitalists share a common interest. The Mexican bourgeoisie also seeks to obscure the fact that the United States itself is a class-divided society and that American workers are the class brothers—and increasingly the real brothers—of Mexican workers. Ending the imperialist subjugation of Latin America—and the rest of the semicolonial world—requires the working class in the U.S. taking power as part of socialist revolutions in all of the Americas. And American workers must also fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants and against U.S. imperialism in Latin America and the rest of the world. It’s for this reason that we oppose NAFTA, the “free trade” rape of Mexico—not for protectionist reasons, but because it has meant misery for the workers and peasants of Mexico. And opposition to anti-immigrant racism in the U.S. is also intertwined with the struggle against black oppression, as the history of the Mexican-American War shows.
In Mexico, nationalists trying to discredit socialism sometimes denounce Marx and Engels for having supported the United States invasion. And throughout the Third World, they are also sometimes labeled “racists.” In 1848, Engels wrote about the war:
“In America we have witnessed the conquest of Mexico and have rejoiced at it. It is also an advance when a country which has hitherto been exclusively wrapped up in its own affairs, perpetually rent with civil wars, and completely hindered in its development, a country whose best prospect had been to become industrially subject to Britain—when such a country is forcibly drawn into the historical process. It is to the interest of its own development that Mexico will in future be placed under the tutelage of the United States. The evolution of the whole of America will profit by the fact that the United States, by the possession of California, obtains command of the Pacific. But again we ask: ‘Who is going to profit immediately by the war?’ The bourgeoisie alone.”
Several years later, in 1854, Marx wrote to Engels about the war, calling it “a worthy prelude to the military history of the great land of the Yankees.” And several days later, in another letter, he praised the “Yankee sense of independence and individual proficiency” and criticized the Mexicans: “The Spanish are already degenerate. But a degenerate Spaniard, a Mexican, is an ideal.”
Well, this is what is used against Marx and Engels. And Marx and Engels were wrong—but not because they were in favor of U.S. imperialism or because they were racists. The time of the Mexican-American War was very early in the development of Marxism, before the Communist Manifesto was published. Industrial capitalism was still in the process of development and Marx believed that it needed to fully develop in order to make proletarian revolution possible. Capitalism was then a progressive force, and Marx and Engels believed that one of its most progressive features was creating a nation with a unified working class. As a result, Marx and Engels opposed self-determination for small nations; they thought that such peoples should be assimilated into bigger nations. They mainly wrote about the Slavic peoples of Central and East Europe, but they also extended this to Mexico. In this view, the expansion of capitalism on a world scale would benefit not only the developed capitalist countries but the backward countries as well. As they wrote in the 1848 Communist Manifesto, “The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation.”
Marx and Engels’ empirical judgment on the Mexican-American War was wrong, but their theoretical premises were not incorrect. They were derived from a key experience in modern European history, which, in fact, directly affected Marx’s family: the Napoleonic occupation of Germany in 1806-1813. Where he went, Napoleon, bringing with him gains of the French Revolution, overturned the remaining feudal property relations and established formal equality before the law for all social classes. In Germany, these liberal reforms, including the emancipation of Jews, gave a major impetus to the beginnings of industrial capitalism. That is, the gains of the bourgeois-democratic revolution came to western and southern Germany, large parts of Italy and even the northern Balkans, not through an indigenous revolution, but through conquest from without. In many cases it encountered reactionary resistance under the name of national independence; so for the German intellectuals of Marx’s generation, a major division between the left and the right was one’s retrospective attitude toward these so-called “wars of liberation,” which in the German states were led by the Prussian monarchy against the Napoleonic occupation. Marx and Engels’ theoretical principle that social and economic progress stands higher than national independence, when the two conflict, was correct. I would argue that Marx and Engels’ attitude toward the Napoleonic occupation was a theoretical precursor to our position supporting the 1979 military intervention by the Soviet Union, a degenerated workers state, in Afghanistan (which is, in fact, not a nation).
Marx and Engels were not blind or indifferent to the monumental crimes committed by Western powers against the peoples of Asia, Africa and the Americas. But they viewed such crimes as the overhead historical cost for the modernization of these backward regions. And as I already mentioned, in the 19th century Mexico was a mess without much hope of a proletarian revolution, and American “tutelage,” as Engels put it, seemed the only possible way forward. In 1853, in an article called “The Future Results of British Rule in India,” Marx and Engels wrote:
“England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating—the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia.”
But this projection was not borne out by the actual course of development. In fact, even though the capitalists did introduce certain elements of modern industrial technology into their colonies and semicolonies, for example transportation, the overall effect was to arrest the social and economic development of backward countries. By the mid 19th century, the European bourgeoisies ceased to be a historically progressive class against the old feudal-derived aristocracies—with the key turning point being the defeat of the 1848 European revolutions.
Marx and Engels generalized the experiences that Europe went through during the period of the Napoleonic Wars. In the 1867 Preface to the first German edition of Capital, Marx wrote: “The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.” This statement aptly described European capitalist development in the early years of the 19th century. At the same time, this observation, which Trotsky later described as “conditional and limited” (Lessons of October, 1924), was at odds with the fact that European colonialism reinforced the social and economic backwardness of the countries and peoples it dominated.
Marxism is a science. It is based not on received wisdom but on observation and analysis of social reality. Marxists are not infallible, and, indeed, Marx and Engels learned from their observations and analyses of capitalist development and expansion. It wasn’t long after 1848 that Marx and Engels would develop a very different attitude toward colonialism, expressed, for example, in their defense of the Sepoy rebellion in British-occupied India in 1857-58. Ireland is probably the country to which they paid the most attention because of their knowledge of the British working class. By the 1860s Marx and Engels called for Irish independence from Britain, not only out of justice for Ireland, but also as the precondition for the organization of English workers. By the late 19th century, Marx and Engels had become champions of colonial independence and recognized that the modernization of Asia, Africa and Latin America could take place only within the context of a world socialist order. Marx’s Capital (written in 1867) contains biting analysis of what he called the “primitive accumulation of capital” by the blood and the death of peasants and workers and others. There is a good article in the current issue of Workers Vanguard that goes over the development of the Marxist position on the national question (see “The National Question in the Marxist Movement, 1848-1914,” WV No. 931, 27 February).
More generally, imperialism had not fully developed in Marx and Engels’ time. It was left to the Bolsheviks to fully grapple with the importance of the national question in the epoch of imperialism. And the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky fought against all forms of national oppression and for the right of self-determination of nations. And just as Marx recognized that the modernization of Asia, Africa and Latin America could take place only within the context of a world socialist order, Trotsky underlined in his theory of permanent revolution that in countries of belated capitalist development national liberation and social and economic modernization can take place only under the dictatorship of the proletariat, with the working class fighting to extend its revolution to the advanced capitalist countries.
In terms of the Mexican-American War, Marx and Engels, in a more specific historical sense, failed at the time to fully appreciate the fact that the invasion of Mexico strengthened the power of the slavocracy—the very power standing in the way of further bourgeois development. In the 1840s, they did not know very much about the U.S. But by the time of the U.S. Civil War, Marx and Engels had carefully studied the country. Marx’s writings are among the most perceptive on the U.S. Civil War of any contemporary observers because he understood that the war was a class war between two opposed social systems.
In 1861, at the start of the Civil War, Marx wrote: “In the foreign, as in the domestic, policy of the United States, the interests of the slaveholders served as the guiding star.” He mentioned in this context the U.S. attempt to purchase Cuba and pro-slavery Filibusters in northern Mexico and Central America, concluding that U.S. foreign policy “was conquest of new territory for the spread of slavery and of the slaveholders’ rule” (“The North American Civil War,” 1861). Marx wrote that slavery was the key issue in the Civil War, which he tied to the war with Mexico:
“Not in the sense of whether the slaves within the existing slave states should be emancipated outright or not...but whether the 20 million freemen of the North should submit any longer to an oligarchy of 300,000 slaveholders; whether the vast Territories of the republic should be nurseries for free states or for slavery; finally, whether the national policy of the Union should take armed spreading of slavery in Mexico, Central and South America as its device.”
The Mexican Invasion and the Coming of the Civil War
So by the time of the American Civil War, Marx recognized that the invasion of Mexico was integrally connected to the development of the slavocracy and that this was one of the key questions for American capitalism.
I want to talk a bit about the invasion of Mexico and the coming of the Civil War. The invasion of Mexico called the question: would the slavocracy or the bourgeoisie control the United States? The answer was not obvious. One of the best historians of the period, James McPherson, has said: “On the eve of the Civil War, plantation agriculture was more profitable, slavery more entrenched, slave owners more prosperous, and the ‘slave power’ more dominant within the South if not in the nation at large than it had ever been.” And the South was increasingly belligerent. Although many Northerners wanted to compromise more with the South, especially those merchants here in New York who benefited from selling Southern cotton, it became clearer as the bourgeoisie grew that establishing a unified capitalist society would require smashing slavery—that is, another bourgeois revolution. The conquest of so much territory from Mexico directly led to the Civil War. In his Memoirs, Grant wrote:
“The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.”
The immediate question posed by the Mexican invasion was: would this new land taken from Mexico be slave or free? In the San Francisco Gold Rush, tens of thousands of people rushed to California, and in 1850 the territory petitioned Congress to be admitted as a free state. This led to another crisis, and in 1850 there was another “compromise.” Like its predecessors, the Compromise of 1850 merely delayed the inevitable conflict between the North and South. This compromise allowed California to enter as a free state but kept the rest of the territories conquered from Mexico in limbo, with their status to be decided when they applied for statehood sometime in the future.
This would be the last major compromise. And in fact certain parts of it—like the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which required that Northern states return escaped slaves to their masters in the South—inflamed divisions between the North and the South even more. The 1850s were marked by the North becoming aware that its continued development as a capitalist society meant breaking free from the slave power, and the slavocracy increasingly realizing that its domination of the country was threatened. In other words, the unity between the capitalist North and the slave South was breaking down. National politics reflected this. Even though General Zachary Taylor of the Whig Party was elected president in 1848, after the war, he would be the last elected Whig president, as his party split apart between North and South over the Fugitive Slave Act.
Even many Northern Democrats could not stomach the slave power domination of the country and their party. There was a series of parties that opposed the expansion of slavery. In 1856, John C. Frémont was the first candidate to run for president for the Republican Party. He ran on the slogan of “Free soil, free speech and Frémont,” which was in explicit opposition to the slavocracy. Although it was by no means an abolitionist party, the Republican Party understood that in order to safeguard the growth of capitalism, the slave power would have to be checked and the growth of slave territory stopped. The 1857 Supreme Court decision Dred Scott v. Sandford, which declared that Congress could not restrict slavery—and also declared that black people had no rights in the United States—made the Civil War almost inevitable. In 1860, when the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, was elected on the platform of stopping the expansion of slavery, the South declared that it was seceding from the Union in order to guarantee slavery, which they wrote into the Confederacy’s constitution. Or as Marx put it, “the war of the Southern Confederacy is in the true sense of the word a war of conquest for the spread and perpetuation of slavery” (“The Civil War in the United States,” 1861).
Without going into too much detail, I’ll just say also that the Southern slavocracy maintained its designs on Mexico. During the Civil War, northern Mexico became an important geographical point for the Confederacy to try to break the Union blockade and sell cotton to Europe. According to Eugene Genovese, the Confederacy had plans to march “into New Mexico with the intention of proceeding to Tucson and then swinging south to take Sonora, Chihuahua, Durango, and Tamaulipas,” and “the Confederate government tried to deal with Santiago Vidaurri, the strong man of Coahuila and Nuevo León, to bring northern Mexico into the Confederacy.” At about the same time, Mexico itself was in the middle of its own war, in which Benito Juárez fought against French monarchists and Mexican conservatives like Vidaurri as he attempted to modernize Mexico.
Finish the Civil War!
The Civil War was the Second American Revolution, the last of the great bourgeois-democratic revolutions. It took four years and the deaths of some 600,000 Americans—almost as many as those who died in all other U.S. wars—to at last break the slave power. Included in this struggle were the almost 200,000 black troops who fought on the side of the Union. The North’s victory in 1865 ushered in the most democratic period in U.S. history, Reconstruction. The war, by ensuring the development of American capitalism, also laid the basis for the development of the American working class—the power that can get rid of capitalism. Black workers today make up a very important component of this working class.
The Northern capitalists betrayed Reconstruction and the promise of black freedom, as they pursued the economic advantages of their victory over the Confederacy, rather than advancing black rights. Toward the end of the century, the vicious segregation of Jim Crow was imposed. Meanwhile, the bourgeoisie moved from the consolidation of power nationally to the pursuit of imperialist power abroad—not least against Mexico and other Latin American countries.
Bloody American imperialism is the enemy of workers and the oppressed here in the United States and around the world. And this remains the case with President Obama, who is now planning to increase by 50 percent the imperialist troops occupying Afghanistan. The liberation of workers and peasants in Mexico and Latin America today requires socialist revolutions throughout the Americas, from the Yukon to the Yucatán, from Alaska to Argentina. We in the Spartacist League/U.S. are dedicated to forging a revolutionary class-struggle workers party that will be able to lead the working class to power in the U.S., which is what is necessary to smash U.S. imperialism. The fight for black liberation is central to this task. And that’s why we raise the slogan to “Finish the Civil War! For black liberation through socialist revolution!”