Was the Mexican-American war justified?

The role of racism in legitimizing the American-Mexican war

Table of Contents:


1. The historical context
1.1. The conflict up to the war
1.2. Racial thinking in America before the conflict with Mexico

2. Racial thinking in America prior to the conflict with Mexico

II. Racization of the Mexicans 1845

III. "The Mexican" as an enemy during the war

Final consideration


Racism against Mexicans and Hispanics is a pervasive problem in America these days. Donald Trump is governed by a president who expresses himself openly racist towards these people and wants to build a wall on the US-Mexico border. However, this racism is not a new phenomenon. It began about 200 years ago when America shared a border with Mexico, and it was deeply anchored in the minds of Americans after the war against Mexico in 1848.

The topic was not present in research for a long time and it was overshadowed by the American Civil War. This is why research literature on the subject is sparse and dealing with the conflict has only received renewed attention in recent years. This also applies to the question of guilt for the war. The opinion that the Americans acted as the main aggressor and that the war was not justified has only prevailed in recent scientific publications.1 In American historiography, the Texas Revolution and the War of 1846 are still considered legitimate war and national pride.

In my work, I will primarily use historical sources such as speeches, official documents and newspaper articles. In order to explain the circumstances in more detail, however, I will also include secondary literature for clarification and analysis.

My work is based on historical events, and I will link the development of racism from the settlement of America to the American war against Mexico to the chronology of events. First of all, I will deal with the historical events surrounding the war in my work and, above all, I will explain the political causes in order to provide an overview of the situation. Then I give an excursus about the essential role racial thinking and racial images played in the settlement and establishment of the American state. Then I will explain the emergence of anti-Mexican racism as a result of the Texas Revolution. All of this should be the basis for an analysis and presentation of the racism that existed during the Mexican-American War. Finally, I will summarize the work and present my findings.

I. The historical context

In order to understand racism against Mexicans in the 19th century, it is necessary to look at the course of the conflict and the image of man and race in America.

1. The conflict up to the war

America was a young nation in the 19th century. After independence and the establishment of the state in 1776, a phase of expansion began in which the United States acquired and annexed large amounts of land. In a few years, the land area increased many times over. So it came about that from 1821 the United States shared a border with Mexico. In the same year Mexico also gained its independence after an 11-year war against the colonial power of the Spanish crown. A few years earlier, American settlers began to immigrate to Texas, Mexico, under the tolerance of the Spanish, and were given land there. The number of settlers very soon outnumbered Mexicans in sparsely populated Texas. The settlers brought two things with them that had the potential for conflict: slavery and Protestantism. The former was banned in Mexico, but slaves were kept across the country. Protestantism was a problem in that Mexico was a Catholic country and forced the settlers to convert to that denomination. Since most of the settlers saw themselves as Americans abroad and never saw themselves as Mexicans, the Mexican government was concerned about control of the region.2

After the internal political situation in Mexico worsened, the Texans rebelled in 1835. Because the USA supported the rebels financially and with volunteers, the war against the Mexican army was won a year later. Texas then declared its independence and remained an independent republic for 10 years until the American-Mexican War in 1846. Mexico recognized independence, but they threatened the Americans with war if they annexed Texas. With the election of President James K. Polk in 1844, an avowed expansionist came into office. He believed in the Manifest Destiny, a political notion that said expansion westward was predetermined by God. In 1845 the American Congress voted for the annexation of Texas. The Texan people also voted for it. The United States then made an offer to Mexico to buy Texas. Shortly before, Polk had positioned an army on the Rio Grande and was ready to take Texas by military force. The Mexicans saw this as an act of aggression, refused the purchase and sent the American consul Slidell back to America. When on 25.

April 1846 Mexicans attacked his troops in the disputed territory and eleven Americans were killed, the United States declared war on Mexico3 The war ended after two years after the Americans occupied large parts of Mexico. Mexico was defeated and had to surrender to the demands of the Americans. The Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty gave the United States the territories of Texas, Nueva Mexico, and Alta California. With that, Polk and his followers had achieved their goal of expanding the United States to the Pacific.

2. Racial thinking in America prior to the conflict with Mexico

Racial theory has played a vital role in the American continent since its colonization. The idea that people should be divided into different races comes from the time when the colonial powers of Europe first came into contact with people who were strangers to them. Before that, in the Middle Ages there was already a distinction between national character traits, for example that Germans were considered brutal but courageous, but there was still no talk of dividing people into “races”4 At first, racism served to expel and oppress Native Americans, which began with Columbus. The Spaniards believed, as Anthony Padgen writes, "they have a right, which can also become a duty, to rule over the Native Americans."5 This thinking served in the entire subsequent settlement of North America, as a basis to legitimize the fight against and expulsion of the Indian tribes. In the eyes of European settlers, Indians were inferior people. This can even be found in the United States' Declaration of Independence. There Indians are called "merciless Indian savages"6 After the founding of the USA, racism and the "superiority of the white race" were officially institutionalized through documents. The Naturalization Act of 1790 says: "any alien being a free white person [...] may be admitted to become a citizen"7. With this law, white skin color was required as a condition for full citizenship.

In the 19th century the so-called "Jacksonian Democracy" began with the presidency of Andrew Jackson. This political philosophy resulted in white men of all walks of life being given the right to vote. However, equality only applied to white men and excluded almost everyone else. This also worsened the situation of the free black population and that of the Native Americans.8

In addition to this idea, the idea of ​​the "Manifest Destiny", the belief in a God-given right to territorial expansion, found increasing acceptance in American politics and established itself as a political ideology after the annexation of Texas in 1845. The idea came up in the 1830s. The term was initiated by journalist John L. Sullivan in a newspaper article in 1845. With this idea, politicians legitimized the aggressive expansion, which actually lacked any legitimacy. The major role here played the superiority of thinking over non-whites, especially the idea that Protestantism is the "best" religion and that Americans are determined to impose their ideas of state and society on the entire American continent.9

II. Racization of Mexicans by 1845

When American settlers immigrated to Mexico, the Mexican government hoped that they could be turned into loyal Mexicans. The demands, such as learning the Spanish language and converting to Catholicism, were largely ignored by the settlers. A conflict developed between the Mexican government and the American settlers, which eventually led to Texan independence.

The Americans came to the country with the idea of ​​a racial order. The "father of Texas" Stephen F. Austin was not an ideological advocate of slavery, but defended it from the economic background, was also afraid of an "overpopulation" by the black slaves and had a racist idea of ​​them. He assumed that in the event of a rebellion, they would "rape and slaughter" North American women10 would. From the 1820s onwards, the Mexican press became interested in the treatment of Americans with black slaves and Native Americans and began to criticize the handling.11 Mexicans feared that this discrimination would happen to them, also because the expansionist rhetoric of the Americans implied it. When at the end of 1828 the first, first minister to mexico ico Joel Poinsett returned to the USA after failed negotiations with the Mexican government, he reported on the bad character of the Mexicans. This led to growing disdain for Mexicans in Washington.12 The ambassador of the Mexican government in Washington noticed this mood as early as 1822 and warned his government against the superiority of the Americans over their compatriots.13 But it was only in the wake of and after the Texas Revolution that the thought spread that Mexicans were less of a nationality and more an inferior race and that for the first time Americans differentiated the Anglo-Saxon and Mexican races ‘. The reports of Mexican brutality in the Texas War were an important factor in this. The Alamo and Goliad massacres, in which hundreds of Americans were killed, made the Mexican a brutal, deceitful savage. The President of Texas, Sam Houston, in his inaugural speech in 1836 described the warfare of the Mexicans as follows: "bad faith, inhumanity, and devastation marked their path of invasion".14 As this topic got a lot of attention in the newspapers in the United States, it increased contempt and hatred of Mexico. The diplomatic mission of Mexico in the USA also reported on this and criticized the Americans for this attitude.15

The theologian Horace Bushnell wrote in 1837 about the Mexicans, of a "fundamental disadvantage in their character" and said that the Anglo-Saxons were "the most splendid of the [people]" and were destined to colonize the North American country.16 Here you can also see the increasing anti-Mexican racism and the growing urge for expansionism among the Americans, which increased and interacted with each other.


1 Joy, Mark S .: American Expansionism 1783-1860: A Manifest Destiny ?, Routledge 2014, p. 65.

2 Joy: American Expansionism 1783-1860: A Manifest Destiny ?, p. 56.

3 Schroeder, John H .: Mr. Polks War. American Opposition and Dissent, 1846-48, Madison 1973, p. 3.

4 Eliav-Feldon, Miriam et al .: The Origins of Racism in the West, Cambridge 2009, pp. 292-294.

5 Eliav-Feldon: The Origins of Racism in the West, p. 301.

6 Declaration of Independence: A Transscription, online in: https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration- transcript, 2019, (as of 03.03.2019).

7 Chavez, Ernesto: The U.S. Was with Mexico. A Brief History with Documents, St. Martin's 2008, p. 37.

8 Guardino, Peter: The Dead March. A History of the Mexican-American War, Cambridge 2018, pp. 24-25.

9 Horsman, Reginald: Race and Manifest Destiny. The origins of American racial anglo-saxonism, Cambridge 1981.

10 Barker, Eugene-Campbell: The Life of Stephen F. Austin, Founder of Texas, 1793-1836: A Chapter in the Westward Movement of the Anglo-American People, Austin 1969, p. 201.

11 Brack, Gene M .: Mexican Opinion, American Racism, and the War of 1846, in: Western Historical Quarterly 2 (1970), pp. 161-174, here p. 168

12 Clary, David A. Eagles and Empire. The United States, Mexico and the struggle for a continent, New York 2009, p. 33.

13 Brack: Mexican Opinion, American Racism, and the War of 1846, p. 169.

14 Sam Houston's Inaugural Adress as President of the Republic of Texas (1836), online in: https://multimedialeamingllc.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/sam-houston s-inaugural-address-as-president-of-the - republic-of-texas.pdf, 2010, (status: 03.03.2020).

15 Brack: Mexican Opinion, American Racism, and the War of 1846, p. 170.

16 Bushnell, Horace: Horace Bushnell, An Oration, Pronounced before the Society of Phi Beta Kappa, at New Haven, on the Principles of National Greatness, quoted from: Horsman: Race and Manifest Destiny, p. 209.

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