Consequences of the Mexican War

Posted on January 25, 2011. Filed under: American history | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Part the last of our series on interesting facets of the Mexican War concludes with the 1848 peace Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which gave the United States full ownership of Texas, with its western border at the Rio Grande, and the modern States of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, almost all of Arizona, Colorado, and part of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming (the rest of Arizona and New Mexico would be acquired through the 1853 Gadsden Purchase). In return, Mexico received a little over $18 million in compensation and forgiveness of $3.25 million owed by Mexico to the U.S.

Immense as the territories ceded by Mexico were, there were a number of U.S. Senators who urged Congress to take advantage of Mexico’s internal political chaos and force it to also give up its states of Nuevo León, Coahuila, and Tamaulipas, in today’s northeastern Mexico. This would have extended the U.S. hundreds of miles beyond Texas’ current southern border. Partly because there was growing opposition to the war in the U.S. (Illinois Rep. Abraham Lincoln was opposed), and partly because the parts of Mexico that the U.S. had so long desired, particularly California, were already handed over, Congress declined to pursue the war any longer, and this plan was dropped.

The Mexican Cession was at once a great acquisition for the U.S. and the end of the U.S. as it had been. The new lands made the slavery debate impossible to resolve through political compromise. The 1820 Missouri Compromise would have allowed slavery in New Mexico, Arizona, and the southern half of California, but not in Colorado, Utah, Kansas, or Wyoming. But anti-slavery Americans were not about to let California, the greatest prize of them all, the one that held out the most promise to small farmers and free labor, become a slave state (since a state could not be half-free, half-slave, California ran the risk of becoming a full slave state). Pro-slavery Americans knew that New Mexico and Arizona were not lands that lent themselves to plantation farming, and determined more fiercely than ever to have California, and the farmland that would become Kansas, too.

Free-Soil, free-labor, anti-slavery, and abolitionist Americans said now was the time to contain slavery altogether—to see the new territories not in the context of the north-south line of the Missouri Compromise, but as The West, a new entity that was not bound by the north-south politics or agreements of the eastern states. Keep slavery out of The West, they said, and keep it contained in the southern states until slave states were so outnumbered by free states, and slavery such an anomaly in the country, that slavery itself would die out.

Pro-slavery Americans had been ready for this fight for years. The nation had expanded along the Missouri Compromise line for nearly 30 years, it was the law of the land, there was no reason to change it, and any anti-slavery agitation in The West would be illegal, and punishable by law.

The problems the Mexican Cession caused would have to be quickly hammered out in the Compromise of 1850, a five-part piece of legislation that tried to create true compromise between anti- and pro-slavery Americans, not along purely geographical lines, but more philosophically. Slavery was not banned in the West (1), but California would enter the Union as a free state, end of story (2). Each of the remaining  western territories that wanted to become a state would decide on its own whether to come in as slave or free: popular sovereignty let the people in the territory vote on their status before applying for statehood (3). The Fugitive Slave Act was introduced, which allowed slaveholders to violate the personal liberty laws in free states (4), and slavery would remain a feature in the capital, Washington, DC (5).

This Compromise would be short-lived. As settlers poured into all regions of the Cession, the stakes became higher and higher on both sides of the slavery issue. Pro-slavery Americans needed numbers; they couldn’t allow slavery to be restricted to the existing southern states or their needs would never be met in Congress, where free-state Representatives and Senators would far outnumber slave. Anti-slavery Americans also needed numbers, to reduce slavery to a regional curiosity of a small number of states, rendered economically useless. The battles over how western states would come into the Union led to vote-rigging, where people from outside a territory would pour in when it came time to vote slave or free, making a mockery of the concept of popular sovereignty. The violence that ensued in these situations was made legendary in Bloody Kansas.

In short, the Mexican War was most important both for expanding the U.S. and for hastening the coming of the Civil War. Both events made the nation greater, one geographically, one morally. It was a dress-rehearsal for the Civil War in that so many men who fought together in the Mexican War fought against each other in the Civil War, including both Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee. And it nearly completed the U.S. conquest of the continent between Canada and what was left of Mexico (the last bits settled in the Gadsden Purchase). The discovery of gold in California the year after the war ended spurred not only Californian settlement but the western rush of pioneers that dominated American demographics until the end of the 19th century. It also left the United States as the undisputed great power of the western hemisphere—a great deal of impact for a war that is often skipped over as students of U.S. history move from the Revolutionary War directly to the Civil War.

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California, Californios, and Americans

Posted on January 17, 2011. Filed under: American history | Tags: , , , |

Part 4 of our series on interesting aspects of the Mexican-American War takes us to California. California is part of the Mexican War, of course, because what is now the State of California was northern Mexico at that time. While many Easterners in the U.S. talked almost mystically of the riches of California, and how it was the fairest land on the continent, the distance and the fact that it was a foreign country kept the number of U.S. settlers in Upper California very small.

John C. Frémont was an American who wanted to annex California, and hoped to do so almost single-handedly. He had been granted permission by the U.S. government to explore in the west, and was supposed to be canvassing the Disputed Area (now Oregon and Washington) in December 1845, but Frémont took his time moving through northern Mexico, dragging his feet and looking for a chance to lead his small group of armed men in an attack on the Mexican government in Upper California. He tried to start a revolution at Gavilan Peak but was told to cease and desist immediately by the U.S. consul in Upper California, Thomas Larkin. This was in early 1846, and the U.S. was not yet at war with Mexico. There was no reason to expect U.S. support for a minor insurrection begun in its name and likely doomed to failure.

Once war was declared in May, and Americans in California got word of it in June, things moved quickly. By mid-July, Sonoma, Monterey, and Yerba Buena (today’s San Francisco) were quickly occupied by American and pro-American settlers, including Frémont. The Mexican government was let down by its governor, Pío Pico, who fled, and the emboldened Americans occupied Los Angeles in mid-August. This occupation was carried out by U.S. Marines as well as settlers, but the local Mexican population was not intimidated, and launched a counter-attack under José María Flores. These Californios were unaided by the Mexican government, which was fighting U.S. forces far to the east; the Californios were defending their land from hostile occupation and seizure, and they defeated over 300 Americans, including Marines, at the two-day Battle of Dominguez Rancho in early October. In early December, Californios fought U.S. soldiers under General Stephen Kearny to a standstill near San Diego.

With the weight of the U.S. government behind the push to annex Upper California, however, the efforts of the Californios were doomed. By mid-January 1847, U.S. forces (including Frémont and his men) had won two significant battles and the majority of the remaining Californios surrendered. On January 13, 1847, the Treaty of Cahuenga was signed. This was a treaty strictly between the Californios and the U.S. military forces in Upper California, ending the fighting in Upper California. California would not change hands until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo the next year.

Next time: The end of the war

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Gay marriage in California

Posted on August 5, 2010. Filed under: Civil Rights | Tags: , |

Yes, I will continue to re-post this article each time the question of gay marriage comes up in the courts! The decision this week legalizing marriage for gay Americans in California will likely spawn the same arguments decisions in Iowa, Vermont, and Massachusetts did, so here is the basic Truth v. Myth post on the role of the judiciary in the United States  once more. Ironically, it was a California decision back in 2009 that led to the original post. Once again, the state has had to ask its court to rule on this question, and once again it has found the ban unconstitutional:

State Supreme Court decisions deeming the bans on gay marriage unconstitutional  continue to spawn the usual outraged claims that the judiciary has gone too far. “We’re not governed by the courts,” is the common complaint, as sputtered by one angry man on the radio.

The California Supreme Court’s decision that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional has been met with the by-now common complaint that the Court overstepped its bounds, trampled the wishes of the voters, and got into the legislation business without a permit.

A review of the constitutionally described role of the judiciary is in order.

The famous commentator on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, talked a great deal in his books Democracy in America about the tyranny of the majority. This is when majority rule—the basis of democracy—ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public.

For example, slavery was an example of the tyranny of the majority. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools. They used their majority power to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation.

In each example, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.

The judiciary was created to break this grip of majority tyranny. The legislature—Congress—cannot usually break majority tyranny because it is made up of people popularly elected by the majority. But the appointed judiciary can break majority tyranny because its sole job is not to reflect the wishes of the people but to interpret the Constitution.

If the judiciary finds that a law made by the legislature perverts democracy and imposes the tyranny of the majority, it can and must strike that law down. This is what happened in California. The court found that although the majority of Californians (as evidenced by a previous referendum) had voted to ban gay marriage, that majority was enforcing and imposing injustice on the minority. So the court found the ban unconstitutional.

This is not beyond the scope of the judiciary, it’s exactly what it is meant to do.

I heard a commentator yesterday saying the California court should have left the issue to “the prerogative of the voters”. But if the voters’ prerogative is to oppress someone else, then the court does not simply step aside and let this happen.

The same people who rage against the partial and biased justices who lifted this ban are generally the same people who would celebrate justices who imposed a ban on abortion. People who cry out for impartiality are generally only applying it to cases they oppose. See Dispatches from the Culture Wars for an excellent post demonstrating this.

So that’s what the judiciary does: it prevents the tyranny of the majority from enforcing injustice in a democracy. Like it or not, the “will of the people” is not always sacred, and sometimes must be opposed in the name of equality.

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Gay marriage defeated in Maine

Posted on November 4, 2009. Filed under: Civil Rights | Tags: , , , , , |

The voter referendum held in Maine on November 3, 2009 on whether to revoke the law recently passed there allowing gay Americans to legally marry was marked by claims that the people—rather than the courts or the state legislature—should decide whether gay people should marry. After state judiciaries in Iowa and Vermont in April 2009 legalized marriage for gay people, the usual outraged claims that the judiciary had gone too far filled the air. “We’re not governed by the courts,” sputtered one angry man on the radio.

This basic misunderstanding of the U.S. government leads me to repost this article, originally written in 2008 when California’s courts ruled on marriage for gay people. It applies to Maine, Vermont, Iowa, California, and any other state whose court decides in favor of allowing gay people to marry:

The California Supreme Court’s decision that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional has been met with the by-now common complaint that the Court overstepped its bounds, trampled the wishes of the voters, and got into the legislation business without a permit.

A review of the constitutionally described role of the judiciary is in order.

The famous commentator on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, talked a great deal in his books Democracy in America about the tyranny of the majority. This is when majority rule—the basis of democracy—ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public.

For example, slavery was an example of the tyranny of the majority. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools. They used their majority power to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation.

In each example, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.

The judiciary was created to break this grip of majority tyranny. The legislature—Congress—cannot usually break majority tyranny because it is made up of people popularly elected by the majority. But the appointed judiciary can break majority tyranny because its sole job is not to reflect the wishes of the people but to interpret the Constitution.

If the judiciary finds that a law made by the legislature perverts democracy and imposes the tyranny of the majority, it can and must strike that law down. This is what happened in California. The court found that although the majority of Californians (as evidenced by a previous referendum) had voted to ban gay marriage, that majority was enforcing and imposing injustice on the minority. So the court found the ban unconstitutional.

This is not beyond the scope of the judiciary, it’s exactly what it is meant to do.

I heard a commentator yesterday saying the California court should have left the issue to “the prerogative of the voters”. But if the voters’ prerogative is to oppress someone else, then the court does not simply step aside and let this happen. In the case of Maine, someone claimed that “using the courts as a battering ram to push gay marriage will only turn people against it [gay marriage].” The same could be said—and was said—about desegregation of schools. Popular approval is not the sole measure of a law in a democracy; it simply can’t be.

The same people who rage against the partial and biased justices who lifted this ban are generally the same people who would celebrate justices who imposed a ban on abortion. People who cry out for impartiality are generally only applying it to cases they oppose. See Dispatches from the Culture Wars for an excellent post demonstrating this.

So that’s what the judiciary does: it prevents the tyranny of the majority from enforcing injustice in a democracy. Like it or not, the “will of the people” is not always sacred, and sometimes must be opposed in the name of equality.

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