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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard
» PART IV. THE WEST AND JACKSONIAN DEMOCRACY
» CHAPTER XII

«·The Advance of the Middle Border · The Pacific Coast and Utah·»


On to the Pacific—Texas and the Mexican War

The Uniformity of the Middle West.—There was a certain monotony about pioneering in the Northwest and on the middle border. As the long stretches of land were cleared or prepared for the plow, they were laid out like checkerboards into squares of forty, eighty, one hundred sixty, or more acres, each the seat of a homestead. There was a striking uniformity also about the endless succession of fertile fields spreading far and wide under the hot summer sun. No majestic mountains relieved the sweep of the prairie. Few monuments of other races and antiquity were there to awaken curiosity about the region. No sonorous bells in old missions rang out the time of day. The chaffering Red Man bartering blankets and furs for powder and whisky had passed farther on. The population was made up of plain farmers and their families engaged in severe and unbroken labor, chopping down trees, draining fever-breeding swamps, breaking new ground, and planting from year to year the same rotation of crops. Nearly all the settlers were of native American stock into whose frugal and industrious lives the later Irish and German immigrants fitted, on the whole, with little friction. Even the Dutch oven fell before the cast-iron cooking stove. Happiness and sorrow, despair and hope were there, but all encompassed by the heavy tedium of prosaic sameness.

Santa Barbara Mission

A Contrast in the Far West and Southwest.—As George Rogers Clark and Daniel Boone had stirred the snug Americans of the seaboard to seek their fortunes beyond the Appalachians, so now Kit Carson, James Bowie, Sam Houston, Davy Crockett, and John C. Frémont were to lead the way into a new land, only a part of which was under the American flag. The setting for this new scene in the westward movement was thrown out in a wide sweep from the headwaters of the Mississippi to the banks of the Rio Grande; from the valleys of the Sabine and Red rivers to Montana and the Pacific slope. In comparison with the middle border, this region presented such startling diversities that only the eye of faith could foresee the unifying power of nationalism binding its communities with the older sections of the country. What contrasts indeed! The blue grass region of Kentucky or the rich, black soil of Illinois—the painted desert, the home of the sage brush and the coyote! The level prairies of Iowa—the mighty Rockies shouldering themselves high against the horizon! The long bleak winters of Wisconsin—California of endless summer! The log churches of Indiana or Illinois—the quaint missions of San Antonio, Tucson, and Santa Barbara! The little state of Delaware—the empire of Texas, one hundred and twenty times its area! And scattered about through the Southwest were signs of an ancient civilization—fragments of four-and five-story dwellings, ruined dams, aqueducts, and broken canals, which told of once prosperous peoples who, by art and science, had conquered the aridity of the desert and lifted themselves in the scale of culture above the savages of the plain.

The settlers of this vast empire were to be as diverse in their origins and habits as those of the colonies on the coast had been. Americans of English, Irish, and Scotch-Irish descent came as usual from the Eastern states. To them were added the migratory Germans as well. Now for the first time came throngs of Scandinavians. Some were to make their homes on quiet farms as the border advanced against the setting sun. Others were to be Indian scouts, trappers, fur hunters, miners, cowboys, Texas planters, keepers of lonely posts on the plain and the desert, stage drivers, pilots of wagon trains, pony riders, fruit growers, “lumber jacks,” and smelter workers. One common bond united them—a passion for the self-government accorded to states. As soon as a few thousand settlers came together in a single territory, there arose a mighty shout for a position beside the staid commonwealths of the East and the South. Statehood meant to the pioneers self-government, dignity, and the right to dispose of land, minerals, and timber in their own way. In the quest for this local autonomy there arose many a wordy contest in Congress, each of the political parties lending a helping hand in the admission of a state when it gave promise of adding new congressmen of the “right political persuasion,” to use the current phrase.

Southern Planters and Texas.—While the farmers of the North found the broad acres of the Western prairies stretching on before them apparently in endless expanse, it was far different with the Southern planters. Ever active in their search for new fields as they exhausted the virgin soil of the older states, the restless subjects of King Cotton quickly reached the frontier of Louisiana. There they paused; but only for a moment. The fertile land of Texas just across the boundary lured them on and the Mexican republic to which it belonged extended to them a more than generous welcome. Little realizing the perils lurking in a “peaceful penetration,” the authorities at Mexico City opened wide the doors and made large grants of land to American contractors, who agreed to bring a number of families into Texas. The omnipresent Yankee, in the person of Moses Austin of Connecticut, hearing of this good news in the Southwest, obtained a grant in 1820 to settle three hundred Americans near Bexar—a commission finally carried out to the letter by his son and celebrated in the name given to the present capital of the state of Texas. Within a decade some twenty thousand Americans had crossed the border.

Mexico Closes the Door.—The government of Mexico, unaccustomed to such enterprise and thoroughly frightened by its extent, drew back in dismay. Its fears were increased as quarrels broke out between the Americans and the natives in Texas. Fear grew into consternation when efforts were made by President Jackson to buy the territory for the United States. Mexico then sought to close the flood gates. It stopped all American colonization schemes, canceled many of the land grants, put a tariff on farming implements, and abolished slavery. These barriers were raised too late. A call for help ran through the western border of the United States. The sentinels of the frontier answered. Davy Crockett, the noted frontiersman, bear hunter, and backwoods politician; James Bowie, the dexterous wielder of the knife that to this day bears his name; and Sam Houston, warrior and pioneer, rushed to the aid of their countrymen in Texas. Unacquainted with the niceties of diplomacy, impatient at the formalities of international law, they soon made it known that in spite of Mexican sovereignty they would be their own masters.

The Independence of Texas Declared.—Numbering only about one-fourth of the population in Texas, they raised the standard of revolt in 1836 and summoned a convention. Following in the footsteps of their ancestors, they issued a declaration of independence signed mainly by Americans from the slave states. Anticipating that the government of Mexico would not quietly accept their word of defiance as final, they dispatched a force to repel “the invading army,” as General Houston called the troops advancing under the command of Santa Ana, the Mexican president. A portion of the Texan soldiers took their stand in the Alamo, an old Spanish mission in the cottonwood trees in the town of San Antonio. Instead of obeying the order to blow up the mission and retire, they held their ground until they were completely surrounded and cut off from all help. Refusing to surrender, they fought to the bitter end, the last man falling a victim to the sword. Vengeance was swift. Within three months General Houston overwhelmed Santa Ana at the San Jacinto, taking him prisoner of war and putting an end to all hopes for the restoration of Mexican sovereignty over Texas.

The Lone Star Republic, with Houston at the head, then sought admission to the United States. This seemed at first an easy matter. All that was required to bring it about appeared to be a treaty annexing Texas to the union. Moreover, President Jackson, at the height of his popularity, had a warm regard for General Houston and, with his usual sympathy for rough and ready ways of doing things, approved the transaction. Through an American representative in Mexico, Jackson had long and anxiously labored, by means none too nice, to wring from the Mexican republic the cession of the coveted territory. When the Texans took matters into their own hands, he was more than pleased; but he could not marshal the approval of two-thirds of the Senators required for a treaty of annexation. Cautious as well as impetuous, Jackson did not press the issue; he went out of office in 1837 with Texas uncertain as to her future.

Northern Opposition to Annexation.—All through the North the opposition to annexation was clear and strong. Anti-slavery agitators could hardly find words savage enough to express their feelings. “Texas,” exclaimed Channing in a letter to Clay, “is but the first step of aggression. I trust indeed that Providence will beat back and humble our cupidity and ambition. I now ask whether as a people we are prepared to seize on a neighboring territory for the end of extending slavery? I ask whether as a people we can stand forth in the sight of God, in the sight of nations, and adopt this atrocious policy? Sooner perish! Sooner be our name blotted out from the record of nations!” William Lloyd Garrison called for the secession of the Northern states if Texas was brought into the union with slavery. John Quincy Adams warned his countrymen that they were treading in the path of the imperialism that had brought the nations of antiquity to judgment and destruction. Henry Clay, the Whig candidate for President, taking into account changing public sentiment, blew hot and cold, losing the state of New York and the election of 1844 by giving a qualified approval of annexation. In the same campaign, the Democrats boldly demanded the “Reannexation of Texas,” based on claims which the United States once had to Spanish territory beyond the Sabine River.

Annexation.—The politicians were disposed to walk very warily. Van Buren, at heart opposed to slavery extension, refused to press the issue of annexation. Tyler, a pro-slavery Democrat from Virginia, by a strange fling of fortune carried into office as a nominal Whig, kept his mind firmly fixed on the idea of reëlection and let the troublesome matter rest until the end of his administration was in sight. He then listened with favor to the voice of the South. Calhoun stated what seemed to be a convincing argument: All good Americans have their hearts set on the Constitution; the admission of Texas is absolutely essential to the preservation of the union; it will give a balance of power to the South as against the North growing with incredible swiftness in wealth and population. Tyler, impressed by the plea, appointed Calhoun to the office of Secretary of State in 1844, authorizing him to negotiate the treaty of annexation—a commission at once executed. This scheme was blocked in the Senate where the necessary two-thirds vote could not be secured. Balked but not defeated, the advocates of annexation drew up a joint resolution which required only a majority vote in both houses, and in February of the next year, just before Tyler gave way to Polk, they pushed it through Congress. So Texas, amid the groans of Boston and the hurrahs of Charleston, folded up her flag and came into the union.

Texas and the Territory in Dispute
Texas and the Territory in Dispute

The Mexican War.—The inevitable war with Mexico, foretold by the abolitionists and feared by Henry Clay, ensued, the ostensible cause being a dispute over the boundaries of the new state. The Texans claimed all the lands down to the Rio Grande. The Mexicans placed the border of Texas at the Nueces River and a line drawn thence in a northerly direction. President Polk, accepting the Texan view of the controversy, ordered General Zachary Taylor to move beyond the Nueces in defense of American sovereignty. This act of power, deemed by the Mexicans an invasion of their territory, was followed by an attack on our troops.

President Polk, not displeased with the turn of events, announced that American blood had been “spilled on American soil” and that war existed “by the act of Mexico.” Congress, in a burst of patriotic fervor, brushed aside the protests of those who deplored the conduct of the government as wanton aggression on a weaker nation and granted money and supplies to prosecute the war. The few Whigs in the House of Representatives, who refused to vote in favor of taking up arms, accepted the inevitable with such good grace as they could command. All through the South and the West the war was popular. New England grumbled, but gave loyal, if not enthusiastic, support to a conflict precipitated by policies not of its own choosing. Only a handful of firm objectors held out. James Russell Lowell, in his Biglow Papers, flung scorn and sarcasm to the bitter end.

The Outcome of the War.—The foregone conclusion was soon reached. General Taylor might have delivered the fatal thrust from northern Mexico if politics had not intervened. Polk, anxious to avoid raising up another military hero for the Whigs to nominate for President, decided to divide the honors by sending General Scott to strike a blow at the capital, Mexico City. The deed was done with speed and pomp and two heroes were lifted into presidential possibilities. In the Far West a third candidate was made, John C. Frémont, who, in coöperation with Commodores Sloat and Stockton and General Kearney, planted the Stars and Stripes on the Pacific slope.

In February, 1848, the Mexicans came to terms, ceding to the victor California, Arizona, New Mexico, and more—a domain greater in extent than the combined areas of France and Germany. As a salve to the wound, the vanquished received fifteen million dollars in cash and the cancellation of many claims held by American citizens. Five years later, through the negotiations of James Gadsden, a further cession of lands along the southern border of Arizona and New Mexico was secured on payment of ten million dollars.

General Taylor Elected President.—The ink was hardly dry upon the treaty that closed the war before “rough and ready” General Taylor, a slave owner from Louisiana, “a Whig,” as he said, “but not an ultra Whig,” was put forward as the Whig candidate for President. He himself had not voted for years and he was fairly innocent in matters political. The tariff, the currency, and internal improvements, with a magnificent gesture he referred to the people’s representatives in Congress, offering to enforce the laws as made, if elected. Clay’s followers mourned. Polk stormed but could not win even a renomination at the hands of the Democrats. So it came about that the hero of Buena Vista, celebrated for his laconic order, “Give ’em a little more grape, Captain Bragg,” became President of the United States.


«·The Advance of the Middle Border · The Pacific Coast and Utah·»