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MEXICO the UNITED STATES and WAR (3 of 9)

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Van Buren to Polk and the Texas Annexation

The United States was advancing technologically and growing in wealth. Between 1830 and 1840 its railways grew from 100 miles to 3,500 miles of track. By 1840, the U.S. had 1,200 cotton factories (two-thirds of them in New England). And between 1830 and 1840 the population of the United States increased 36 percent – from 13 million to almost 18 million. City populations in this period had almost doubled – more people being added to cities than were moving into the frontier. And two more states entered the Union: Arkansas in 1836 and Michigan in 1837.

Wages were considerably higher in the United States than in Western Europe, and had been so since 1800 – the result of a demand for labor that was high relative to the supply of labor. The high cost of labor motivated manufacturers to invest more in machinery, stimulating the nation's productivity. And the U.S. spent less on military expenditures than did most European nations.

Politics in the United States continued to be quarrelsome, but nothing like Mexico. Military men in the US were uninterested in assuming political power. A political party called the Whigs had been formed as opposition to the Jacksonian Democrats. The Whigs included Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and Davy Crockett – until he lost his seat as congressman from Tennessee in the elections of 1834. Another Whig, in the Illinois state legislature from 1834 to 1836, was a man in his twenties named Abraham Lincoln.

For the elections of 1840 the Whigs nominated an ex-general from Ohio, William Henry Harrison, whose nickname was "Old Tippecanoe." The Whigs stole a line from the Democrats: they presented Harrison as a military hero and a hard-drinking man of the people who had been born in a log cabin. It was a way of presidential campaigning that would continue for generations: with an abundance of meetings, parades and campaign songs.

Running for re-election, the incumbent Democratic president, Martin Van Buren, was damaged by an economic recession that had begun in 1837 – a recession that included the closure of hundreds of banks, the failure of many businesses and many people losing their lands. Harrison won the election in a landslide, but he died of pneumonia after only a month in office, elevating Vice-President John Tyler to the presidency.

The issue of Texas and an expanding western frontier arose during the Tyler presidency. The government of the Republic of Texas was burdened by a huge debt, and, militarily vis-à-vis Mexico, Texas was weak – its 50,000 citizens facing Mexico's population of from 6 to 7 million. The president of the Republic of Texas since December 1838 was Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, who hoped to annex to the Republic of Texas some states in northern Mexico, in addition to New Mexico and California. In June 1841, he led an expedition against Santa Fe, which Mexico easily defended, sending Lamar's army back to Texas. Lamar's popularity declined, and Sam Houston, who had not approved of Lamar's plan, was returned to the Texas presidency that year. Mexico's raids against the Texans at San Antonio in 1842 underscored the need of military help for the Texans from the United States, and Houston looked forward to the annexation of Texas by the United States.

In 1842, the first wagon train passed along the two thousand mile trail to Oregon. And during the Tyler administration talk erupted of a possible conflict with Britain over Oregon. And there was concern over British involvement in a settlement between the Republic of Texas and Mexico, a settlement that would include the emancipation of the slaves in Texas – talk that southern plantation owners and politicians disliked. They feared that Texas without slavery could become a refuge for runaway slaves.

Mexico owed Britain much money, and the British were maintaining close ties with Mexico. Britain and France favored making Texas a wedge between the United States and Latin America, and they were looking to Texas as a source of cotton, sugar and tobacco.

Some of the Whig party in the U.S. were opposed to the US annexing Texas. Six state legislatures under Whig control resolved that annexation of Texas would be unconstitutional. Slave states favored annexation, and from South Carolina came a call for southern states to secede from the Union if annexation failed.

The Democrats pursued the elections held in 1844 on a platform calling for the annexation of Texas and control over Oregon. Referring to the parallel 54ยบ 40' (near Alaska) as the northern border for the US, Democrats raised the slogan "Fifty-four Forty or Fight." The Whig party's candidate for president, Kentucky's Henry Clay, accepted annexation of Texas if it could be accomplished without a war with Mexico, but during the campaign he dropped his support of annexation. As a slave owner, Clay lost some of his appeal among northerners. The Whigs described the Democratic Party's candidate, James Polk, as a nobody. Polk won the presidency, and the Democrats won a 30 to 24 majority in the Senate and a 144 to 77 majority in the House of Representatives.

1845 and Presidents Polk and Herrera

At the end of February, 1845, the US Congress approved the annexation of Texas. After Mexico City learned of this in mid-March, Mexico's foreign minister told the ambassador from the US in Mexico that foreign relations between the two nations would be terminated.

Mexico's president was José Joaquín de Herrera, a general who had been appointed by other generals. To prevent war, Herrera wanted conciliation with the United States. Britain advised Herrera to acknowledge the independence of Texas on condition that the Republic of Texas agree not to be annexed by any country. But, in June, Congress in the Republic of Texas met and chose annexation to the United States rather than independence recognized by Mexico. In Mexico the response was a burst of hostility toward the United States and an intense clamor for war.

In July, 1845, President Polk sent an army of 1,500 men to Texas, near the small Hispanic settlement at Corpus Christi, and in August the size of this army was doubled. President Polk sent John Slidell to Mexico City to negotiate with the Mexicans, to ask for damages claimed by the US and to offer 40 million dollars for the purchase of California and New Mexico. Herrera knew that any sign of conciliation with the US would end his administration, and his government refused to meet with Slidell.

In December, the Polk administration negotiated with the British regarding Oregon. Neither the U.S. nor the British wanted war and both were willing to compromise. Britain gave up its insistence of a border at the Columbia River, and the two powers agreed to border along the 49th parallel, except at the southern tip of Vancouver Island, all of which was to go to the British. Then, on December 29, 1845, the US Congress accepted Texas as the 28th state.

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Copyright © 2002-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.