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The War With Mexico, Volume I (of 2) By Justin H. Smith Characters: 64889

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Mexico, an immense cornucopia, hangs upon the Tropic of Cancer and opens toward the north pole. The distance across its mouth is about the same as that between Boston and Omaha, and the line of its western coast would probably reach from New York to Salt Lake City. Nearly twenty states like Ohio could be laid down within its limits, and in 1845 it included also New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, California and portions of Colorado and Wyoming.[1]

On its eastern side the ground rises almost imperceptibly from the Gulf of Mexico for a distance varying from ten to one hundred miles, and ascends then into hills that soon become lofty ranges, while on the western coast series of cordilleras tower close to the ocean. Between the two mountain systems lies a plateau varying in height from 4000 to 8000 feet, so level-we are told-that one could drive, except where deep gullies make trouble, from the capital of Montezuma to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The country is thus divided into three climatic zones, in one or another of which, it has been said, every plant may be found that grows between the pole and the equator.[1][E]

Except near the United States the coast lands are tropical or semi-tropical; and the products of the soil, which in many quarters is extraordinarily deep and rich, are those which naturally result from extreme humidity and heat. Next comes an intermediate zone varying in general height from about 2000 to about 4000 feet, where the rainfall, though less abundant than on the coast, is ample, and the climate far more salubrious than below. Here, in view of superb mountains and even of perpetual snows, one finds a sort of eternal spring and a certain blending of the tropical and the temperate zones. Wheat and sugar sometimes grow on the same plantation, and both of them luxuriantly; while strawberries and coffee are not far apart.[1]


The central plateau lacks moisture and at present lacks trees. The greater part of it is indeed a semi-desert, though a garden wherever water can be supplied. During the wet season-June to October-it is covered with wild growths, but the rains merely dig huge gullies or barrancas, and almost as soon as they are over, most of the vegetation begins to wither away. The climate of the plateau is quite equable, never hot and never cold. Wheat, Indian corn and maguey-the plant from which pulque, the drink of the common people, is made-are the most important products; and at the north great herds of cattle roam. In the mountains, finally, numberless mines yield large quantities of silver, some gold, and a considerable amount of copper and lead.[1]

The principal cities on the eastern coast are Vera Cruz, the chief seaport, and Tampico, not far south of the Rio Grande River. In the temperate zone between Vera Cruz and Mexico lie Jalapa and Orizaba, and behind Tampico lies Monterey. On the central plateau one finds the capital reposing at an elevation of about eight thousand feet and, about seventy miles toward the southeast, Puebla; while on the other side of the capital are the smaller towns of Querétaro and San Luis Potosí toward the north, and Zacatecas and Chihuahua toward the northwest. In the middle zone of the Pacific slope rises the large city of Guadalajara, capital of Jalisco state; and along the coast below may be found a number of seaports, the most important of which are Guaymas, far to the north, Mazatlán opposite the point of Lower California, San Blas a little farther down, and Acapulco in the south.[1]


Exactly how large the population of Mexico was in 1845 one cannot be sure, and it included quite a number of racial mixtures; but for the present inquiry we may suppose it consisted of 1,000,000 whites, 4,000,000 Indians, and 2,000,000 of mixed white and Indian blood.[2] The Spaniards from Europe, called Gachupines in Mexico, were of two principal classes during her colonial days. Many had been favorites of the Spanish court, or the protégés of such favorites, and had exiled themselves to occupy for a longer or shorter time high and lucrative posts; but by far the greater number were men who had left home in their youth-poor, but robust, energetic and shrewd-to work their way up. With little difficulty such immigrants found places in mercantile establishments or on the large estates. Merciless in pursuit of gain yet kind to their families, faithful to every agreement, and honest when they could afford to be, they were intrinsically the strongest element of the population, and almost always they became wealthy.[3]

Their sons, poorly educated, lacking the spur of poverty, and finding themselves in a situation where idleness and self-indulgence were their logical habits, commonly took "Siempre alegre" (Ever light-hearted) for their motto, and spent their energy in debauchery and gambling. To this result their own fathers, while disgusted with it, usually contributed. Spanish pride revolted at the ladder of subordination by which these very men had climbed. They felt ambitious to make gentlemen of their sons, and some easy position in the army, church or civil service-or, in default of it, idleness-was the career towards which they pointed; and naturally the heirs to their wealth, whose ignoble propensities had prevented them from acquiring efficiency or sense of responsibility, made haste, on getting hold of the paternal wealth, to squander it. If the pure whites, with some exceptions of course, fell into this condition, nothing better could fairly be expected of those who were partly Indian; and before the revolution it was almost universally felt in Spain and among the influential class of colonials themselves, that nothing of much value could be expected of Creoles, as the whites born in Mexico and the half-breeds were generally called. The achievement of independence naturally tended to increase their self-respect, broaden their views and stimulate their ambition; but the less than twenty-five years that elapsed between 1821 and 1846, when the war between Mexico and the United States began, were not enough to transform principles, reverse traditions and uproot habits.[3]

The pure-blooded Indians-of whom there were many tribes, little affiliated if at all-had changed for the worse considerably since the arrival of the whites. In their struggles against conquest and oppression the most intelligent, spirited and energetic had succumbed, and the rest, deprived of strength, happiness, consolation and even hope, and aware that they existed merely to fill the purses or sate the passions of their masters, had rapidly degenerated. Their natural apathy, reticence and intensity were at the same time deepened. While apparently stupid and indifferent, they were capable of volcanic outbursts. Though fanatically Christian in appearance, they seem to have practiced often a vague nature worship under the names and forms of Catholicism. Indeed they were themselves almost a part of the soil, bound in soul to the spot where they were born; and, although their women could put on silk slippers to honor a church festival and every hut could boast a crucifix or a holy image, they lived and often slept beside their domestic animals with a brutish disregard for dirt.[3]

Legally they had the rights of freemen and were even the wards of the government, and a very few acquired education and property; but as a rule they had to live by themselves in little villages under the headship of lazy, ignorant caciques and the more effective domination of the priests. As the state levied a small tax upon them and the Church several heavy ones, their scanty earnings melted fast, and if any surplus accumulated they made a fiesta in honor of their patron saint, and spent it in masses, fireworks, drink, gluttony and gambling. When sickness or accident came they had to borrow of the landowner to whose estate they were attached; and then, as they could not leave his employ until the debt had been discharged, they not only became serfs, but in many cases bequeathed their miserable condition to their children. Silent and sad, apparently frail but capable of great exertion, trotting barefooted to and from their huts with their coarse black hair flowing loosely or gathered in two straight braids, watching everything with eyes that seemed fixed on the ground, loving flowers much but a dagger more, fond of melody but preferring songs that were melancholy and wild, always tricky, obstinate, indolent, peevish and careless yet affectionate and hospitable, often extracting a dry humor from life as their donkeys got nourishment from the thistles, they went their wretched ways as patient and inscrutable as the sepoy or the cat-infants with devils inside.[3]


At the head of the social world stood a titled aristocracy maintained by the custom of primogeniture. But as the nobles were few in number, and for a long time had possessed no feudal authority, their influence at the period we are studying depended mainly upon their wealth. Next these came aristocrats of other kinds. Some claimed the honor of tracing their pedigree to the conquerors, and with it enjoyed great possessions; and others had the riches without the descent. The two most approved sources of wealth were the ownership of immense estates and the ownership of productive mines. On a lower level stood certain of the rich merchants, and lower still, if they were lucky enough to gain social recognition, a few of those who acquired property by dealing in the malodorous government contracts. To these must be added in general the high dignitaries of the church, the foreign ministers, the principal generals and statesmen and the most notable doctors and lawyers. Such was the upper class.[4]

A sort of middle class included the lesser professional men, prelates, military officers and civil officials, journalists, a few teachers, business men of importance and some fairly well-to-do citizens without occupations. Of small farms and small mines there were practically none, and the inferior clergy signified little. The smaller importing and wholesale merchants came to be almost entirely British, French and German soon after independence was achieved, and the retailers were mostly too low in the scale to rank anywhere. The case of those engaged in the industries was even more peculiar. Working at a trade seemed menial to the Spaniard, especially since the idea of labor was associated with the despised Indians, and most of the half-breeds and Indians lacked the necessary intelligence. Skilled workers at the trades were therefore few, and these few mostly high-priced foreigners. Articles of luxury could be had but not comforts; pastries and ices but not good bread; saddles covered with gold and embroidery, but not serviceable wagons; and the highly important factor of intelligent, self-respecting handicraftsmen was thus well-nigh missing.[4]

The laboring class consisted almost entirely of half-breeds and Indians. In public affairs they were not considered, and their own degraded state made them despise their tasks. Finally, the dregs of the population, especially in the large cities, formed a vicious, brutal and semi-savage populace. At the capital there were said to be nearly 20,000 of the léperos, as they were called, working a little now and then, but mainly occupied in watching the religious processions, begging, thieving, drinking and gambling. In all, Humboldt estimated at 200,000 or 300,000 the number of these creatures, whose law was lawlessness and whose heaven would have been a hell.[4]


The only church legally tolerated was that of Rome; and this, as the unchallenged authority in the school and the pulpit, the keeper of confessional secrets and family skeletons, and the sole dispenser of organized charity, long wielded a tremendous power. The clerical fuero, which exempted all ecclesiastics from the jurisdiction of the civil courts, reinforced it, and the wealth and financial connections of the Church did the same. In certain respects, however, the strength of the organization began to diminish early in the nineteenth century; and in particular the Inquisition was abolished in Mexico, as it was in Spain. Soon after the colony became independent, a disposition to bar ecclesiastics from legislative bodies, to philosophize on religious matters and to view Protestants with some toleration manifested itself. Ten years more, and the urgent need of public schools led to certain steps, as we shall see, toward secular education. Political commotions, the exactions of powerful civil authorities under the name of loans, and various other circumstances cut into the wealth of the Church; and the practical impossibility of selling the numberless estates upon which it had mortgages or finding good reinvestments in the case of sales, compelled it, as the country became less and less prosperous, to put up with delays and losses of interest.[5]

Moreover the Church was to no slight extent a house divided against itself. Under Spanish rule and substantially down to 1848, all the high dignities fell to Gachupines, who naturally faced toward Spain, whereas the parish priests were mainly Creoles with Mexican sympathies; and while the bishops and other managers had the incomes of princes, nearly all of the monks and ordinary priests lived in poverty. There was, therefore, but little in common between the two ranks except the bare fact of being churchmen, which was largely cancelled on the one side by contempt and on the other side by envy; and the common priests, having generally sided against Spain during the revolution and always been closely in touch with the people, exercised, in spite of their pecuniary exactions, an influence that largely balanced the authority of their heads. Finally, the ignorance of most ecclesiastics and the immorality of nearly all greatly diminished their moral force. A large number, even among the higher clergy, were unable to read the mass; and the monks, who in the early days of the colony had rendered good service as missionaries, were now recruited-wrote an American minister-from "the very dregs of the people," and constituted a public scandal.[5]

Still, the Church wielded immense power as late as 1845, and this was reinforced by the type of religion that it offered. High and low alike, the Mexicans, with some exceptions, lived in the senses, differing mainly in the refinement of the gratifications they sought; and the priests offered them a sensuous worship. Sometimes, almost crazed by superstitious fears, men would put out the lights in some church, strip themselves naked, and ply the scourge till every blow fell with a splash. It was pleasanter, however, and usually edifying enough, to kneel at the mass, gaze upon the extraordinary display of gold and silver, gorgeous vestments, costly images and elaborately carved and gilded woodwork, follow the smoke of the incense rolling upward from golden censers, listen to sonorous incantations called prayers, and confess to some fat priest well qualified to sympathize with every earthy desire. A man who played this game according to the rule was good and safe. A brigand counting the chances of a fray could touch his scapularies with pious confidence, and the intending murderer solicit a benediction on his knife. Enlightened Catholics as well as enlightened non-Catholics deplored the state of religion in Mexico.[5]

Next after the Church came the "army," which meant a social order, a body of professional military men-that is to say, officers–exempted by their fuero from the jurisdiction of the civil law and almost exclusively devoted to the traditions, principles and interests of their particular group. As the Church held the invisible power, the army held the visible; and whenever the bells ceased to ring, the roll of the drum could be heard. Every President and almost every other high official down to the close of our Mexican war was a soldier, and sympathized with his class; and as almost every family of any importance included members of the organization, its peculiar interests had a strong social backing. By force of numbers, too, this body was influential, for at one time, when the army contained scarcely 20,000 soldiers, it had 24,000 officers; and so powerful became the group that in 1845, when the real net revenue of the government did not exceed $12,000,000, its appropriation was more than $21,000,000.[5]

Under Spanish rule, although the army enjoyed great privileges, it had been kept in strict subordination, and usefully employed on the frontiers; but independence changed the situation. Apparently the revolution was effected by the military men, and they not merely claimed but commonly received the full credit. Not only did a large number of unfit persons, who pretended to have commanded men during the struggle, win commissions, but wholesale promotions were made in order to gain the favor of the officers; and in these ways the organization was both demoralized and strengthened. Over and over again military men learned to forswear their allegiance, and at one time the government actually set before the army, as a standard of merit, success in inducing soldiers of the opposite party to change sides.[5]


In the course of political commotions, to be reviewed in the next chapter, the armed forces were more and more stationed at the cities, where they lost discipline and became the agents of political schemers; and naturally, when the government admitted their right to take part as organized bodies in political affairs, the barracks came to supersede the legislative halls, bullets took the place of arguments, and the military men, becoming the arbiters on disputed points, regarded themselves as supreme. Moreover, every administration felt it must have the support of this organization, and, not being able to dominate it, had to be dominated by it. Political trickery could therefore bring the officer far greater rewards than professional merit, and success in a revolt not only wiped away all stains of insubordination, cowardice and embezzlement, but ensured promotion. A second lieutenant who figured in six affairs of that sort became almost necessarily a general, and frequently civilians who rendered base but valuable services on such occasions were given high army rank. No doubt some risk was involved, but it was really the nation as a whole that paid the penalties; and anyhow one could be bold for a day far more easily than be courageous, patient, studious, honest and loyal for a lifetime. All true military standards were thus turned bottom-side up, and some of the worst crimes a soldier can perpetrate became in Mexico the brightest of distinctions.[5]

Of course the discovery that rank and pay did not depend upon deserving them set every corrupt officer at work to get advanced, while it drove from the service, or at least discouraged, the few men of talents and honor; and as all subordination ceased, a general not only preferred officers willing to further his dishonorable interests, but actually dreaded to have strong and able men serve in his command. In 1823 the Mexican minister of war reported to Congress, "Almost the whole army must be replaced, for it has contracted vices that will not be removed radically in any other way," and four years later a militia system was theoretically established with a view to that end; but the old organization continued to flourish, and in April, 1846, the British minister said, "The Officers ... are, as a Corps, the worst perhaps to be found in any part of the world. They are totally ignorant of their duty, ... and their personal courage, I fear, is of a very negative character."[5]

In 1838, a German visitor stated there were a hundred and sixty generals for an army of thirty thousand, and this was perhaps a fair estimate of the usual proportion; but out of all these, every one of whom could issue a glowing proclamation, probably not a single "Excellency" could properly handle a small division, while few out of thousands of colonels could lead a regiment on the field, and some were not qualified to command a patrol. A battle was almost always a mob fight ending in a cavalry charge; and Waddy Thompson, an American minister to Mexico, said he did not believe a manoeuvre in the face of the enemy was ever attempted. Naturally the general administration of military affairs became a chaos; and, worst of all, a self-respecting general thought it almost a disgrace to obey an order-even an order from the President.[5]

The privates and non-commissioned officers, on the other hand, mainly Indians with a sprinkling of half-breeds, were not bad material. The Indians in particular could be described as naturally among the best soldiers in the world, for they were almost incredibly frugal, docile and enduring, able to make astonishing marches, and quite ready-from animal courage, racial apathy or indifference about their miserable lives-to die on the field. But usually they were seized by force, herded up in barracks as prisoners, liberally cudgelled but scantily fed, and after a time driven off to the capital, chained, in a double file, with distracted women beside them wailing to every saint. When drilled enough to march fairly well through the street in column, clothed in a serge uniform or a coarse linen suit, and equipped with an old English musket and some bad powder, they were called soldiers, and were exhorted to earn immortal glory; but naturally they got away if they could, and frequently on a long expedition half a corps deserted.[5]

Such men were by no means "thinking bayonets," and as a rule they shot very badly, often firing with their guns at the hip in order to avoid the heavy recoil. Not only did they lack the inspiration of good officers, but in pressing times it was customary to empty the prisons, and place their inmates in the ranks to inculcate vice. The government furnished their wages, upon which as a rule they had to live from day to day, even more irregularly than it paid the officers, and the latter frequently embezzled the money; so that it became a common practice to sell one's arms and accoutrements, if possible, for what they would bring. Finally, the duty always enjoined upon the troops was "blind obedience," not the use of what little intelligence they possessed; and their bravery, like that of such officers as had any, was mainly of the impulsive, passionate and therefore transient sort, whereas Anglo-Saxon courage is cool, calculating, resolute and comparatively inexhaustible.[5]

The special pride of all military men was the cavalry; but the horses were small, and the riders badly trained and led. "The regular Mexican cavalry is worth nothing," wrote the British minister early in 1846; and as the mounts were quite commonly hired merely for the parades, just as the rolls of the whole army were stuffed with fictitious names on which the officers drew pay, it was never certain how much of the nominal force could be set in motion. As for the artillery, Waddy Thompson remarked that in a battle of 1841 between the foremost generals of the country, not one ball in a thousand reached the enemy. On the other hand there were excellent military bands, and one of them dispensed lively selections every afternoon in front of the palace at Mexico.[5]


Third in the official order of precedence and in the actual control of affairs came the government officials, and these, like the army and the clergy, formed a special group with a similar fuero, a similar self-interest and a similar disregard for the general good. Once appointed to an office one had a vested right therein, and could not legally be removed without a prosecution. To eliminate a person in that manner was extremely difficult; and when the government, in a few notorious instances, tried ejectment, the newspapers of the opposition hastened to raise an outcry against it for attacking property rights, and the culprits were soon reinstated.[5]

Offering such permanence of tenure, a "genteel" status, idleness even beyond the verge of ennui, a perfect exemption from the burden of initiative, and occasional opportunities for illegitimate profits, government offices appealed strongly to the Mexicans, and a greed for them-dignified with the name of aspirantism when it aimed at the higher positions-was a recognized malady of the nation. To get places, all the tricks and schemes employed in the army and, if possible, still more degrading intrigues were put in play; and offices had to be created by the wholesale to satisfy an appetite that grew by what it fed upon. The clerks became so numerous that work room-or rather desk room-could not be provided for all of them. Only a favored portion had actual employment and received full pay-if they received any-while the rest were laid off on barely enough to support life. Some were competent and willing to be faithful; but when they saw ignorance, laziness, disloyalty and fraud given the precedence, they naturally asked, Why do right? Idleness is the mother of vice; and so there was a very large body of depraved and discontented fellows, wriggling incessantly for preferment, fawning, backbiting, grabbing at any scheme that would advance their interests, intensely jealous of one another, but ready to make common cause against any purification of the civil service.[5]

How justice was administered in Mexico one is now able to surmise. The laws, not codified for centuries, were a chaos. Owing to numberless intricacies and inconsistencies, the simplest case could be made almost eternal, especially as all proceedings were slow and tedious. A litigant prepared to spend money seldom needed to lose a suit. Some cases lasted three generations. The methods of administering justice, reported the British representative in 1835, "afford every facility" for "artifices and manoeuvres."[6]

Another difficulty was that the courts lacked prestige. During the revolution the magistrates, practically all of them Gachupines, committed so many acts of injustice in behalf of the government, that people forgot the proper connection between crime and retribution. Punishment seemed like a disease that any one might get. In 1833 the minister of this department complained that for five years Congress had almost ignored the administration of justice; and in 1845, the head of the same department said that for a long time the government had systematically reduced the dignity and influence of the judges and magistrates. Their pay was not only diminished but often withheld; and the official journal once remarked, that the authorities had more important business in hand than paying legal functionaries.[6]

This was obviously wrong, but in a sense the judges merited such treatment, for they seem to have lacked even the most necessary qualifications. To make the situation still worse, the executive authorities had a way of stepping in and perverting justice arbitrarily. Even the Mexicans were accustomed to say, "A bad compromise is better than a good case at law"; but it was naturally aliens who suffered most. "The great and positive evil which His Majesty's subjects, in common with other Foreigners, have to complain of in this country is the corrupt and perverse administration of justice," reported the minister of England in 1834.[6]

Criminal law was executed no better than civil. The police of the city are a complete nullity, stated the American representative in 1845. A fault, a vice and a crime were treated alike; and the prisons, always crowded with wrongdoers of every class, became schools in depravity, from which nearly all, however bad, escaped in the end to prey upon society. Well-known robbers not only went about in safety, but were treated with kindly attentions even by their late victims, for all understood that if denounced and punished, they would sooner or later go free, and have their revenge.[6]


Adverting formally before Congress in 1841 to the "notoriously defective" administration of justice, the Mexican President said, "the root of the evil lies in the deplorable corruption which pervades all classes of society and in the absence of any corrective arising from public opinion." In large measure this condition of things was chargeable to the low state of religion, but in part it could be attributed to the want of education. Spain had required people to think as little as possible, keep still and obey orders; and for such a r?le enlightenment seemed unnecessary and even dangerous. To read and write a little and keep accounts fairly well was about enough secular knowledge for anybody, and the catechism of Father Ripalda, which enjoined the duty of blind obedience to the King and the Pope, completed the circle of useful erudition. In the small towns, as there were few elementary schools, even these attainments could not easily be gained; and as for the Indians they were merely taught-with a whip at the church door, if necessary-to fear God, the priest and the magistrate. Religion gave no help; and the ceremonies of worship benumbed the intellect as much as they fascinated the senses.[6]

When independence arrived, however, there sprang up not a little enthusiasm for the education of the people, and the states moved quite generally in that direction. But there were scarcely any good teachers, few schoolhouses and only the most inadequate books and appliances; money could not be found; and the prelates, now chiefly absorbed in their political avocations, not only failed to promote the cause, but stood in the way of every step toward secular schools. A few of the leaders-notably Santa Anna-professed great zeal, but this was all for effect, and they took for very different uses whatever funds could be extorted from the nation. In 1843 a general scheme of public instruction was decreed, but no means were provided to carry it into effect. The budget for 1846 assigned $29,613 to this field, of which $8000 was intended for elementary schools, while for the army and navy it required nearly twenty-two millions. In short, though of course a limited number of boys and a few girls acquired the rudiments-and occasionally more-in one way or another, no system of popular education existed.[6]

Higher instruction was in some respects more flourishing. Before the revolution the School of Mines, occupying a noble and costly edifice, gave distinction to the country; the university was respectable; an Academy of Fine Arts did good work; and botany received much attention. But at the university mediaeval Latin, scholastic and polemic theology, Aristotle and arid comments on his writings were the staples, and even these innocent subjects had to be investigated under the awful eye of the Inquisition. Speculation on matters of no practical significance formed the substance of the work, and the young men learned that worst of lessons-to discourse volubly and plausibly on matters of which they knew nothing. This course of discipline, emphasizing the natural bent of the Creoles, turned out a set of conceited rhetoricians, ignorant of history and the real world, but eager to distinguish themselves by some brilliant experiment. When the yoke of Spain had been cast off, all these institutions declined greatly, and the university became so unimportant that in 1843 it was virtually destroyed; but the view that speculation was better than inquiry, theory better than knowledge, and talk better than anything-a view that suited Mexican lightness, indolence and vanity so well, and had so long been taught by precept and example-still throve despite a few objectors. Of foreign countries, in particular, very little was commonly known. While elementary education, then, was nothing, higher education was perhaps worse than nothing.[6]

Nor could the printed page do much to supply the lack. Only a few had the taste for reading books or opportunities to gratify the taste, if they possessed it. Great numbers of catchy pamphlets on the topics of the day flew about the streets; newspapers had a great vogue; and there were poor echoes of European speeches, articles and books; but most of the printed material was shockingly

partisan, irresponsible and misleading. "Unfortunately for us," observed the minister of the interior in 1838, "the abuse of the liberty of the press among us is so great, general and constant, that it has only served our citizens as the light of the meteor to one travelling in a dark night, misguiding him and precipitating him into an abyss of evils."[6]


Only some 300,000 out of 3,000,000 white and mixed people were actual producers-three times as many being clericals, military men, civil officials, lawyers, doctors and idlers, and the rest old men, women and children. The most brilliant of their industries was mining, the annual output of which was about $18,000,000 in 1790, fell during the revolution to $5,000,000, and by 1845 rose again-despite the unwise policy of the government-to about the earlier level. During the period of depression most of the old proprietors and many of their properties were ruined; but English companies took up the work, and although for some time their liberal expenditures went largely to waste, they gradually learned the business, and their example encouraged some Germans to enter the field. How greatly the nation profited from the mines was not entirely clear. About as much silver went abroad each year as they produced, paying interest on loans that should not have been made, and buying goods for which substitutes could usually have been manufactured at home. But the government laid valuable taxes on the extraction and export of the precious metals, and there was also a profit in the compulsory minting of them-though, as all the inventiveness of the nation expended itself in politics, the processes at the mints were about as tedious and costly in 1845 as while Cortez ruled the country.[7]

Little more can be said for the cultivation of the soil. When Mexico separated from Spain, the vine and the olive, flax and certain other plants formerly prohibited were acquired, and coffee soon became important; but on the other hand agriculture had met with disaster after disaster in the course of the revolution. "Up to the present," said a ministerial report in December, 1843, "agriculture among us has not departed from the routine established at the time of the conquest." A cart-wheel consisted still of boards nailed together crosswise, cut into a circular shape and bored at the centre; a pointed stick, shod sometimes with iron, was still the plough; a short pole with a spike driven through one end served as the hoe; the corn, instead of going to a mill, was ground on a smooth stone with a hand roller; and no adequate means existed of transporting such products as were raised to such markets as could be found. Most of the "roads" made so much trouble even for donkeys and pack-mules that it was seriously proposed to introduce camels; and the most important road of all, the National Highway from the capital to Jalapa and Vera Cruz, was allowed to become almost impassable in spots. Besides poor methods, bad roads, brigands, revolutions and a great number of holidays, there were customhouses everywhere and a system of almost numberless formalities, the accidental neglect of which might involve, if nothing worse, the confiscation of one's goods. In short, how could agriculture prosper, said a memorial on the subject, when he that sowed was not permitted to gather, and he that gathered could reach no market?[7]


However, more could be produced than used. The prime requisite was population. So much appeared to be clear; and for that reason, as well as to obtain the profits of the industries and prevent money from going abroad, great efforts were made by independent Mexico to develop manufacturing, which had been prohibited-though not with entire success-by Spain. The year 1830 was a time of golden hopes in this regard. At the instance of Lucas Alamán a grand industrial scheme went into effect, and a bank was founded to promote it by lending public money to intending manufacturers. Cotton fields were to whiten the plains; merino sheep and Kashmir goats to cover the hillsides; mulberry trees to support colonies of silk-worms; imported bees to produce the tons of wax needed for candles; and ubiquitous factories to work up the raw materials. A few men honestly tried to establish plants, but the industry chiefly promoted by the law and the bank was that of prying funds from the national treasury; and when this income failed, as it did in a few years, many half-built mills came to a stop, and much half-installed machinery began to rust. Alamán himself, partner in a cotton factory, became bankrupt in 1841, and the bubble soon burst.[7]

The manufacturers formed, however, a strong political clique, and in their interest a system not only of protection, but of absolutely prohibiting the importation of numerous articles, was adopted by law. This had the effect of making the people pay dearly for many of their purchases. The farmers, who wished raw materials kept out, had influence too, and were always blocking the scheme of the manufacturers to let raw materials in; and, as the cost of producing and transporting made native goods dear, smuggled merchandise undersold Mexican articles even after paying for the necessary bribery and other expenses. In a word, although certain coarse and bulky things continued to be made in the country, the endeavor to build up an industrial population, support agriculture, and thus doubly strengthen the nation was very superficially planned and very unsuccessfully carried out. Nearly all the better manufactures, a large part of the food, most of the clothing, and substantially all the luxuries came from abroad.[7]

The business of importing continued to be mainly in Spanish hands for some years after Mexico became independent, but for reasons that will appear in the next chapter the Spaniard had to retire about 1830. The British then obtained the lion's share; and as they were Protestants they could not, even when they so desired, identify themselves with the nation, and take a responsible share in public affairs. Commerce was not, in fact, a source of strength. A few raw products were exported, but essentially commerce consisted, as was natural, in merely receiving goods from foreigners and letting the foreigners have money in return. Moreover the volume of commerce dwindled notably, like that of all other business. As for retail trade, when the Spaniards had to retire, it fell mainly into Mexican hands; but it was conducted in a small way, the profits were narrow, and the failures were many.[7]


Even more significant for us, however, than such details were the life and character of the people, and it may be helpful to call back the year 1845 and visit Mexico for a couple of days. First we will stroll along a country road in a fairly typical region. The general aspect is one of semi-wildness, but soon the tops of well-bleached ruins amid the soft green indicate decrepitude instead, suggesting as the national character decay preceding maturity. A long mule team approaches in a waving line, and on a finely equipped horse at the head of it we observe a swarthy man in green broadcloth trousers open on the outside from the knee down, with bright silver buttons in a double row from hip to ankle, and loose linen drawers visible where the trousers open. A closely fitting jacket, adorned with many such buttons and much braid, is turned back at the chin enough to reveal an embroidered shirt; and the costume reaches a climax in a huge sombrero with a wide, rounding brim and high sugar-loaf crown, adorned with tassels and a wide band of silver braid. This gentleman, the arriero, is the railroad king of Mexico, for he and others of his class transport the freight and express. Trust him with anything you please, and it will surely be delivered; but should he be unlucky at cards and out of work, he might rob you the next day.[8]

A group of Indians meet us, little more human in appearance than the donkeys they drive; and we observe how easily they carry loads on their backs, and how quickly and lightly they march. Yonder we see their huts-pigpens, Americans would suppose; and a little apart from these we notice a stone or adobe house. Certainly there is nothing grand about this dwelling, for it contains only a single room, and that half full of implements, horse furniture, charcoal, provisions and what not; but it affords a home for six or eight persons of the two sexes. Presently the master, though not the owner, of the establishment rides up, prodding his active but light and stubby horse with blunt steel spurs almost as large as the palm of one's hand, to make a dash for our benefit. Swinging his wife from the saddle-bow the ranchero alights, and we find him to be a short, wiry, muscular person, with a bronzed and rather saturnine countenance but friendly and respectful manners. He wears tough leggings, leather trousers, a small rectangular shawl (serape) that falls over his back and breast, allowing his head to protrude through a hole in the middle, and a wide sombrero, while at the saddle-bow hang the inevitable lasso and a bag of corn and jerked beef, one meal a day from which is all he requires. Apparently he does not feel quite at home on the ground, and that is natural, for he spends about half of his waking hours in the saddle. Herdsman, farmer or brigand, according to circumstances, he is also cavalryman at need; and a corps of such fellows, if properly trained and led, would make the best light horse in the world, perhaps. His chief interests in life, however, are gambling and cock-fighting, and he is quite capable of losing all his worldly goods, his wife and even his pony at the national game of monte, and then of lighting a cigarette and sauntering off without a sign of regret.[8]

Now we approach what may be called a village, but one extremely different from a village in the United States. The great things are a handsome grove and in the midst of it one old church of gray stone, full of saints and relics and ancient plate, with a ragged, stupid Indian crouching on the floor. Near by are two or three ranchero cottages with a group of Indian huts in the distance, and yonder stands a large, rambling edifice of stone with a mighty door and heavily barred windows. From the ends of the building run high walls inclosing several acres, and within the protected space may be seen a number of substantial dwellings and what appear to be storehouses and stables, while far away over hill and plain spreads the hacienda, an estate as large as a county. Finally, on a gentle slope not far distant we observe a monastery with a rich garden behind it, and a fat, contented prior riding sleepily up to its arched gateway through a dozen or two of kneeling aborigines.[8]

Toward evening we reach the state capital, and as we cross a bridge on the outskirts, we see a crowd of people bathing. Both sexes are splashing and swimming, all as happy as ducks and all entirely nude. Even the presence of strangers does not embarrass the young women, some of whom are decidedly good-looking; and they even try to draw our attention by extra displays of skill. Looking for an inn we discover two lines of low, rickety buildings alternating with heaps of rubbish, fodder and harness. After some efforts a waiter is found and we obtain a room, with a mule already slumbering in one corner of it and all sorts of household litter thrown about. A wretched cot with a rope bottom, a dirty table and an abundance of saints portrayed in Mexican dress help to make the place homelike. The waiter is amiable, and ejects the mule with a great show of indignation; but when we ask for water and a towel his good nature fails. "Oh, what a man," he cries, flinging up his hands; "What a lunatic, Ave María Purísima; Ha! Ha! Ha! He wants water, he wants a towel; what the devil-! Good-by." The dining-room is a hot, steamy cell, fitted up with charcoal furnaces; and for viands we are offered plenty of hard beef, chile (pepper) and tortillas (flapjacks of a sort), besides a number of dishes that only a native could either describe or eat. Chile and tortillas appear, however, to be the essentials; and the latter, partly rolled up, serve also as spoons.[8]

After dinner we look about the town. All is monotonous and sombre. The houses, mostly of one story, form a continuous wall along the street-or along the sidewalk, if there be one-and their projecting, heavily barred windows, in front of which the young fellows have to do their courting, suggest prisons more than homes. Now we come to the massive, crumbling, gloomy church, and wonder where the priest keeps the family which everybody knows he has. Here is the government house, and we stop to picture the wily politicians, who-with noble exceptions-obtain the offices of local grandeur, and the little horde of clerks, many of them rendered prematurely decrepit by their vices, that fawn but cannot be made to work at the nod of authority. In vain we look for a book-store, though somewhere that name doubtless appears on a sign; but we do find the office of the comandante general, an officer who represents the central power, has charge of the military, and often is mining and counter-mining in a sharp struggle with the governor. How intolerably dull it must be to live here! Business of a large sort there is none. The little newspapers are scarcely more than echoes from partisan sheets at Mexico. Religion is a subject that one must let alone, and education a subject that it is useless to discuss. Of science, history, art, nothing is known. The small men in power brook no criticism except from enemies. Affairs in other states, even a famine or a flood, excite little interest. Not much is left except petty intriguing and the gratification of coarse appetites. A revolution is about the only possible escape from this more deadly ennui.[8]


Our second day shall be given to the metropolis. The suburbs of Mexico are mostly ragged and unclean, but some broad avenues lined with fine trees run through them, and entering the city by one of these we make our way to the great central plaza. On the eastern side of this extends the palace, a very long two-storied building of little distinction, and on the northern side towers the huge cathedral, quite in the grand, heavy, Spanish style, seamed with earthquake scars and pockmarked by revolutionary bullets. It is a Sunday morning and still rather early, but the plaza is alive. The usual nightly crop of dead and wounded is being carried to the morgue or the hospital. Sick men, cripples and stalwart beggars are beginning to pose for alms. Prisoners in chains are pretending to put the streets in order; but their guards, with that mixture of good nature and indolence that characterizes the Mexican unless his passions are excited, let them do about as they please, and they take their cue for street-cleaning from the Book of Revelation: They that be filthy, let them be filthy still.[8]

Indians in various tribal costumes, mostly picturesque and all dirty, patter through the square with loads of provisions or babies. As no stoves or fireplaces exist, the charcoal man's loud "Carbosiú!" (Carbón, se?or!) resounds through the streets. So does the plaintive cry of the water-carrier, bending under his great earthen jar, for the houses are all supplied from a few public fountains, the termini of aqueducts. "Orchata, lemon, pineapple, tamarind!" calls out a shrill voice; "What will you take, my darling? This way for refreshment:" and we see a good-looking girl in a short skirt expanded wide with hoops, her arms bare and her bodice cut low enough for a ball, selling "temperance" drinks. Here is a dingy cell stuffed with chin-basins, razors, dental implements, boxes of pomade, a guitar, a fighting-cock tethered in a corner, and sundry pictures of saints, parrots and battles; and there a cigar shop with a slender, black-eyed girl behind the counter, bold enough and handsome enough, even without the red rose in her hair, to tempt St. Anthony. Observe the evangelista, or public letter-writer, with two quills and an inkstand ready on his little desk under a canopy of straw matting; and observe, too, that lépero with his back against a donkey's pannier, robbing the pannier while he pretends to be buying a knife.[8]

Priests in long shovel hats; lousy soldiers in ragged, ill-fitting uniforms; gaudy officers chatting and smoking; jugglers with snakes and balls; cynical dandies retailing love affairs; half-naked léperos in the corners sleeping off their pulque; lottery venders with long strings of tickets; sellers of flowers, toys, candy, glass, wax-work, mock jewellery, cheap cutlery, and a thousand other things; closed carriages taking ladies to church; more beggars and still more-these and many other sights keep us too busy for reflection; but we cannot help noticing that seven out of ten persons are social drones or parasites, and that vice of one sort or another dims the face and weakens the step of almost every one. Suddenly a light bell tinkles, and the crowd is instantly grave and still. "God is coming," they whisper, or in other words the viatic is going to a sick man. A coach drawn by two mules and followed by a dozen slovenly friars holding lighted candles and chanting, comes slowly down a street. All uncover and kneel, and we must do likewise or very likely get a pummelling.[8]

This reminds us of duty; and, electing the cathedral in preference to sixty other churches, we enter. Before us is a great throng, chiefly women and léperos, of most devout worshippers. The finest ladies in the city are here, dressed all in black, with no ornaments except a silk mantilla, edged with lace, and a high tortoise-shell comb; and they kneel humbly beside the drudge or the beggar. The church itself-designed in the Spanish style, which places the choir in the middle of the nave and a balustraded walk between that and the great altar-with a cloud of incense filling the air and many hundreds of candles gleaming murkily from the shrines, is most mysterious and impressive. The gorgeousness of the sacred ornaments amazes us. Literally tons of silver are in sight; gold, precious stones and gems abound; and magnificent vestments try to hide the vulgar priests. But the splendor is oppressive, and the stench of the léperos intolerable; let us return to the light of day.[8]

All the streets are laid out at right angles, and most of the houses that line them are in two stories, of which the lower one is reserved for horses, carriages, servants, cows and storage; and the walls, built of rough stone, are very thick. The outside is usually frescoed in white, orange, blue, red or pale green, and often adorned with pious verses or biblical texts. Entering the big double gateway, we find ourselves in a courtyard, upon which doors and grated windows open; and we observe that a covered balcony of wrought iron or possibly bronze, reached by a central stairway and giving access to the rooms of the second story, is built round it. In many courtyards there are flowers and a fountain, and sometimes there are trees. Occasionally we find what looks like a grandee's residence, for Mexico was called in the Spanish time a city of palaces, and some of these residences, built of superior stone, equipped with gilded balconies and stairs, adorned with artistic sculptures, and perhaps decorated with Dutch tiles in blue and white, have survived in a fair condition the ruin of fortunes and the disappearance of titles; but at their best they were always imperfect, reminding one of the golden image with clay feet, and now most of them are dilapidated.[8]

Here is a gambling place, well filled; but it is only the usual monte, and if we care to watch a game, there will be something like a thousand more opportunities. Already, people are making for the bull-fight; but the upper classes mostly ignore that sport, and we may well follow their example. On the other hand let us drop in at the cock-pit. "Hail, immaculate Mary, the cocks are coming!" the herald is proclaiming. On the benches one may see the most delicate and fashionable young ladies of the city as well as the sharpest gamblers, and everything is quiet and orderly. But a glance is enough; and now as the "quality" will soon have dined, we will stroll on past the stately trees of the Alameda to the New Promenade, and be ready for them.[8]

Here, every afternoon at about five o'clock, and especially on Sunday, may be seen the Mexican élite. About a thousand carriages are in line to-day, many of them heavy, grand affairs from Europe, but some very antiquated and shabby, for the lady, however poor, must have a carriage of some sort. Here one sees the fair sex at their best. Clad in the most sumptuous and brilliant costumes they can possibly obtain and well covered with diamonds-for everybody above the rank of a lépero has diamonds-they sit up straight and handsome, and many of them look almost regal. More horses than mules are to be seen, and many of them have been imported. Guided by postilions instead of drivers, the carriages roll sedately along with an exchange of mutual salutes but not a word of conversation, and after a turn or two draw up and stop side by side, so that the ladies may review some four or five thousand cavaliers, who now ride past.[8]

Each gallant, without appearing to notice the carriage of his choice, pays court to an adored occupant of it by a special show of grace and horsemanship as he goes by. Small fortunes in silver and gold are lavished on the equipment of the steed, and the cavalier is resplendent in his tightly fitting trousers, short jacket, huge sombrero, gilded spurs, silver buttons, silk braid and gold lace. For us the impression is impaired considerably by his manner of riding, for he leans forward, puts barely his toes into the stirrup, and carries his heels far back; but he can ride very showily after all, curvetting and prancing, and the Mexicans are fully satisfied that no other horsemen in the world are their equals.[8]

The promenade over, all go to the play-not that anybody of fashion cares for it, but because that is the style, and few have any other way to pass the time. Let us have a look ourselves at the principal theatre, which travellers have pronounced-after one at Naples-the finest edifice of the kind. It accommodates more than eight thousand persons, and the rent of the best boxes is about $3000 a year. But almost every man and many of the women appear to be smoking; one can hardly see the actors; the noise of conversation is distracting; and as we are not adepts in the play of glances and fans which keep so many ladies in the boxes and so many gallants in the pit fully occupied, we shall find it pleasanter at the British legation ball. Allons! Why, what a clangor the church bells are making! To be sure that opens the gates of purgatory for a while and gives the inmates a respite, but it certainly bears rather hard on the living.[8]

While by nature the most sociable of people, the Mexicans are the least so in practice, wrote an American minister at that capital. This is partly because many of social rank now lack the means to entertain, and partly because society is cut up by intrigues, jealousies and bitter memories; but at a foreign legation one has no expenses, and all meet on neutral ground. As we enter, everything seems fine and even brilliant. Diamonds are in profusion again, and the lustre of the great pearls matches them. But in Mexico it is never wise to look closely, for gross imperfections are sure to be discovered; and here, as we soon observe, the gowns are not really in style, and the musicians are only unshaven, half-blind, tatterdemalion scrapers.[8]

However, the people are what we care for, and they are certainly most interesting. Again we see the dignified ladies; they move now, and with a decided though rather ponderous grace. Conversation is not their forte, for they seldom read and never think; but all have beautiful eyes, teeth and hair; all have small hands and feet; and all are amiable, sincerely kind and by no means wanting in tact. The older ones appear stout and rather phlegmatic, it is true, but those of an earlier age are often fascinating. Look for instance at the girl under the chandelier, plainly all sentiment and senses, not really tall but slender enough to appear so, with a profile of carved ivory, pale cheeks just warmed with crimson, large, dark, languorous eyes, and a voluptuous figure disguised with no stays; and all this poised seemingly on the toe of a dainty satin slipper. What matters it if she and the rest of the ladies passed their day in gazing idly out of windows, smoking, nibbling sweetmeats and chattering trifles, and did not put on their stockings or do up their hair until dinner-time?[8]

But for us the men are more important. That short individual in spectacles, who looks erudite and speaks in a low tone with a gravity and reserve that emphasize his remarks, is Alamán, the most distinguished of the conservatives. The thin-featured, sharp-nosed person, so elegant and cynical, is Tornel, posing now in his favorite attitude as the patron of learning. Smooth-faced Bocanegra, an honorable if not very able statesman, is talking yonder to the British minister with the easy courtliness of a genuine hidalgo. Handsome and brave Almonte-"a good boy," as Santa Anna calls him-is laying siege to the belle under the chandelier; and Pe?a y Pe?a, seemingly rather dry and uninspired, is debating somewhat laboriously with a brother judge.[8]

Let us join a group. How strong, genial, easy, ready and gay, yet dignified and reposeful, they all are! Few indeed of our own countrymen could be so charming. Some one approaches, and they grasp him warmly by the hand, throwing the left arm at the same time round his shoulder and softly patting his back. "Friend," "Comrade," are frequent salutations. We are presented to the group, and find ourselves at once among devoted intimates. "My house is yours," exclaims one with a look that carries conviction. "Remember, I exist only to serve you," says another. "Only command me and all that are mine," exclaims a third.[8]

Mexico, however, reported a British minister, "judged merely by outward Appearances, is a perfectly different thing from Mexico seen in the Interior." One might be presented with a dozen houses and all their contents, yet go to bed on the sidewalk hungry. These friends and comrades are daily intriguing and conspiring against one another. Talk with an eloquent declaimer, and you will find his beautiful ideas vague and impracticable. Discuss them with him, and you will either excite wrath by demolishing his opinions or earn contempt-since he suspects in his heart that he is an ignoramus-by letting him vanquish you. Notice how lightly they speak of religion. That is considered good form. The Church is to be regarded as an institution for the women. But at bottom almost every one is mortally afraid of the hereafter, as a child is afraid of the dark, and when seriously ill is ready to grovel before a priest. The apparent robustness of these men, largely due to their indolence, is too often undermined by Cyprian accidents, which are confessed without hesitation. Hardly one of the husbands is loyal to his vows, while the other sex care only to elude numberless watchful eyes, and observe a strict regard for appearances; and in the lower walks a mother will quite readily sell her daughter's good name. However, courtesy is delightful whatever lies behind it, and if a person will try to eat a picture of grapes, he should blame himself for his disappointment. Temperament, environment and education make sangfroid and intellectual mastery impossible here; and in a world where passionate men and women grow up in traditions of idleness and self-indulgence they can hardly be expected, especially with the bad example of their priests before them, to be distinguished for self-restraint.[8]

Meanwhile, are the common people at home knitting? Let us walk back to the cathedral. The full moon is out. Almost above us rise the powerful towers against the clear firmament, and on our left is the palace, filling one whole side of the square with its numberless balconies and windows, while in front spreads the great plaza, glittering with innumerable lights against the shadowy arcades that fill the opposite side. The sky is a soft, pale blue; and the stars, fading near the brilliant moon, appear like dust raised by her chariot wheels. Under the trees on our right a huge serpent, the scales of which are human beings, turns, winds, bends, parts and rejoins in a circular promenade.[8]

Some occupy themselves with prosaic thoughts,-business, politics or social events-and a few talk of science and poetry. Yonder goes a millionaire, a real king of gold, at sight of whom all hats come off, while all eyes court his glance; but another, who passes with a triumphant step and bold gestures, appears to the crowd a greater man, for he is the king of the sword, the king of the bull-ring, the matador. But most, perhaps, are talking and thinking of love and of pleasure. Furtive but meaning glances are often exchanged; occasionally hand presses hand under the folds of the cloak; at times a few mysterious words pass quickly; now and then one sees a pretty woman on the arm of her bold lover, showing herself proudly to the world, while the husband follows on behind as best he can; and here and there a scowling, discarded friend looks out from behind a post with a knife clutched behind him.

Would you like to see a little more? Then visit the Barrio Santa Anna, and watch men with bloodshot eyes and women in red petticoats and loose, open chemisettes dancing a wild fandango, or plunge into a lépero's dive and watch the pariahs gambling sedately with a bloody knife on the table before them, while down in one corner a crouching woman moans and mutters over a prostrate figure. But how lightly all is done, even the tragedies, compared with northern depth and seriousness. In a sense we feel we are observing children.[8]

Of course in so brief a space the subject of this chapter could not be thoroughly treated, but our inquiry seems to make certain facts plain. Little in the material, mental and moral spheres was really sound in the Mexico of 1845. Her population was insufficient, and was badly welded together, so far as it had been welded at all; and while the lower orders of the people lay deep in ignorance, laziness and vice, the upper class, if we ignore exceptions, were soft, superficial, indolent and lax, urbane, plausible and eloquent, apathetic but passionate, amiable and kind though cruel when excited, generous but untrustworthy, wasteful but athirst for gain, suspicious and subtle but not sagacious, personally inclined to be pompous and nationally afflicted with a provincial vanity, greatly enamoured of the formalities of life, greatly wanting in the cool, steady resolution for which occasional obstinacy is a poor substitute, and still more wanting in that simple, straightforward, sober and solid common sense which is the true foundation of personal and national strength. In particular, the Mexican was intensely personal. This made him and his politics very interesting yet was really unfortunate, for in such men principles and institutions could have but feeble roots. Finally, as one result of this awareness of self, every man of any strength had the instincts of a dictator. Authority he instinctively resented; but on the other hand, when some one appeared to be dominant, a consciousness of this inner recalcitrancy and a fear of its being detected, combining with a hope of favors, produced adulation and apparent slavishness.

Evidently, then, Mexico was not intrinsically a strong country. Evidently her people had few qualifications for self-government. Evidently, too, they were unlikely to handle in the best manner a grave and complicated question requiring all possible sanity of judgment and perfect self-control; and, in particular, misunderstandings between them and a nation like the United States were not only sure to arise but sure to prove troublesome.

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