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The War With Mexico, Volume I (of 2) By Justin H. Smith Characters: 55245

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


In turning from the domestic to the foreign affairs of Mexico we must beware of carrying prejudice with us. Our minds must be open to all the facts, and see them exactly as they were. But it is right and even necessary, for our guidance in interpreting these facts, to presume that aliens, traditionally disliked by the Mexicans,[1] were treated no more kindly, fairly and honestly than fellow-citizens; and the evidence is conclusive that even the highest authorities were generally unbusinesslike, often unjust or tricky, and on too many occasions positively dishonorable in their dealings with foreigners.[2]

Our first minister to Mexico, received there on June 1, 1825, was Joel R. Poinsett. Apparently a better man for the office could not have been chosen or even created; and the warm interest of the United States in the cause of Spanish-American independence, our prompt recognition of Mexico, and the fact that her political institutions had been modeled upon ours, were additional auguries for the success of his mission. But duty required him to stand for a Protestant power in a country intensely Roman Catholic, to represent democracy where the dominant element consisted of aristocrats hoping more or less generally for a Bourbon king, to support Monroe's doctrine of America for the Americans against the strength of Europe and the European affiliations of Mexico, to vindicate the equal position of the United States where Great Britain had established a virtual protectorate, to insist upon full commercial privileges when the Spanish-American states favored mutual concessions, and to antagonize other influences possessing no little strength.[3]


His only feasible course was to affiliate with men of the popular, democratic, Federalist party. Largely through his advice they abandoned their plan of rebelling, placed their confidence in organization and the ballot, and so gained the ascendency. They soon fell into excesses of their own, however, which they were glad to charge against a Protestant and foreigner; all the other elements antagonized by him joined in the accusations; envy of the recognized prosperity of the United States assisted; and in the end he came to be almost universally denounced by the Mexicans as the diabolical agent of a jealous, hypocritical, designing government.[3]

Of course, the Poinsett affair planted a root of bitterness in the United States. Our national authorities could but protest against the attacks upon our minister that were made by state legislatures in contempt of all diplomatic usage, against the neglect of the Mexican Executive to shield him, and against the general attitude of distrust and ill-will exhibited by that country. Indeed, our government fully believed that baseless popular clamor had been permitted to exert "a sinister influence" against the Americans in its councils, and pointedly informed Guerrero that unless "a marked change" in the temper of his administration should "speedily" occur, a collision might result; and of course the people of the United States could not fail to notice the abusive and even ferocious treatment accorded to our representative, against whom no charges were made by the Mexican government, and to resent still more keenly the insults that were lavished upon the character and purposes of the American nation. The fact that Poinsett continued to be an important factor in our public life, even becoming a member of the Cabinet at a later day, tended to emphasize these feelings, both official and popular.[4]

Besides all this, official work of his added to the irritation in both countries. As one of his principal duties, he was instructed to make a treaty reaffirming the boundary agreed upon with Spain in 1819, or, if he could, buy a portion at least of Texas. The proposal that our neighbor should sell us territory has been called by partisan writers in the United States, insulting, but as we have made purchases from Spain, France, Russia and Mexico herself, this accusation is evidently unwarranted. On the other hand the suggestion was reasonable. We for our part desired the land, aside from its intrinsic value, as a needed protection to New Orleans and the Mississippi; and Mexico not only appeared to misprize it, but could have strengthened herself somewhat by letting it go. Later it became a fashion with her public men to declaim about its preciousness and beauty; but as late as 1836, according to Santa Anna himself, many officials did not know where Texas was or what nation claimed it. Mexico had ten times the area she could people, and what she needed in that quarter was the means of shielding her northern settlements from the Indians. Moreover, under contracts already made, Texas was filling up with men who, as President Victoria saw in 1825, were not at all likely to assimilate with the Mexicans; and since it was recognized that a mistake had been made in admitting such colonists, it might well have seemed the part of wisdom to cut off the infected section before it should set an example of dissatisfaction, and perhaps cause trouble also with the United States.[5]

Poinsett, accordingly, taking the matter up in July, 1825, stated frankly that the treaty of 1819 was recognized by his country as binding, but expressed a desire to lay it aside, and fix upon a more satisfactory line. This pleased Victoria and Alamán, for they imagined they could push the boundary eastward almost to the Mississippi, but in spite of Poinsett's urgency and his dropping the plan to extend our territory, a long delay followed. At last, however, on January 12, 1828, a treaty of limits reaffirming the agreement with Spain was duly signed. In the course of April it reached Washington and was ratified. On the last day of the month our secretary of state notified the Mexican representative that he was ready to exchange ratifications, and reminded him that under the terms of the instrument this would have to be done by May 12; but Obregón was not prepared to act, and for that reason the treaty failed.[6]

Yet the Mexicans not only held that the United States caused the miscarriage in order to prosecute designs upon Texas, but charged officially as well as on the street, with neither evidence nor plausibility in favor of the accusation, that our minister stole the paper-entrusted to him on May 10 for transmission-which would have authorized Obregón to exchange the ratifications. So we had in 1830 this extraordinary picture: on the one hand, the United States earnestly desiring the prosperity and friendship of Mexico, and pursuing a just and sympathetic policy towards her; and, on the other, Mexico accusing us of hostile intentions and the basest arts. From that day on, everything we did was viewed with a jaundiced eye.[6] The treaty of limits was, however, revived by fresh negotiations, and in April, 1832, went into effect. By its terms a joint commission to run the line had to be appointed within a year from this date, and presently Mexico received notice, both at her own capital and at ours, that an American commissioner had been named; but she paid no attention to the matter, and the year expired. Our minister was then directed to negotiate a new agreement, labored for more than twelve months, and finally, by addressing strong language personally to the acting President, carried the point. Yet the United States was officially denounced for endeavoring-and by wretched artifices-to delay the fixing of the boundary.[7]

Meanwhile a treaty of amity and commerce, proposed by Poinsett at about the same time as the treaty of limits, had been pursuing a checkered career, though a similar agreement between Mexico and England went rapidly through. At one stage of the proceedings the Mexican plenipotentiaries kept our minister entirely in the dark about an important concession made to Great Britain, falsely assuring him that equally favorable terms were offered to this country. Indeed, Victoria showed a strong disposition to block the business altogether. July 10, 1826, however, the negotiators reached an agreement, but it did not prove satisfactory to the American Senate. A second treaty signed in February, 1828, did not please the Congress of Mexico, and was properly rejected. At a later date negotiations were again resumed; but in 1831 that body held the matter in abeyance for more than nine months. At last, one day before the session was to close, our minister gave notice that unless the treaty were concluded, he would leave the country. The government at Washington also exerted some pressure by insisting that the two matters should fare alike, and postponing the re-ratification of the treaty of limits; and consequently both treaties became law at the same time, April 5, 1832. Yet for nearly a year the commercial treaty was not promulgated by Mexico; and hence, though her citizens residing in the United States could have the benefit of it, Americans in Mexico could not, for the local authorities with whom it was necessary to deal declared they had no knowledge of such an agreement.[8]

Toward the close of 1829 Guerrero, as a desperate throw for popularity, asked for the recall of Poinsett, merely saying that public opinion demanded it; and then for about six years the United States had as its representative a friend of Jackson's named Anthony Butler, whose only qualifications for the post were an acquaintance with Texas and a strong desire to see the United States obtain it. In brief, he was a national disgrace. Besides having been through bankruptcy more than once, if we may believe the Mexican minister at Washington, and having a financial interest in the acquisition of this Mexican territory, he was personally a bully and swashbuckler, ignorant at first of the Spanish language and even the forms of diplomacy, shamefully careless about legation affairs, wholly unprincipled as to methods, and, by the testimony of two American consuls, openly scandalous in his conduct. One virtue, to be sure, according to his own account he possessed: he never drank spirits; but one learns of this with regret, for an overdose of alcohol would sometimes be a welcome excuse for him.[9]

His particular business was to obtain as much of Texas as possible, an enterprise that lay close to Jackson's heart; and he began by visiting the province-about whose loyalty and relations with the United States much concern was already felt at Mexico-when on the way to his post. This promise of indiscretion in office was admirably fulfilled. Maintaining a hold on our President by positive assurances of success, he loafed, schemed, made overtures, threatened, was ignored, rebuffed, snubbed and cajoled, fancied he could outplay or buy the astute and hostile Alamán, tried to do "underworking" with Pedraza, plotted bribery with one Hernández, the confessor of Santa Anna's sister, grossly violated his conciliatory instructions by engaging in a truculent personal affair with Tornel, and was finally, after ceasing to represent us, ordered out of the country. In short he succeeded only in proving that we had for minister a cantankerous, incompetent rascal, in making it appear that our government was eager to obtain Mexican territory, and in suggesting-though explicitly and repeatedly ordered to eschew all equivocal methods-that we felt no scruples as to means. On the ground of Butler's connection with disaffected Texas, Mexico politely asked for his recall near the close of 1835, and in December Powhatan Ellis, born a Virginian but now a federal judge in Mississippi, was appointed chargé d'affaires.[10]


A few months later Texas broke away from the mother-country, and her former lords felt sure that from beginning to end, in the colonization, rebellion and successful defence of that region, the hand of the American government could plainly enough be seen. Their state of feeling seemed to Butler "a perfect tempest of passion," and Ellis believed that the Cabinet of Mexico discussed seriously the question of an open rupture with the United States. The Mexican view, however, although supported by a section of the American public, was radically incorrect. Essentially the migration of our citizens across the Sabine formed a part of the great movement that peopled the Mississippi valley. The causes of the Texan rebellion were provided by Mexico herself. That step actually crossed the wish and aims of our administration, which desired to buy the province-not see it become an independent country. From the very first, our national authorities proclaimed and endeavored to enforce neutrality; and they gave the Texans no assistance in their struggle for independence. The British minister at Mexico expressed the opinion to Santa Anna that our government had done all that could be expected, and all that lay in its power; and Santa Anna did not venture to deny this. Individual Americans and sometimes Americans in groups did, it is true, contribute materially to aid the cause of Texas; but in most cases their action was entirely lawful, while in the others it could not be prevented. Moreover, these few trespasses against the law of neutrality were in substance only just retribution for the tyranny, misgovernment and atrocities of Mexico. In reality, therefore, our skirts were as clear as reasonably could have been expected.[11]

One phase of the case, however, which excited special indignation at Mexico, requires notice. Two streams from the north send their waters into Sabine Lake, and it was held by some that either of these could be regarded as the Sabine River and, therefore, as marking the boundary. In October, 1833, Butler urged that we insist upon the western stream, commonly called the Neches, and occupy in force the valuable intermediate region, which included Nacogdoches; and for a time Jackson felt inclined to do so. Near the close of 1835 Mexico was officially warned against encroaching upon our territory while fighting the Texans, and suspected that Secretary of State Forsyth took this action with a view to the Nacogdoches district. She therefore became alarmed, and early in 1836 a special minister hastily set out for Washington to investigate the matter. This minister was Manuel E. de Gorostiza, a witty, agreeable man of the world, Mexican by birth, Spanish by education, the author of some clever dramas, but not professionally a topographer, a lawyer or even a diplomat.[12]


Then a delicate matter became suddenly menacing. On both sides of the Sabine there were Indians, who loved war, whisky and plunder as much as they hated work and the whites. A paper boundary, particularly one in dispute, meant nothing to them. Once roused, they were practically sure, as Gorostiza admitted, to rob and murder wherever they could; and not only the fighting in Texas but at least one Mexican emissary enkindled their passions. United States Indians crossed the line and perpetrated outrages. Homes were abandoned. People fled panic-stricken from the vicinity of Nacogdoches; citizens of the town implored American protection against our own Indians; and evidence of an incipient conflagration was placed in the hands of General E. P. Gaines, who commanded our troops on the border.[12] Now the treaty of amity required each country to prevent its Indians from ravaging the other; but, as Mexico did not wish us at this time to keep our savages from harassing the Texans, and did not request us to act for her in fulfilling her pledge, which she could not fulfil herself, possibly the treaty, though often cited by the United States, had technically no direct bearing. But the American government argued rightly that substance was more important than form; that the intent of the treaty was to require both countries to prevent "by all the means in their power" an Indian war on the frontier; that it was the paramount duty of the Executive to protect our people, who, as Gorostiza virtually admitted, were liable to be endangered by the threatened conflagration; that as it was known to be physically impossible for Mexico to comply with the treaty, she could not complain of us for doing what she had agreed ought to be done, and had undertaken to do; that, should it be necessary to cross what had been commonly assumed to be the boundary in order to perform our duty-particularly in order to prevent our own Indians from perpetrating outrages on the other side-common sense and the spirit of the treaty warranted our doing it; and that, on account of the distance to the Sabine, it was necessary to give the general commanding there a certain credence and a certain discretion. Our government could have reasoned also, and very likely it did, that the strong desire of the Texans, de facto successors to the Mexicans in that region, that we should fulfil the obligation which the treaty created, was an additional ground for so doing.[12]

Accordingly Gaines, while ordered with strong emphasis to maintain a rigid neutrality, was authorized to advance as far as Nacogdoches-an excellent point from which to defend the American frontier and prevent our Indians from operating beyond it-should such a step seem positively necessary; and then, as measures of precaution, Forsyth not only explained our views and intentions personally to Gorostiza, but made in writing what that minister himself described as a "frank and noble" statement, saying that the occupation of the intermediate region, should it occur, would be temporary and for the sole purpose indicated, and would have no significance in regard to the boundary question.[12]

Apparently satisfied by the directness and candor of this policy, Gorostiza at first admitted the right of the United States to enter Texas in order to punish actual or prevent intended outrages, and thus conceded that the frontier could be crossed without offence. But apparently, when he had taken leave of the secretary of state, his distrust returned, and his Mexican subtlety imagined all sorts of ugly possibilities. It disturbed him that Forsyth did not formally commit himself, in advance of a survey, against the Neches claim. It alarmed him to find that the state department could not give him early and exact information as to Gaines's movements in a remote, unsettled region. He felt angry that Lewis Cass, who was secretary of war but of course had no control over our foreign relations, looked upon Nacogdoches as American territory. Various other things also appeared to him suspicious, when really his lack of judgment was the chief or only reason. Most important of all, no doubt, he thought of public opinion in Mexico, which was entirely unacquainted with American directness as exemplified by Forsyth, intensely suspicious of us, and intensely hostile.[12]


He retracted, therefore, as much as possible of his concurrence, opened a war of notes upon our state department, and near the end of the year 1836, on learning from the secretary that in spite of his objections American troops had gone to Nacogdoches, demanded his passports, and left our shores in wrath. His conduct in so doing was officially endorsed by his government, and anti-American feeling in that country became deeper and hotter than before. Nothing could be seen there except that "sacred" soil claimed and long occupied by Mexico, though now out of her control, had been profaned by Gaines's troops, and thus, as all Mexicans argued, the way opened for limitless aggressions. To make the case even worse, it was erroneously believed that Houston's victory at San Jacinto had really been gained by troops then in the service of the United States, and it was said that we were preparing to attack Mexico very soon by sea and by land.[12]

Our recognition of Texas, which occurred early in 1837, was entirely in line with our previous action in similar cases, was less prompt than our recognition of Mexico herself had been, and seemed not only warranted but required by the circumstances. That republic had a government in operation which appeared to be competent, and was thought likely to endure. Santa Anna, the President of Mexico, admitted that she could not hope to gain control of the revolted province, even should its troops be vanquished in the field, and expressed a desire that we should open the way to a settlement of the controversy by granting recognition. After 1836, as the Mexican minister of war stated eight years later, there was no serious talk of attempting to subdue Texas. At the date of recognition, since war between us and Mexico seemed almost inevitable, there appeared to be no great need of considering her susceptibilities; and it was feared that England entertained certain designs, unfavorable to us, regarding Texas, which could be defeated or at least hindered by taking this action. As Mexico was totally unable to protect American vessels in the port of Galveston, we had to establish relations with the power that could do so, or else conduct an important part of our trade under hazardous conditions; and no commercial nation willingly accepts the second alternative in such a case. Finally, the leading powers of Europe endorsed our course by doing the same thing before any material change in the situation occurred.[13]

Mexico, however, would see none of these facts. Our earliest moves toward recognition were looked upon by her, said the British minister, "as the consummation of a design long since entertained" to rob her of that valuable territory, and excited, as he remarked, a "bitter animosity" that no explanation could even mitigate; and our formal action became one more standing ground of complaint and wrath against the government and people of the United States.[13]

In 1842 Mexican feeling was intensified. At this time Santa Anna thought it advisable to rekindle the Texan war, now virtually dormant for six years. Very likely he did not wish to let the case go by default; naturally his recollections of Texan hospitality moved him to reciprocate; and in all probability he believed that any prospect of fighting Texas or the United States in the name of national honor would help to make his autocratic military rule more acceptable. Accordingly, several annoying though ineffective raids beyond the Rio Grande occurred, and a serious invasion was threatened. Upon this, many Texan sympathizers in the Unites States and many who thought they saw England supporting the Mexican operations, held meetings, contributed funds, and even migrated to Texas with guns on their shoulders, all of which they could legally do.[14]

In pursuance of Santa Anna's policy-probably also to gratify the strong and universal sentiment of his fellow-citizens, aid the anti-Texas and anti-administration party in the United States, neutralize perhaps the good understanding between the United States and England resulting from the settlement of our northeastern boundary, and possibly gain the sympathy not only of Great Britain, but of her friend Louis Philippe-Bocanegra, the minister of relations, now declared war upon us in the field of diplomacy. May 12, 1842, he addressed Daniel Webster, then secretary of state, directly, protesting against the aid given Texas by our citizens, and asking whether the United States could injure Mexico any more, if openly at war against her. "Certainly not," he said, in reply to his own question. Then he issued a circular to the diplomatic corps at Mexico, in which he charged our government with tolerating aggressions made upon Mexican territory by "subaltern and local authorities," and announced that while his country did not wish to fight the United States, she would certainly do all that was "imperatively required for her honor and dignity." Still not satisfied, he wrote again to Webster, though an answer to the first letter was not yet due, accusing the American Cabinet itself of "conduct openly at variance with the most sacred principles of the law of nations and the solemn compacts of amity existing between the two countries," and threatening that a continuance of this policy would be regarded as "a positive act of hostility."[14]

In reply to Bocanegra's first despatch, Webster said that the American government utterly denied and repelled the charges made against it, and then with characteristic power he discussed and refuted them. We shall still maintain neutrality, he concluded, "but the continuance of amity with Mexico cannot be purchased at any higher rate." To Bocanegra's second letter his reply was no less positive but a great deal briefer. The President, he wrote, considers the language and tone of that communication "highly offensive," and orders "that no other answer be given to it than the declaration that the conduct of the Government of the United States, in regard to the war between Mexico and Texas, having been always hitherto governed by a strict and impartial regard to its neutral obligations, will not be changed or altered in any respect or in any degree."[14]

This compelled Mexico, as the British minister observed, to accept the rebuke invited by her imprudent language or begin hostilities. The former course was chosen; and Bocanegra humbly replied that, relying upon Webster's "frank declaration" of neutrality, he would not dwell further upon the subject. Even before Webster was heard from, our minister described the state of feeling at Mexico as "most bitter"; and such a correspondence, disagreeable enough to Mexican pride, tended naturally to bring the two countries nearer to the tented field. Richtofen, the Prussian envoy at Mexico, said that Bocanegra's note led to a distinctly hostile state of things. At one time the President of the United States did not see how war could be avoided; and the Mexican press did about all it could to create a fighting temper.[14]

An opera bouffe sequel followed. Commodore T. A. C. Jones, lying at Callao with our Pacific squadron, received some of Bocanegra's effusions from the American consul at Mazatlán, who added that war seemed "highly probable." Jones could not believe that a responsible minister would write so fiercely unless prepared for a conflict, and he felt sure the United States would not flinch. Anxious to provide a port of refuge for American vessels, alarmed lest England should now obtain California under some arrangement with Mexico, as she was thought ready to do, and satisfied that hostilities would actually break out before he could reach that coast, he sailed promptly and arrived at Monterey on October 19. Being a rather self-sufficient and hasty person, he investigated the matter there in but a superficial manner, and the next day politely occupied the town. He now found that war had not begun; and upon this, after hauling down his flag and saluting that of Mexico, he sailed away, while General Micheltorena, the governor, thundered grandiloquent language at him from a safe distance. Naturally the authorities at Mexico flared up at this episode; but they soon found that no charge could be made against our government, and, realizing presently with our minister's aid that the longest finger pointed toward Bocanegra and the loudest laugh was at Micheltorena, they willingly allowed the matter to fade away. It therefore sharpened Mexican hostility far less than might have been expected, yet no doubt considerably.[15]

Meanwhile fresh trouble arose. The continuance of nominal war between Mexico and Texas and the constant danger

of raids interfered seriously with our commercial interests. Near the end of June, 1842, therefore, the American secretary of state, hoping to influence the government of Mexico, observed to our minister that the war was "not only useless, but hopeless, without attainable object, injurious to both parties and likely to be, in its continuance, annoying and vexatious to other commercial nations"; and this line of policy was followed up in January, 1843. Indeed, Webster gave notice that a formal protest would very likely be made, unless the state of war should be ended or respectable forces take the field.[14]

Naturally these remonstrances, however proper, gave much offence; and the translation of John Quincy Adams's brilliant speech at Braintree, Massachusetts, which made an eloquent but mistaken attack upon the American administration, gave the newspapers of Mexico a fresh opportunity and fresh reason to ventilate their suspicions of us. A merciless warfare upon Texas was now announced; and Santa Anna decreed in June, 1843, that all foreigners taken in arms on Texan soil should be executed. In reply to this, our secretary of state declared that American citizens could not be prevented from serving abroad, as Frenchmen and Germans had served in our own revolutionary armies; and that, if captured in Texas, they must be treated as prisoners of war. "On this point," he insisted, "there can be no concession or compromise."[14]


Here our point of view must be shifted. So far we have mainly been concerned with complaints on the part of Mexico, and it will be admitted that in those affairs the United States did not materially injure her in any unlawful way, and exhibited no malicious intentions. We must now take up certain American grievances; and first in order may be mentioned the summary execution of twenty-two of our citizens in 1835. Under the revolutionist Mejía they had left the United States for Texas, but they were conducted to Tampico and there were captured. The minister of relations asserted that they were duly tried, and simply experienced the rigor of the law; but our minister ascertained that no trial took place. In spite of international law and treaty stipulations the government ordered them shot, and shot they were-officially murdered. At the edge of the grave eighteen of them signed a denial, their "dying words," that any intention to invade Mexico had existed in their minds.[16]

Next may come the systematic endeavor of Mexico, even after signing the treaty of amity and commerce, to hinder our people from crossing the boundary, and in particular to keep them out of Texas. Article III of the treaty said: "The citizens of the two countries shall have liberty to enter into the same, and to remain and reside in any part of said territories, respectively." All Mexicans were offered the full benefit of this agreement in the United States; but a Mexican law, revived by decree on April 4, 1837, with evident reference to our people, read thus: "Foreigners are prohibited from settling in those States and territories of the Confederacy which border on the territories of their own nations." This was done on the ground that political mischief was liable to result from their presence. Now some allowance is to be made for this view. But in reality all international relations involve danger, and the country that fears it should use precautions. American sailors make trouble in French ports, but France does not refuse them admission-she appoints policemen. The danger from Americans in Texas was doubtless greater, but so were the advantages to be derived from their coming. Had Mexico governed that region well, their presence would have benefited her immensely; and to make a treaty sanctioning foreign intercourse, and then endeavor to keep the main avenue of that intercourse barred, in order to avoid the legitimate results of her own misgovernment, was an international system decidedly more novel than friendly, more ingenious than straightforward.[17]

In April, 1840, under a verbal order from the governor of upper California, a considerable number of peaceable Americans and other foreigners, residing at scattered points, were suddenly arrested in a brutal and even bloody manner on the pretext of a conspiracy, and their property was confiscated. Even the possession of legal passports did not protect them. After suffering inhuman treatment, they were sent in irons to Mexico. There only the charity of strangers preserved their lives; and at length, after marching under blows and with bleeding feet as far as Tepic, they were thrust into prisons. No doubt they were rough in character and behavior, and the presence of such bold, vigorous foreigners in a weakly governed region obviously involved some dangers; but they had rights. No evidence justifying the treatment they received was brought forward, and the government at Mexico, even while ordering them expelled from the country without compensation, admitted the illegality of their arrest. Finally, as the British minister demanded, they were permitted to go home; but Mexico failed to bear the expense of their journey, as she had promised to do, and paid but a slight, if any, indemnity. Such conduct when she had millions for the army, the civil wars and the pockets of officials, was inexcusable. Justly enough this affair excited the deep indignation of our government and people.[18]

In June, 1841, a Texan expedition set out for Santa Fe, hoping to bring about the incorporation of New Mexico in the new republic, but not planning under any circumstances to make war; and a considerable number of Americans-among them Kendall, editor of the New Orleans Picayune-joined the caravan with commercial or other peaceable aims. After a while the entire body were made prisoners by the Mexican governor. Kendall's passport, when duly exhibited under a flag of truce, was taken from him; and, although the utmost penalty incurred under Mexican law by the non-combatant Americans was expulsion, they were driven with instances of extreme brutality to Mexico, and compelled to work in chains on public roads. For one reason or another a few of our citizens gained their freedom from time to time; but it was not until well on in 1842-and then as an act of condescension instead of justice-that Santa Anna released the main body of them. Of course this country felt highly incensed again; and the Executive, while disclaiming all desire to screen Americans from any deserved punishment, ordered our minister to protest against the treatment of the prisoners, declaring that Mexico would be required to observe the rules prescribed by modern public law. On the other side of the Rio Grande still more passion was aroused, but in the opposite sense.[19]

Beginning in a humble way, a caravan trade between St. Louis, Santa Fe and Chihuahua grew to large proportions, and eventually interested even the New York and Philadelphia merchants; but this commerce, though sanctioned by treaty, was looked upon by Mexico with disfavor from the very first. Excessive taxes were imposed at the frontier and at Chihuahua; and finally, in August, 1843, Santa Anna arbitrarily locked the door. Possibly there was a baseless notion that political designs upon New Mexico were entertained in the United States; competition with native traders may have been feared; and it was charged that smuggling occurred. But competition and smuggling are unavoidable features of international commerce; and if they afforded an adequate reason for disregarding a formal agreement, international trade arrangements would not be worth making. Our citizens and government objected therefore vigorously and with justice to Santa Anna's course.[20]

One week after this decree went forth, another prohibited the importation of certain specified articles at any point, and ordered the forfeiture of such merchandise, already in the hands of dealers, if not sold within the ensuing twelve months. The list of articles, printed solidly in small type, filled nearly an octavo page, and apparently was intended to include almost everything embraced in our trade with Mexico. Peculiarly harsh seemed the forfeiture provision. Not only was it ex post facto, but our traders by paying the duty had become entitled to the privilege of selling their goods; and the American secretary of state could do no less than protest against the law, as "a manifest violation of the liberty of trade secured by the treaty." Yet something still more serious followed it, for aliens were soon prohibited from doing retail business at all. An attempt was made to defend this order on the ground that Americans residing in the country were subject to its laws, usages and statutes; but our government replied that a treaty must be regarded as the supreme law, and that if one solemn agreement with Mexico could thus be made a nullity, all the other privileges accorded us could one by one be abrogated.[21]

These commercial grievances, however, were trifles compared with another of the same halcyon period. In July, 1843, Tornel, the minister of war, instructed the governors of California and three other northern departments to expel all citizens of the United States residing therein, and permit no more of them to enter. Extraordinary precautions were taken to keep this measure secret, and Waddy Thompson, our representative at Mexico, first learned of it on December 23. Four times he inquired in vain whether such an order had been issued; but when he demanded his passports, Bocanegra attempted to justify Tornel's instructions, arguing that every government is authorized to protect itself against seditious aliens. This was an evasion, for the order had reference to all Americans, however law-abiding. The outcome was that now, after the order had been in force almost six months and after it had been executed in at least one department, directions were given to make it include all foreigners, and apply only to the seditious. Thompson, strongly disposed to please the Mexicans, accepted this as satisfactory; but his country did not, for the governors had authority still to decide what Americans were dangerous, and expel these without a trial. Besides, even the modified order required them to prevent our citizens from entering their jurisdictions, and thus plainly violated the treaty.[22]

All of the grievances thus far mentioned bore directly upon the general government of Mexico, but there were also many others, primarily chargeable to minor authorities, in which our national rights were seriously attacked;[23] and next we reach the question of "American claims"-that is to say, private injuries for which damages were asked. At once the idea occurs to us that perhaps our citizens brought their troubles upon themselves by peculiarly obnoxious conduct. This does not appear likely to have been the rule, however, for the British, although the Mexicans felt anxious to have their goodwill and assistance, complained loudly and long, and their government protested in the most emphatic and sweeping style. Indeed, said Ashburnham, the chargé of England: "There is scarcely one foreign power with whom they have had any relation, which has not had more or less cause to complain of the iniquity and persecution to which its subjects here have been exposed;" and France, though her claims were much smaller than ours, took up arms on this account. Bearing in mind, then, how peculiarly inimical were the people and authorities of Mexico toward us, one can readily imagine what sort of treatment citizens of ours had to endure.[24]


In the next place one desires to be sure whether our actual claims were real or, as some American and Mexican writers have asserted, were simply "trumped-up." That a few of the less important ones had no basis is apparently true, but it must be remembered that our government was bound to consider any case resting on prima facie support, and ask for an investigation. It could not, like the Mexican authorities, examine the records necessary for the detection of all mistakes and frauds. Moreover, the existence of unfounded claims, if such there were, does not matter to us, for the real question is merely whether substantial sums were justly demanded. On that point one immediately reflects, not only that our national authorities were scarcely capable of conspiring with skippers and traders to pick the pocket of Mexico, but that, had they been silly enough to present a list of imaginary claims, her quick-witted if not profound officials would have delighted to analyze and expose the frauds. Coming then to the question, one can answer it positively in the affirmative. Both national and international tribunals decided that we had well-founded and substantial claims.[25]

It has been urged, however, that our demands required very difficult and extensive investigations, which in the midst of her embarrassments Mexico could not reasonably be expected to enter upon; but many, if not most, of the claims were in fact simple.[26] It has been insisted that as aggrieved Mexicans in the United States appealed to our courts, the proper policy for aggrieved Americans was to appeal to the courts of Mexico;[27] but the assumed analogy did not exist. The Mexican tribunals, in addition to being notoriously bad from every point of view, were sometimes deliberately used to perpetrate iniquities, and could not always enforce their fair decisions.[28]

American writers have also argued that it was contemptible for a strong and rich nation like ours to demand money from a poor neighbor; but the extent of our national resources had no bearing on the rights of individual citizens, crippled or impoverished by Mexican injustice. This, however, is by no means all that should be said. The wisdom and the equity of the civilized world are embodied in its laws, and those laws agree that one's debts are to be paid. Spendthrifts are not exempted from the effects of this rule, and the poverty of the Mexican treasury was due not only to carelessness but also to crime. Moreover, if an amiable, "siempre-alegre" young man borrows without repaying, wastes his substance in riotous living, and perpetrates outrages on the passers-by, it is the duty of some creditor to bring him before the courts, and convince him in a practical manner that, as a member of civilized society, he is accountable for his acts. The same principle holds of international relations. "All political communities are responsible to other political communities for their conduct," wrote Canning to the Spanish government; Webster enunciated the same rule; and it was not only the right but the duty of the United States-as a fellow nation, a sister republic and a next neighbor-to bring Mexico to her senses by teaching her what membership in the family of nations involved. Had this been done at the beginning of her wild career, she might have put her house in order before bad practices became habitual.[29]

Again, we shall presently find good reasons to believe, that had Mexico fairly examined our claims and frankly stated her financial difficulties, a lenient arrangement regarding what were after all moderate sums for a nation to pay could readily have been made. Further still, if Mexico was too poor to discharge her debts promptly, it was incumbent upon her, besides recognizing them, to show a certain appreciation of the indulgence accorded her; but instead of so doing she continued to harass American citizens, and showed, as we shall find, a distinct lack of good-will and even of straightforwardness in her dealings with us.

Finally, it has been repeated over and over again by American and Mexican writers that our claims were urged aggressively. But the history of the matter does not read in that way. Our demands for redress began early in Poinsett's day. In October, 1829, Butler was directed to lay them before the Mexican government, but at the same time to avoid "anything like menace or defiance." Morning after morning his table was covered with fresh American remonstrances against official conduct, he reported, and for years his efforts met only with rebuffs; yet his instructions were still to maintain amicable relations, and our government set him the example.[30]


In June, 1836, Ellis reported that "daily" acts of "injustice and oppression" continued to be perpetrated, while every application for redress was treated with "cold neglect"; yet the next month he was merely instructed to "make a fresh appeal" to the "sense of honor and justice" of the Mexican government, asking that our grievances "should be promptly and properly examined" and "suitable" redress be afforded. In order, however, to check what the British minister called "their usual system of evasion," a satisfactory reply of some kind within three weeks was to be required, and should it not be made without "unnecessary" delay, Ellis, after giving a fortnight's notice, was to withdraw. In October Monasterio, after delaying for weeks to answer Ellis, admitted that his predecessors had neglected this business, and promised he would give his first attention to our claims, many of which, as we know, were very simple, very old and very familiar to the foreign office; but his reply, the following month, was mere evasion. Why, asked Ellis, have not the claims presented during the past ten years been either accepted or rejected? But the mystery was not explained, and at the end of December, 1836-after waiting, not three weeks, but three months-he withdrew. Meanwhile Gorostiza distributed among the diplomats at Washington a pamphlet in which he accused our government of grossly dishonorable conduct in regard to Texas; and the unqualified approval of his superiors turned this impropriety into a grave international issue.[31]

President Jackson had originally felt most sympathetic toward Mexico; and although Butler and Ellis agreed that indulgence was a mistaken policy, and her official journal described all Americans as villains and all our claims as the pretexts of smugglers, yet in a Message of December, 1836, Jackson recommended courtesy and great forbearance. The evasions practised upon Ellis, however, and still more the approval of Gorostiza's insulting pamphlet, sharpened his feelings, and early in February, 1837, he laid the subject of our claims anew before Congress, as it was his right and his duty to do, proposed to make the next demand for settlement from the deck of a warship, and asked for authority to undertake reprisals in case that step also should prove ineffectual. In the official view of Mexico, Gaines's advance and Gorostiza's withdrawal from Washington amounted to a formal rupture, even though Castillo, her ordinary representative, lingered in the United States until March; and in our own official opinion the endorsement of Gorostiza's conduct, the refusal to examine our claims, and the return of Ellis could signify hardly less. Under such circumstances Jackson's February Message was perfectly normal and proper.[32]

Congress took substantially the same view as the Executive; but there was some fear of Mexican privateers, a good deal of pity for a sister republic supposed to be the victim of circumstances, a little unwillingness to increase Jackson's power, a pronounced wish to comply exactly with the treaty of amity, which required formal notice in advance of hostilities, and considerable hope that Santa Anna, who had now been restored alive to his country through the magnanimity of the Texans and the Americans, would reciprocate by endeavoring to adjust our claims. Another consideration, however, was probably still more potent. The administration party felt that should war be declared, the opposition would say its real object was the acquisition of Texas; and so Jackson's well-known desire to obtain that region prevented in large measure, instead of causing, an outbreak of hostilities. It was decided, therefore, to make the final demand for redress in a peaceful manner, and to show full respect for what the House of Representatives described as our "ancient, though now estranged, friend."[33]

In March, 1837, Van Buren became President, and found it necessary to take some action. The documents bearing on our claims were critically examined; fifty-seven cases, apparently free from doubt, were made out and proved; and in July, Robert Greenhow, interpreter of the state department, presented them at Mexico with a final demand for redress, adding that we had no desire to cause embarrassment by pressing for payment. On one point, however, he insisted: Gorostiza's conduct must be disavowed. The minister of relations admitted in reply that certain of the cases did not require long examination, which was indeed true; but he said the President, while "most anxious" not to cause delay, wished that "each" of them should be examined "in its turn" and that "nothing should be left undone" which could promote "the most speedy and equitable" settlement.[34]

In November Martínez, a new minister to the United States, whom we received kindly even though Gorostiza's action had not been disavowed, presented the answer of his government. Instead of the document officially transmitted by Greenhow, an obsolete, incomplete and necessarily inaccurate list of our claims, obtained nobody knows how, had been used; only four of our fifty-seven living cases had even been considered; and not one of these had been disposed of. Accordingly, when our Congress assembled in December, 1837, the Executive laid the whole subject before it anew, analyzed Mexico's evasive reply-so different from what had been solemnly promised-announced that fresh outrages of a serious and exasperating sort had been committed, and plainly intimated that no hope of a peaceful settlement could be entertained. Evidently the patience of the United States had nearly come to an end; but before Congress was ready to act, Martínez proposed a scheme of arbitration, which-though formally decided upon by Mexico in May, 1837-it had apparently been her deliberate purpose to hold in reserve until all other dilatory tactics should have been exhausted.[35]


Naturally our government hesitated to adopt a plan which, as the British representative at Mexico wrote when he heard of it, was precisely the one to "gratify the favourite object" of our debtors-"the gaining of time and postponement of the day of reckoning"; but in April, 1838, quite unlike France and much to the surprise of Mexico, we accepted arbitration, and it then appeared that Martínez had no powers to act in the matter. For months, indeed, although our consul at Mexico was assuring that government of our fair and friendly disposition, he did not receive them.[36]

In September, 1838, however, a convention was signed. Martínez stated that it would not have to be ratified by the Congress of his country, but her President ruled otherwise, and then with an extremely poor excuse did not submit it. So the time limit arrived; and, to the intense disgust of our people and administration, the agreement lapsed. The poor excuse was accepted by our government, however, and in April, 1839, after two years had thus been frittered away, another convention was made, providing that each country should name two commissioners, and the king of Prussia select a fifth person to be an umpire; and as Mexico disavowed Gorostiza's conduct in circulating the offensive pamphlet, our patience appeared to be rewarded.[37]

In the opinion of Pakenham, British minister at Mexico, the arbitration arrangement was "a very fortunate circumstance" for the debtor nation, and one that she ought to observe scrupulously; but the minister of relations, without even a poor excuse, failed to consider seriously the appointment of commissioners until a few days before the treaty required them to be in Washington, and consequently the agreement expired. Mexico, however, could not well take advantage of this fact; the United States waived it; and on August 25, 1840, nearly two and a half years after we had accepted arbitration, the joint commission was organized. The representatives of Mexico were Se?ores Castillo and León, one of whom, being unfamiliar with business, fell under the control of his colleague, while the other was described by Pakenham as conspicuously dishonest. In eighteen months from that date, according to the treaty, the labors of this body were to end. To kill time was, therefore, to kill claims-or at any rate bury them.[38]

When the subject of the commission was discussed in 1838, Forsyth took the ground that it would be a judicial body, guided solely by the evidence before it; and this principle was apparently accepted as fundamental. Webster, now the secretary of state, pointed out that it was essentially and necessarily such a tribunal. The Mexican commissioners, however, had been ordered to act, not freely according to the evidence, but according to the instructions of their government; and moreover they promptly refused to let the claimants present themselves either in person, by attorney or in writing. Some four months were spent in discussing objections raised by them, and finally, in order to get something done, the American representatives found it necessary to give way. Yet the sailing was not smooth even then. Castillo and León resorted not only to dilatory tactics and unfair methods, but even to express falsehood; and their government violated in a signal manner one of the most fundamental stipulations of the treaty. In short, if we may believe the apparently fair statement of the American commissioners, the Mexicans caused delays that prevented the adjustment of claims amounting to more than five millions, and pursued a course in general that excited great indignation throughout this country. Meanwhile, as our philo-Mexican minister, Thompson, reported, "The rights of American Citizens of every grade and character" were still subjected to "constant outrage."[39]


In spite of everything, however, some two millions-in 1841 a substantial amount-were awarded, and at once Mexico set at work to devise a scheme for evading the obligation. Urgent advice from the British minister discouraged this plan, however; and finally a new convention was made in January, 1843, expressly for the convenience of our debtor, by which the amount with interest was to be paid within five years, counted from the following April, in equal quarterly instalments of cash. "Such indulgent terms," was Pakenham's description of the arrangement. Both governments ratified it; and so after these many years of patience and effort on the one side, evasion and sometimes dishonesty on the other, compensation for a portion of our grievances began to be received. But-after all, Mexico paid only three instalments. At that point she broke her word, and stopped.[40]

For her course in this matter there seem to be only two conceivable excuses; her embarrassed condition and her irritation over the Texas affair. With reference to these it must be said that her condition was itself inexcusable, and at the utmost did not incapacitate her for doing all that we demanded; while her irritation was essentially unfounded, and, even had it been reasonable, would not have justified her making promises and agreements only to break them, or resorting in other ways to dishonorable methods.[41]

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