by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This second and final part of a post delving into a very interesting article from the Whig-leaning The American Review and reprinted in the 31 January 1846 issue of Littell’s Living Age, which specialized in such republishing works from other journals, and calling for the purchase of California from México by the United States.
This was just several months before the declaration of war by President James K. Polk and approval by Congress under the pretext that Mexican troops attacked American soldiers on U.S. soil in Texas, but a boundary was still in dispute, with México asserting that the Nueces River should have been the border between the two nations, while the United States claimed the Río Grande, to the south, was the proper boundary.
Polk tried to send John Slidell, mentioned in the first part of this post, to México to negotiate a border and to purchase New Mexico and California for up to $30 million, but the Mexican government refused to receive him. In January 1846, General Zachary Taylor was ordered by Polk to occupy the land between the two rivers. It is also important to note that the Whigs, opposition party to Polk’s Democrats, were suspicious of the intentions of the president and his party.
As the unidentified author of the piece spent much of the time discussing the designs of Great Britain on California, which is where we left off with the end of part one, he added that there were concerns in some quarters in Europe about the machinations of the British and Americans.
Cited was a Paris publication declaring, “for the political balance of the world, the conquest of Mexico by the United States may create eventual dangers” and adding that “North America [the U.S.] presents her ambitious plans for conquering all the American continent” including the asserting that “a war will give her a welcome pretence for possessing herself of all Mexico.” The worry was that the aggrandizement would carry the Americans to the Isthmus of Panama and “Europe should not tolerate this, NOR SUFFER NORTH AMERICA TO INCREASE, or the independence of Europe might sooner or later be wedged in by the two colossuses of Russia and North America, and suffer from their oppression.”
The author found it very improbable that any European nation would dare to step in to dispute the aims of America (though France did take advantage of the Civil War to install a puppet emperor in México, which regime collapsed not long after our internal war ended.) Yet, he went on, “the affairs of the whole world are, in many very important respects, linked and even fused together,” not the least of which was commerce. Supremacy of any nation was dictated by control over transportation, whether by land or sea, and it was suggested that European envy and jealousy was aimed at “checking and fixing limits to the growth of American power.”
Also important to the writer was the vast difference between European monarchy and “inalienable allegiance” to that form of government along with the intricate ties between nations there and American democracy and “the most wonderful advancement” of it “in wealth, population, territory, and all the elements of national greatness and power.” Even though México was a democracy and a republic modeled after that of the United States, nothing at all was said about it in this part of the article. Instead, the author rapturously reflected:
upon the spectacle which we present to the world, of eighteen millions of people, active, intelligent and happy, enjoying all the protection, and feeling none of the burdens of government, dwelling in peace and in plenty . . . holding their rights and possessions at the caprice of no lord or petty tyrant, but under the sanction of the commonwealth of which they are constituent members, and enjoying all the blessings of a well-ordered state.
Of course, there were millions of women unable to participate directly in the political processes, millions of native Americans pushed further to the frontier and decimated by want and disease, millions of Black slaves subjected to dehumanizing lives on farms and plantations, and growing divisions between North and South that would, in fifteen short years lead to the Civil War. But, for this writer, intoxicated by the flights of his rhetoric, none of this was in view as he attacked European despotism as if there was none of that in America, not that authoritarianism overseas was to be seen as parallel either.
As to México, it was averred that “she cannot lack the sagacity to perceive that, with Great Britain firmly fixed in California [if that was to actually transpire], she could not engage in war with the United States without a certainty, or, at the least, a very strong probability of having Great Britain for an active ally.” Yet, the argument continued, “we deem it impossible that Great Britain should expect to occupy California . . . with the acquiescence or indifference of the United States.” The two nations, in fact, almost went to war earlier in the decade over the border with Canada near Maine, while settling the boundary at the other end of the continent with regard to the Oregon Territory also came close to fomenting hostilities.
Another key point raised was that “to the United States it is destined to be the highway to Asia, the avenue to the unbounded wealth of the ‘gorgeous East.'” Whaling was the current major economic enterprise of Americans in the Pacific but “in half a century our commerce with Asia in the Islands of the Pacific must be counted by the hundreds of millions of dollars” and San Francisco was perhaps the best harbor on the planet and the gateway to that commercial future.
The writer went to far as to assert that, should Britain develop the relationship to México that would include the cession of California, “she would certainly have enfolded us as completely in her net, as the bloodiest intentions of extermination could possibly desire!” Then again, the United States had its Monroe Doctrine of 1823 asserting that the Americas was in the sphere of influence of the U.S. and no European interference was to be permitted.
Examples cited in this article concerned the warning of the United States that European states like Russia and France, as well as those in the Americas like Colombia and México, were to steer clear of involvement in the affairs of Cuba and Puerto Rico, which were Spanish colonies. Of course, America launched the Spanish-American War a half-century later with Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain a core element of the conflict.
With respect to the doctrine of keeping European nations out of affairs in the Americas, the author noted that “this principle in the case of California, may easily be shown to be far more imperative than in that of Cuba” because losing that territory to Great Britain would give that superpower “absolute dominion of the Pacific Ocean . . . and place her in a position which might at any moment become infinitely dangerous to our safety and prosperity.”
The question was really, the argument went on, a matter of national self-preservation in extraordinary ways:
In an individual, self-defence [sic] is an instinct. In a nation it becomes a duty—one, too, of paramount obligation, far superior in binding force to any other . . . it enforces in peace preparation for war—that is to say, the adoption of such measures as shall, in the event of war, put the national existence and safety beyond the hazards of any contest, and out of reach of any hostile blow. Though it neither sanctions nor requires injustice or wrong, it often supersedes the common rules of international law, and, where clear and undeniable, justifies acts for which no public law exists.
The writer noted that, in August 1835, Secretary of State John Forsyth wrote to a diplomat in México ordering him to seek by “all sacrifices to get possession of the Bay of San Francisco” as part of a massive acquisition of territory west of the Gulf of Mexico.
More recently, as alluded to at the beginning of this part of the post, was “that Mr. Slidell has gone to Mexico clothed with power to effect this purchase,” though, it was added, “we have misgivings of his success” because England likely had more money to offer and México, because of its anger towards the U.S. over Texas, was likely to prefer an alliance with the British as part of its reconquest of Texas and the goal to “stroke a severe and effective blow at the transcendent, overshadowing greatness of the United States.
As the piece came to a conclusion, three main points were laid out. First,
That California, a region of vast resources, and destined, at no distant day, to hold important relations to the commerce and politics of the world, must—and ought, in the natural course of events, and for the general good of humanity—pass from its present dominion into the hands of another race, and under the sway of another political system.
Next, Great Britain had designs on asserting control of the coastal territory “by her general lust for colonial possessions” and to limit “the growth, in wealth, dominion and power, of the American Union” as well as of “republican liberty” which was a threat to the British and “the family of European sovereigns.”
Lastly, the English pursuit of California “would be inconsistent with the interests and the safety of the United States” and allow for the latter to invoke “the paramount law of self-preservation.” Given these, the author intoned, “we hope and trust that a timely purchase of California by the United States . . . will avert the necessity of an appeal to the terrible arbiter of irreconcilable international disputes,” that is, war.
If such a conflict was to erupt, it was contended that “not only will the entire territory bordering on the Pacific coast, from the Gulf of California to the Russian frontier . . . become a prize of contending nations, but a contest will ensue between opposite systems of political existence . . . [and which would] be a final, and for one or the other a fatal, collision.” Moreover, he went on, “it will not become the American nation, as the only republic of mark on the face of the earth, with timid shrinking or unmanly fear, to decline it, or to tremble for the result.”
It was war with Britain that seemed most likely, rather than that with México, and the writer noted that an English nobleman stated “a war with America must be a SHORT war,” which sentiment “touches the heart of England’s policy and necessity.” Additionally, he asserted, “her power and resources are prepared for an onset terrible as a thunderbolt” but “we ardently hope no necessity may ever arise” for such a horrible clash of powers.
Even still, there would be “no timid shrinking from all the responsibilities of our conspicuous and perilous position” because, since the independence of the U.S. from Great Britain,
An AMERICAN SYSTEM has grown up . . . a perfect independence of all European control, and the right to shape its policy and its history, without interference, as it promises to do without the aid, of any of the older nations of the Eastern world. To that system, and by its principles, must our cause henceforth and forever be directed and guided.
In the wake of what he perceived to be México’s snub of Slidell, President Polk drafted a war message to be delivered to Congress on 9 May 1846, but news was received that forces from México crossed the Río Grande and fought with some of Taylor’s troops, leading Polk to revise his address, which was given on the 11th. Fired up with the claim that American blood was spilled on U.S. soil, Congress moved quickly to declare war two days later, though many Whigs questioned Polk’s characterizations of the fighting as taking place in American territory.
In California, the “Bear Flag Revolt” by Americans took place in Sonoma in mid-June and a little more than three weeks later, on 7 July, a Navy squadron, having heard of both the revolt and the declaration of war, sailed into Monterey and seized it. On 13 August, Commodore Robert F. Stockton entered Los Angeles unopposed, though six weeks later, the Californios, enraged by the restrictions of the garrison commander, retook the town and it was not until 9 January 1847 that Stockton and Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny, after two battles at the Río Hondo and La Mesa (in modern Vernon), recaptured the town.
William Workman played a role in several aspects of the conflict, including working to prevent the marching to México of Americans and Europeans captured by Californios in late September, meeting with Stockton before the final battles, and bringing out the flag of truce when the Americans marched into Los Angeles.
This article is a very notable editorial about what the United States should do to acquire California and secure the American position on the western coast of the continent it was apparently destined to control.