Jesus for Revolutionaries: A Blog About Race, Social Justice, and Christianity

Thursday, February 7, 2013

A History of Mexican Immigration to the United States: Manifest Destiny and the Mexican-American War

Mexican immigration to the United States began with bad theology and an “unjust war.”  

In 1821, Mexico was about twice its current size.  It included what is now California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada, as well as parts of Utah, Colorado, and Kansas.   After Mexican independence from Spain in 1821, Anglo Americans began settling in the Texas territories.   In 1836, these immigrants and Mexican Texans, or, “Tejanos,” gained their independence from Mexico through military battle (i.e., “Remember the Alamo”…).   As you can imagine, Mexico was not quick to recognize Texas’ claim to independence and did not like it when Texas became a state of the American union in 1845.   To make matters worse, the U.S. and Mexico disagreed as to what constituted the official border between Texas and Mexico.  The U.S. asserted that the boundary was the Rio Grande River (what it is today).  Mexico claimed that the border was 150 miles farther north at the Nueces River (which was the historical boundary line).   This border dispute is theoretically what sparked the Mexican-American War in 1846. 

Following failed diplomatic negotiations regarding the boundary line, 4,000 U.S. troops marched to the disputed Rio Grande region.  According to President Polk, Mexican troops then fired on American troops and started the Mexican-American War.  A year and a half later, the U.S. won the war and Mexico was forced to sign the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. 

As part of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, Mexico surrendered half of its territory to the United States in exchange for 15 million dollars.  That’s how the U.S. acquired the present-day states of California, New Mexico, Nevada and parts of Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and even Oklahoma—over half a million square miles. 

That’s also how we Mexicans first “immigrated” to the U.S.   We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us!

Unknown to most people, many Americans felt that the Mexican-American War was an “unjust war.”  Abraham Lincoln was the most famous opponent of the Mexican-American War.  Lincoln felt that the war “was unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced by the President," and he staked his early congressional reputation on opposition to the war.  Ulysses S. Grant, famous Civil War general and 18th President of the United States, also condemned the Mexican-American War later in life.  He stated, “I had a horror of the Mexican War…only I had not moral courage enough to resign…I considered my supreme duty was to my flag.” Grant went so far as to say that he felt the Civil War was God’s punishment of the U.S. for the Mexican-American War. 

Nicholas Trist, the man responsible for brokering the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo for the United States, had some of the harshest words to say about the war and ensuing treaty:

“If those Mexicans…had been able to look into my heart at that moment, they would have found that the sincere shame I felt as a North American was stronger than theirs as Mexicans.  Although I was unable to say it at the time, it was something that any North American should be ashamed of…”

To make matters worse, the Mexican-American War and the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo were inspired by bad theology.   This bad theology had a name, and it was called Manifest Destiny.   According to Manifest Destiny, God had ordained the United States to colonize North America “from sea to shining sea”—from Maine to California, and everything in between.   Moreover, as a specially anointed people of God,  Anglo Americans were given the “manifest destiny” to spread Protestant Christianity and U.S. democracy throughout North America.  The brutal colonization of the Native American population and the seizure of half of Mexico through an unjust war was all part of this so-called “divine calling.”

John O’Sullivan, editor of the Democratic Review, coined the term “Manifest Destiny.”  In the July/August 1845 issue of the Democratic Review, Sullivan claimed that it was the American “destiny to overspread the whole North American continent with an immense democratic population” (i.e., white and Protestant).   Manifest Destiny was not some fringe idea either.  It had broad social support, and proponents included rural communities, New England poets, northern abolitionists, and southern slave holders.  Notable supporters of Manifest Destiny included Walt Whitman,
John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the letters and diaries of American soldiers during the Mexican-American War clearly articulate the bad theology of Manifest Destiny.  In fact, some of these letters and diaries are quite shocking.  For example, one volunteer officer wrote the following to his cousin who was a Protestant minister:

“I wish I had the power to stop their churches [Mexican Catholic Churches]…to bring off this treasure hoard of gold and jewels, and to put the greasy priests, monks, friars and other officials at work on the public highways as a preliminary step to mending their ways…It is perfectly certain that this war is a divine dispensation intended to purify and punish this misguided nation…Most of our officers concur with me that nothing but a divine ruler and commander could have brought us safely through so much peril against awful odds.”

Unfortunately, some American Catholics were also not immune to the lure of Manifest Destiny.  One Catholic soldier wrote:

“ I cannot help but think, that God has fought upon our side, to chastize them for their sins.” 

Some American soldiers not only misrepresented Christianity through their bad theology and journal entries, but also through unjustified violence on the battlefield.  Accounts of soldier misconduct during the Mexican-American War were also often squelched.  Highlighting the military abuses committed by American soldiers, and the silencing of voices of opposition, one military private wrote the following to his father: 

“The majority of the Volunteers sent here are a disgrace to the nation; think of one of them shooting a woman while washing in the bank of the river—merely to test his rifle; another tore forcibly from a Mexican woman the rings from her ears.  Their officers take no notice of these outrages, and the offenders escape.  If these things are sent to the papers, they are afraid to publish, and so it happens.”

One regular officer commented on the military destruction in northern Mexico in the following way:

“From Saltillo to Mier, with the exception of the large towns, all is a desert, and there is scarcely a solitary house (if there be one) inhabited.  The smiling villages which welcomed our troops on their upward march are now black and smouldering ruins, the gardens and orange groves destroyed, and the inhabitants, who administered to their necessities, have sought refuge in the mountains.”

Boy, this is making me depressed!  I’ve taught about the Mexican-American War many times in my classes, but this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to speak about it in depth to a broader audience in the context of my faith.   As a follower of Jesus, it makes me so sad to know that there were those who misrepresented His name in such a horrific way. 

I am filled with hope, however, to know that there were Christians who loudly and boldly denounced the Mexican-American War.  As we’ve already said, Abraham Lincoln was a vocal Christian critic of the war, and so was Ulysses Grant--later in life at least.  In a book called, The War With Mexico Reviewed, Abiel Abbott Livermore also denounced the war in powerful—and explicitly Christian—terms.  In stinging condemnation of Manifest Destiny, Livermore wrote:

“Again, the pride of race has swollen to still greater insolence the pride of country, always quite active enough for the due observance of the claims of universal brotherhood.  The Anglo-Saxons have been apparently persuaded to think themselves the chosen people, anointed race of the Lord, commissioned to drive out the heathen, and plant their religion and institutions in every Canaan they could subjugate…Our treatment both of the red man and the black man has habituated us to feel our power and forget right…The god Terminus is an unknown deity in America.  Like the hunger of the pauper boy of fictionm the cry had been, ‘more, more, give us more.’”  (As cited in Rodolfo Acuna, Occupied America, 46). 

In recognition of his forceful critic of the Mexican-American War, Livermore was awarded the American Peace Society prize for “the best review of the Mexican War and the principles of Christianity, and an enlightened statesmanship” (Acuna, 46). 

The example of Livermore reminds me of an historical principle that I’ve found to  be at play in the past 2,000 years of world history.   Every time someone, or some country, misrepresents the name of Jesus through racism or oppression of the poor and marginalized, God always raises up a witness.  Like Livermore, these witnesses  denounce such misrepresentation as counter to the teachings of Jesus and sacred Scripture, and loudly declare that God is a God of justice and compassion for the poor and marginalized of society.    

Can I get a witness?

Robert Chao Romero



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