At the time of Mexico's independence, it had neither a constitution, nor an executive, nor a legislature. It had instead only a junta, an unemployed viceroy-designate by the name of O'Donojú, and a caudillo -- a military chieftain -- by the name of Iturbide.
The 28-man junta, all political conservatives appointed by Iturbide, arranged for the election of an official Congress whose first order of business would be to draft a constitution. The town councils chose electors who in turn selected delegates to represent the provinces, but each province was instructed to send at least one secular clergyman, one military officer, and one judge or lawyer to the Congress. A designated number of seats were also to be apportioned to represent mining, commerce, industry, and the nobility, insuring that the resultant body would be one which promoted only the interests of the conservatives, namely the professional classes, the wealthy, and the aristocrats. No seats were allocated for the lower classes.
As this Congress went about its work, news of Mexico's independence finally reached Spain, devastating the monarch and his policymakers. They immediately labeled the viceroy-designate as a traitor and declared the treaty he had signed as null and void. Not only did they refuse to acknowledge Mexico's independence but they also threatened to reincorporate the country into the Spanish Empire by force of arms. Fernando VII and his brothers scoffed at the notion of accepting the "crown" of Mexico, which, of course, delighted Iturbide, who was angling for it all along.
Although Iturbide had earned a reputation as a great military hero, he soon found that the Congress that he had been instrumental in helping to create not only became bogged down in unproductive debates and rancorous factional disputes, but also was growing more and more hostile to him as well. Deciding that the time had come for action, he orchestrated a "spontaneous demonstration" of his soldiers on the evening of May 18, 1822 to proclaim him "Agustín I, Emperor of Mexico", but in answer to the crowd he professed that he required the consent of the Congress to accede to their wishes. The next morning Iturbide strode triumphantly into the Congress as his soldiers hailed the events of the previous evening as a "true plebiscite", and, although the legislature lacked a legal quorum, it quickly voted to name him "constitutional emperor" of Mexico. Two months later in an elaborate ceremony at the national cathedral he and his wife were crowned the country's emperor and empress.
Naturally, Mexico, which had been without a native-born "emperor" since Cuauhtémoc, suddenly found itself having to create a nobility and outfit it with suitable badges of office to mimic those of the royal houses of Europe. Fortunately, there was a French baroness living in Mexico at the time who had been in Napoleon's court, and she was commissioned to design the uniforms for the multitude of courtiers and ladies-in-waiting who would inevitably be named to round out Iturbide's entourage. Imposing statues of the emperor were set up in the plazas and along the avenues, imperial coins were struck, and an order of knighthood was soon instituted as well, and before long Iturbide invited all the states of Central America, which had won their independence from Spain by default, to join Mexico in a great empire whose borders extended from northern California to Panama. All of these grandiose intentions, however, quickly came to naught; eleven years of bloody warfare had taken such a toll that Mexico's economy was in ruins. Its mines were flooded, their managers had either fled or been killed, the machinery was damaged or destroyed. Many of the large landowners had been murdered, their stocks of food had been confiscated, and their livestock herds either slaughtered or dispersed. Trade was non-existent because commerce with the home country had ceased and no alternative sources of imports or exports had yet been found. Most Spanish merchants had either returned home or had their fortunes seized by an impoverished Mexican government. The biggest single cost of maintaining order was paying the army, yet revenues could not begin to cover the mounting debts that the imperial government was incurring.
The total disarray of the Mexican economy gave Agustín I no means for realizing the ambitious dreams he envisioned. Instead, it brought him increasing criticism from the press and the congress, to which he replied with suppression of liberal newspapers and the arrest of nearly a score of deputies. When other congressmen protested, Agustín dissolved the Congress in October 1822 and made himself a dictator -- laying the groundwork for a pattern of behavior that Mexican caudillos have followed rather routinely ever since.
Had he been able to keep the army content, Agustín probably would have managed to substantially extend his longevity as emperor, but with a bankrupt treasury he found that impossible. In December 1822 the military commander of Veracruz, Antonio López de Santa Anna, rose up against him and proclaimed a republic. In desperation, Agustín reinstated the Congress only to find that it was as hostile to him as the old one had been, and realizing that he had no support on any side, he abdicated on March 19, 1823. Mexico's first experiment with independence -- a ten-month flirtation with Empire -- had ended in failure.
Granted an annual pension of twenty-five thousand pesos by the Congress, Iturbide sailed off with his family to exile in Europe two months later. However, unaware that the same Congress had decreed to kill him should he ever set foot in Mexico again, he returned a year later proclaiming that he was going to save the country from a Spanish attempt to re-annex it. Shortly after he landed near Tampico, he was captured and on July 19, 1824 he was executed by a firing squad.
With the Empire now definitively put to rest, the Mexicans managed to negotiate a loan from Great Britain that allowed them to reorganize their government. In October 1824 a liberal constitution patterned on that of the United States was put into effect. It established the United Mexican States as a federal republic made up of nineteen states and five territories. The executive consisted of a President and Vice-President, the legislative branch had a Senate and a Chamber of Deputies, and the judiciary formed a separate third branch of government. However, keeping to Spanish tradition, only the practice of Roman Catholicism was permitted.
Against a backdrop of financial chaos, an illiteracy rate in excess of ninety percent, and a total lack of experience in democratic self-government, the chances for the success of this new venture were in doubt right from the outset. In addition, the expulsion of nearly all of the Spanish elite meant that the country would be denied the services of many of the most educated people it had. Moreover, the long years of war had elevated the military to a position of prestige and power that far exceeded any constructive contribution it could make to the country's future. Small wonder, then, that the young nation soon found itself split into sharply-divided opposing camps of liberals versus conservatives, who at every opportunity attempted to negate the policies of their opponents. As control over the government oscillated between one faction and the other, many laws and even the constitution itself were rewritten, and members of the political opposition were often muzzled, jailed, or exiled, and, not infrequently, murdered.
The liberals favored an egalitarian society, a federal state, freedom of the press, toleration of all religious groups, curtailment of special privileges for the upper classes, and public education. Their support came chiefly from middle-class intellectuals including teachers, journalists, lawyers, and small-business leaders. The conservatives, on the other hand, wanted a centralized state which, "if necessary", could exercise dictatorial powers and could institute measures of censorship. Committed to a class system ruled by an elite, they were likewise in favor of retaining distinct privileges for the upper classes, including special courts of law and hereditary titles. Moreover they insisted on Roman Catholicism as the only religious faith in the country and the Church's control over education. Adherents of the conservative ideology were found primarily among the Church hierarchy, the military, the large landowners, the mine-owners, and the wealthier merchant class. Ironically, the illiterate peons and Indians, who played little or no active role in politics but could and did fight and die, had also been brain-washed into believing that the conservative philosophy held the only real promise for order and progress in the country's affairs.
When Mexico's first presidential election was held in the autumn of 1824, the state legislatures, which served as an electoral college, made what they considered to be an expedient compromise but which, in fact, turned out to be a fatal blunder: They chose as the President a liberal, Guadalupe Victoria, and as the Vice-President a conservative, Nicolás Bravo. Although a hero of the struggle against Spain, Victoria was a poor administrator, and the country's already bankrupt treasury became saddled with an even more oppressive national debt. Although he managed to stay in office for the full length of his four-year term -- an accomplishment of which no Mexican chief executive could boast for the next four decades -- he did so only by putting down an armed revolt led by his own vice president. Bravo's defeat by General Vicente Guerrero resulted in his trial and exile but certainly did not put an end to the ideological antipathy of the two political factions.
In Mexico's second presidential election the liberals fielded General Vicente Guerrero as their candidate, and although he was more popular than Pedraza, the conservative ex-minister of war, the Electoral College formed by the state legislatures chose the latter as President. This outraged the liberals who, under the leadership of such generals as Santa Anna and Lobato, led an uprising that forced Pedraza to seek exile and Guerrero moved into the national palace in April 1829. However, accompanying him into office was a conservative Vice-President, General Anastasio Bustamente, so the seeds for another internal coup had already been sown. Perhaps the only real victor in this struggle was Santa Anna, who was promoted by Guerrero to the highest rank in the Mexican army.
During his short eight months in office, Guerrero abolished slavery in Mexico, in the process alienating the Anglo-American colonists in Texas who had brought in their black slaves to work in the cotton fields. He also enforced the decree of March 1829 that expelled most of the remaining Spaniards in the country. The latter act prompted the Spanish government to launch an invasion of Mexico from Cuba in July 1829. Landing a force of three thousand soldiers near Tampico, they took over a fort that had been abandoned by the Mexicans but made no progress into the interior. Besieged by the Mexican army, ravaged by yellow fever, plagued by the oppressive heat and humidity, and cut off from reinforcements by an internal dispute between the Spanish army and navy, the Spanish commander finally surrendered on September 11 without a fight. General Santa Anna, the Mexican officer in charge, emerged with another plume in his hat, sporting the new sobriquet of "Victor of Tampico".
At the time of the Spanish invasion, the Congress had voted Guerrero extraordinary powers to deal with the crisis, but Guerrero had refused to yield them once the crisis was past. This was enough to provoke his Vice-President Bustamente into leading a revolt against him, arguing that Guerrero had become a dictator. When Bustamente, with the help of the army, moved into the president's office in early 1830, he had the Congress declare Guerrero as unfit to govern. Thereafter, Bustamente quickly established a dictatorship of his own, suppressing opposition newspapers and threatening both the legislature and judiciary with military force. All liberal state governors were either imprisoned, exiled, or shot, and when Guerrero himself was betrayed through treachery and bribery, he too, was sent to the firing squad. His execution so shocked Mexican public opinion that it resulted in another revolt amongst the military, this one led by none other than Guerrero's hand-picked major-general, Antonio de Santa Anna.
Although Santa Anna's revolt was only one of many which Bustamente's high-handed behavior triggered, it was the one that most decisively put Bustamente to rout, forcing him into exile early in 1833. At this juncture, Congress called the former president, Pedraza, back to complete the last three months of the term to which he had been elected five years earlier, but shortly thereafter a new election was called which elevated Mexico's newest caudillo, Santa Anna, into that turbulent office.
For the next thirty years, Santa Anna would be in and out of the Mexican Presidency almost a dozen times. Even during his first term in office, he retired to his hacienda in Veracruz state and let his more liberal Vice-President Valentín Gómez Farias act in his place. Together with his advisor, the yet-more-radical José Maria Luis Mora, Gómez Farias attempted to enact a series of reforms including granting greater freedom to the press, guaranteeing individual freedoms, separating Church and state, making the government responsible for education, doing away with monastic institutions, abolishing the special privileges held by the clergy, the military, and the nobility, and expropriating some of the Church lands and granting them to landless peasants.
In addition to these broad reforms, the Congress reduced the size of the army, abolished the special courts that tried only military offenders, and did away with the death penalty for political offenses. With respect to the Church, the reforms were even more far-reaching. The central government was given the right to appoint all church officials, members of religious orders were granted permission to renounce their vows, tithes to the church were made voluntary rather than mandatory, all Franciscan missions in California were secularized and their property was taken in trust by the government, all education from the primary to the university level was to be organized under an office of public instruction, and the University of Mexico, whose faculty consisted almost entirely of priests, was to be shut down.
The outcry from the clergy and the military was both immediate and vehement, prompting the conservatives to rebel and demand that the liberal agenda be revoked. For a time, Santa Anna was torn between attempting to put down the uprisings on the one hand and allowing his liberal vice-president to push through the bold reform program on the other, but ultimately he came down on the side of the entrenched interests of the church and the military. In April, 1834 he seized dictatorial powers, abolished the Congress and banished his vice-president, revoked the reforms which had been put into effect, kicked all liberal state governors out of office, and exiled the politicos he deemed the most radical and threatening to his regime. The Conservative-led Congress which then came to power replaced the federal system with a highly-centralized state apparatus which substituted military departments for the states and caudillos hand-picked by the President for elected officials, and two years later the Constitution itself was rewritten to reflect these major changes in Mexico's political direction. However, one of the most disastrous results of this centralization of power was a revolt among the growing Anglo-American population in the province of Texas.
Texas had been heading for trouble ever since Mexico had first thrown the province open to Anglo-American colonization in the 1820's. Initially, the Mexicans had seen the settlement of Texas as a means of offsetting potential United States aggression in the region. But, the tide of Anglo-American settlement toward the south and west was far stronger than that of the Mexican movement toward the north, so within scarcely a decade about nine thousand former Americans had crossed the border into Mexico, outnumbering the Mexican residents of the province by three to one. Attracted by wide-open expanses of good cotton-growing soils, Stephen Austin and his associates from Tennessee applied for permission to settle in Texas. After receiving an extensive tract of land, he contracted to sell it to whatever families he could entice into moving into the province. With a minimum of one square mile of land allocated to each family at a price of little more than ten cents per acre, a special dispensation permitting the introduction of Negro slaves, an exemption from taxes for ten years and a seven year moratorium on customs duties, Austin managed to round up over three hundred immigrant families in the first year. However, a couple of the provisions of land-ownership in Mexico that the immigrants were not too happy about were that they must become Mexican citizens and they must embrace the Roman Catholic religion.
Indeed, the Anglo-Americans made no real effort to integrate themselves into Mexican society. Most of them were staunch, if not fundamentalist, Protestants. They refused to learn any more than a smattering of Spanish, preferring to use English whenever or wherever they could. Unlike the town-dwelling Mexicans, the rural way of life of the Anglo-Americans mandated their living on isolated farms, surrounded by their slaves, and exporting their cotton harvests either back to the United States or overseas to England. Thus, economically as well as socially they had little or nothing to do with the Mexicans, and only politically were they begrudgingly obliged to acknowledge the Mexican hegemony over the region.
Trouble had already broken out between the Anglos and the Mexicans as early as 1826 when one U.S. settler attempted to carve off a part of eastern Texas and to declare it the independent "Republic of Fredonia". Austin and most other American settlers decried this precipitate attempt at secession and support for such a move collapsed even before Mexican troops arrived to put down the rebellion. Nevertheless, the fact that the situation had come to such a pass so early on was simply a straw in the wind of what still lay ahead. The fact that the Mexican Congress acted to abolish slavery in 1829 also did not sit well with the Anglos, and they protested so strenuously that they were permitted to keep the slaves they already had but had to agree to no further importation of Negroes.
Realizing that the situation in Texas was only likely to get worse, the Mexican government decided to close the border to any further colonization from the United States in 1830. They also levied customs duties on all exports and imports moving across the border, which seriously affected the Anglo's sale of cotton to Louisiana. Moreover, additional Mexican army reinforcements were constantly needed to enforce the new regulations, especially as would-be Anglo settlers continued to swarm illegally across the Sabine River into Texas. By the time the restrictions on Anglo settlement were lifted in 1834, the English-speaking residents of Texas outnumbered the Spanish-speaking by more than five to one. Only by the expedient of politically combining the province of Texas with that of Coahuila, which had nine times as large a population, were the Mexicans able to maintain some sense of dominance over this otherwise increasingly alienated northern border-region. Yet, obliging the Texans to journey more than three hundred miles to reach the capital of their "state" only served to further exacerbate the tensions between the two groups of people.
Stephen Austin made a journey to Mexico City in an effort to get the Mexican authorities to grant statehood to Texas and establish a political capital that was more accessible to his constituents. The Mexicans were not swayed by his arguments, and when they intercepted a letter in which Austin advised his followers back in Texas to declare it a separate state even without the permission of the central government, he was sent to prison for a year. Without a leader, the Texans were at a loss for how to proceed, some arguing for immediate independence, others for the re-establishment of the liberal constitution of 1824 under which they had first come to Mexico, and still others asserting that their only hope lay in becoming a part of the United States or of Great Britain. However, once rumors began circulating that a Mexican army representing the centralist government was on its way to occupy Texas, all differences of opinion were forgotten and the Texans prepared for war.
In September 1835 when the Mexican troops led by Santa Anna's brother-in-law, General Martín Prefecto de Cos, arrived in coastal Texas, colonists in Gonzales opened fire on them, and then went on to capture a small military fort at Goliad. Another force under the command of Stephen Austin marched on San Antonio where Cos' main force was located. After a six-week siege Cos surrendered and he and his now-bedraggled army, once seven hundred strong, was ordered to get out of Texas. Encouraged by this promising beginning, the Texans called a convention at Washington-on-the-Brazos in March 1836 to declare their independence as a Republic and to elect a land-developer from Galveston, David Burnet, as President and a refugee Liberal politician from the Yucatán, Lorenzo de Zavala, as Vice-President.
Meanwhile, Santa Anna had his hands full trying to put down a rebellion in Zacatecas state against the centralist government. Of course, the poor performance of his brother-in-law was no help either, so once the Zacatecas struggle was over, he mustered an army of some 6,000 and set off across the desert of northern Mexico in the winter of 1835-36. As Santa Anna neared San Antonio in late February, the Texan commandant, William Travis, had the town evacuated and posted a contingent of 150 men in the strongest position he could find -- an abandoned Franciscan mission known as the Alamo. The fact that some thirty volunteers joined them did not reduce the hopelessness of their situation, for once Santa Anna had surrounded the mission there was no escape possible. After a bitter siege of ten days, Santa Anna demanded the unconditional surrender of the garrison but Travis refused. At this point Santa Anna ordered an all-out attack on the mission with orders not to spare anyone, and on March 6, 1836 the Alamo was overrun and taken.
"Another victory such as this one, and we will lose the war". -- A Mexican chronicler describing the Battle of the Alamo, 1836.
A few weeks later another group of Texans was surrounded near the village of Goliad by a large Mexican army, and when they surrendered, thinking they would be treated as prisoners of war, all 365 were shot instead. Two such demoralizing defeats within a month sent the Texans retreating eastward with Santa Anna in hot pursuit. On the morning of April 21, General Sam Houston and his eight hundred men made a surprise attack on the Mexicans near the San Jacinto River, killing or capturing all of the 1400 Mexicans. Among the prisoners was the much chagrined Santa Anna himself.
Although many of the Texans would have shot Santa Anna on the spot, Houston argued that he would be much more helpful to the Texan cause alive rather than dead. On May 14, Santa Anna was obliged to put his name to two treaties, one public and the other secret. In the first, the Treaty of Velasco, he agreed to cease all hostilities and to immediately withdraw all Mexican troops to the far side of the Rio Grande. Prisoners were to be exchanged and Santa Anna promised not to resume any hostilities against Texas in the future or to incite others to do so. In the secret treaty, Santa Anna was assured safe-passage back to Veracruz on condition that he strive to win Mexican recognition of the independence of the Republic of Texas.
Before being released, Santa Anna was taken to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Andrew Jackson in the hope that Texas would be accorded diplomatic recognition as a sovereign nation and would eventually be annexed by the United States. Santa Anna's return to Veracruz aboard an American warship was but the final humiliation to his fiasco in Texas and he retired in disgrace to his hacienda. The Mexican Congress quickly reinstated the Conservative general Bustamente as President and then proceeded to disavow the treaty that Santa Anna had signed and refused to acknowledge the independence of Texas. Although some Mexicans spoke of retaking Texas, the course of events both domestically and internationally soon eclipsed all thought of such action.
Topping the agenda was an almost laughable dispute between France and Mexico, since labeled the "Pastry War". A French baker in Mexico City claimed that Mexican troops had wrecked his little shop in the capital and that he had been waiting for over ten years for the government to make restitution for the damages. When the French minister presented a bill to the Mexican government for 600,000 pesos in March 1838, they were not only dumbfounded but also adamant about paying it. On cue a French warship then moved into position and blockaded the port of Veracruz, but the Mexicans still held out. Finally, after all traffic through their main seaport had been paralyzed for over six months, the Mexicans agreed to pay. But now it was the French who refused to accept "merely" the 600,000 pesos, arguing that the blockade had cost them another 200,000 pesos and the Mexicans would have to pay for that as well. Again the Mexicans stood their ground, so the French warship began bombarding the fortress of Veracruz in late November, and the next day the defenders surrendered.
By this time Mexican tempers had reached the boiling point and the government, variously accused of incompetence and treason, declared war on France. In this emergency they called on Santa Anna to once more take command of the army. When the French attempted to land troops in Veracruz on December 5, Santa Anna and his men drove them quickly back aboard their ships. At this juncture France decided it would settle for the original 600,000 pesos in damages and terminate the invasion. However, when Santa Anna returned home to his hacienda this time, he did so without his left leg, its having been a casualty of the engagement on the waterfront.
Although an external threat had temporarily been averted, Mexico continued to be racked by internal struggles between liberals striving for states' rights and conservatives seeking centralized government, as well as by one caudillo jousting with another for control of the president's office. During this period the province of Yucatán managed to declare itself independent and maintain that status for four years before knuckling under to central authority once again.
In 1841, another military rebellion brought the redoubtable Santa Anna back as the dictator of Mexico yet one more time. He not only increased the size of the army but also of the governmental bureaucracy. In an attempt to pay for these questionable ventures he negotiated loans with foreign countries and extracted forced loans from domestic financiers as well. He granted handsome concessions to British investors seeking to revive the mining industry and raised import duties by more than one-fifth. He adorned the capital with statues of himself and oversaw the construction of a palatial new theater named for him. But behind all of these lavish advancements lay huge budget deficits and widespread graft and corruption. Mexico was living in a fool's paradise that could not long sustain itself.
For Santa Anna the bubble burst in December 1844 when he was ousted from power and sent into exile in Cuba. The military general who replaced him, José Joaquin Herrera, was himself overthrown a year later by another general, Mariano Paredes, leaving Mexico after a quarter-century of independence in almost the same sorry state of economic chaos and political turmoil as when the Spaniards were driven out. As the middle of the 19th-century approached, life for most Mexicans was little better, if at all, than when the century had begun.
Geopolitically, the greatest threat posed to Mexico came from the United States whose vigorous westward expansion had taken a quantum leap toward the Pacific with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Although the settlement of Texas by Anglos and its political detachment from Mexico had not taken place as part of any strategic grand design on the part of the Americans, once the Republic of Texas had been proclaimed, the Texans immediately petitioned to be annexed by the United States. In a nation already sorely divided over the issue of slavery, the American Congress was not eager to admit a new slave-holding state unless the "balance of power" could be maintained by admitting a state committed to freedom at the same time. When James Knox Polk was elected President in 1844 by campaigning on a platform of "Texas and Oregon too", Congress finally found a formula for inviting Texas to join the Union. The resolution passed on March 1, 1845 caused Mexico, which had never recognized the sovereignty of Texas, to break off diplomatic relations with the United States, and in July of the same year the Mexican president asked his own Congress for the right to declare war on the United States whenever it either annexed or invaded Texas.
Balancing the admission of one slave-holding state against one free state was an ingenious formula for breaking the deadlock in America's westward territorial expansion and it now gave added momentum to a process which was aptly described by a New York newspaper editor in 1845 as "the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly expanding millions". Most Americans of the mid-19th century clearly shared John L. O'Sullivan's notion that it was their God-given right to conquer and settle the land that stretched "from sea to shining sea", regardless of who or what lay in the way. Indeed, there are those who wonder if such thinking did not propel the United States to look beyond the shores of the Pacific in acquiring Alaska and Hawaii and into the Caribbean as well. Though concepts such as "Lebensraum" and "Herrenfolk" were not mentioned, they certainly were implied.
In the case of Texas, one factor that made the issue an even more explosive problem for the two countries was the question of its borders. For more than two hundred years of the Spanish colonial period the southern boundary of Texas had been fixed by the Nueces River, as depicted on all the maps from that era. Yet, when Texas proclaimed its independence, it claimed the Rio Grande (also known as the Rio Bravo) not only as its southern boundary but also as its western boundary, which meant that fully half of New Mexico would fall to it as well, including the sizable towns of Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Small wonder, then, that the Mexicans had never recognized the existence of such a Texas, because it included important pockets of Hispanic settlement that had no historic association with the province of Texas, as they knew it.
In the autumn of 1845 President Polk informed the Mexicans that he was sending a special envoy to discuss the Texas question with them. When Mr. John Slidell arrived in Mexico City on December 8, he found that he central government had been overthrown a week earlier and the acting junta would not receive him because that would mean giving him diplomatic recognition. Slidell patiently bided his time until the following March in the vain hope that the Mexicans finally would talk to him.
Once President Polk received news that the Mexicans were pointedly ignoring Slidell, he ordered General Zachary Taylor to move an army detachment under his command from the mouth of Nueces River to the mouth of the Rio Grande instead. This Taylor did and commenced building an extensive fortification just opposite the Mexican town of Matamoros. When the Mexican general saw what going on across the river, he ordered the American forces to return to the Nueces or face the consequences, to which Taylor caustically replied that his orders did not permit a withdrawal.
In late April 1846 the Mexicans ambushed an American patrol on the north side of the Rio Grande, killing eleven soldiers, wounding six, and capturing the remaining sixty-three. When General Taylor informed Washington of this action, President Polk proclaimed that Mexico had "invaded the United States" and "shed American blood on American soil" and asked Congress for a declaration of war. On May 13, Congress, by a large majority, obliged, and on July 2 the Mexican Congress followed with its own official declaration of war.
American preparations for the war had long preceded the incident that triggered the outbreak of hostilities. No less than ten months before the ambush near the Rio Grande took place, Colonel S.W. Kearny has been dispatched from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas with fifteen hundred troops to first take New Mexico and then attack California. In mid-August 1846, as his force neared Santa Fe, the Mexican governor came out to meet them in Apache Canyon with a complement of four thousand men, only ninety of whom were regular soldiers. However, before the battle was joined, the governor turned tail and fled south to Chihuahua, leaving the Americans to march into his capital city and hoist their flag over the government palace without a shot being fired. History does not record whether his rag-tag army had refused to fight or whether the Americans had given him a bribe.
Kearny immediately set up a government of occupation and then sent some of his men to invade Chihuahua under the command of Colonel Doniphan. He himself led a column of one hundred cavalry west to California, reaching San Diego in mid-December after an exhausting trek across the Sonoran desert. There he learned that an American naval flotilla under Commodores Sloat and Stockton had already captured Monterrey, the Mexican capital of California, some six months earlier, leaving only Los Angeles in Mexican hands. However, as Major Fremont moved down from the north and Colonel Kearny advanced from the south, the pincers closed around that settlement on January 13, 1847, and with the surrender of the Mexican commandant all organized resistance in California came to an end.
Both New Mexico and California were, of course, peripheral outliers of the Mexican republic, extensive in area but very sparsely inhabited -- mostly by nomadic tribes of Native Americans -- and consequently not really parts of the country's effective national territory. Any meaningful confrontation between the United States and Mexico would have to take place against the latter's economic and political core which lay a thousand miles to the south if it was to produce lasting results. Thus, in May, 1846 an army under Zachary Taylor's command moved across the Rio Grande and secured the mouth of the river, after which they moved upstream by steamboat as far as the river permitted (scarcely 100 miles as it turned out) and then struck out overland toward Monterrey. This strategic town lay at the entrance to a pass that opened up onto the plateau and would provide relatively easy access to both the great mining centers and the capital of the country once it was taken. Taylor's force of six thousand began its attack on September 20, and after a four-day siege the Mexican commander realized that his cause was lost and proposed an armistice. Under the terms of the agreement, he and his army would abandon Monterrey and withdraw to Saltillo at the highland entrance to the pass, in return for Taylor's promise not to advance onto the plateau for eight weeks or until either of their respective governments abrogated the armistice.
While Taylor had been mounting his campaign against Monterrey and the northern approaches to the plateau, the United States was also carrying out a secret diplomatic mission in Cuba. There, in July, 1846, the exiled Santa Anna met with an American envoy and promised that, if he were allowed to slip back into Mexico through the U.S. blockade, he would once more try to regain power and end the war. For its part, the United States agreed to purchase both the disputed area of southern Texas and the territory of New Mexico. However, within a month of Santa Anna's return to Veracruz in mid-August, 1846, he was back in command of the Mexican army and was training a force of some 20,000 in San Luis Potosí to challenge Taylor's advance toward the capital. By the end of the year he had once more been named the country's president, though while he was out in the field, that office was presided over by Gómez Farías.
About the same time as Santa Anna was being put ashore in Veracruz, a second American army had started south out of San Antonio headed for the plateau of Mexico. This detachment, under the command of General Wool, crossed into Mexico near the present-day city of Eagle Pass and by November had reached the town of Monclova. By December, his two thousand man force had crossed the desert and taken the town of Parras and was closing in on Saltillo from the west. In the meantime Taylor and his army had moved up through the pass from Monterrey and taken the city without serious opposition from the Mexicans. However, with two American armies already on the plateau, Santa Anna realized that he must act swiftly to stop their advance toward the capital.
A few miles south of Saltillo a narrow gap in the mountains (appropriately called "Angostura" by the Mexicans) provided Santa Anna with what he considered an ideal setting for an ambush. There, as the American forces neared the hacienda of Buena Vista, he fell on them in full fury. For two days the battle raged, with heavy casualties being inflicted on both sides, and as the smoke cleared on the morning of February 24, 1847, both generals claimed victory. Taylor managed to keep his foothold in the north of Mexico while Santa Anna raced southward to meet a new challenge -- General Winfield Scott was about to land an expeditionary force at Veracruz and attack the capital from the east.
On March 9, 1847 Scott and his ten thousand-man force landed south of Veracruz without opposition, and, circling behind the walled port city, they first cut off both its water and food supplies. They next unleashed a four-day bombardment of the city center that killed more civilians than it did soldiers, after which a prolonged siege finally obliged the garrisons of both the town and its offshore fortress to surrender. By the end of March, the Americans had a secure bridgehead on the coast of Mexico from which they could launch their culminating attack on the country's economic and political nerve center.
Once again Santa Anna sought to use the topography of Mexico to his advantage by choosing to meet Scott's advancing army in the pass of Cerro Gordo on the heights above Jalapa. But, when the American army encircled his seemingly impregnable bastion, it was all he could do to escape with his life and pull his disheartened troops back toward Puebla where he hoped to make another stand against the advancing enemy. When the town council and the city's populace refused to cooperate in Puebla's defense, he had no recourse but to fall back into the valley of Mexico itself and begin erecting massive bulwarks on the capital's eastern approaches.
Scott and his men entered Puebla in mid-May without incident, and regrouped there while "licking their wounds". The casualties sustained at Cerro Gordo were serious enough to give pause to their operation, but even more critical was the condition of the many soldiers now suffering from malaria, yellow fever, and dysentery. Thus, while Scott awaited reinforcements from Taylor's army in the north, negotiations continued in an effort to end the war by diplomatic means. Despite Santa Anna's poor record for keeping his word, a State Department envoy once more attempted to "buy him off" with an advance payment of ten thousand dollars and the promise of a final payment of one million dollars as soon as a peace treaty was signed. With his down-payment in hand, Santa Anna endeavored to get the Mexican congress to revoke a law which made it treasonable for any person to deal with the Americans, but when the congress itself refused to engage in any discussions, Scott realized that the war could only be ended by a final assault on the capital.
Crossing the high volcanic ridge between Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl, Scott's army advanced into the valley of Mexico. Avoiding the fortified redoubts on the eastern side of the city, they approached it from the south instead, where they met the Mexicans in two battles on August 20, 1847. In the first, they quickly turned the flank of the defending general at Contreras but shortly thereafter encountered a tenacious defense at the fortified convent of Churubusco. By the end of the day, over 3000 Mexicans had been taken prisoner and over 4000 had been either killed or wounded. American losses totaled just over 1000, of which less than 140 were deaths.
After such a decisive defeat of the Mexicans, Scott believed that they would sue for peace before subjecting their capital city to major destruction, so he negotiated a two-week truce with them. However, Santa Anna used the time instead to bolster the city's defenses and, contrary to the terms of the armistice, forbade the sale of any provisions to the American forces, so once again Scott felt obliged to press on to a military conclusion.
On September 8, his troops attacked El Molino del Rey, mistakenly believing it to have been a foundry where cannons were forged. This grievous error in intelligence resulted in over 800 American casualties. On September 13, he had his men charge the castle atop Chapultepec ("Grasshopper Hill") on the western outskirts of the city. Some nine hundred regular troops were stationed there and it was also the site of the country's Military Academy, where forty-seven young cadets were enrolled. At the height of the battle, six teen-age cadets wrapped themselves in Mexican flags and threw themselves off the parapet rather than be taken prisoner by the Americans -- an act of desperation still commemorated by the Mexican nation as a day of remembrance of the patriotic Niños Héroes, or "Boy Heroes".
The taking of Chapultepec put an end to the struggle for Mexico City and the next day, September 14, Santa Anna evacuated the capital with whatever troops he still had under his command. Renouncing the presidency, Santa Anna made one last attempt to cut American supply lines near Puebla, but when most of his army deserted, he realized how futile continued resistance had become. At this point the Mexican high-command ordered him before a court-martial to explain his unsuccessful prosecution of the war, but rather than face further humiliation, Santa Anna once more went into exile, this time on the island of Jamaica.
Just because American forces had occupied the capital of Mexico did not mean the war had come to an end, for with Santa Anna out of the picture, there was no one with whom they could sign a peace treaty. Finally, on February 2, 1848, the American envoy met Mexico's new interim president at the village of Guadalupe Hidalgo and put their signatures to a tentative treaty that the congresses of both nations ratified at the end of May. Mexico officially gave up all claims to Texas and accepted the Rio Grande as its southern boundary. At the southern limit of the territory of New Mexico the new boundary line struck off to the west, reaching the coast of the Pacific just south of San Diego. Altogether Mexico had lost over half a million square miles of territory -- some forty percent of its total land area -- but scarcely more than a handful of its people. Residents of the ceded territories were free to choose their citizenship and the United States, no doubt to salve its own conscience somewhat, agreed to pay Mexico $15 million for the land it had taken. Even so, one of the American generals who took part in the conflict and later became the country's President, Ulysses S. Grant, is quoted as having said, "A more unjust war one can scarcely imagine. "
For proponents of "Manifest Destiny", the war's outcome was a prophecy fulfilled. For Mexico it was just one more in a seemingly unending series of tragedies. The country was still ravaged by chaos: nomad bands of Apaches and Comanches terrorized the northern borderlands; military uprisings flared in the center and west of the country; in far-off Yucatán the Mayas seized the moment to rise up against their white overlords and begin a brutal racial war which lasted from 1847 until 1853; and nowhere on the public highways were travelers free of the threat posed by bandits. The anarchy was so pervasive that the Mexican Congress begged Santa Anna to come back for at least one year while the country completed its quest for a monarch. Always the "man of the hour", Santa Anna returned in mid-April, 1853 and quickly assumed monarchical rights himself, taking the title of "His Most Serene Highness".
But, like Iturbide before him, Santa Anna couldn't really be a "king" without a "court", and like Iturbide, he couldn't stay in power unless he paid the army. When American promoters approached him in late 1853 with a proposal to buy an additional strip of desert through the Mesilla valley of southern Arizona and New Mexico for the right-of-way for a railway they planned to build between New Orleans and California, Santa Anna agreed to a sum of $10 million for the nearly 30,000 square miles they had their eyes on. This land deal, known in the United States as the Gadsden Purchase, was seen by the Mexicans as another act of treachery and early the following year a group of liberals drew up the so-called Plan of Ayutla that not only cast out Santa Anna but also convened an assembly to write a new constitution. This time Santa Anna went into exile for his last time, and Mexico stood on the threshold of a new opportunity to reshape itself as a nation with a new sense of direction.