SocraticGadfly: Did Polk want northern Mexico?

May 31, 2019

Did Polk want northern Mexico?

I had not seen that President James K. Polk had at one time supported annexing northern Mexico as far south as the 26th parallel (roughly the Rio Yaqui in Sonora and the Rio Conchos in Chihuahua that eventually flows into the Rio Grande in the Big Bend Country) until a commenter on my Goodreads review of Jill Lepore's "These Truths" mentioned it.

And, he was right. I incorporated that into a longer version of that review on this blog.

I then mentioned that in a comment to a Quora piece about why Polk didn't annex Mexico.

A person, not the OP, liked the comment, but then kept attacking it, for reasons and angle unknown. Anyway, I decided to pull that out and write about it here.

Early on, Polk was indeed looking at the 26th parallel, supporting it in Cabinet when Treasury Secretary Walker raised it. There's more here on how this would have affected the future of the US if attained.

This was after Gen. Zachary Taylor was originally attacked and Polk and his cabinet got news of it. So, though Polk had not originally wanted war, his original emissary, James Slidell, had screwed the pooch on his initial negotiations with Mexico, and much of that pooch-screwing based on Polk's directions. With war inevitable — even though Polk hoped, and expected, it would be short — it seemed that he was with Walker in deciding to grab more than just New Mexico and California.

But ... at some point ... Polk changed his tune.

His negotiating instructions to Nicholas Trist never mentioned the 26th parallel. (That said, Polk could have said something in private. He gives the impression of playing his cards close to the vest at times, like his mentor, Old Hickory.

But, he also changed his tune publicly. Polk even specifically mentions the 32nd parallel in his December, 1847 State of the Union; another version here.

We all know he got mad at Trist for what he presented back to Washington. I think he was mad at Trist in part for other reasons and in part for southern public consumption. (Trist had been chosen in part as being a Whig, and kind of had Polk over a barrel in other ways.)

As it was, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had 14 nays in the Senate. It’s very possible that a highly annexationist treaty would have failed to clear the 2/3 bar. Whigs were already (LEARN, today's Democrats!) threatening to cut off all money for further occupation of Mexico if Polk didn't accept Trist's work. And, a Polk attempt to circumvent treaty-making, a la Tyler’s annexation of Texas by joint declaration of both houses of Congress, might not have gotten 50 percent in the House.

Remember, even though the Wilmot Proviso had been raised in 1846, a new Congress was now in place. Plus Polk was in the White House, not Henry Clay, because the Liberty Party backed James Birney in New York. In 1848, a stronger, broader Free Soil Party backed Van Buren in New York, and arguably put Taylor in the White House instead of Democrat Lewis Cass.

So, I think Polk realized the mood had shifted.

I think he'd also gotten a dose of realism about Mexico and realized a guerilla war was certainly possible in Chihuahua even if Mexico signed off on such a treaty and that, in reality, it wouldn't do that, which meant guerilla war in the Mexican heartland.

As for Polk otherwise?

"He rows to his object with muffled oars," John Randolph of Roanoke once said of Van Buren. That was surely true of Polk.

But it's also true that, for public consumption, even if he didn't personally blabber about it, Polk at one time back annexing not only what was northwestern Mexico pre-1848, but what is northwestern Mexico today.

Was the 26th parallel fixed in stone? No, it was surely a notional line that Robert Walker had come up with. But it's clear that he — and Polk — wanted today's northern Mexico after it had the temerity to attack Americans. And, as best I can tell, Polk only backed off that after Congressional Whigs with Congressional purse strings made clear that was not acceptable.

So, whatever angle my Quora interlocutor was getting at, it wasn't the right one.

In addition, while the Yaqui runs pretty much east-west, the Conchos does not. After leaving the Sierra Madre Occidental, it flows northeast. There are no rivers from northern Mexico, really nothing much more than "streams," that flow into the Rio Grande below it. And, ditto on any waterflows from northeast Mexico into the Gulf, though that would be 23 degrees latitude or a bit further south anyway.

The original treaty line of the Rio Grande and the Gila, though ignorant of the fact this area would become a borderlands, not a border, made sense.

And now, to alternative history.

Could the US had held that?


My interlocutor, after I pointed out how small those rivers are, noted how shallow the Rio Grande is. Well, today's Rio Grande is almost as overappropriated as the Colorado; it was different in 1848. The original pre-Gadsden Purchase 1848 border was about as sensical geographically as one could get.

That said, northern Sonora was lightly populated by mestizos and even less by criollos or peninsulares. The US would have had responsibility for all of Apacheria. Ditto with Comancheria in northern Chihuahua and states to the east.

And, after 1862, and after 1911, US-Mexico relations would have been even more volatile than in reality.

Sidebar: This is likely part of why Taylor's presidency was so controversial before he died. Polk had failed to get Congress or Trist to get him today's northern Mexico. Then, slaveholder Taylor succeeds him — and talks about admitting New Mexico as well as California as free states, and immediately. (New Mexico had the population, even if it was just the size of today's state, and not the original territory that included Arizona, as Mexicans inside the American conquest who weren't "other people not taxed," aka American Indians, were given US citizenship as part of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. Racism was the reason it didn't get in until 1912.)

Sidebar 2, for the real world and related to this. Below is my review of a fantastic book entirely about the Compromise of 1850.

Texas, New Mexico, and the Compromise of 1850: Boundary Dispute and Sectional CrisisTexas, New Mexico, and the Compromise of 1850: Boundary Dispute and Sectional Crisis by Mark J. Stegmaier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a great overview of key aspects of the Compromise of 1850. While Stegmaier keeps an eye on whether California would be admitted as one state or two, and briefly looks at things like the fugitive slave law, his focus is on what started the Mexican War — Texas' border claims — and how they now related not to Mexico on the south/southwest but to New Mexico on the west.

Stegmaier first explained how Zachary Taylor, under the influence of William Seward and others, hoped to end-run around southern fire-eaters by organizing free-state government in New Mexico as quickly as possible, then presenting it as a candidate for statehood as quickly as possible after California's statehood.

Well, Congress would have none of that, even before Taylor's death allowed him not to have a direct confrontation with Congress over military instructions to the commander in New Mexico and other things.

Meanwhile, there was that border. Taylor's idea had been, seemingly, to present New Mexico as a free state, then after admission, have its border with Texas hashed out. The Lone Star folks wanted none of that.

On the other hand, a fair chunk of Texans were ready to let go some of their lands, for fear that too much of a huge West Texas would get occupied by free-soilers and turn the whole state free.

From here, Segmaier details the various different options put on the table at different times for a boundary, along with sub-options such as dividing Texas into two or even three states. He tracks the stances of Sens. Rusk and Houston, the Texas House delegation, and Texas Gov. Wood and others through all of this.

That all, of course, was within the Senate considering, then finally rejecting, an omnibus bill to settle all Mexican War-related issues proposed by Henry Clay, followed by the House adopting bills piecemeal. Excellent parliamentary control by Speaker Howell Cobb, joined by Taylor's death and timely replacement by Millard Fillmore, whom Stegmaier says is quite underrated, round out the picture.

View all my reviews

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