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A Republic in Crisis: Burdens of Empire and Slavery

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In 1847, from May 9-29, the Mexican city of Veracruz, located along the Gulf of Mexico, was laid siege to by American military troops in their first-ever large-scale amphibious assault. The Siege of Veracruz, part of the Mexican-American War (discussed here last week), opened a straightforward path to Mexico City for the invading American military, and involved a number of famous American military figures, including a young captain by the name of Robert E. Lee and Matthew Perry, the commodore who would go on to force the Japanese to open their ports to world trade. By all accounts on the American side, the siege was a rousing success, but the long-term effects of the war were yet to be felt.

Slavery

Slavery in Texas had been abolished by Mexico in 1830 (it was abolished in all other Mexican states in 1829, but Texas was granted a year-long reprieve due to the heavy influx of slave-owning settlers there). When Texas declared its independence from Mexico in 1835, the new republic re-instituted slavery. To further complicate matters, Republic of Texas President Sam Houston had reached out to the British when it became clear that the United States had no interest in annexing Texas, and London’s abolitionist foreign policy was viewed by Southerners as an affront to their way of life. The United Kingdom’s free-trading regime also ruffled the feathers of the northeast’s Whig protectionists, but slavery and the evermore delicate balance of power in the Senate continued to drive the conversation about Texas and annexation.

In 1844, just two years prior to the Mexican-American War and one year before Texas was officially annexed by the United States, the Senate rejected an annexation of Texas proposal over the issue of slavery. This rejection was preceded by attempts from Texas to be annexed in 1836, 1838, and 1841. The 1844 vote in the Senate helped shape the presidential race that year, with the Polk Democrats harping on President John Tyler, Senator Henry Clay, and their Whig Party for being opposed to annexation. As with most elections, however, this was not the case. In fact, Tyler, a Virginia Whig, became so worried about British influence in Texas that he finally negotiated an annexation deal with the troubled republic, only to see it go down in the 1844 Senate rejection.

British Realpolitik

The British, for their part, played an ingeniously devious role. London convinced Mexico to finally recognize Texas independence in 1845, as long as Texas agreed to avoid annexation by another sovereign polity. This put enormous pressure on factions in Washington, Austin, and Mexico City, so much so that Tyler, by then a lame-duck, urged Congress to put aside its differences and offer statehood to the Republic of Texas (which it did). In Austin, the process was a little trickier. The Congress of the Texan Republic had to vote on whether to be independent or to be annexed, but so did a newly-formed convention of elected delegates, which was one of the requirements imposed on Texas by the United States. (Washington felt that a convention of elected delegates better fit the profile of an incoming state than a Congress that had been independent for 10 years.) Both the Congress and the convention of delegates voted in favor of annexation over independence. The convention of delegates then drew up a state constitution, turned it over to the people of Texas to be ratified, and then sent it to Washington for Congressional acceptance. On Dec. 29, 1845, the U.S. Congress finally ratified statehood for Texas.

Expansion, Ambiguity, and Shame

The Mexican-American War followed shortly thereafter and led, eventually, to the Mexican Cession of 1848, which ended up being the third largest territorial acquisition in American history. This caused absolute chaos in the rapidly-expanding republic-turned-empire. Calhoun was right: the expansion of territory caused a political fight between pro- and anti-slavery factions that simply could not be solved via Congress (a Congress is basically just a democratically-elected diplomacy corps). A compromise was made in 1850, but it largely rang hollow outside of Washington. By 1861, as a result of the ambiguous legal status of slavery in the territories acquired by the Mexican Cession, factions had hardened into two camps, and they were beginning to point their guns at each other. America’s first foray into imperialism led directly to the Civil War. Another veteran of the Mexican-American War, Ulysses S. Grant, had, in 1879, only this to say:

“I know the struggle with my conscience during the Mexican War [...] I do not think there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico. I thought so at the time, when I was a youngster, only I had not moral courage enough to resign [...] I have always believed that it was on our part most unjust. The wickedness was not in the way our soldiers conducted it, but in the conduct of our government in declaring war. [...] I am always ashamed of my country when I think of that invasion.”

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