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Divisions in Mexico

Mexico and the United States in 1846: Their Colonial Roots and the Legacy of their Independence Movements

By Jesús Velasco-Márquez
Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México
(Autonomous Technical Institute of Mexico)

Painting of large governmental buildingWhen the United States and Mexico confronted each other between 1846 and 1848, they were two radically different countries in terms of social conditions, economics, politics and culture. These contrasts were the result of their colonial pasts and what they experienced during their respective independence movements.

Mexico was the product of an "early conquest." When the Spaniards established their reign over the indigenous population of Mesoamerica in the sixteenth century, they came motivated by modern ambitions in search of new opportunities for material wealth, but they also brought with them a strong medieval tradition. For eight centuries, Spain had been immersed in the fight of the Christian kingdoms to reconquer the territory occupied by Moslems, which served to reaffirm Spain's religious and social traditionalism. In fact, Spaniards imagined their enterprise of conquests as a continuation of Catholic Christianity and they justified their endeavor with the evangelization of Indians. For that reason, alongside the conquistador was the missionary. Also, by dominating the densely populated native communities the Spaniards had an abundant labor force, which permitted them to reproduce a social structure similiar to the feudal system. The noble became the conquistador, the clergy served in the same role, and the servant's place was taken by the Indians.

Additionally, the Spaniards also brought the tradition of mestizaje (the mixing of races). In Spain, they had mixed with Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, northern Europeans, Arabs and Jews. So when the Spaniards encountered highly developed societies like those of the Aztecs, Mayas, and other Mesoamerican cultures not only did the Spaniards dominate them, but they also mixed with them biologically and assimilated some of their customs and lifestyles. The paradox of the Spanish conquest was that the Spaniards were proud of their European (Hispanic) culture and they tried to continue it in America, but in the specific case of Mexico, they created something different, a new society and a new culture.

The origin of the United States was a product of a "late colonization." When the English established the first permanent colony in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, the Spanish Empire in America was practically consolidated. New Spain was already an economic empire. By then Mexico City was considered to be one of the most important urban centers of the Spanish Empire. England's colonial expansion was delayed due to the country's political instablity, economic transformation and religious conflicts. However, these same conditions ensured that Parliament survived and that royal authority was limited, that an industrial revolution began and that religious authority was weakened. Two critical factors were among those that fueled English migration: the transformation of the economy and its affects on society, and the religious conflicts. So, the colonization process grew out of private initiative, with a minimum of intervention from the kings. The goal was to open new markets and centers of production for raw materials, or to serve as a refuge for religious sects which were seeking the greatest possible autonomy from British authority.

In the different colonies, local authorities were established and imitated the system of limited government in England, to the degree that in two of them, Maryland and Rhode Island, cults were tolerated. On the other hand, English colonists did not have a tradition of mestizaje, of racial mixing, nor did they encounter highly developed indigenous cultures. For that reason, they were unable to impose a semi-feudal social system on the Indians like the Spanish had done, nor did they produce a new racial mix. The paradox of the English experience is that the majority of the English arrived disillusioned with the European tradition and tried to create something new in America, but in the end carried on the cultural and racial patterns of their place of origin.

The independence movements of each country also differed. The United States was a product of an "early independence." Mexico was the result of a "late independence." English colonists rebelled against British authority when it tried to impose a system of imperial control as a result of the Seven Years' War. This marked the end of the politics of "benign neglect" under which they had developed. Their rebellion was a movement to maintain their autonomy. Really the war of independence in the United States was to preserve that modernity which had motivated colonization. They did this at a time of favorable economic conditions (the rivalry between France and Great Britain) which allowed them to obtain funds, alliances, and recognition even before their freedom was formalized. For that reason, it was a conflict that only lasted five years. Also, the autonomy they had enjoyed and their political tradition had provided them a group of political leaders prepared to face the challenge of the fight for independence and the formation of a new state.

On the other hand, Mexico won its independence in 1821, forty years after the United States. The war was a complex and fragmented process. It was not only a search for freedom from Spain but also a genuine social and political revolution. Mexicans did not have favorable external conditions. When the war began in 1810, Europe was immersed in the Napoleonic wars and when Mexicans finally achieved their goal eleven years later, a conservative movement had begun which did not favor recognition of new countries in the Americas. Finally, between the Mexican leaders who had survived the bloody fight for independence, there were men of great talent but little practical experience in politics.

In 1789, the Constitution of the United States was ratified and the first president of the country took office. These events seemed to imply that "a more perfect union" had been established and that a new nation was emerging. This union was possible because a consensus existed on an important point: the ideology of liberalism. American society was liberal even before the liberalism of political and economic doctrine was formulated. Therefore, its principles were assimilated easily because they emphasized the interest of the individual as a legitimate goal, and reaffirmed the ideas of diversity and competition. In summary, the United States in 1789 attempted a unique experiment: to create a nation out of a state that at the same time relied on an individualistic and self-centered ideology. For that reason, the diversity of interests would take shape as political coalitions. As a result, the emergence of the United States was the product of a political and ideological consensus. In addition, one of the most important political characteristics was the continuity of its political leadership and its institutional development. Between 1789 and 1860, fifteen presidents and thirty-six legislatures were elected without any problems or questions about the legitimacy of those elections, and even though political parties emerged, they were far from being disruptive elements, serving instead to advance democracy and contribute to finding solutions to major problems.

When Mexico finally achieved independence, a spirit of optimisim had swept over Mexican society, but the truth was that the life of independence did not bring with it the best omens. Mexico inherited the extremely fragmented society of New Spain, both in terms of its ethnic composition and in its levels of education and distribution of wealth. In addition, there were also regional differences. The economic and social conditions further aggravated the political debate. Immediately after independence, two primary plans were proposed to constitute the new state: one would eventually be called "liberal" and the other would be known as "conservative." Even though the members of these groups agreed on economic and social goals, sincerely wanting to make Mexico a modern and prosperous country, they differed substantially on the ways to achieve that.

The conservatives emphasized the need to proceed cautiously, without altering the social structure, and above all preserving those institutions that played a fundamental role in binding together the fragmented society, especially the Catholic Church. The liberals, on the other hand, proposed radical social and economic reform. But, the conflict between the two positions was even more dramatic in the political arena. The liberals advocated the establishment of a federal republican state, while the conservatives reiterated the need for a centralized state, and leaned heavily in support of a monarchy as a form of government. Eventually an intermediate faction would develop which became known as the "moderates."

One of the main problems was that those political proposals were sustained and debated among the intellectual elite, who had little contact with the rest of the Mexican people. Between 1821 and 1850 the debate took place almost exclusively between the members of those groups. There were not really political parties in the strict sense of the word but rather a combination of coalitions. In addition, the population was not accustomed to political debate. Under these conditions, the gap between the intellectual leadership and the Mexican people was occupied by individuals who had acquired a degree of local or national prestige, as "caciques or caudillos", who in the majority of cases put their personal interests ahead of any ideological or national commitment.

Under these conditions, one can understand, to a certain degree, the political instability in Mexico during its first four decades of independence. Between 1821 and 1847, four types of government were tried: a monarchy in 1822, a federal republic in 1824, and two forms of a centralized republic, one of which was in 1836 and the other in 1843. One should add to this sad picture that Mexico faced a hostile international environment. When one analyzes Mexico's problematic development in all its dimensions between 1821 and 1867, one can conclude that only the existence of a profound link, beyond that of economics or politics, can explain the survival of the country. For that reason, one can affirm that in Mexico, in contrast with the United States, that yes, a nation existed, but its condition was precarious.

In summary, while the United States thrived from the time of its colonial origins both as a modern state and society, for Mexico to modernize meant breaking its structures, destroying its old institutions and building new ones, as well as modifying the way of thinking of its inhabitants. These different origins help to explain the position of the two countries during the war from 1846 to 1848.