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Divisions in Mexico

Public Opinion: Prewar Sentiment in Mexico

By Jesus Velasco-Marquez
Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México
(Autonomous Technical Institute of Mexico)

Painting of Mexico City as seen from aboveTo appraise Mexican public opinion during the first half of the nineteenth century it is necessary to bear in mind Mexico's social conditions. A great deal of the rural and urban population was illiterate and poorly educated; hence, they rarely had any information on which to base an opinion. What was considered public opinion was concentrated in the middle and upper classes. On the other hand, there were regional differences; some of the Mexican provinces held positions divergent from those assumed in Mexico City, yet those discrepancies resulted more from internal rivalries and conflicts of interest than from different conceptions of the international milieu. The main sources by which to study Mexican public opinion in that period are newspapers-particularly the editorial pages and the letters addressed to the publishers-pamphlets, political manifestos, and public speeches. From these it is possible to draw some general conclusions.

After Mexico achieved independence in 1821, its political leaders and public opinion makers viewed the United States ambivalently. These views differed depending on ideological orientation. Liberals admired the United States for its progress and vitality and saw in it a clear example of a modern society based on a middle class of proprietors in which there were no special privileges for corporate interest. They also considered it the best example of the benefits of a republican and federalist type of government. Conservatives in Mexico emphasized the historical and institutional continuity that the United States had maintained from colonial times. On the other hand, Mexicans noted some negative features of U.S. society, in particular, the contradiction between the ideals of equality and liberty expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights and the existence of slavery in the Southern states. But above all, Mexicans feared the expansionist tendencies of the United States, and regarded them as a potential menace to Mexico's security and territorial integrity. This fear increased from 1823 to 1836 as a result of the involvement of U.S. envoy Joel R. Poinsett in the internal political debates in Mexico and the coarse way in which his successor, Anthony Butler, presented the proposals of President Andrew Jackson in an attempt to acquire Texas and the northern part of California.

When Texas seceded from Mexico in 1836 those fears intensified; Mexicans believed that the secession was a result of direct support from U.S. volunteers and covert assistance from the U.S. government. Mexican political leaders and public opinion makers knew through the memoir of Juan de Onis on the negotiations of the Treaty of 1819 that President James Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams had argued that Texas was part of the Louisiana Territory. Those apprehensions were confirmed nine years later when Texas was annexed by the United States. To Mexico, the U.S. annexation of Texas was unacceptable for legal as well as security reasons. That was why the Mexican government, when it became aware of the treaty of annexation between Texas and the United States, in April 1844 restated its position considering that act a hostile action by the U.S. government and an implicit declaration of war. Later, when the U.S. Congress approved the joint resolution, Mexico suspended diplomatic relations with the United States. From the Mexican point of view, annexation of Texas-either by treaty or by joint resolution-was a violation of the Treaty of Limits signed in 1828, by which the United States acknowledged that Texas was part of Mexican territory. Therefore, both actions were an unacceptable violation of fundamental principles of international law, as well as a clear risk to territorial security of Mexico, because in the same manner other Mexican territory could be incorporated into the United States. Under those circumstances, the government of President José Joaquían de Herrera tried to follow a double-track diplomacy. On one hand, it denounced the joint resolution as unlawful; on the other, it pursued a negotiating approach with the Republic of Texas government. Mexico's goals were to prevent the annexation of Texas and to avoid war with the United States.

While negotiations were being carried out, the Mexican press was divided; some newspapers opposed negotiation, others supported the government. Those who opposed negotiation pressed for an immediate military campaign against the Republic of Texas before annexation could take place. Later, when Texas accepted the U.S. offer, there was a consensus in Mexico that military action was necessary to block it. In both cases, however, it is important to stress that action was intended mainly as military action against Texas and rarely as a declaration of war on the United States. The general opinion was that Mexico had no alternative but to use military force to stop Texas from becoming part of the United States. Such action, they believed, would make it clear that Mexico would not accept U.S. expansion into other territorial possessions of Mexico. When it was evident that Texas would probably accept the U.S. offer, the Mexican congress approved a resolution on 4 June 1845 authorizing the president "with the lawful rights to use all resources to withstand to the last resort such annexation."

By October 1845 the overall feeling was that the recognition of Texas's annexation to the United States was undesirable. Nonetheless, in this critical situation, President Herrera's administration, regardless of the legal and political constraints, remained open to a negotiated solution, which meant acceptance of the Texas annexation. Hence, the U.S. government was informed that Mexico would agree to receive a "commissioner" with full powers to negotiate the issue of Texas. Mexican public opinion in general rejected this approach and continued to demand immediate action against Texas. When the mission of U.S. diplomat John Slidell was rejected by the Mexican governments of Jose Joaquin de Herrera and Mariano Paredes y Arrillaga, and the terms of Slidell's instructions became known, most Mexicans believed that the mission's main objective had been "to set a gross trap with Machiavellian and outrageous end" ("La Cuestion del Dia," El Tiempo, Mexico, 5 April 1846, p.1).

By April 1846, when U.S. forces under Gen. Zachary Taylor advanced to the Rio Bravo, the Mexican public, sure that the United States was ready to pursue a war to deprive Mexico of its northern provinces, demanded immediate military action to prevent it. The emphasis was to stop the U.S. advance on the territory between the Nueces River and the Rio Bravo. Mexican public opinion always emphasized the need to defend Mexican territorial integrity, first in the case of the Texas annexation, later in the U.S. invasion of Mexican territory. In fact, Mexico never declared war against the United States. When it became known in Mexico that U.S. president James K. Polk had requested and received a declaration of war from Congress, Mexican opinion was that the true intent of the U.S. government was not to protect a questionable claim of its territory or to redress supposed offenses, as it had claimed, but rather to take possession of territory that rightfully belonged to Mexico. As the newspaper El Tiempo stated, "The conduct (to) the American government is similar to that of the bandit with the traveler," and in facing that danger the position of Mexico could not be other than to defend itself.