Mexican-American War 170th: Mexico In The Years Leading Up To The Mexican War (Part 1)

Mexican War-header

Emerging Civil War is pleased to welcome guest author Ben Allen

The origins of the Mexican War go way, way back—farther than most Anglo historians have allowed. Such an expansive timeframe is the best way to understand the political machinations that plagued the Mexican government.

When the Treaty of Córdoba was signed on August 24, 1821, the Spanish colony of New Spain became independent. Like the thirteen colonies with Great Britain, the new country inherited the systems of her former master. However, whereas the colonies were blessed with Britain, Mexico was cursed with Spain. The Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution had passed her, and thus her colonial possessions, by. Their clothing might have kept pace with the fashion in the rest of the Western world, but beneath this superficiality lay a virtually medieval society.

Spain did not give its colonies any salutary neglect. By the late eighteenth century, New Spain had become a highly racialized society, with the colonial government officially classifying each race: peninsulares, native Spaniards and thus the ones at the top of the hierarchal ladder; criollos (pronounced cri-oy-os), full blooded Spaniards born in Mexico; mestizos, persons of mixed native and Spanish blood; mulatos, the product of an African slave and a Caucasian Spaniard; Indios (Indians, of course), civilized and therefore Catholic natives whose knowledge of Spanish was mild; Indígenas (natives; pronounced indy-hen-as), natives who were mostly farmers that, if anything, spoke hardly a word of Spanish and resided in communal lands way out in the frontier; and Indios bárbaros (barbaric or savage Indians) or bravos (braves), as they were called in the northern frontier—those natives who did as they pleased. To add to the misery of the unlucky colonial bureaucrats tasked with compiling the census, the categories of Indígenas and Indios overlapped.

Proving especially difficult for the census compilers, there were even categories for the varying degrees of racial mixture, as this eighteenth century painting makes clear. (Museo Nacional del Virreinato)
Proving especially difficult for the census compilers, there were even categories for the varying degrees of racial mixture, as this eighteenth century painting makes clear. (Museo Nacional del Virreinato)

In New Spain the lighter the skin, the more doors that were opened. Thus, those few mestizos of the lighter hue had as much standing as the most prominent criollos. Along with the peninsulares, these groups ran the two most powerful institutions in New Spain: the army and the Catholic Church. There was no such thing as equal protection under the law. Churchmen and army officers had fueros (privileges). Essentially, they could get away with murder. Both were excluded from appearing in civil courts, being judged by their peers instead. As for the Castas (castes)—darker mestizos and everyone else—their lives didn’t matter at all, except to serve the whims of those higher up. “This puts,” reported the bishop of Valladolid to King Carlos (Charles) IV, “between Spanish and Indians, contrary interests and mutual hate, which easily arises between those who have everything and those who have nothing—between masters and slaves.”[i]

Then, in the eighteenth century, came “reform.” The abuse of the natives became such an international scandal that even the Pope condemned it—and because Spain was Catholic to the core, his opinion mattered. Madrid purged the Church and state of criollos, replacing them with supposedly more reliable peninsulares—or Gachupines (the equivalent of calling someone a macaroni in English), as they were derisively known. Indígenas had lost ownership of their ejidos (communal farms) to Criollos, Peninsulares, or light mestizos, and had no choice but to work for the new owners. Madrid, through the viceroys, now began to come down hard on these confiscations. No longer could Criollos make money through seizures of land, or rise in the government.

The Criollos didn’t like these reforms. They liked being on the top. They liked their privileges. Being lower in the hierarchy, to them, was for the Castas.

When a Spaniard and a Mestiza procreated, they produced a Castizo (or Castiza, if the offspring was female). (Museum of the Americas)
When a Spaniard and a Mestiza procreated, they produced a Castizo (or Castiza, if the offspring was female).
(Museum of the Americas)

The Castas revolted first, however, in September 1810. Suffice it to say that for a decade Mexico swayed between the revolutions of the Castas and the counterrevolutions of the Criollos, who liked the perks of being under Spanish rule. The state that resulted was, in large part, a contradiction: monarchical rule and Roman Catholicism being retained as the state religion– yet citizenship and racial equality for Mexicans, i.e., the dissolution of the racial hierarchy. Paradoxically, the categorization by race protected, however feebly, the ejidos of the indios, so now the hacendados (the h is always silent in Spanish; owners of haciendas) were back to incorporating them into their vast fincas (estates), driving off the former landholders or tying them to their former landholdings in a virtual serfdom known as peonage—and this time Spain could do nothing. Moreover, official classification by race might have been ended, but Castas remained on the bottom, Criollos and a few lighter-skinned mestizos on the top. “Mexico was born with its back turned,” national poet Octavio Paz commented bitterly.[ii]

Mexico also quickly established the tradition of being led by a caudillo (military strongman), the first being Augustín de Iturbide, who in May 1822 bullied the Mexican National Congress into naming him emperor. (He also started the traditions of caudillos giving themselves silly titles and sobriquets to suit their excessive egos.)

Into this picture stepped Antonio López de Santa Anna. For much of the next three decades, Mexico’s destiny would be tied to him.

Ben Allen lives with the American Civil War every day: He is named after his great-great grandfather Benjamin Harrison Allen, who served as a private in Company B of the 2nd Arkansas Mounted Rifles (Dismounted). A graduate of the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg (class of 2016), he holds a Bachelor of Arts in History, specializing in military history. He lives right next to the Rappahannock River, on the spot where Jeb Stuart began his ride around John Pope, in Waterloo, Virginia.

[i] David A. Clary, Eagles and Empire: The United States, Mexico, and the Struggle for a Continent (New York: Bantam Dell, 2009), 12.

[ii] Ibid., 16.

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