The Mexican Frontier 1821 – 1846: The American Southwest Under Mexico
© 1982 David Weber (University of New Mexico Press)
In 1821, the people of Mexico declared their independence from Spain, recognizing that its Napoleonic straits meant that the mother empire had little future left, either at home or abroad. Once the bid for independence had achieved its aims, the ‘Mexican empire’ spanned everything from Oregon down to South America. Within thirty years, however, the United States had invaded Mexico, seized its capital, and forced the purchase of nearly forty percent of its northern land. Sneaky Americanses! Wicked! Tricksy! False!
Well, not really. It wasn’t David Weber’s intention, but having read this history of the Mexican frontier I’m considerably less condemnatory about the treaty of Guadalupe-Hildalgo. Not about the war, of course, but the treaty itself seems to have only hastened the inevitable break-off of the great northern expanses from Mexico proper. Weber’s history begins with Mexican independence, then details the decline of institutions in the north as the contest for power in central Mexico continued; with a consequentially distinct frontier culture emerging, one that would constantly struggle for its own autonomy. Central to this history is understanding that young Mexico went through several constitutions in those early years, constantly struggling to find its way. The breaking-away of the north from central Mexico was partially grounded in dispute over which constitution was legitimate: the more republican 1824 constitution, or the more authoritarian 1832 constitution imposed by the ilk of Santa Ana.
The fractures were only made possible by the precipitous decline of institutions in the north that would have tied states and territories like Texas, New Mexico, and the Californias more firmly to the government in Mexico City. The Franciscan missions, for instance, vanished with the Spanish — in part because they were supported primarily by Spain, in part because many monks were Spaniards more faithful to their patria than their parish, and in part because Mexico wanted them out of the way. The missions had all the best land and labor, and if they could be dispatched with, then settlers could move in and hire the newly-emancipated Indians as workers. Although Mexico officially secularized the clergy — replaced the Franciscans with state-paid priests — it did this so slowly that the Church effectively disappeared in the frontier, and with it marriages and schools and other civil functions that the state was slow in restoring.
Another primary institutional failure was that of the military; because central Mexico’s government was so unstable, its army stayed close to home, either to stave off further intrigues or participate in some. The array of presidios that once guarded the northern frontier, with its independent attachments of cavalry, was poorly maintained; the soldiers were so scantily paid and armed that not only did civilians have to raise their own militias to defend themselves against Apache raids, but when the militias were on the attack, the presidio cavalry sometimes raided the homes they were supposedly protecting. In addition, the Mexican government’s economic policies — forcing trade goods in and out of the interior to circulate first through far-distant Vera Cruz — made supplies rare and expensive. The sheer distances between the frontier and Mexico city added to the eroding attachments between a place like California and Mexico; the ruling city seemed to be as far away and imperious as Spain. Little wonder that in the 1830s, Texas declared and fought for its independence; California declared independence but accepted a compromise that allowed it more autonomy; and New Mexico rolled with rebellion several times.
Because of Mexico’s instability, the failure of institutional ties to form or hold, and the sheer distance between cities like Santa Fe and Mexico City, the northern expanse of Mexico was increasingly oriented along another axis: it looked east, to America, for cheap, ready, supplies, and eager settlers and tradesmen. That commercial and cultural Americanization of Mexico’s north made it increasingly America’s west — hence why I suspect now that the treaty which ended the United States’ unjust invasion of Mexico only hastened the inevitable. At the risk of condoning Polk, the American federal system finally allowed for the ‘home rule’ that the restive north fought for in the 1830s. Had Mexico not struggled so much to create a stable government early on, it might have held on to much of what the treaty lost — but it is a difficult thing to create civil society from scratch, let alone when a nation is being constantly invaded by invading Comanche.
The Spanish Frontier in North America, David Weber