June 3, 2019
For the entirety of his administration, President Donald Trump singled-out Mexico as a leading enemy of the US. To build public approval for an aggressive foreign policy toward Mexico and the building of an expensive and controversial wall, Trump claimed an alarming and immediate “crisis” on the southern border. To meet the so-called crisis, the president ordered thousands of US troops to the border without the approval of Congress. In June 2019, Trump specifically claimed that America’s neighbor was a direct threat to national security and an “abuser” of US goodwill. Such rhetoric and saber-rattling are strikingly similar to that of President James Polk in 1846, who also manufactured a “crisis” on the border and employed US troops to achieve his personal and political objectives.
The conquest of Mexico was a central goal of antebellum enslavers, especially after the “cotton boom” of the 1820s-30s. Enslavers, who were among the most powerful and wealthy in the US, lusted after the rich cotton lands that stretched westward from central South Carolina into east Texas. In 1821, when the nation of Mexico achieved its independence from its European colonizer Spain, enslavers in the US began plotting to seize Texas. White Americans poured over the US-Mexico border, gobbling-up cotton lands and ignoring Mexican laws, including the prohibition against slavery. When the young government of Mexico tried to enforce the laws and rein-in the white “illegal immigrants” in the 1830s, the immigrants, calling themselves “Texans,” launched an armed revolt. There was no way these “Texans” were going to give up slavery and submit to Mexican authority.
In 1836, Texans defeated a large Mexican army and declared their independence (though the Mexican government never granted or acknowledged any such thing, so the “Republic of Texas” existed in imagination rather than on paper). Suffering from heavy debts and desperate to protect themselves from another campaign by the Mexican government, Texans sought annexation by the US, their neighbor nation ruled by enslavers. The growing anti-slavery movement in the US, however, made Texas annexation a tricky undertaking. Nevertheless, it was achieved in 1845 by Virginia enslaver President John Tyler.
By the time of Texas annexation, white Americans were fired-up about “Manifest Destiny” – the westward march of white “civilization,” the extermination of Indigenous Americans, and the spread of slavery. The pro-slavery Democratic Party rode this wave of expansionist enthusiasm to the polls in 1844, winning both the White House and control of Congress (their opponents, the Whigs, were skeptical of territorial expansion, and many northern Whigs outright opposed the spread of slavery). The new president, Tennessee enslaver James Polk, entered office with the clear aim of conquering the rest of Mexico and spreading slavery throughout western North America and central America. But anti-slavery activists stood in his way. Polk needed an excuse to invade Mexico and steal more land – he needed a crisis on the border.
In total secrecy (and certainly without the knowledge of Congress), President Polk ordered a US army under the command of Louisiana enslaver General Zachary Taylor to proceed into Mexican territory and provoke a war. Taylor’s orders were simple: invade until the Mexicans fight back. Taylor made it deep into central Mexico before a Mexican army could launch a defense. As soon as Polk received word (carried by hand and telegraph from Mexico to DC) that fighting had finally erupted, the president went to Congress on May 11, 1846 and asked for a declaration of war. The US, he lied, had been invaded by Mexico. Mexico had “assumed a belligerent attitude,” engaged in an “open act of hostility,” and perpetrated “grievous wrongs” against US citizens. There was a crisis on the border that required swift military action: “The most energetic and prompt measures and the immediate appearance in arms of a large and overpowering force are recommended to Congress as the most certain and efficient means of bringing the existing collision with Mexico to a speedy and successful termination.” With no way to quickly verify Polk’s false claims, Congress provided the declaration, and Polk got his war of conquest.
President Trump’s misleading claims about Mexico’s relations to the US bear eerie resemblance to those used by President Polk to justify war. In particular, the assertion that Mexicans are invading the US and committing crimes against US citizens is right out of the Polk playbook. Equally troubling is the fact that Trump’s rhetoric exhibits a blatant disregard for the history between the two nations. Rather than Mexico being the “abuser,” it has historically been Americans who invaded, and the US who was the belligerent, whether it was Polk in 1846 or President Woodrow Wilson in 1914 and 1916. The American public should keep US-Mexican history in mind when weighing policy decisions that may result in the massive loss of lives and property.