At a time when much of border politics revolves around inflammatory rhetoric and divisive arguments, including talk of a “Hispanic invasion,” it would be useful to reflect on an earlier period of U.S.-Mexico relations and a Republican president who had a quite different view of that country and its people than today’s incumbent.
Few American students know that the 1846 invasion of Mexico by the U.S. deprived Mexico of almost half of its territory and resulted in the formation of several U.S. states, including California, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada, as well as parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming, and Colorado. Few know that the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which officially ended the war in 1848, offered automatic citizenship to Mexicans in that captured territory, but the U.S. reneged on that provision.
When Abraham Lincoln was a first-term congressman from Illinois, he risked his political career by standing up in the House of Representatives and accusing President James Polk of invading Mexican territory without provocation and then misleading Congress to declare war on that country by claiming that “American blood was shed on American soil.” In his remarks, Lincoln presented several “spot resolutions” asserting that any bloodshed was on Mexican soil and that the U.S. was the aggressor.
It did not go down well with Polk and his supporters. Lincoln was accused of giving aid and support to the enemy. Newspapers referred to him as “spotty Lincoln.” Lincoln’s Whig party would lose its majority in the House in 1848, and he would be defeated for the Senate race a few years later.
Lincoln was not the only prominent person who objected to the U.S. invasion. General Ulysses S. Grant, who was an Army captain and participated in the invasion, called it the “most unjust war ever waged by a stronger nation against a weaker” and considered resigning his commission. Henry David Thoreau wrote his famous essay “On Civil Disobedience” and went to jail in Concord, Mass., for refusing to pay taxes that he felt would go to support the war in Mexico. Former President John Quincy Adams was also strongly opposed. But Lincoln risked the most and persisted well after the rest fell silent, despite warnings from his law partner and members of his own party.
Fourteen years later, in 1861, shortly after his surprise election to the presidency as a compromise Republican candidate, Lincoln welcomed Matías Romero, the Mexican ambassador, to his home in Springfield, Ill. The 24-year-old Romero was the first foreign ambassador that Lincoln met and entertained before his inauguration on March 4. The personal note Lincoln gave to Romero offered “sincere wishes for the happiness, prosperity, and liberty of yourself, your government and its people.” Dated Jan. 21, 1861, it is now on display in the Chicago History Museum.
In Washington D.C., the president and first lady became friends with Romero. After France invaded Mexico in 1863 and imposed Archduke Maximilian on the throne, Lincoln covertly provided assistance to the exiled republican government of Benito Juárez. It was done secretly because Lincoln was afraid that if the French found out they might join forces with the Confederacy to defeat the Union. He and Mary Todd Lincoln introduced the young Romero (now an asylum seeker with no official status) to prominent bankers and investors so that he was able to raise over $14 million to arm and supply the Mexican Republican Army and defeat the French.
Lincoln and Juárez could not have been more different physically. Lincoln was 6 feet 4; Juárez 4 feet 6. One of Anglo-Scot stock, the other a Zapotec Indian. Yet they were both successful lawyers, both confirmed republicans, both committed to human rights, and both struggling to unite opposing forces within their countries. It is thanks to Lincoln that the U.S. is not a divided federation, and thanks to Juárez that Mexico is not a repressive monarchy.
There are statues of Lincoln in El Paso and Mexico City today, and he is the second most beloved U.S. president in Mexico. It is on his legacy that so many years of the “Good Neighbor Policy” pledged by Harry Truman during his 1948 visit to Mexico were based. During that visit to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the war of with Mexico, Truman laid a wreath on the tomb of the Niños Heroes, the young cadets who gave their lives to protect that Mexican flag against the Yankee invaders. Their deaths marked a shameful episode which Lincoln acknowledged and sought to remedy and one which Truman confirmed in his reconciliatory gesture.
A failure to teach the full and complex 19th-century history of the U.S. and Mexico in U.S. classrooms has resulted in ignorance that helps feed anti-Mexico prejudice. Some textbooks today use terms such as “Westward Expansion,” which obscure how and why the U.S. used its military superiority to acquire nearly half of Mexico as a result of the war.
Most historians also gloss over Polk’s actions and how he misled Congress. The truth is in the Congressional Record and in battlefield journals, some of them stored in archives in both the U.S. and Mexico. To help educators and students learn from archival documents, the Lincoln and Mexico Project offers supplemental classroom materials including free lesson plans to interested teachers. In Texas, educators in 43 schools have received the materials for the coming academic year.
According to the College Board, each year about 500,000 students take the Advanced Placement U.S. history course. Recently, the board has approved teaching Lincoln “spot resolutions” as part of the course. Another 4 million 11th-graders are required to take some other form of U.S. history class each year.
Imagine the impact this next generation could have on the country if these students were to share this actual history, and what a fine model they would have of a Republican president who stood up for his neighbors in Mexico instead of castigating them, and who made amends for the expansionist exploits of the past.
In the final analysis, it is not facts that cause violence, but rhetoric based on ignorance. Much of the polarizing political words the president and others often use can be traced to a factually muddled 2012 blog post about the so-called Mexican invasion promoted by political commentator Pat Buchanan, who failed three times to win the Republican presidential nomination.
The fact is that the bulk of migration to our southern border today is people from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras fleeing gang violence, agricultural damage and economic exploitation by corporations dating back centuries. But it was likely inflammatory rhetoric and ignorance that inspired the Dallas-area shooter to target Mexican-Americans and Mexican citizens during back-to-school shopping in El Paso. Hopefully, we can stop incidents like that from re-occurring by taking steps today to see that our children know the facts of history.
Finally, the recent recognition by the Texas Board of Education that contributions of Mexican-Americans to the culture and the history of Texas need to be included in the curriculum is another important step that is long overdue. Children need to see their Latino neighbors as significant contributors to the culture and economy of this state and the nation. It is a modest beginning but an essential one that will change mere tolerance to abiding respect.
Michael Hogan is a former professor of international relations at the Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara and emeritus humanities chair at the American School Foundation. His new book is Abraham Lincoln and Mexico. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.