Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Battle of Monterrey and the Mexican-American War

The Battle of Monterrey, an encounter in the Mexican-American War, took place September 21-24, 1846.  Approximately 6.500 United States troops under the command of Gen. Zachary Taylor attacked the fortified city, which was defended by 10,000 Mexican soldiers led by General Pedro de Ampudia. Taylor approached the city from the east, and sent another contingent on flanking movement to the southwest to block the Mexican troops’ escape route. Pinned in, Ampudia on the evening of the 22nd directed his troops to take up defensive positions within the city of Monterrey. On the 23rd the two armies engaged in house-to-house combat there.  As the U.S. troops prepared for a new assault on the next morning, Ampudia moved to surrender, and Taylor allowed him and his troops to leave the city.

The United States’ armed conflict with Mexico largely emerged from Americans’ eagerness to expand their nation westward to the Pacific Ocean. As American trappers and settlers poured across the Great Plains, many began to resent the fact that lands to the south and west of the Louisiana Purchase tract remained territories of Mexico, which had freed itself from Spanish colonial control in 1821. Americans’ persistent attempts to settle these lands led to conflict with the Mexican government and, eventually, war.

The Mexican Republic had welcomed Americans to settle in their northern territory of Texas in the 1820s, but after a decade it became plain that the Americans disliked Mexican rule. In 1835 the American settlers revolted against Mexico and, in the following year, established their own Republic of Texas. Many Americans immediately began to demand that their nation make Texas a part of the United States. The Mexican government warned that this would mean war.

In 1844 Americans elected James K. Polk as the nation’s new president. Polk had campaigned on the issue of national expansion, calling for the annexation of Texas, Mexican California, and the Oregon Territory that the United States and Great Britain had occupied jointly since 1818. Just before leaving office in early 1845 President John Tyler, a Virginian seeking to provide a new area into which slavery might expand, secured a joint resolution from Congress annexing Texas to the United States. Mexico responded by breaking off diplomatic relations.

Upon taking office President Polk immediately turned to the acquisition of Mexico’s northern territories. He first instructed his minister to Mexico to negotiate for the purchase of the territories, but this proposal sparked a wave of indignation and nationalist fervor in Mexico, and the minister left Mexico after only a few months.

Angry that Mexico had rebuffed his offer, Polk sent U.S. troops under the command of General Zachary Taylor to the Rio Grande River in January of 1846. Mexican officials believed that the Texas-Mexico frontier stood one hundred miles to the north, at the Nueces River, and interpreted Polk’s move as a deliberate provocation. Mexican troops quickly arrived at the Rio Grande as well, and skirmishes broke out between the two forces. Polk leaped to argue that “Mexico… has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil.” Congress quickly provided him with a declaration of war.

In 1845 an American editor wrote that the American annexation of Texas represented the “fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” By 1846 newspapers across the country had appropriated the term “manifest destiny” in their attempts to show that God intended the American nation to stretch from Atlantic to Pacific.

The United States’ decisive victory in the Mexican War added some 500,000 square miles of new territory to the nation. These lands included Texas, as well as the Mexican territories of New Mexico and Upper California. Eventually they would become the American states of California, Arizona, and New Mexico, and comprise significant parts of Utah, Colorado, Nevada, and Wyoming. Their acquisition intensified debate over the question of slavery’s future in the West: would slaveholders be able to take slave property into the acquired territories and establish a slave economy there? Would the new states that emerged from the territory won from Mexico be slave or free?

Friday, June 16, 2017

James B. Weaver and Populism

James B. Weaver ( June 12, 1833–February 6, 1912) was the People’s (or Populist) Party candidate for President of the United States in 1892. He was born in Dayton, Ohio and lived in Michigan as a child before his family settled near Bloomfield, Iowa in 1833.  Practicing law, he took an early interest in politics, and attended the 1860 Republican National Convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln. He served as an officer in the Civil War. Unsuccessful in Iowa politics and unhappy with the Republican Party’s stance on issues of concern to Iowa farmers, Weaver joined the new Greenback Party in 1877. In the following year he won election to Congress. In 1880 he became the party’s presidential nominee and won over 300,000 votes - about 3.3% of those cast.

When the Greenback Party dissolved Weaver joined the Populist Party, an organization that took up the Greenbackers’ call for in increased money supply, and added a broader agenda emphasizing agrarian reform. In 1892 Weaver won the Populists’ presidential nomination, campaigning on a platform that called for unlimited coinage of silver, an income tax, an eight-hour work day, and government ownership of railroads. He campaigned nationwide, accompanied by his wife Clara, and often the Kansan Mary Elizabeth Lease. He gained over one million votes - 8.5 percent of the total. He won the states of Kansas, Colorado, Nevada and Idaho outright, and also collected delegates in North Dakota and Oregon. In 1896 the Populists merged with the Democratic Party and nominated William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska for the presidency. Weaver supported Bryan. In a campaign that revisited many of the issues considered in 1892, the Republican William McKinley won election by a decisive margin.

This image is available on the Illinois During the Gilded Age web site and the NIU Digital Library

See American Populism, 1876-1896 for a fuller discussion of the Populist movement and its politics. 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Mary Elizabeth Lease - He Shall Be Rescued from Such a Fate

Created by B.M. Justice, this illustration from Mary E. Lease’s The Problem of Civilization Solved paints a grim picture of life in the Gilded-Age United States. It shows a single individual besieged by attacking dogs (or wolves) and a bird of prey. Lease was a vocal advocate of the Populist Party and critic of the period’s vogue of Social Darwinism and laissez-faire individualism, a sentiment that the above illustration captures vividly. Yet she was not an advocate of government provision of social welfare payments or benefits, which she derided as “class legislation.” Rather, she advocated a government program removing “the deserving poor, the honest men and women who are willing to work but to whom work has been denied,” from large cities and settling them in the countryside. “They can be rescued from their poverty,” she concluded. (373)

She wrote: “Obese satiety elbows starvation it every turn along our streets. The tide of pauperism is steadily rising and we are rapidly approaching the condition of Europe in the last century. Class legislation has done much to swell the list of America’s paupers, but Europe’s system of dumping its pauperized class upon our shores has done more. An ever-increasing swarm of dependents are with us. The cause can be traced to class legislation and militarism. The one the curse of our free institutions and the other the bane of European civilization. The remedy lies, not in doling out alms to humanity until the recipients of charity become chronic beggars, but in first removing the cause of extreme poverty by giving every toiler access to the soil, making the ballot the key to unlock the garner where his birthright lies.” (5)

Lease attacked laissez-faire economics from a humanitarian perspective, and linked it to the Populist agenda: “Then let all who love mankind more than millionaires unite for the common welfare. We will introduce the initiative and referendum, nationalize our railroads and labor saving machinery, issue paper money redeemable by taxation and remonetize silver.” (374) Yet she ultimately addressed the issue of urban poverty from the point of view of utility, efficiency and administration, and even raised the issue of eugenic measures: “Love and goodness, backed by the strong force of the state, must go down into the dens where the human wild beasts of society hide from the light of day, and empowered by that wise legislation that removes the leper or prevents the smallpox patient from contaminating his fellow beings remove the social Huns of the cities to lands set aside and purchased by the government for their use, subjecting them to such medical inspection and treatment as will check the reckless propagation of criminals and devitalized humanity. The pauperized class should be given an opportunity to work out their own fortunes under favoring conditions. Our first care should be to send them out under supervision of agents who could supervise large plantations, the tillage of which could be overseen and made profitable for them; having all their work planned for them by the agent, they would in time learn thrift and business capacity. Eventually they would become proprietors, reaping the incentive of all labor, just remuneration. The purchase of lands, medical inspection and government agencies would cost the state less than the never-ending expense now entailed for inadequate police protection arid the erection and equipment of buildings that are constantly over-filled by a constantly increased army of criminals. Stem the current of corrupt humanity by removing the fount from which it flows, make the vicious and idle dependent upon their own efforts with the incentive of compensation, all the compensation that life holds if they succeed and the alternative of annihilation if they fail to put forth honest effort when the helping hand is extended, for while God was severe in his denunciations of those who oppress the laborer he was none the less severe in his denunciation of the idler. `If a man shall not work neither shall he eat.’“ (371-2)

Lease provided a fascinating vision of a powerful, administrative state in America, yet it was one informed by the classical liberal tradition that she sought to critique.

All quotations are from Mary Elizabeth Lease The Problem of Civilization Solved (Chicago: Laird and Lee, 1895)

Illinois During the Gilded Age Populist Party Mary Elizabeth Lease

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Granger at the Plow, 1873

This image is an illustration in Stephen Smith’s Grains for the Grangers, Discussing All Points Bearing Upon the Farmers’ Movement for the Emancipation of White Slaves from the Slave-Power of Monopoly (Philadelphia: John E. Potter, 1873), a political tract written in support of the Granger Movement.  Oliver H. Kelley of Minnesota founded the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, also known as the Grange, in 1867. The organization admitted men and women, an unusual practice in that time, and sought to provide often-isolated farm families with opportunities for social interaction. It also encouraged more productive farming through the distribution of scientific information. The organization grew rapidly  beginning in 1873 due to an economic depression. Many farmers attributed their struggles to the workings of the railroads, on which they relied to deliver their crops to market, as well as merchants and other middlemen. Many Grangers promoted state regulation of railroad shipping rates. Their success led to a well-known case heard by the United States Supreme Court, Munn v. Illinois (1877), which upheld the State of Illinois’ regulation of rates. Grangers often experimented with cooperative marketing organizations in an attempt to circumvent middlemen in the marketplace as well. These efforts proved ineffective, and many states soon repealed laws regulating railroad rates. Although the Grange did not prove to be a wholly successful political movement, it established a precedent for cooperative organizations in rural America and served as a predecessor for the Populist Movement of the 1880s and 90s.

The above information is drawn in part from Thomas Burnell Colbert’s essay on the Grange Movement in the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Guarding the Cornfields, 1854, by Seth Eastman

Seth Eastman served in the US Army, including two tours at Fort Snelling in the Minnesota Territory (near present-day St. Paul). During his second tour there, he was the fort’s commanding officer. While stationed at the fort, he painted a number of scenes of Native American life in the region. In the above scene, Native Americans use noise-making devices to frighten crows and other birds away from their corn fields. Eastman contributed hundreds of illustrations, including this one, to Henry Rowe Schoolcraft's six-volume study on History of Indian Tribes of the United States (1851–1857).

This image appears on the Lincoln/Net web site.