With the execution of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the Mexican-American War had come to an end. The territory that Mexico relinquished to America held “some ninety thousand Hispanics and a considerably larger number of tribal Indians,” despite President James Polk characterizing the territory as “almost unoccupied.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 809.
These tens of thousands of individuals were Mexican citizens at the time the Treaty was signed, and according to the Treaty’s terms, they would become American citizens “unless they took action to retain their Mexican citizenship.” See id. However, even with becoming American citizens, they were treated as if they were foreigners to their own land. See id.
Many were victims of fraudulent practices. These new Americans were not familiar with the principles of American land ownership and were duped out of their own property. See id. at 810.
States did not offer protection for these new Americans either. California did not recognize Mexican-Americans as citizens until a state supreme court holding in 1870. See id. Those living in New Mexico did not become citizens until New Mexico entered the Union in 1912. Id. Perhaps most egregious, Texas “restricted the right to own land to persons of the white race, and Mexican-Americans had difficulty establishing themselves as legally white.” Id. Many Mexican-Americans were even “forcibly expelled” from their land in parts of eastern Texas. Id.
The Native Americans suffered the worst fate, however. Through a process of “expropriation, disease, subjugation, and massacre,” the Native Americans would be removed from the land that is now California. Id. While the Mexicans had valued the Native Americans for their work, the Americans had no such admiration. See id. It is estimated that from the period of 1845 to 1855, the population of Native Americans in the territory fell from 150,000 to 50,000, reducing most Native Americans to work as “cultural laborers or domestic servants.” Id. at 810-11. This would not have surprised Californians, as California’s governor, Peter Burnett, predicted that “‘a war of extermination’ would be waged ‘until the Indian race becomes extinct.'” Id. at 810 quoting Burnett in California State Senate Journal, Jan. 7, 1851, 15.
American expansionism, or American imperialism, led by President Polk, was undermining the safety and wellbeing of tens of thousands in the newly acquired territory. The territory itself was acquired under the pretense that Mexico provoked a war when in fact the opposite was true.
By modern standards, most would call the atrocities that America committed against the Native Americans a form of genocide and the actions taken against Mexican-Americans as bigoted and the height of discriminatory conduct. No such considerations prevailed at the end of the Mexican-American War.
That fact deserves considerable thought. It raises a fundamental question, not just about America, but about the trajectory of countries generally: does compassion only arise and take hold when prosperity becomes truly widespread?
An alternative explanation is that America had simply become obsessed with expansionism, which created a blindness toward the injustices of Native Americans and Mexican-Americans.
Regardless, with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo concluded, Americans felt a variety of emotions. There was certainly rejoice that the war had ended. There was the pleasure of knowing that America’s borders were expanding and new land had become available. For some, however, there was the dark feeling that whatever the gains, they were illegitimately and illegally procured.