Today, the United States is separated from Latin America by a superimposed 1,833-mile border – a bloody scar, as Gloria Anzaldúa reminds us, caused by the First and Third Worlds rubbing up against each other.
This is not a natural boundary; instead, this border was artificially created by James K. Polk, a direct consequence of the U.S. territorial conquest of northern Mexico.
To understand the territorial expansion of the United States, it is important to begin with the early 19th-century ethos of the emerging nation.
Undergirding the young nation was a theological and political ideology known as Manifest Destiny.
This romanticized jingoism believed that, like the Promised Land given to Israel of old, Euro-Americans, due to their racial superiority, were entrusted with what was viewed as virgin land and given the responsibility of taming the wilderness and physically taking possession of the entire continent.
As God led the wandering Jews into the Promised Land, calling for the genocide of all who stood in their way (Exodus 23:23), so too would Americans as the New Israel – God’s chosen people – violently take possession of the land occupied by modern Canaanites.
If the United States represented the new Jerusalem, then part of its manifest destiny was to spread the Protestant Gospel in order to overcome the savagery of “primitive tribes” throughout the continent and the “heresy” of Spanish Roman Catholicism in the southwest.
This ideology of expansion initiated the conquest of Texas and northern Mexico by extending U.S. boundaries, physically possessing and repopulating the new lands.
Presidential candidate James K. Polk ran on the campaign promise to annex Texas and engage Mexico in war.
Shortly after taking the oath of office, he deployed troops into Mexican territory to solicit the desired response of having the Mexican army fire upon U.S. troops first. This provided Polk with the excuse of requesting a declaration of war from Congress.
But not all members of Congress supported Polk’s military adventures. Former president and then Congressman John Quincy Adams denounced Polk’s request for military aggression against Mexico.
During the congressional debate, he remarked, “The banners of freedom will be the banners of Mexico; and your banners, I blush to speak the word, will be the banners of slavery.”
Those who served during the Mexican-American War as young officers would within a decade fight as generals on opposite sides of the American Civil War.
One young officer, Ulysses S. Grant, would eventually become the commanding general of the federal armies and 18th president of the United States.
Decades later, destitute and dying of throat cancer, Grant wrote his memoirs as a means for providing for his family. When he wrote about the Mexican-American War, he questioned its justification.
Grant saw the conflict as a war forced upon Mexico for the singular sake of acquiring another people’s land.
In fact, he saw the Civil War as God’s punishment for the U.S. territorial conquest of Mexico.
Grant wrote: “The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican War. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got punished in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.”
The Mexican-American War ended with Mexico’s capitulation. The signing of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ceded half of Mexico’s territory to the United States.
A surveyor line was drawn across the sand upon an area that, according to the archeological evidence, has historically experienced fluid migration.
The immediate consequence of creating this artificial 1,833-mile border is that the United States acquired gold deposits in California, silver deposits in Nevada, oil in Texas, and all of the natural harbors (except Veracruz) necessary for commerce.
The U.S. government signed a peace treaty with Mexico and then immediately ignored it, along with historic land titles held by Mexicans.
This allowed the United States to obtain the natural resources embedded in the land. Also, the United States acquired cheap Mexican labor living on the land.
Most Mexican-Americans became a reserve army of laborers, allowing the overall southwestern U.S. economy to develop and function.
Both natural resources and cheap labor were required by the United States to create wealth. Likewise, the loss of Mexico’s richest land doomed that nation’s ability to capitalize on its resources.
Miguel A. De La Torre is professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology.