Today is the 161st anniversary of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, formally titled “A Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits, and Settlement Between the United States of American and the United Mexican States.” The agreement–signed by negotiating parties on February 2, 1848–ended the year and a half long war between the United States and Mexico and ceded about half of the Mexico’s land to its “northern neighbor.” The war is the first in U.S. history begun by the United States by invading another nation. By September 1847, when Mexico formally surrendered, the U.S. occupied the Mexican Capitol.
The war represents a significant milestone in the expansion of the U.S. empire–what Jefferson romantically called the “empire for liberty.” The treaty ceded about 45% of Mexico’s territory to the U.S., providing them a secure and deep natural port on the Pacific (San Francisco), and the luxury of having two of its borders guarded by vast oceans. That land became all or part of California, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma. The expansion of U.S. influence upon the North American continent had many effects, very few of them involving the expansion of liberty for those affected. Native Americans, for example, had “liberty” shot at them from canons and rifles. Both Mexicans and Native Americans also found themselves subjected to formalized segregation and legal/political disenfranchisement in these newly acquired territories. And that’s not even including the struggles of their economic marginalization.
Two things are worth noting in today’s anniversary. First, the treaty provided a host of rights and protections for Mexicans living in the transferred territories. These included the rights to their culture and language, religion, and property. These also included rights of political participation. After a specified date, Mexicans could either leave and go back to Mexico; stay and retain their Mexican citizenship; or choose to declare U.S. citizenship and enjoy the full rights it entailed. (If they chose nothing, they automatically became citizens of the U.S.) So–from a legal perspective–the treaty created “Mexican Americans.” Also, this is the first time the U.S. bestowed citizenship to a people who it did not necessarily legally consider to be “white.” (Although in California the local State government decided Mexicans were “white.” Since only “whites” could vote, they figured, Mexicans must be.)
Second, in promising rights and equality but standing in stark contrast to the lived experiences of most Mexicans and Mexican Americans, the treaty also provided the context for later struggles for rights and representation.
The treaty was ratified by the U.S. Senate in March and by Mexico in late May, making it the “law of the land,” as they say. But the U.S. made some amendments to the original document brokered by Nicholas Trist. While the final treaty included language protecting property, the Senate struck out the tenth article specifically protecting real property. It read, in part,
All grants of land made by the Mexican Government or by the competent authorities, in territories previously appertaining to Mexico, and remaining for the future within the limits of the United States, shall be respected as valid, to the same extent that the same grants would be valid, if the said territories had remained within the limits of Mexico.
Did they love the comma, or what?
Article X would have made it legally impossible (or at least difficult) for U.S. citizens to steal Mexicans lands in even the most legally sanctioned ways. Without it, that’s exactly what happened. By the 1870s, less than a third of Mexican land holdings remained in Mexican hands.
If you’re interested, there are some good texts that help make sense of what life was like for Mexicans in a time and place created by the treaty. Tomás Almaguer’s Racial Fault Lines is a solid read, bringing together a lot of the mainstream works on California. Arnoldo DeLeon’s classic They Called Them Greasers: Anglo Attitudes Toward Mexicans in Texas, 1821-1900 connects the racial ideologies of the war to life for Tejanos after. The time period has been more deeply analyzed by more recent works as well. Miroslava Chávez-García’s Negotiating Conquest: Gender and Power in California, 1770s to 1880s does a measured yet powerfully-vivid job of chronicling the lives of women during the Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. periods in California. Laura Gómez’s Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race is a stellar and succinct telling of the legal elements of the story, focused on the New Mexico territory. (I like that one so much I’m using it for my history class in the fall.) And Border Citizens, by Eric Meeks, in a interesting chronicle of the issues taking root in Arizona, an amalgamation of empire and race.