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UWBTS — Chapter 12:


Section Four: The Rise of Political Sectionalism in the Northern States, Inciting Secession.


Chapter 12 — The Mexican War, Expansion to California, and the “Compromises of 1850.”

By Egon Richard Tausch of Texas, S. I. S. H.



Texas became a State of the U.S. on 16 Feb 1846, leaving the Polk administration with a major problem – Mexico refused to recognize its previous grant of Texas independence.  Further, Polk and many other Americans looked longingly at the Mexican territories north and west of Texas and west of the Louisiana Purchase, all the way to the Pacific coast.  These territories were sparsely settled and remote from Mexico City.  There was much talk in the air about the need of the U.S. to control all of North America.  There soon came a war with Mexico and the  acquisition of vast new territories, the future of which ignited a conflict between the Northern and Southern Cultures.      


When Texas joined the Union, Americans were divided in their feelings about it.  Southerners were happy to have new land to grow with and increased power in Washington by two U.S. Senators and who knew how many more U.S. Representatives in the future?  After all, most settlers in Texas had come from the South.  But many influential people in the northeastern United States were unhappy about Texas.  More power for the South meant less power for them, and sectional differences and hostilities had been growing.  Northerners and Southerners were becoming more aware that they were different peoples.  The South was agricultural, socially traditional, favored free enterprise, and was fiercely independent-minded – personally, locally, and as States.  The North was becoming more and more commercial and industrial.  It wanted power for the central government at Washington and the “internal improvements” (infrastructure) and corporate subsidies that flowed from that government.  The North also wanted unconstitutionally high tariffs to protect its industries from foreign competition, at the expense of domestic consumers (especially Southern farmers). 

When the original thirteen States banded together to create the U.S. Constitution, the Federal (or Central, or General) Government was given certain delegated powers, and the States retained all powers not delegated to the Federal Government.  But central governments always tend to try to increase their power, as the framers of the Constitution well knew and thought they had guarded against.  While the people of the Northern States encouraged this trend to expand Federal power, Southerners began to look to the defense of freedom and independence through the rights and powers of their States, preferably within the Union.  Southern States adhered to their sovereignty, as declared by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson in their “Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions,” including the right to separate from the Union if necessary.  This independent position went double for the Southerners in Texas.  The people there had fought and won a war for their rights under the Mexican Constitution of 1824 and had been forced to secede from Mexico. They joined the U.S. only with the understanding of Union protection of their State’s Rights.  Texas was the only independent country ever to join the U.S. as a State.   Unlike other States, Texas entered the Union without granting any of the land within its “final” borders to the United States.

War with Mexico

Meanwhile, in Mexico, General Santa Anna, who liked to think of himself as the Napoleon of the Americas, was again seizing power (he was to do so four times in his 20-year career of coups and dictatorships).  In his previous rule he had overthrown the Mexican Constitution of 1824 and caused a general uprising throughout Mexico, which he suppressed by bloody massacres, only to force Texas into secession and independence.  This time, he denied the peace-treaty with Texas he had signed a decade earlier and sent small military units across the Rio Grande to appear to maintain Mexico’s claim to all of Texas.  President Polk sent emissaries to negotiate with the Mexican Government, offering to settle disputes and to buy land useless to Mexico. The government refused even to meet with Polk’s negotiators.

Mexican army units attacked a small U.S. force north of the   Rio Grande that was part of Zachary Taylor’s small army.  President Polk declared that a state of war existed, and Congress, with some reluctance on the part of Whigs, declared war against Mexico on 13 May 1846.  Gen. Taylor asked for reinforcements and marched southward.  He captured Monterrey in northern Mexico and then defeated Santa Anna soundly at the Battle of Buena Vista.  That victory owed much to the fast thinking and courage of Taylor’s son-in-law, Col. Jefferson Davis of the 1st Mississippi Volunteers. The Mexican Army at that time was no pushover.  It had been in combat almost constantly crushing revolutions and was well trained and supplied, especially in artillery and engineers.  The American regular army was small and had not seen major combat since the War of 1812.  The U.S. fought the war with volunteer regiments, predominantly from the Southern States.

President Polk decided to send Gen. Winfield Scott south with a force much larger than Taylor’s.  Scott captured the heavily-fortified port of Vera Cruz and fought his way overland to Mexico City.  Though far outnumbered, the Americans succeeded in conquering Mexico City after the fall of Chapultepec – a victory which owed much to a dangerous one-man reconnaissance by Capt. Robert E. Lee.   Meanwhile, a U.S. force, consisting mainly of Missouri volunteers, captured Santa Fe.  In California the Mexican people had long been estranged from and had resisted Mexico City.  With the resident Americans they declared independence and were soon joined by U.S. army and navy forces.  By 1848 the U.S. was in possession of most of the territory that had been wished for.

The Wilmot Proviso

In the beginning some Americans of the Whig Party had opposed the war, falsely claiming that it was a plot by the South to extend slavery, but most Americans felt pride when the Far West was won.  By the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo,  Mexico’s vast northwestern lands were sold to the U.S. for $15,000,000 and U.S. payment of the extensive Mexican  debts owed to American citizens for earlier seizures of their property.

But the war had barely gotten underway when Congress was turned into warring Northern and Southern camps.  On 8 August 1846, Representative David Wilmot of PA introduced an amendment to a pending war appropriations bill.  Wilmot’s amendment would ban slavery in any and all territory that might be acquired as a result of the war. (Wilmot was a Democrat in trouble with his constituents for not promoting their demand for a higher tariff.)  The “Wilmot Proviso” passed the House and was defeated in the Senate.  It was later introduced two more times with the same result.  Some peaceable Northern representatives tried to overcome the antagonism by proposing that the old Missouri Compromise line be used to divide the territory acquired from Mexico between the North and South. Southerners declared they would accept this, but advocates of the Wilmot Proviso rejected it.

A new and fervently evangelical abolitionist movement had appeared in the North in the 1830s.  It was growing but still small and held in contempt by most Northerners.  The movement to ban slavery from the territories profited from growing abolitionism but it had nothing to do with the welfare of African Americans in bondage.  “Free-soilers” wanted the land for “free white men.”  They wanted no black people, free or slave.  It might be argued that the Proviso controversy began the chain of events that made the WBTS likely if not inevitable.  Northern business interests were made happy and more aggressive by a sense that they now held power over the South and the future of the Union.  Southerners knew that the semi-arid lands of the Mexican Cession would not be conducive to plantation agriculture, but they resented being deprived of their equal status in the Union and understood that they were becoming a minority dominated by an alien and hostile power. 

Formerly Mexican lands – present-day Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and parts of Colorado and New Mexico – were virtually unpopulated except by fierce, nomadic Indian tribes.  Texas settlement had not expanded past its eastern third.  (After the WBTS it became cattle country, with the herds of wild longhorns rounded up and driven to market in the North.  The population did not spread widely until the oil-boom of the 1900s.)  Northerners were uninterested in moving west except where profits were to be made.  California itself was already populated, and the Gold-rush there brought more Americans, a majority from the North.  It did not take long for Northerners to realize that control of the new territories would benefit their interests.

Passions inflamed by the Wilmot Proviso led to the “Compromise of 1850,” which was actually a series of separate Acts passed by Congress, each meant to advantage either North or South.  The first Act admitted California as a non-slave State.  Another Act concerned Texas land west of the present State of Texas, which had not been given to the U.S. upon statehood, but kept.  This Texas land included half of the modern State of New Mexico.  Northern Whigs did not like Texas and were delighted to whittle away at it.  Gen. Stephen Kearny was a nationalist from New Jersey, and his Army of the West simply pretended Texas did not exist.  His army assembled a few Northerners and Mexican settlers into a convention in Santa Fe, which petitioned Washington to become a separate U.S. territory.  When the Texas Legislature sent emissaries, Kearny’s army threatened war against Texas unless they left.  Pres. Taylor’s Whig successor, Millard Fillmore (New York), also threatened force against Texas.  Texans who had opposed statehood were proven right, and even secession from the U.S. was seriously threatened.  An interesting thought: What if the War Between the States had begun then, in the Southwest, rather than in the East?

The U.S. had even failed in its major obligation for Texas Statehood: the defense of Texas against hostile Indian tribes.  Austin, the capital, was raided by Comanches, and over 200 Texas civilians were kidnapped in 1849 alone.  For decades before and after the WBTS, the Texas frontier was a bloody wound which the U.S. government did little to heal.  The Texas Rangers would hunt these Indians down after an atrocity and recapture women and children who had been taken away.  The U.S. Army would make a show of force, chase them a bit, then build a useless camp.  As one of the “compromises” of 1850, Texas gave up her lands beyond the present State boundaries.  In exchange the U.S. paid off the $10 million Texas debt, although this was of more benefit to Northern bondholders than to Texas.

Another Act allowed for “popular sovereignty,” which permitted each new territory to decide for itself for or against legalizing slavery before becoming a State.  Congress thus passed the buck.  Southerners had always insisted that only a sovereign State, not a temporary territorial government, could decide on slavery.  A final “compromise” meant to mollify the South, strengthened the “Fugitive Slave Act,” requiring Northern States to return escaped slaves to their owners.  The South was not impressed.  Actually, the law already existed, but only a small number of African-Americans were ever involved in the much-exaggerated and glorified “underground railroad.”  Southerners had been victimized by so many dubious interpretations of the Constitution that they wanted the North to abide by this very clear one.  But Northern States passed laws forbidding free or escaped African-Americans from remaining in their States, from employment, and from any civil rights. 


People were beginning to realize that the Union was in serious crisis.  The Whig elder statesman Henry Clay worked hard for the Compromise, helped by the rising Democratic star Stephen A. Douglas.  Daniel Webster aroused bitter hatred in his own Massachusetts by supporting compromise. The third elder statesman of “the Great Triumvirate,” John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who would be dead in a few days, rejected the “compromise.”  The Union could not survive, he said, unless the North stopped its exploitation of the South.  The South was now hemmed in by the West and North.  The United States continued as a federation, unseparated, for another decade.  The North was discovering its political power, and the Federal Government it favored was growing more powerful.

Suggestions for Class Discussion

What if the War Between The States had begun in the Western Territories?

Recommended Reading

  • Lone Star, A History of Texas and the Texans, by T. R. Fehrenbach, pub. 1968.
  • The Repressible Conflict: 1830-1861, by Avery Craven, pub. 1939.