The US-Mexican War of 1846–1848 was key to the drawing of the modern borders of the United States and Mexico, and it contributed to the coming of the Civil War in the United States. At the end of the war, after the signing of The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), the United States acquired the present day states of California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, as well as parts of Wyoming, Kansas, and Colorado. (The US had annexed the Republic of Texas before the war, in 1845.) For this reason, the war paved the way for the emergence of a multicultural western and southwestern United States populated by Native peoples and Mexicans who had lived there for generations. The acquisition of so much new territory also intensified tensions in the United States over where to draw the line between slave states and free states. In 1820, thanks to the Missouri Compromise, which stipulated that slavery would not be allowed above the southern border of Missouri, Whigs and Democrats achieved an equilibrium of twelve slave states and twelve free states. The acquisition of Texas, which was south of Missouri’s border, tipped the scale in favor of the slave-owning states. However, the Missouri Compromise was not equipped to explain what to do with the newly acquired lands to the west, leading to the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, both which negotiated the future expansion of slavery. In Mexico, the humiliation of defeat stirred liberal nationalism and helped to discredit Mexican president Antonio López de Santa Anna, who was overthrown in 1855. The war thus marked the birth of modern Mexican liberalism, which remained a potent force until the Mexican Revolution of 1910. These various repercussions underline why the US-Mexican War is more than a bounded, historical event. It would be more accurate to describe it as a lens through which to examine political debates about slavery in the United States, the emergence of a “Mexican American” population within US borders, the realization of the Anglo-American ideology of Manifest Destiny, and the emergence of modern Mexican nationalism and liberalism.
Historical accounts of the US-Mexican War underline five linked narratives. In the first, the Anglo-American settlers of the Mexican territory of Texas gain independence and embark upon a short-lived republican experiment. In the second, the United States annexes Texas over the vehement protests of Mexico. In the third, war breaks out between the United States and Mexico because of a border dispute. The fourth narrative is the story of the war itself, in which the United States invades Mexico, forces its adversary to capitulate, and signs the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on 2 February 1848. Finally, most overviews end on a discussion of how the war reverberated in US politics or in the subsequent development of the western and southwestern United States. The following secondary sources outline these interlocking narratives in an accessible way. What also distinguishes Chávez 2007, Henderson 2007, Valerio-Jiménez 2016, and Vázquez 2000 is their brevity and their drive to highlight the Mexican dimensions of the conflict. Martin 1998—a PBS documentary and accompanying website—is highly recommended as an introductory resource.
Chávez, Ernesto, ed. The U.S. War with Mexico: A Brief History with Documents. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2007.
The excellent introduction to this well-known textbook is a strong starting point for further study, as are the various primary documents.
Guardino, Peter. The Dead March: A History of the Mexican-American War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.
Guardino’s well-regarded book challenges the much repeated argument that Mexico lost the war because it was disunited in comparison to the United States. His study also strikes a balance between Mexican and US history unmatched by most general histories of the war.
Henderson, Timothy. A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and Its War with the United States. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007.
A strong overview of the war that sets itself apart by paying close attention to the Mexican side of the conflict.
Martin, Ginny, dir. U.S.-Mexican War (1846–1848). PBS Home Video, 1998.
This four-hour long documentary has strong production values and features the expertise of many of the prominent experts listed in this bibliography. The useful companion website contains interviews, timelines, short essays, maps, and primary sources.
Valerio-Jiménez, Omar. “The U.S.-Mexico War.” In The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Edited by Jon Butler. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Valerio-Jiménez’s synthesis is an excellent starting point because it’s clear, up-to-date, and commands all the major works listed in this bibliography. Of special interest is the section titled “Expansionists and the Outbreak of War,” which does an admirable job of synthesizing debates about the annexation and Texas and how they inspired Henry David Thoreau to write “Civil Disobedience.” The section titled “Discussion of Literature” is also useful as a roadmap. Available online by subscription.
Vázquez, Josefina Zoraida. “War and Peace with the United States.” In The Oxford History of Mexico. Edited by Michael C. Meyer and William H. Beezley, 361–363. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Josefine Zoraida Vázquez is one of Mexico’s most respected historians. Her synthesis clearly outlines the war’s unfolding in Mexico and its deep impact.
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