Internal Colonialism – 19th Century America

House Divided, 1840-1861
The Mexican War (1846-1848) and Internal Colonialism

The Liberty Party in 1837 was the first political party that was antislavery.  It  ran James E. Burney for President. Burney is a paradoxical figure reflective of the rapid rise of abolitionism.  He was a native born Alabaman and a former slaveowner.  The Liberty Party changed during the Mexican party and merged into the Free Soil party in 1848 directly in response to war with Mexico.  Their platform was devoted to keeping the West free of slaves and slave labor systems.

The expansion of Anglo Americans interested in acquiring new land grants from the Mexican government through empresarios began in the 1820s when figures like Stephen F. Austin began to settle in Texas.  Austin and some early prominent Anglo American settlers were granted large land grants by the Mexican state in exchange for recruiting and managing American settlers into Texas.  The history of this is admirably analyzed in Andrés Reséndez, Changing National Identities at the Frontier:  Texas and New Mexico, 1800-1850. (Cambridge University Press, 2004).   Reséndez, shows that the reliance, cooperation and ultimately rivalry between Anglos and Mexicanos from the 1820s through the 1840s is far more complex than the simple narrative of pioneers and rise of the Republic that dominated the older histories of this period.


How did we end up with the War with Mexico?  After the annexation of Texas in 1836 it becomes a state of undemarcated expansive ambition, but which had to soon reason itself with the realities of Comanche and Mexican provincial and national borders and presence throughout the Southwest.  An expansive ideology for building a continental system emerged.  In 1839, the Texas newspaperman, John O’Sullivan coined the term “Manifest Destiny,” in his editorial “The Great Nation of Futurity,” The United States Democratic Review, Volume 6, Issue 23, pp. 426-430. The complete article can be found in The Making of America Series at Cornell University.  An excerpt from Sullivan’s writing is here:

After annexation the real push was a political choice of whether to admit Texas as a state.  That decision was delayed because of the politics of free state / slave state that had been inscribed since the Missouri Compromise.  So President Van Buren hesitated in advocating for Texas admission.  As a result admission was delayed until 1845 and three Presidents later in the first Summer of James Polk’s presidency.

Because the southern border had never been clearly demarcated and negotiated the Americans just took the Rio Grande to be the border. Mexico never accepted that Rio Grande was the border, and instead assumed it was the Nueces river further north. In an age of rhetoric and idealization of national expansion and the slogan of manifest destiny, the settlement of Texas, and ultimately of New Mexico amid rival claims as American or Mexican territory is not simply reduced to ideologies.   It was instead a choice determined by material and realistic targets of land acquisition for nation-building and expansion of a continental system.


Andrés Reséndez, Changing National Identities at the Frontier:  Texas and New Mexico, 1800-1850. (Cambridge University Press, 2004)