Smithsonian

Mexican War Lithograph

Between 1830 and the Civil War, there was a flourish of American “genre paintings,” depictions of everyday life and ordinary people. Many of these works show citizens engaging in local politics or reacting to news of national events. Richard Caton Woodville’s War News from Mexico, first exhibited in 1848, was perhaps the most popular of the political paintings. This lithograph was one of some 14,000 prints sold.

The various and ambiguous reactions of the characters at Woodville’s “American Hotel” are suggestive of national opinions on the Mexican War. The overture to the war was the annexation of Texas in 1845, which met with opposition in the North. James Russell Lowell wrote that the South saw in Texas “bigger pens to cram slaves in.” The most famous protestor was Henry David Thoreau, who went to jail in Massachusetts for refusing to pay taxes. The Whig opposition in Congress denounced “Mr. Polk’s war,” but went along with appropriations for military campaigns deep into Mexico.

The Republic of Texas had claimed the Rio Grande as its southern and western border. Mexico insisted that the border was the Nueces River, farther to the north and east (though it never officially recognized the independence of Texas). President James K. Polk sent troops into the disputed area in January 1846. Four months later, the Mexican army moved in and attacked a unit of U.S. soldiers. In Polk’s interpretation, Mexico had “shed American blood upon American soil.” Congress declared war on May 13, 1846.

The Mexican War was a decisive victory for the U.S., however indecisively the country supported it. In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in February 1848, Mexico turned over more than 500,000 square miles of its territory, including California and nearly all of what is now the American Southwest.

These gains seemed a fulfillment of “Manifest Destiny,” an idea put forth by New York editor John L. O’Sullivan. On the occasion of the annexation of Texas, O’Sullivan wrote that the United States had a self-evident right “to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” He looked forward to the seizure of California from Mexico as an inevitability: “Already the advance guard of the irresistible army of Anglo-Saxon emigration has begun to pour down upon [California], armed with the plough and the rifle, and marking its trail with schools and colleges, courts and representative halls, mills and meeting-houses.”

Credit: War News from Mexico, lithograph, Autry Museum of Western Heritage, Los Angeles