Why We Fight: Communicating Thoughts on the US-Mexican War across the Contested Border

AHA Session 62
Friday, January 6, 2017: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Room 501 (Colorado Convention Center, Meeting Room Level)
Amy S. Greenberg, Penn State University
Amy S. Greenberg, Penn State University

Session Abstract

In 1846, a border dispute between the United States and Mexico sparked a war that dramatically affected both nations.  The United States stripped Mexico of 500,000 square miles of territory, furthering the objectives of the nation’s pro-expansionists in their quest dominate the Western Hemisphere.  Mexico, having lost nearly half of its land and a quarter of its population, suffered worsening internal instability and was left vulnerable to foreign intervention as a result of its defeat. 

This panel’s papers examine how people on both sides perceived and portrayed the war.  Together, the presenters address a number of important questions.  What did various individuals and factions hope the war would accomplish?  How did certain people seek to influence others’ perceptions of the war and its potential outcomes?  How did Americans and Mexicans perceive their own actions during the war in comparison to the actions of the enemy?  What were Americans’ opinions of Mexicans and Mexicans’ opinions of Americans?  What role did views on race and nationalism play for each side in shaping opinions of the war and of the enemy?

Mark Bernhardt compares how two Penny Press newspaper publishers used illustrations to express their views on the acquisition of Mexican land.  Each of these publishers endorsed one of two competing masculine ideals, promoting the war as an opportunity for me to prove their masculinity.  The publishers demonstrate that the Penny Press promoted both the war and the larger project of expansionism in more diverse and nuanced ways than scholars have previously suggested.

Patrick Troester examines how Mexicans and Americans wrote about and visually depicted acts of violence committed outside of battle.  They used their presentations of these events to construct and contest the overlapping meanings of race and nation for both themselves and their enemies.  Authors on both sides connected acts of violence to rhetoric about the frontier and drew on racial imagery of Native Americans.

Steve Server analyzes both the immediate and long-term impact the war had on Mexico.  Through poetry and the press, moderate liberal elites laid out their visions of what Mexico could become as a result of the war.  Server argues that these cultural reflections on the war were an important means for liberal factions to articulate those visions.  Ultimately, the war led to a series of important political movements and changes within Mexico in the years following.

The panel fits the conference theme of historical scale by examining how people developed understandings of large and small-scale events and ideas in relation to one another based on the limited glimpses they could catch or were provided.  The ways in which they did so depended heavily on local and regional contexts as well as on broader social, cultural, and political ideas.  Additionally, the war coincided with advances in print and communications technology that reshaped the ways individuals engaged with global events and understood their own place in an increasingly interconnected world.

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