Racial Templates

This riveting tale of greed, international skullduggery, and behind-the-scenes heroism recounts the events that led up to America’s “wicked war” with Mexico. It depicts how expansionist ambitions in high circles fueled jingoistic propaganda (pp. 25, 34–35, 58), fed a public eager for national muscle flexing (pp. 57, 103, 108), and set the stage for a military skirmish in a disputed region between two rivers (pp. 75–77, 95, 100, 138) that provided the pretext for a savage and short-lived military campaign against the weak new nation of Mexico in which the U.S. Army, under General Scott, marched all the way to Mexico City, marauding as it went. On arrival, President Polk’s negotiator dictated terms of surrender under which Mexico ceded nearly half its territory — what is now the states of California, Nevada, and Utah, and parts of Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas (pp. xvii, 258–61) — a land grab that accounts for about one-third of the current continental United States. As America’s first foreign campaign, the War with Mexico strengthened the hold of slavery in the South, paving the way for the Civil War a generation later. It launched Lincoln’s career, although he opposed it (p. xvi); brought Henry Thoreau, who abhorred it, to national prominence; and sparked the country’s first antiwar movement (p. xvi). With its explicitly racist rhetoric, the war marked the first time in the United States’ seventy-year history that it invoked race as a justification for expanding its borders. The war also facilitated future uses of racist rhetoric in oppressing domestic minorities. Let us first examine the war itself as portrayed in Amy S. Greenberg’s A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico. This will first entail examining the parts played by five political figures — some young, some senior — together with their families and children. Then we shall show the prominent role of what we call “racial templates” — linguistic frames, habits, and attitudes of mind — in the War with Mexico and later. As we shall see, these templates, often operating at an unconscious level, predisposed society and individual actors to reproduce risky or oppressive behavior in arenas far beyond the ones in which they first emerged. Identifying these templates is a necessary first step in reducing their sway.