- Historic Sites
The Taking Of California
A low comedy for high stakes:
February 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 2
In September, 1842, while the administration of President John Tyler engaged in some ticklish negotiations with the Mexican government for the sale of California, Commodore Jones and his Pacific Squadron were anchored at Callao, Peru, nervously watching the movements of the Brit- ish Pacific Squadron as it prepared to depart for points unknown. Shortly after the British squadron left, Jones received word that the United States and Mexico were at war and that Mexico had arranged to cede California to England in payment of her debts to that country. Jones instantly raced for California, where he arrived in mid-October. At Monterey he congratulated himself on beating the British squadron, demanded the surrender of the town and the province, raised the American flag, and issued a proclamation declaring the peaceful American occupation of the territory. One day later, when he examined letters and newspapers from Mexico City, he discovered that there was no war, and no Mexican-English arrangement. With understandable embarrassment he extended apologies to every official in sight, lowered the American flag, attended a dance given by the Californios, and removed himself from Monterey with as much grace as he could muster.
The Californios were far more entertained than outraged by this abortive conquest, but officialdom in Mexico City reacted with bleats of protest, eliminating whatever slim chance there had been for Tyler to arrange a peaceful cession of California to the United States. The idea was not revived until the Presidency of James K. Polk, a dour, secretive, utterly determined individual with the instincts of a professional poker player and the gall of a Tennessee horse trader. Nurtured at the political knee of Jackson, Polk took office in March, 1845, fully primed to accept at face value any and all vague rumors concerning British intentions toward California. This psychic stew was an important factor in the achievement of the three major foreign-policy goals that he brought to the office of President: the completed annexation of Texas, the settlement of the Oregon question with Great Britain, and the acquisition of California (later expanded to include New Mexico). Counting heavily on British reluctance to go to war, he managed in 1846 to reach an agreeable settlement on the Oregon question with a combination of bluff and compromise, extending America’s Oregon territory to the fortyninth parallel and acquiring Puget Sound into the bargain. But his other two goals were not satisfied before one of the most complex wars in U.S. history had ground to a bloody end in the Valley of Mexico.
Ever since the embryonic nation of Texas had won its independence from Mexico in 1836, there had been sentiment within both the new republic and the United States for Texas’ annexation to the Union. On March 1, 1845, just three days before Folk’s inauguration, President John Tyler signed a joint resolution of Congress that offered statehood to the republic. The act was greeted with joy by most southern Democratic politicians, who welcomed the addition of one more slave state to the fold, but opposed by most antislavery, antiexpansionist Whigs, who saw it, in the words of former President John Quincy Adams, as “the first step to the conquest of all Mexico, of the West India islands, of a maritime, colonizing, slave-tainted monarchy, and of extinguished freedom.”
Polk had no visible interest in the West Indies at that time or, so far as we know, in the creation of a monarchy—but he was a Southerner, a Democrat, an expansionist, and as full of schemes as a prince of the Borgias. He not only welcomed Texas for its own sake but immediately saw it as a possible key to his California ambitions. A disputed strip of territory between the Nueces River, the Texas boundary claimed by Mexico, and the Rio Grande, the boundary that the republic itself claimed, provided him with a framework for his plans. At about the same time he was judiciously allowing his political opponents to believe that the question of the final boundary was open to negotiation with Mexico once annexation was a fact, Polk wrote to his representative in Texas that “of course I would maintain the Texan title to the extent which she claims it to be, and not permit an invading enemy to occupy a foot of soil East of the Rio Grande.” Shortly after the Texas congress accepted the United States’ offer of annexation in June, 1845, he ordered General Zachary Taylor and his army to occupy Corpus Christi on the northern edge of the disputed territory and had instructions sent to Commodore John D. Sloat, the new commander of the Pacific Squadron, to “at once possess yourself of the port of San Francisco, and blockade or occupy such other ports as your force may permit” should war break out with Mexico.