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The Taking Of California
A low comedy for high stakes:
February 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 2
However aggressive in tone, all this saber rattling was at first designed to frighten Mexico into abandoning her claims to the country of the Rio Grande and negotiating for the outright sale of New Mexico and California; Polk had no special desire for war—not inJune, at any rate. But by November, when he sent John Slidell to Mexico City with the authority to offer as much as fifteen million dollars for New Mexico and another twentyfive million for California, he may well have changed his mind. Slidell’s mission was hopeless. The unstable government of Mexico was in no position to bargain for the cession of so much territory; had it done so, the outcry of national protest would have obliterated it overnight. There is evidence to suggest that Polk was fully aware of this; a few months earlier Duff Green, a man familiar with the permutations of Mexican governance, had outlined the situation to him, and it is not impossible that Slidell’s mission was meant simply to satisfy public opinion (and history) that Polk had done all in his power to avert open conflict.
By then another avenue toward acquisition of California had already come to his mind. For months the United States consul in California, Thomas O. Larkin, had been sending reports to Washington that communicated (and sometimes exaggerated) every wisp of rumor concerning British intentions and outlined his conviction that California’s political leaders, such as they were, might still be persuaded to declare independence from Mexico and follow the pattern of Texas by joining the United States—if this country acted quickly. Polk took the bait, and on October 17, 1845—a little over three weeks before he sent Slidell to Mexico City—he dispatched Commodore Robert F. Stockton from the Gulf of Mexico to Monterey via the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) with orders appointing Consul Larkin a “confidential agent in California” (at six dollars a day) and giving him the authority to suggest to the Californios that while the United States could not and would not actually encourage such a move,"if the People should desire to unite their destiny with ours, they would be received as bretheren. …” Another copy of this order was carried overland by a Marine lieutenant, Archibald H. Gillespie, who travelled disguised asa merchant.
It might have worked. Larkin was well known and respected among many Californios , and his words carried weight. Besides, dissatisfaction with the Mexican government was intense; many of California’s leading spirits, having resigned themselves to eventual American dominance, were already busily hedging their bets, fn Monterey General José Castro, military commandante of California, was plotting to oust Governor Pio Pico from Los Angeles, to declare California an independent republic (with guess who as president?), and then to proceed from there to whatever development seemed most attractive. Meanwhile Governor Pico, while publicly expressing his undying fealty to Mexico, was dramatically stepping up his land grants to friends and relatives of the local government, possibly in anticipation of a rise in land values once the province changed hands. (In the first few months of 1846 alone Pico dispensed eighty-seven such grants, most of them of the maximum size of eleven square leagues, or 48,818 acres.)
In short, California trembled in a state of flux; given a little time to exercise his clout to its full potential, Larkin might well have been able to nudge the province into the welcoming arms of the United States. But even before Stockton, by sea, or Gillespie, by land, could deliver their dispatches, circumstances rendered the scheme pointless. I n December, 1845, Congress formally accepted Texas into the Union, and the Mexican government, just as formally, broke off diplomatic relations with the United States, refusing to receive John Slidell and expressing its indignation with military ruffles and flourishes. When word of this reaction reached Washington on January 12, 1846, Polk ordered Taylor’s army to advance to the Rio Grande, where it arrived in late March. A few days later a Mexican force encamped across the river near the Mexican town of Matamoros, but for the next few weeks the two armies did nothing more than send out patrols and exchange belligerent proclamations.
By now Polk was convinced that war was inevitable, but he waited for several weeks, hoping that Mexico would make the first move. Finally, on Saturday, May 9, he decided he could wait no longer; the severance of diplomatic relations and Mexico’s continuing refusal to talk to Slidell would have to do as an excuse for a declaration of war, which he determined to request when Capitol Hill opened for business Monday morning. But that night he received word that on April 26 an American patrol had been attacked and captured by the Mexicans on “American” soil above the Rio Grande. He amended his message accordingly and delivered it the morning of the eleventh. One can sense the satisfaction and relief that must have accompanied his announcement that “now, after reiterated menaces, Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory, and shed American blood upon American soil.” After some frantic opposition by those who considered the whole business little better than territorial larceny, Congress gave the President what he asked for, and on Tuesday he signed it. Mr. Folk’s war of acquisition had begun.