The presidential emissary arrived at Mexico City on Nov. 26, 1845 prepared to pay top dollar to keep the peace south of the Rio Grande.
James K. Polk beat Henry Clay by a whisker in the election of 1844 on the popular appeal of his campaign promises to bring the Republic of Texas into the national fold and to establish undisputed dominion over Oregon. Although willing to wage simultaneous wars against Mexico and Great Britain, the president-elect preferred to keep his word without shedding a single drop of blood.
Polk moved quickly to pacify the Mexicans, whose feelings had been hurt by a recent congressional vote in favor of the annexation of Texas. Shortly before his March 1845 inauguration, the tactful Tennessean recalled the American minister, whose conduct had made him persona non grata, and dispatched a private citizen to take the political pulse south of the border.
In spite of his fluent Spanish and prior residency in the foreign country, William S. Parrott badly misjudged the Mexicans’ emotional attachment to Texas and the western territories the new president hoped to purchase. Nine years after San Jacinto, Texas was still seen as a wayward province whose loss the ruling elite dared not acknowledge. As for California and New Mexico, the national honor simply would not permit their sale.
Oblivious to these facts of Mexican life, Parrott assured Polk on Aug. 26 that everything could be “settled with comparative ease over breakfast.” This ridiculous opinion was shared by John Black, the veteran consul at Veracruz, who joined Parrott in advising the president to make his move.
For a very tricky assignment that demanded the skills of a consummate diplomat, Polk picked a political hack. Louisiana Congressman John Slidell not only was a fugitive from justice, having fled New York in 1819 after shooting a romantic rival, he also had nothing but contempt for the Mexican people.
As “Minister Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary,” Slidell was given an ambitious shopping list. For openers, the United States would pay the claims of its citizens against the Mexican government in exchange for Texas and half of New Mexico. All of New Mexico was worth $5 million, northern California an additional $15 million and the whole package – Texas, New Mexico and California – $25 million.
Slidell was set to sail from New Orleans in September 1845, when Polk suddenly ordered him to postpone the trip. The president wanted a more concrete indication from the Mexicans of their willingness to talk. A private note from the foreign secretary, which Parrott personally delivered to the White House in November, cleared the way for the envoy’s departure.
But by the time Slidell reached Veracruz, the Mexicans had changed their minds. Gen. Jose Joaquin Herrera, leader of the latest junta, was trying to fend off a coup by Gen. Mariano Paredes. To be seen in the company of a gringo diplomat, much less to be suspected of selling sacred real estate, would seal Herrera’s fate.
The foreign secretary begged John Black to stop Slidell at the dock, but the congressman already had landed and was headed for the capital. The consul caught up with him, but the single-minded emissary stubbornly refused to turn back.
The petty internal problems of the Mexicans were not his concern. All that interested the ignorant politician was pleasing the president.
Herrera shunned Slidell from the moment he materialized in Mexico City. The desperate despot passed him onto the national council, which decreed the gate-crasher would never be accorded diplomatic status. Slidell responded with a Christmas Eve threat the unimpressed Mexicans ignored.
A week later, Paredes overthrew Herrera but the expected coup had no effect on Slidell’s predicament. Rebuffed in his repeated attempts to arrange a meeting with Paredes, the Louisianian informed the president that he was coming home. “Nothing is to be done with these people,” Slidell wrote on Mar. 15, 1846, “until they have been chastised.”
Since negotiations with the British were also at a standstill, Polk was resigned to fighting two foes on two fronts. Fortunately, he had decided before taking office that he would be the first president not to seek two terms. The way things were going, however, he would be lucky to escape impeachment.
The inevitable clash along the Rio Grande occurred in late April. The territory Mexico could have sold was about to be taken by force of arms.
The declaration of war approved by congress on May 12, 1846 had a sobering effect on the British. A third round in 70 years with the Americans was unthinkable. President Polk’s standing offer of a compromise boundary between the United States and Canada was accepted, and he was spared a second front in Oregon.
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