Racing Ahead of Manifest Destiny: U.S. Migration, Citizenship, and Commercial Expansion in Mexico’s Interior, 1821-53



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Between Mexican independence in 1821 and the outbreak of the U.S.-Mexican War in 1846, a small but significant number of mostly white U.S. citizens migrated to Mexico’s interior. While the simultaneous U.S.-American migration into Mexico’s northern borderlands ultimately resulted in a U.S. territorial empire, I argue that the inflow of U.S. citizens to the interior of Mexico helped lay the groundwork for a second form of empire: A U.S. commercial empire that would later take root in Mexico and other parts of Latin America. While U.S.-Americans tout the country as a land of immigrants and a land of opportunity, during this era thousands of U.S.-Americans sought fortunes in Mexico’s interior instead. Settling mostly in cities, they pursued a variety of economic activities, including international trade, transportation, factory work, artisan shops, medicine, and military service. While some stayed for months, others stayed for decades. Mexican intellectuals and leaders felt these migrants could help grow the new country’s economy, as long as they became Catholics and swore allegiance only to Mexico. U.S.-Americans largely integrated into the local communities where they lived. They transacted business with, employed, befriended, and married local Mexicans. Some even fully assimilated into Mexican society. But most remained part of the U.S. national community. They disproportionately transacted business with fellow U.S.-Americans, communally celebrated U.S. holidays, traveled between the two countries, and chronicled Mexico for U.S. publications. The majority maintained their U.S. citizenship, realizing that foreignness brought them advantages. A small but vocal number sought and gained U.S. consular and diplomatic backing in clashes with Mexican officials and locals. U.S. citizens with grievances against the Mexican government portrayed Mexico as a treacherous, backward, and racially mixed place in the U.S. press and in the halls of government. Their characterizations fed into rising anti-Mexican sentiment in the United States and helped provoke the U.S.-Mexican War in 1846. Fearing assistance to the enemy, Mexican officials expelled U.S. citizens from war zones. Many U.S. citizens proved Mexican officials’ fears correct by assisting the U.S. military as it advanced. But the stereotypes that U.S. citizens living in Mexico had promulgated before the war fed widespread U.S. opposition to annexing densely populated areas of Mexico. After the war, a chastened Mexico found itself forced to open its doors to U.S. business interests, setting a precedent for future U.S. interventions in Latin America.