David Clary tells the story of one of the most entertaining “my bad” episodes in American history in his Eagles and Empire: The United States, Mexico, and the Struggle for a Continent (Bantam, 2009). I’ll bow out and let him give the narrative–
The United States Navy’s Pacific Squadron hove to in the sparkling waters off Monterey, California, on October 19, 1842. Townspeople gathered to wonder at this visitation. Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones surveyed the scattering of adobe houses strung along dirt streets radiating from the waterfront, framed by green-and-brown hills and mountains rising in a protective arc inland. Jones was about to make history, the first conquest of a foreign port by the United States forces in wartime. . . . Jones had seen copies of diplomatic exchanges between Mexico and the United States suggesting that war was imminent. He also knew that his government feared that France or Britain had designs on California. A clipping from a Mexican newspaper said that a war had really started. Jones planned to take California.
Jones ordered his guns to fire a few rounds. The crowd on shore cheered, because the governor, General Manuel Micheltorena, told the people that the yanqui sailors were saluting. A ship’s boat flying the Stars and Stripes headed ashore, and the portly governor drew his sword in order to salute in return. A young officer stepped out of the boat and read a statement declaring that a state of war existed between his country and Mexico. The United States Navy was taking possession of the port of Monterey and demanded its surrender. The governor said that there was no war that he had heard of, and he must confer with his council before answering the summons. A party of sailors and marines landed the next morning, the demand was renewed, and the governor surrendered to the overwhelming naval power. The Mexican flag came down, the United States flag rose, and the marines began patrolling a very friendly place. Jones received a dispatch that night informing him that there was no war. The next morning he apologized and returned Monterey to its own leaders in a ceremony oiled by many toasts of brandy. Jones’ ship fired a real salute, this time to the Mexican flag, the happy people of Monterey waved goodbye, and the Pacific Squadron weighed anchor and headed out.*
This event gives us some insight into several things, a few of which include: 1) the hair-trigger status of relations between Mexico and the United States–war would commence between the two republics just four years later, 2) American designs on California which were fueled by the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny in the 1830s and 40s, 3) American fear that a rival state would arise and bar it from extending itself to the Pacific coast–Oregon at this time was jointly held by Britain and the United States, and it was becoming clear that this situation could not go on indefinitely.
Jones made his attempt on Monterey four years too early. James Polk asked Congress for a declaration of war against Mexico in May of 1846, and after 22 months of hostilities, Mexico was completely defeated. The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo formally transferred the Mexican Cession to the United States, which included, in part or whole, the present states of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming. Including Texas, Mexico lost over 900,000 square miles to the United States.
President Polk, in his Second Annual Message to Congress of December 8, 1846, said, “The war has not been waged with a view to conquest, but, having been commenced by Mexico, it has been carried into the enemy’s country and will be vigorously prosecuted there with a view to obtain an honorable peace, and thereby secure ample indemnity for the expenses of the war, as well as to our much-injured citizens, who hold large pecuniary demands against Mexico.” Interestingly enough, there is abundant evidence that Polk intended to grasp all of the present Southwest to the Pacific, and to fight Mexico for it if necessary.
Under Polk’s administration–which was for only one term–the United States acquired more territory than under any other president, including Thomas Jefferson with the Louisiana Purchase.
*David A. Clary, Eagles and Empire: The United States, Mexico, and the Struggle for a Continent (New York: Bantam, 2009), 40-41.