Teaching Activity. Lesson by Bill Bigelow and student reading by Howard Zinn. 21 pages.
Interactive activity introduces students to the history and often untold story of the U.S.-Mexico War. Roles available in Spanish.
Today’s border with Mexico is the product of invasion and war. Grasping some of the motives for that war and some of its immediate effects begins to provide students the kind of historical context that is crucial for thinking intelligently about the line that separates the United States and Mexico. It also gives students insights into the justifications for and costs of war today.
This activity introduces students to a number of the individuals and themes they will encounter in the chapter from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, “We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God.” The individual roles include: Cochise, Colonel Ethan Allen Hitchcock, Congressman Abraham Lincoln, Doña Francesca Vallejo, Francisco Márquez, Frederick Douglass, General Mariano Vallejo, General Stephen Kearny, Henry David Thoreau, Jefferson Davis, María Josefa Martínez, Padre Antonio José Martínez, President James K. Polk, Reverend Theodore Parker, Sgt. John Riley, William Lloyd Garrison, and Wotoki.
The lesson includes a reading from Zinn’s chapter, “We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God.” Here is an excerpt.
Frederick Douglass wrote in his Rochester newspaper the North Star, January 21, 1848, of “the present disgraceful, cruel, and iniquitous war with our sister republic. Mexico seems a doomed victim to Anglo Saxon cupidity and love of dominion.” Douglass was scornful of the unwillingness of opponents of the war to take real action (even the abolitionists kept paying their taxes):
No politician of any considerable distinction or eminence seems willing to hazard his popularity with his party … by an open and unqualified disapprobation of the war. None seem willing to take their stand for peace at all risks; and all seem willing that the war should be carried on, in some form or other.
Where was popular opinion? It is hard to say. After the first rush, enlistments began to dwindle. Historians of the Mexican war have talked easily about “the people” and “public opinion.” Their evidence, however, is not from “the people” but from the newspapers, claiming to be the voice of the people. The New York Herald wrote in August 1845: “The multitude cry aloud for war.” The New York Morning News said “young and ardent spirits that throng the cities … want but a direction to their restless energies, and their attention is already fixed on Mexico.”
It is impossible to know the extent of popular support of the war. But there is evidence that many organized workingmen opposed the war. There were demonstrations of Irish workers in New York, Boston, and Lowell against the annexation of Texas. In May, when the war against Mexico began, New York workingmen called a meeting to oppose the war, and many Irish workers came. The meeting called the war a plot by slave owners and asked for the withdrawal of American troops from disputed territory. That year, a convention of the New England Workingmen’s Association condemned the war and announced they would “not take up arms to sustain the Southern slaveholder in robbing one-fifth of our countrymen of their labor.”
This lesson was published by Rethinking Schools in The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration. For more teaching activities like “U.S. Mexico War: “We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God,” order The Line Between Us with role plays, stories, poetry, improvisations, simulations and video edited by Bill Bigelow. See Table of Contents.