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Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, An Essay

By Matthew Biggers

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was the treaty that ended the Mexican-American War, but its conception and adoption was much more complicated than it appears in most textbooks. During the first eleven months of the war, President James K. Polk attempted to bring about peace by secret diplomacy with both Santa Anna who was exiled in Cuba and with the Paredes government in Mexico City. When none of this secret diplomacy succeeded, Polk appointed Nicholas Trist as commissioner to Mexico. Trist was sent to Mexico with a draft treaty to serve as a guide for his negotiations. This draft demanded the cession of Alta and Baja California and New Mexico, the right of transit across the Gulf of Tehuantepec, and the Río Grande as the southwestern border of Texas in exchange for 15 million dollars and assumption of 3 million dollars in American citizens claims against the Mexican government. Trist was instructed that neither Baja California nor the rights of navigation of the Gulf of Tehuantepec were sine qua non.

Trist arrived in Vera Cruz on May 6, 1847 and promptly angered his host, General Winfield Scott. The two reconciled their differences and worked together in communicating with Santa Anna, now the Mexican president, who declared an armistice after Scott's army captured the outer defenses of Mexico City. Santa Anna suggested this move to encourage the Mexican Congress to discuss peace. Upon declaration of the armistice, Santa Anna appointed lawyers Bernardo Couto and Miguel Atristain, General Ignacio Mora y Villamil, and former President José Joaquín Herrera as peace commissioners to treat with Trist. These commissioners already knew the terms of Trist's instructions and refused to cede Baja California when they received the draft treaty. They also had received instructions ordering them to give up Texas only to the Nueces River and to refuse the other terms of the treaty. The agreement reached by Trist and the Mexicans allowed some of the terms of the draft treaty but held that the Nueces River was the boundary of Texas. Acceptance of this boundary would be akin to the United States admitting responsibility for starting the war. Both Santa Anna and Polk rejected this agreement. Santa Anna counter proposed that the United States would receive San Francisco and all of California north of that city but would not receive New Mexico or the Río Grande boundary. Polk never received a formal proposal, but he was angered that Trist would even submit it. This anger was officially shown on October 6, 1847, when Trist received his recall notice from the State Department. Trist was disappointed because he had several friends in the Moderado faction that desired peace, and he did not want to waste the opportunity to make peace with them before the Puro (war) faction regained power.

Many officials urged Trist to disobey this summons and continue the peace process, but Trist wrote that newspaper correspondent and friend James Freaner's arguments were what eventually convinced him to stay in Mexico. Trist had four reasons he decided to remain in Mexico: he believed the United States government desired peace; he thought that if the opportunity at hand passed then hope for a treaty was lost; he thought that the boundary negotiations were the minimum the Mexicans would accept; and he believed his recall was based on a supposed state of affairs that was opposite the real one. Trist was now an unofficial diplomat, but that fact did not deter the Mexican government from opening final negotiations January 2, 1848. The Mexicans ceded San Diego and all of California north of that port along with New Mexico and the Río Grande boundary in return for the Gila River as the southern boundary of New Mexico, the abandonment of United States rights to cross the isthmus of Tehuantepec, and 15 million dollars. Trist was happy to have negotiated a treaty on the terms of his original instructions. He had rabidly opposed the ideas of American annexation or occupation of Mexico on the grounds that such acts would lead to a larger standing army, more presidential patronage, and more corruption. He also felt that incorporation of the inferior Mexican race into the United States would poison American society.

President Polk was angry about Trist's refusal to return to the United States, but he eventually agreed to present the treaty to the Senate due to the rising anti-war sentiment and growing Whig opposition in Congress. The treaty was insignificantly modified except for Article IX, which was stricken and replaced with language from the earlier Louisiana Purchase and Adams-Onís treaties that was more ambiguous regarding citizenship and property rights of people who lived in the ceded territories. Article X was also stricken because the American government did not wish to recognize the land grants issued by the Mexican government. The United States Senate ratified the treaty on May 10, 1848. Secretary of State James Buchanan was among many Americans who thought these changes would result in a rejection of the treaty by the Mexicans.

Many Mexicans opposed the treaty on the grounds that it economically subordinated Mexico to the United States. In his "Observations on the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo," Manuel Crescencio Rejón argued that his government had exceeded its authority in ceding territory and in negotiating the treaty in secret. In response, Bernardo Couto wrote that the treaty had prevented the destruction of the Mexican nation.

After an address on the bleak military situation and several days of debate, both houses of the Mexican Congress agreed to the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Before the ratifications were exchanged, the Mexican minister of foreign relations, Luis de la Rosa, met with American commissioners and with Couto and Cuevas to discuss the deletion of Article X and the re-wording of Article IX. They drafted the Protocol of Querétaro to secure the rights of Mexican citizens in the ceded territories. Buchanan asserted that the protocol was worthless and was not part of the treaty at all. Mexicans in the ceded areas could remain Mexican citizens or could become United States citizens.

The United States government has largely ignored the parts of the treaty guaranteeing these property rights. Many court cases have been fought over the rights Mexican-Americans are entitled to under this treaty. The treaty is still invoked by Mexicans in discussing modern issues such as immigration, the Mexican debt, and drug smuggling.


Griswold del Castillo, Richard. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: A Legacy of Conflict . Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.

Farnham, Robert J. "Nicholas Trist and James Freaner and the Mission to Mexico." Arizona and the West 11, no. 3 (1969): 247-260.