America is often described as the land of the free. A country founded by its fight against the tyranny of the British Empire and its expansionist agenda. This is only part of the story.
If you look at the United States today, it is clear that most of the land was not liberated, but either conquered (from Mexico) or simply purchased (from Napoleon, or the Russians). There is a mistaken belief that America has never sought to expand its borders, that somehow America has never had the same goals as the old colonial powers.
But during the 19th century, the USA made a series of land grabs against neighboring countries. One of them, the Gadsden Purchase, saw a considerable amount of Mexican land fall into American hands.
What was the Gadsden Purchase?
The Gadsden Purchase or “la Venta de La Mesilla” in Spanish was the sale of a 29,670 square mile (76,800 square km) area of land, which covers modern-day Arizona and New Mexico, by Mexico to the United States. The sale took effect on June 8th, 1854 but securing it was no easy feat.
It is often thought of as the deal that settled the main boundaries of the United States as we know it today (although Alaska wasn’t added until 1867). The deal itself came about during the Treaty of Mesilla that came about as the result of America besting Mexico in the Mexican-American war of 1846-48.
The particular area that the purchase covered was important to the States for a variety of reasons but the main reason they were so keen to grab the land was that the States planned on building a transcontinental railroad in the South. The original proposed route for the railroad was too mountainous and the southern states soon realized that the only option was for the railroad to dip into Mexican lands.
If the US Won, why was it so Expensive?
The Gadsden Purchase was not cheap. For the roughly 30,000 square miles of land, the States paid $10 million (roughly $230 million in today’s money). This may sound like a lot of money, and it was, but there is no doubting the Americans got a good deal.
Mexico was just coming out of a very costly war with the States and desperately needed the money, the Gadsden Purchase gave the Mexicans a chance to save face while also making a quick buck. A cynic might also point out that the Mexicans were savvy enough to know that they were probably going to lose the land either way.
- The Curse of Tippecanoe: Are some US Presidents Fated to Die in Office?
- The Battle of Cowpens: Small Numbers, Big Victory
In 1836, a decade earlier, Mexico lost Texas to the States and they lost even more land as a result of the Mexican-American war. Even after the war William Carr Lane, the United States territorial governor of New Mexico, continued carrying out unauthorized military expeditions into Mexican lands. It seems likely the Mexican government figured it was better to sell the land than have it stolen anyway piece by piece.
For the United States, it was a good deal. They knew they had Mexico over a barrel and used this to their advantage to take the land they wanted, at the price they wanted. On top of this war isn’t cheap for either side and so the United States was happy to avoid fighting another war (little did they know the civil war was just around the corner).
In 1853 President Pierce sent the US ambassador to Mexico, James Gadsen, to meet Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the Mexican President. Pierce was an expansionist by nature and he wanted the treaty signed and sealed as quickly as possible.
Initially, the Mexican president was reluctant to hand over any more territory. He then said no to extending the border south of the Sierra Madre Mountains. In exchange for any deal being made he demanded reparations for damages caused by Native American raids on his lands.
It was at this point that Gadsden realized the Mexican president was in desperate need of money. Gadsden reported back to his superiors and soon got the go-ahead to offer the Mexican president two potential deals. One demanded a huge amount of Mexican land in exchange for $50 million, while the other asked only for the land needed to finish the railway in exchange for $15 million.
At the same time, Gadsen attempted to press his advantage by antagonizing Santa Anna. He stated that basically, the land grab would happen either way so the Mexicans might as well take the money.
Santa Anna responded by pleading to the United Kingdom for help in negotiations, but at this time the UK had little interest in opening old wounds with the States. Santa knew he needed the largest possible amount of money for the smallest amount of land and so opted for the $15 million option. This disappointed Pierce and Gadsden who had been sure Santa Anna would go for the bigger payday.
Santa Anna signed the treaty on December 30th, 1853. The deal was a classic compromise, neither side was really happy with what they had gotten and both sides were left feeling resentful.
This was only the start of the negotiations however, as the treaty then had to go through the U.S Senate for confirmation. The treaty met strong opposition in the Senate. Part of the issue was the sheer cost of the purchase. Who was going to pay for it?
- The Death of a Mormon: Joseph Smith’s Murder
- Custer’s Ego: Why did the General Decide on a Suicidal Attack?
Tensions had been rising between the Northern and Southern states for a while. Northern senators were unwilling to help fund a railway that they felt would only benefit the Southern states. On top of this, many of these senators were anti-slavery and felt that the purchase amounted to the South gaining yet more slave territory.
Other senators were not happy about handing over so much money to a nation they had only just finished being at war with. It was clear the Mexican president was just going to spend the money on reinforcing his army against future American attacks. What if the United States wanted more Mexican land at a later date?
The initial treaty failed to pass through the Senate by three votes. Gadsden and Pierce went back to the drawing board to find an agreement that would keep the Senate and Mexican government happy. It managed to pass on April 25th, 1854, but only after the area of land being purchased (and the price) had been reduced once again. This time as a concession to appease the northern senators.
The Impact of the Deal
The purchase didn’t have the effect on the southern states that they had been hoping for. The issue of a southern railway had become so intertwined with the debate over slavery that it never got federal funding.
The squabbling in the Senate over the deal’s ratification had shone a spotlight on the tensions that had been at risk of boiling over for a long time. These tensions continued to boil until civil war broke out in 1861. The railroad would not be built until after the war finished.
On the Mexican side, the Gadsen purchase did little to help Santa Anna. His people never forgave him for handing over yet more territory to the Americans. Even worse they saw how he was spending the money and felt it was being squandered.
To this day many Mexican historians view the Gadsden purchase as a bad deal. They believe that the deal has defined American-Mexican relations to this day. A relationship where they feel America dominates and overrules Mexican interests.
In truth, the Gadsden purchase was made up of positives and negatives. It avoided any more bloodshed between Mexico and America and the United States kept to its word and took no more Mexican land. America today would not be what it is without the purchase.
On the other hand, the negotiations were a mess, and no one left the table happy. While it would be reductive to say the Gadsden Purchase caused the American Civil War, it didn’t exactly help things. The whole point of the deal was to build a railway, a railway that would end up not being built for another 20+ years. Even though America ended up getting the better deal, it’s hard to see the Gadsden Purchase as a complete success.
Top Image: The territory acquired in the Gadsden Purchase, with the proposed southern transcontinental railroad also marked. Source: National Park Service / Public Domain.