President James Polk delivered the following message to the House of Representatives on July 6, 1848. Polk explains the rational and legality of actions his administration took during the course of the war, including the establishment of military governments in occupied territory and the new boundaries of the United States.
To the House of Representatives of the United States:
In answer to the resolutions of the House of Representatives of the 10th instant, requesting information in relation to New Mexico and California, I communicate herewith reports from the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of War, and the Secretary of the Navy, with the documents which accompany the same. These reports and documents contain information upon the several points of inquiry embraced by the resolutions. “The proper limits and boundaries of New Mexico and California” are delineated on the map referred to in the late treaty with Mexico, an authentic copy of which is herewith transmitted; and all the additional information upon that subject, and also the most reliable information in respect to the population of these respective Provinces, which is in the possession of the Executive will be found in the accompanying report of the Secretary of State.
The resolutions request information in regard to the existence of civil governments in New Mexico and California, their “form and character,” by “whom instituted,” by “what authority,” and how they are “maintained and supported.”
In my message of December 22, 1846, in answer to a resolution of the House of Representatives calling for information “in relation to the establishment or organization of civil government in any portion of the territory of Mexico which has or might be taken possession of by the Army or Navy of the United States,” I communicated the orders which had been given to the officers of our Army and Navy, and stated the general authority upon which temporary military governments had been established over the conquered portion of Mexico then in our military occupation.
The temporary governments authorized were instituted by virtue of the rights of war. The power to declare war against a foreign country, and to prosecute it according to the general laws of war, as sanctioned by civilized nations, it will not be questioned, exists under our Constitution. When Congress has declared that war exists with a foreign nation, “the general laws of war apply to our situation,” and it becomes the duty of the President, as the constitutional “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States,” to prosecute it.
In prosecuting a foreign war thus duly declared by Congress, we have the right, by “conquest and military occupation,” to acquire possession of the territories of the enemy, and, during the war, to “exercise the fullest rights of sovereignty over it.” The sovereignty of the enemy is in such case “suspended,” and his laws can “no longer be rightfully enforced” over the conquered territory “or be obligatory upon the inhabitants who remain and submit to the conqueror. By the surrender the inhabitants pass under a temporary allegiance” to the conqueror, and are “bound by such laws, and such only, as” he may choose to recognize and impose. “From the nature of the case, no other laws could be obligatory upon them, for where there is no protection or allegiance or sovereignty there can be no claim to obedience.” These are well-established principles of the laws of war, as recognized and practiced by civilized nations, and they have been sanctioned by the highest judicial tribunal of our own country.
The orders and instructions issued to the officers of our Army and Navy, applicable to such portions of the Mexican territory as had been or might be conquered by our arms, were in strict conformity to these principles. They were, indeed, ameliorations of the rigors of war upon which we might have insisted. They substituted for the harshness Of military rule something of the mildness of civil government, and were not only the exercise of no excess of power, but were a relaxation in favor of the peaceable inhabitants of the conquered territory who had submitted to our authority, and were alike politic and humane.
It is from the same source of authority that we derive the unquestioned right, after the war has been declared by Congress, to blockade the ports and coasts of the enemy, to capture his towns, cities, and provinces, and to levy contributions upon him for the support of our Army. Of the same character with these is the right to subject to our temporary military government the conquered territories of our enemy. They are all belligerent rights, and their exercise is as essential to the successful prosecution of a foreign war as the right to fight battles.
New Mexico and Upper California were among the territories conquered and occupied by our forces, and such temporary governments were established over them. They were established by the officers of our Army and Navy in command, in pursuance of the orders and instructions accompanying my message to the House of Representatives of December 22, 1846. In their form and detail, as at first established, they exceeded in some respects, as was stated in that message, the authority which had been given, and instructions for the correction of the error were issued in dispatches from the War and Navy Departments of the 11th of January, 1847, copies of which are herewith transmitted. They have been maintained and supported out of the military exactions and contributions levied upon the enemy, and no part of the expense has been paid out of the Treasury of the United States.
In the routine of duty some of the officers of the Army and Navy who first established temporary governments in California and New Mexico have been succeeded in command by other officers, upon whom light duties devolved; and the agents employed or designated by them to conduct the temporary governments have also, in some instances, been superseded by others. Such appointments for temporary civil duty during our military occupation were made by the officers in command in the conquered territories, respectively.
On the conclusion and exchange of ratifications of a treaty of peace with Mexico, which was proclaimed on the 4th instant, these temporary governments necessarily ceased to exist. In the instructions to establish a temporary government over New Mexico, no distinction was made between that and the other Provinces of Mexico which might be conquered and held in our military occupation.
The Province of New Mexico, according to its ancient boundaries, as claimed by Mexico, lies on both sides of the Rio Grande. That part of it on the east of that river was in dispute when the war between the United States and Mexico commenced. Texas, by a successful revolution in April, 1836, achieved, and subsequently maintained, her independence. By an act of the Congress of Texas passed in December, 1836, her western boundary was declared to be the Rio Grande from its mouth to its source, and thence due north to the forty-second degree of north latitude. Though the Republic of Texas, by many acts of sovereignty which she asserted and exercised, some of which were stated in my annual message of December, 1846, had established her clear title to the country west of the Nueces, and bordering upon that part of the Rio Grande which lies below the Province of New Mexico, she had never conquered or reduced to actual possession and brought under her Government and laws that part of New Mexico lying east of the Rio Grande, which she claimed to be within her limits. On the breaking out of the war we found Mexico in possession of this disputed territory. As our Army approached Sante Fe (the capital of New Mexico) it was found to be held by a governor under Mexican authority, with an armed force collected to resist our advance. The inhabitants were Mexicans, acknowledging allegiance to Mexico. The boundary in dispute was the line between the two countries engaged in actual war, and the settlement of it of necessity depended on a treaty of peace. Finding the Mexican authorities and people in possession, our forces conquered them, and extended military rule over them and the territory which they actually occupied, in lieu of the sovereignty which was displaced. It was not possible to disturb or change the practical boundary line in the midst of the war, when no negotiation for its adjustment could be opened, and when Texas was not present, by her constituted authorities, to establish and maintain government over a hostile Mexican population who acknowledged no allegiance to her. There was, therefore, no alternative left but to establish and maintain military rule during the war over the conquered people in the disputed territory who had submitted to our arms, or to forbear the exercise of our belligerent rights and leave them in a state of anarchy and without control.
Whether the country in dispute rightfully belonged to Mexico or to Texas, it was our right in the first case, and our duty as well as our right in the latter, to conquer and hold it. Whilst this territory was in our possession as conquerors, with a population hostile to the United States, which more than once broke out in open insurrection, it was our unquestionable duty to continue our military occupation of it until the conclusion of the war, and to establish over it a military government, necessary for our own security as well as for the protection of the conquered people.
By the joint resolution of Congress of March 1, 1845, “for annexing Texas to the United States,” the “adjustment of all questions of boundary which may arise with other governments” was reserved to this Government. When the conquest of New Mexico was consummated by our arms, the question of boundary remained still unadjusted. Until the exchange of the ratifications of the late treaty, New Mexico never became an undisputed portion of the United States, and it would therefore have been premature to deliver over to Texas that portion of it on the east side of the Rio Grande, to which she asserted a claim. However just the right of Texas may have been to it, that right had never been reduced into her possession, and it was contested by Mexico.
By the cession of the whole of New Mexico, on both sides of the Rio Grande, to the United States, the question of disputed boundary, so far as Mexico is concerned, has been settled, leaving the question as to the true limits of Texas in New Mexico to be adjusted between that State and the United States.
Under the circumstances existing during the pendency of the war, and while the whole of New Mexico, as claimed by our enemy, was in our military occupation, I was not unmindful of the rights of Texas to that portion of it which she claimed to be within her limits. In answer to a letter from the governor of Texas dated on the 4th of January, 1847, the Secretary of State, by my direction, informed him in a letter of the 12th of February, 1847, that in the President’s annual message of December, 1846–
You have already perceived that New Mexico is at present in the temporary occupation of the troops of the United States, and the government over it is military in its character. It is merely such a government as must exist under the laws of nations and of war to preserve order and protect the rights of the inhabitants, and will cease on the conclusion of a treaty of peace with Mexico. Nothing, therefore, can be more certain than that this temporary government, resulting from necessity, can never injuriously affect the right which the President believes to be justly asserted by Texas to the whole territory on this side of the Rio Grande whenever the Mexican claim to it shall have been extinguished by treaty. But this is a subject which more properly belongs to the legislative than the executive branch of the Government.
The result of the whole is that Texas had asserted a right to that part of New Mexico east of the Rio Grande, which is believed, under the acts of Congress for the annexation and admission of Texas into the Union as a State, and under the constitution and laws of Texas, to be well founded; but this right had never been reduced to her actual possession and occupancy. The General Government, possessing exclusively the war-making power, had the right to take military possession of this disputed territory, and until the title to it was perfected by a treaty of peace it was their duty to hold it and to establish a temporary military government over it for the preservation of the conquest itself, the safety of our Army, and the security of the conquered inhabitants.
The resolutions further request information whether any persons have been tried and condemned for “treason against the United States in that part of New Mexico lying east of the Rio Grande since the same has been in the occupancy of our Army,” and, if so, before “what tribunal” and “by what authority of law such tribunal was established.” It appears that after the territory in question was “in the occupancy of our Army” some of the conquered Mexican inhabitants, who had at first submitted to our authority, broke out in open insurrection, murdering our soldiers and citizens and committing other atrocious crimes. Some of the principal offenders who were apprehended were tried and condemned by a tribunal invested with civil and criminal jurisdiction, which had been established in the conquered country by the military officer in command. That the offenders deserved the punishment inflicted upon them there is no reason to doubt, and the error in the proceedings against them consisted in designating and describing their crimes as “treason against the United States.” This error was pointed out, and its recurrence thereby prevented, by the Secretary of War in a dispatch to the officer in command in New Mexico dated on the 26th of June, 1847, a copy of which, together with copies of all communications relating to the subject which have been received at the War Department, is herewith transmitted.
The resolutions call for information in relation to the quantity of the public lands acquired within the ceded territory, and “how much of the same is within the boundaries of Texas as defined by the act of the Congress of the Republic of Texas of the 19th day of December, 1836.” No means of making an accurate estimate on the subject is in the possession of the executive department. The information which is possessed will be found in the accompanying report of the Secretary of the Treasury.
The country ceded to the United States lying west of the Rio Grande, and to which Texas has no title, is estimated by the commissioner of the General Land Office to contain 526,078 square miles, or 336,689,920 acres.
The period since the exchange of ratifications of the treaty has been too short to enable the Government to have access to or to procure abstracts or copies of the land titles issued by Spain or by the Republic of Mexico. Steps will be taken to procure this information at the earliest practicable period. It is estimated, as appears from the accompanying report of the Secretary of the Treasury, that much the larger portion of the land within the territories ceded remains vacant and unappropriated, and will be subject to be disposed of by the United States. Indeed, a very inconsiderable portion of the land embraced in the cession, it is believed, has been disposed of or granted either by Spain or Mexico.
What amount of money the United States may be able to realize from the sales of these vacant lands must be uncertain, but it is confidently believed that with prudent management, after making liberal grants to emigrants and settlers, it will exceed the cost of the war and all the expenses to which we have been subjected in acquiring it.
The resolutions also call for “the evidence, or any part thereof, that the ‘extensive and valuable territories ceded by Mexico to the United States constitute indemnity for the past.”‘
The immense value of the ceded country does not consist alone in the amount of money for which the public lands may be sold. If not a dollar could be realized from the sale of these lands, the cession of the jurisdiction over the country and the fact that it has become a part of our Union and can not be made subject to any European power constitute ample “indemnity for the past” in the immense value and advantages which its acquisition must give to the commercial, navigating, manufacturing, and agricultural interests of our country.
The value of the public lands embraced within the limits of the ceded territory, great as that value may be, is far less important to the people of the United States than the sovereignty over the country. Most of our States contain no public lands owned by the United States, and yet the sovereignty and jurisdiction over them is of incalculable importance to the nation. In the State of New York the United States is the owner of no public lands, and yet two-thirds of our whole revenue is collected at the great port of that State, and within her limits is found about one-seventh of our entire population. Although none of the future cities on our coast of California may ever rival the city of New York in wealth, population, and business, yet that important cities will grow up on the magnificent harbors of that coast, with a rapidly increasing commerce and population, and yielding a large revenue, would seem to be certain. By the possession of the safe and capacious harbors on the Californian coast we shall have great advantages in securing the rich commerce of the East, and shall thus obtain for our products new and increased markets and greatly enlarge our coasting and foreign trade, as well as augment our tonnage and revenue.
These great advantages, far more than the simple value of the public lands in the ceded territory, “constitute our indemnity for the past.”