U.S. Mexico War: “We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God”

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.

Time Periods: 19th Century, Early 19th Century: 1800 - 1849
Themes: Imperialism, Latino, Slavery, US Foreign Policy, Wars & Related Anti-War Movements

U.S. Mexico War: “We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God” (Teaching Activity) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryToday’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, Chiricahua Apache leader
  • Colonel Ethan Allen Hitchcock, commander of the 3rd Infantry Regiment
  • Congressman Abraham Lincoln, Whig Party, Illinois
  • Doña Francesca Vallejo
  • Francisco Márquez, Mexican Cadet
  • Frederick Douglass
  • General Mariano Vallejo
  • General Stephen Kearny
  • Henry David Thoreau
  • Jefferson Davis, plantation owner, Mississippi
  • María Josefa Martínez, Santa Fe, New Mexico
  • Padre Antonio José Martínez
  • President James K. Polk
  • Reverend Theodore Parker
  • Sgt. John Riley San Patricio Battalion, Formerly U.S. Army
  • William Lloyd Garrison , Founder, American Anti-Slavery Society and
  • Wotoki, Miwok Indian, California.

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.

Teacher Quotes

I teach at an inner city school, an incredibly diverse school. The lesson on the Mexican American War and the role play are incredibly effective in helping students understand the role of racial bias in the history of U.S. Foreign Policy.

Students really appreciate the opportunity to read and reflect on Zinn's chapter, and appreciate different points of view about the war during the role play. My Latino students appreciate the approach, one that all too often in their education has not received the attention it deserves. This lesson took on new forms and even greater importance at our school, with the organization of a Hispanic Union, and it informed our celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month and current events, like the debate on immigration policy.

Many of my 12th grade students today in Government class still look back to this lesson as a foundational moment in their learning about the history of US/Mexico relations. (They) see that the border issue today has a much longer history and wider context than they originally may have realized.
—Edward Zupcic
High School Social Studies, Portland, Oregon

I dedicate a unit to westward expansion, and using the U.S.-Mexico War Tea Party activity has given students many perspectives on the war.

They enjoy this lesson in particular because they are able to interact with one another and teach in turn their assigned perspectives. I find that they walk away from this activity knowledgeable and excited to learn about the impact of the war.
—Justine Treviño
High School Social Sciences Teacher, Riverside, Illinois

I received the Zinn Education Project materials and I immediately flipped through the book and taught the U.S. - Mexico War lesson. It was so wonderful to see a group of usually unmotivated students engaged in the lesson that I called in another teacher to see this group of students actively involved in the activity.
—Sarah Treworgy
Middle Social Studies Teacher, Lynnwood, Washington

Suzanne Arthur
I use lessons from the Zinn Education Project because they are relevant, factual, and inspiring. Lessons like The U.S. - Mexico War shed light on aspects of our shared American heritage that are often overlooked. These lessons give a voice to great Americans who are too often forgotten.

Even though my students don't quite understand it yet, I can see that a close examination of people's history empowers my students to use their own voices.
—Suzanne Arthur
High Social Studies Teacher, Salt Lake City, Utah

Lesson originally published by Rethinking Schools | Zinn Education Project


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.