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  • The Unpredictable America of William GwinExpansion, Secession, and the Unstable Borders of Nineteenth-Century North America
  • Rachel St. John (bio)

In 1865, while the United States struggled to reconstruct itself, war raged in Mexico between invading French forces supporting Emperor Maximilian and partisans of Benito Juárez’s republican government. The uncertain futures of the United States and Mexico underscored the instability of the boundaries that the two nations had drawn across North America in the preceding decades. While this impermanence was a source of anxiety for officials in Washington, D.C., Mexico City, and Paso del Norte (the city from which the Juárez government operated), for others it was an opportunity. Among those opportunists was a former California senator named William McKendree Gwin.

Gwin, a Tennessee native who had amassed wealth in Mississippi and political success in California and Washington, D.C., spent the summer of 1865 in Mexico City, where he worked to secure military backing for a mining colony in northern Mexico. His activities drew the attention of Matías Romero, the Juárez government’s minister to the United States. Writing to U.S. secretary of state William Seward in July 1865, Romero claimed that Gwin was working with French emperor Napoleon III to “take to the frontier of Mexico all the discontented citizens of the United States living in the south, with the design of organizing them there under the protection and with the assistance of France.”1 This plan echoed earlier efforts to colonize Americans in Texas and Sonora, neither of which, from the Mexican perspective, had ended well. Moreover, in the context of the French occupation of Mexico and the U.S. Civil War, it raised warning flags as a threat to the Juárez government and a possible refuge for unrepentant Confederates.

Although this scheme sounds harebrained in hindsight, at this moment in which Mexico and the United States were both fragile, it touched on insecurities about the weakness of national identities, boundaries, and loyalties. Sharing Romero’s concern, Seward concluded that Gwin was “disloyal,” his actions “injurious” to the reconstituted Union.2 [End Page 56] When Gwin returned to the United States later that year, federal officials arrested him.

To Gwin, however, this scheme was neither treasonous nor far-fetched.3 On the contrary, it was in line with the work he had done throughout his life. As a young man, Gwin had moved from Tennessee to Mississippi—where he had helped distribute land, from which the U.S. government had forcibly removed Choctaws and Chickasaws, to white speculators and settlers (including himself). He had also speculated in land in Texas and advocated for its annexation by the United States. With the discovery of gold in 1848, he relocated to California, where he became one of the state’s first senators. Over his almost decade-long career in the Senate, he promoted settlement and economic development in California, worked to annex additional territory to the United States, and defended the rights of Americans to settle and seize power throughout the western hemisphere.4 While Seward and Romero viewed Gwin’s plan for a colony of Americans within a French-backed Mexican imperial government as a challenge to the sovereignty of the nations they served, for Gwin this scheme was simply a variation on a theme in which he could help Americans disperse across the continent and put its resources to economic use, and become rich and powerful in the process.

In the nineteenth-century North America in which Gwin lived and achieved political and economic success, territorial boundaries were impermanent; national loyalties were conditional; and many alternative configurations of land, power, and people seemed possible. From his first speculative ventures in Mississippi through his Mexican scheme and on to the end of his life, Gwin was an archetype of the entrepreneurial state- and nation-builder who viewed the map of North America as malleable and sought to reshape it. Gwin belongs to a historical cast of characters that includes Aaron Burr, who, after serving as U.S. vice president, was tried for treason for scheming to separate the western territories from the Union; Stephen F. Austin, the Texas empresario...


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