Inside the Capitol

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Blood and Thunder

WED, 5/02/07


      "Blood and Thunder," Santa Fean Hampton Sides' newest book, is the best account of our nation's Westward expansion I've read.

Naturally, I like to promote New Mexico authors but I especially like books that primarily are about New Mexico. This one focuses on our state's all-important role in the "manifest destiny" of the United States to extend its borders to the Pacific.

Manifest Destiny was a belief in the 1840s, that Americans are the chosen people to take over this continent, if not a lot more. Its chief architect was President James K. Polk, who devoted his term to achieving the goal. Its most vocal apostle was Missouri Sen. Thomas Benton, whose name became familiar to New Mexicans a generation later.

And the person possibly most responsible for carrying out our nation's goal was Kit Carson, of Taos. He helped blaze just about every trail to the West. He guided Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny from New Mexico to take California. He helped put down the Texas Confederacy's attempt to conquer New Mexico. And he put down numerous Indian uprisings, including rounding up the Navajos for their "Long Walk" to Bosque Redondo, at Fort Sumner.

Since Carson is involved in nearly every episode of the story, the book appears to be about him. The title "Blood and Thunder" is a description for the dime novels that became popular telling of his adventures. But just as those novels had little to do with Carson's actual adventures, "Blood and Thunder" is not his biography.

Blood and Thunder is about America's beliefs about itself. Those beliefs have gotten us into a number of very painful miscalculations, which Sides expertly describes. Americans are an aggressive people. We hewed out a frontier and then kept going, not caring who might be in our way.

We believe we have found the answers to life and we want to extend that knowledge to everyone in the naive belief that they will all love us for it.

When Kearny took Santa Fe, not a shot was fired. He interpreted that to mean New Mexicans were totally fed up with their corrupt and disinterested government in faraway Mexico City. What a relief to be saved by these people from the East.

Kearny and the U.S. government meant to be saviors. They promised to govern openly and fairly. They reduced taxes and drew up a governing code that was the model of progressivism. Kearny conducted open office hours and was accessible to everyone.

He cleaned up the city and promised to protect all citizens from Indian attacks. He met with pueblos and tribes from throughout the state and pledged cooperation if they would desist from attacks.

Kearny's orders were to move on to California as soon as there appeared to be no possibility of revolt in New Mexico. A month later, he headed on, not understanding that it was the superior forces he took with him, and a suspected bribe to Mexican Gov. Manuel Armijo that had done the trick.

It took little time for the rebellion to begin taking shape. The happy natives weren't nearly as happy as their conquerors assumed. Despite their poor treatment by the Mexican government, they still thought of themselves as part of that country.

The invading Americans were a totally different people. They said they would respect the Catholic Church but they also said they would separate church and state. To the New Mexicans, that was a godless idea. And what about this different language the Americans spoke? Would they be forced to learn English? It looked like they were in for a whole new world.

The rebellion came four months after Kearny left. It didn't last long, but it delivered the message that not all the world is anxious to greet us as their saviors no matter how bad their plight.

The lesson was learned again in California, and with the Indians. And we continue to relearn it.


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