Opposition to the Mexican-American War offers students a look at Manifest Destiny in a new light. Textbook explanations can be analyzed in terms of opposing viewpoints. Students can assess foreign policy issues on moral, political, and historical terms. Fairly early in their study of U.S. history, they acquire a model for thinking of other wars and critical policy choices.


Students are asked to analyze Manifest Destiny and the Mexican War using a series of primary sources. High school teachers find it challenging to develop materials that are sophisticated enough for their students but not too difficult in reading comprehension. Thus, the documents included in this lesson plan have been edited to make them understandable and workable for students, who can examine their own and others' biases, interpretations, and understanding. This case of opposition to U.S. foreign policy introduces a way of thinking about patriotism and political realities, individual responsibilities and national interest.

Connections to the Curriculum

The set of lessons can be used when covering Westward Expansion, Manifest Destiny, and the Mexican War. This period in history can be relevant to a larger understanding of the nature of war, ideology (e.g. racism), and individual responsibility in society.

Time Period

Approximately three to five class periods, depending on adaptation

Grade Level

Grades 9-12, but can easily be adapted for middle school level

  • Map reading
  • Critical thinking and analysis of primary sources
  • Oral presentation
  • Essay writing


Day One

The Where, What and Why of the Mexican War
Assign students the section in their textbooks on Manifest Destiny and the Mexican-American War.

1. Have them identify and describe the theme of Manifest Destiny and the controversy surrounding the causes of the war. Locate the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers on a map of Texas. Ask them how the Mexican War is portrayed in their textbook. What was Polk's role? What about the outcome of the war?

2. Given what they know from the textbook discussion, are they at this time in a position to make a value judgment on U.S. foreign policy decisions?

Days Two and Three

Assign the documents included in the lesson plan. Students could be selected to deliver the passages to class. Either individually or in small groups, students should answer the questions at the end of each document.

Days Four and Five

Have the students present their answers, conclusions, and insights to the questions asked.


Ask students to write an essay on how they might rewrite their textbook in order to include some of the insights into Manifest Destiny and the Mexican War that they have discovered. Ask students to discuss the role of individuals in taking responsibility for government policy they may disagree with.

(An 1847 cartoon entitled "Plucked" portrays "The Mexican eagle" before and after war with the United States.)


Paterson, Thomas G., ed. Major Problems in American Foreign Policy: Documents and Essays, vol. I, Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 1984 (2d ed). chapter 8.

Ramirez, Jose Fernando. Mexico During the War with the United States. ed. Walter V. Scholes, trans. Elliott B. Scherr. University of Missouri Studies, vol. 23, no. 1, Columbia: University of Missouri, 1950. pp. 120-26.

Robinson, Donald W., ed. As Others See Us: International Views of American History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969. pp. 69-79.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden or, Life in the Woods and On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1854 (1961 ed).

Patricia Kaufman teaches American History and
Government at Talawanda High School in Oxford,
Ohio. She holds a M.A. in U.S. history and environmental
science. She recently was awarded the National
Endowment for the Humanities and DeWitt
Wallace-Reader's Digest Teacher-School
Fellowship for an academic year of independent study.

OAH – Magazine of History ~ Spring 1994