Entirely apart from the consideration just discussed is the portentous probability that, if things had gone on much longer as they were then going, an independent polygamous state would have developed on our very borders.
But the alternative of a permanent independent status is, after all, inadmissible. While it may be accepted as certain that independence of the coast country would promptly have followed the discovery of gold in California, it is equally certain that independent would have been followed by an effort to annex the territory to the United States, just as had been the case with Texas. There might have been other Alamos and San Jacintos, other Austins and Houstons and Davy Crocketts. There would certainly have been the same almost endless negotiations and congressional debates, very likely a war with Mexico, and probably also a Mormon war. With infinitely more trouble and vexation, and doubtless with greater loss of life, the inevitable result would sooner or later have come about.
Such is our speculation as to the course of events in this territory if we had ‘not obtained it at all,’ or rather if we had given up trying to obtain it direct when we failed to obtain it by purchase. Let us now examine the ethical aspects of the course pursued by the United States, particularly as it relates to Mexico.
In the first place, did Mexico suffer any real wrong by the forced transfer of this territory? and was her attitude in refusing to part with it morally justifiable? Throughout the entire region, nominally under her sovereignty, she exercised almost no authority. Her colonization of it had been insignificant, and future settlement was certain to come mainly from the United States She had not a solitary material interest to compare with those of this country. The compensation offered her would more than liquidate any possible damage, — far more, considering the almost certain loss of the territory through rebellion, with no indemnity but with heavy military outlay. Every consideration of material advantage counseled acceptance of the offer of the United States. The policy of Mexico is insisting upon retention of sovereignty in opposition to the natural trend of events and the undoubted good of all concerned in the future of the country, placed her in the attitude of blocking the pathway of progress for sentimental considerations only. As for justice, in a broad humanitarian sense, it was Mexico that failed in its exercise. The action of the United States was prompted, not by lust of territory, but by the fulfillment of a duty to civilization; that of Mexico, by lust of territory alone.
Technically, however, Mexico was strictly within her rights, and this fact presents a perplexing problem in international ethics. Here were a major and a minor right, the one embracing vital interests of the world at large, the other purely technical and of relatively insignificant importance. It was for the good of civilization that the major right prevail, for the two could not subsist together; yet the agency which enabled it to prevail is indicted before the bar of history for having wronged the holder of the minor right. How is this? The paradox is evidently an outgrowth of that social institution known as title, — title in land, particularly, —which gives to the holder thereof possession against all comers of that portion of the earth’s surface to which it pertains. To the private individual this right becomes a property in the soil which may be bought and sold; to the state it is in the nature of an exclusive jurisdiction. It matters not how the title was obtained; once recognized as legal, it becomes inviolable. With certain specific exceptions, transfer of possession can be accomplished only by the free consent of the owner—as the holder of the title is called. ‘Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?’ Lawful, yes; that is, in strict conformity with the letter of the law. It is nevertheless a technical right which may, and often does, work grave injustice. It is a constant experience that tile stands in the pathway of important development; yet the holder refuses to recede—sometimes, possibly, for fear of injustice, generally as a leverage to pecuniary extortion, not infrequently from motives of jealousy or spite, almost never from an unselfish consideration of the merits of the case. So great is the possibility of evil in this right that society has placed a limited restraint upon its exercise as between private owners and public bodies. This is the power of eminent domain. It does not, however, obtain between private individuals and organizations, or, of course, between sovereign states.