Conflict Resolution and History:
The War with Mexico as a Case Study


Arlene L. Gardner and John W. Chambers

What do history and fighting with your brother or sister have in common? Conflict. Looking at the history of national interactions over the centuries, we see a recurrence of conflicts frequently leading to wars that cost dearly in terms of lives, property, the environment, and the well-being of society. Although conflicts are an unavoidable part of personal and national life, we can learn how to deal with them constructively and nonviolently.

The Conflict Resolution in History project provides students in grades 5-12 with practical skills for resolving conflicts in their daily lives. In addition, it helps students understand the complexity of historical events and appreciate that history is not always an inevitable flow of events but rather a series of choices made by individuals and groups. The project promotes its work through teacher institutes and the development of lesson plans and related materials.1 Social studies teachers learn to integrate conflict resolution skills and American history in the same lesson.


Teacher Institutes

To date, more than two hundred teachers from schools in eight states have participated in intensive twenty- to twenty-five-hour teacher institutes, at which teachers practice and analyze techniques for dealing with conflicts and then apply their skills to historical conflicts. We teach conflict resolution skills, role-playing techniques, and historical content to teachers in the same way that teachers would teach the skills in the classroom. They learn about negotiations, which involve communications between two or more disputants for the purpose of reaching a resolution to a conflict, and mediation, which involve communications between two or more disputants to resolve a conflict with the help of a mediator, a disinterested third party. The teachers apply these skills first to everyday conflicts and then to specific conflicts in American history. They also discuss how to teach, analyze, and assess these strategies in the context of a history lesson for students in a middle or high school classroom.

What happens in the classroom? To begin, teachers guide the students through a discussion of the typical sources of and responses to conflict. Next, they introduce the students to principled or interest-based negotiations. The students practice negotiation and mediation skills to address hypothetical everyday conflicts. Then they apply these skills to specific conflicts in American history. The teacher assigns students to play the roles of specific historical figures or to be observers. The class reviews the relevant historical period—the events, people, issues, and other factors that led to the conflict. The teacher then helps the students define the real interests of the individuals or groups, sometimes in contrast to their stated positions.

Now the class is ready to conduct a mock negotiation, mediation, legislative lobbying and debate, or another interactive historical role-playing activity. In most cases, several groups of students try to resolve the same historical conflict simultaneously, and they are likely to come up with a variety of solutions. The observers in each group take notes on the process and results of the negotiation or mediation. After the activity, the teacher, with the help of the observers, discusses what happened in each group and why, focusing on the process, the use of conflict resolution skills, and the degree of historical accuracy. The class reviews what actually happened in history and compares the results with the role-playing activity. This debriefing enables students to understand more fully the historical conflict and the limitations that circumscribed it, as well as to appreciate the value and difficulties of using conflict resolution techniques.

The following sample lesson examines the war between the United States and Mexico in 1846 as a case study for conflict resolution.

Could the War Between Mexico and the United States in 1846Have Been Avoided through Negotiation or Mediation?

Lesson Objectives

By the end of the lesson, students should be able to


Steps in Negotiation

Students must learn some negotiating skills before they can apply them to historical conflicts. At a minimum, teachers and students should discuss the following steps in negotiations.

Students practice these steps with hypothetical, everyday conflicts, such as what to do about noisy neighbors or inconsiderate roommates or how to solve disputes between landlords and tenants or customers and store owners. Once the students have mastered these communication skills, they are ready to try to negotiate—taking on the roles, for example, of U.S. commissioner John Slidell or Mexican foreign minister Manuel de la Peña y Peña.


Historical Background

Before doing the role play, provide a historical summary (such as the following) and a map for students to review as homework.

The seeds for conflict between the United States and Mexico were planted before Mexico even became an independent nation. In 1819, a Spanish government weakened by the Napoleonic wars and revolts by its colonies reluctantly signed the Adams-Onís Treaty with the United States. The treaty required Spain to cede Florida in return for the U.S. assumption of $5 million in damage claims by U.S. citizens against Spain. It also set the western boundary of the Louisiana Purchase as the line running northwesterly from the mouth of the Sabine River. In 1821, after a decade of armed struggle, Mexico obtained independence from Spain. Mexico continued the Spanish practice of encouraging North Americans to settle the sparsely populated area in its northern provinces. Most of the settlers moving to the province of Texas were slave holders seeking the fertile soil along the Gulf Coast to grow cotton. Although the settlers were required by law to become Roman Catholic and Mexican citizens, most of the settlers from the United States were Protestant and thought of themselves as North Americans. By 1830, the North American population in Texas was twice as large as the Mexican population.

Soon after Mexican independence, the United States offered to purchase the Texas territory from Mexico. Mexico rejected the offer. Concerned about the growing number of Anglo-Americans in Texas, the Mexican government abolished slavery in 1829 in an attempt to discourage further immigration. Local authorities did not enforce the decree until 1834, however, when General Antonio López de Santa Anna seized power in Mexico City and attempted to tighten the central government’s control over the outlying provinces. The Anglos in Texas regarded this as a violation of their rights under the 1824 Mexican Constitution. Skirmishes began in 1835 between Texans and local Mexican soldiers. The Anglos in Texas set up a provisional government and their own army.

To suppress this insurgency, Santa Anna led a Mexican army of five thousand into Texas in 1836 and killed the two hundred Texans defending the old Alamo mission in San Antonio. The slaughter infuriated many North Americans. Joined by hundreds of volunteers, the Texan army defeated the Mexicans at San Jacinto, captured Santa Anna, and extracted a treaty that recognized the independence of Texas, with the Rio Grande rather than the traditional border of the Nueces River as the southwestern border. Mexico immediately repudiated this agreement. Texas almost immediately sought annexation to the United States; however, annexation was problematic because of northern opposition to the expansion of slavery.

Meanwhile, other issues heightened tensions between the United States and Mexico. The claims that U.S. nationals had against the Mexican government for injuries or loss of property dating back to the 1820s remained unpaid. In 1840, an international claims commission settled the disagreement by requiring Mexico to pay approximately $2 million of claims. Mexico started to make payments, but the country’s fiscal problems forced the government to halt payments in 1842. Mexican forays into Texas and the harsh treatment of Texan prisoners captured in border raids created additional friction. Mexican fears of U.S. expansionism were fueled by public support for annexation and growth that dominated the North American press during the presidential campaign of 1844.

Amid growing international strain and deep internal fragmentation and instability, José Joaquin de Herrera became president of Mexico in early 1845. Prodded by Britain and France, he recognized the independence of Texas in an effort to prevent U.S. annexation by stipulating that it remain independent. But it was too late: Just before leaving office, U.S. President John Tyler, playing on fears that the British might seize Texas, obtained approval of an annexation treaty through a joint resolution (simple majority) of both houses in January/February 1845. Mexico broke off diplomatic relations with the United States but did not take military action. Newly installed U.S. President Polk, who had campaigned as an ardent expansionist, compounded Mexico’s distrust of the United States by supporting the Texas claim to the Rio Grande as its border. In an effort to salvage national pride, President Herrera sent a confidential note to the U.S. government in August 1845 indicating that he was willing to negotiate the Texas boundary. In October 1845, President Polk sent John Slidell on a secret mission to Mexico with instructions to negotiate the Texas boundary issues and the outstanding claims against Mexico by U.S. citizens and to offer $15-40 million for the purchase of the sparsely settled northern Mexican states of California and New Mexico. Polk wanted California for its ports to the Far East and to complete U.S. expansion from coast to coast.

It is December 1845. U.S. commissioner John Slidell arrives in Mexico and is greeted by Mexican Foreign Minister Manuel de la Peña y Peña. The two sit down to negotiate a resolution to the growing hostility between their two countries.


Assign the Roles

After dividing the class into groups of three or four, assign the following roles:


Interests and Positions

Guide your students through a discussion of the stated positions of the United States and Mexico and the real or underlying interests or concerns of each. What is causing them to take these positions?

The underlying interests or concerns of Mexico include


The underlying interests or concerns of the United States include


The Role-Playing Activity

In groups of three (Peña y Peña, Slidell, and an observer) or four (add a mediator), students try to resolve this conflict. Their tools include a map of Texas with the proposed boundaries at the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers, the summary of the underlying concerns and interests, and the steps of negotiation or mediation. The students playing the roles of Peña y Peña and Slidell should try to stay in their historical characters, but they should also try to use conflict resolution skills beyond what the original politicians may have been willing or able to use. The activity may take as little as fifteen minutes, but we recommend forty-five minutes. If students are prepared, the additional time will lead to richer discussion.


Evaluating the Simulation

After the allotted time, the students return to their regular seats. The teacher asks the observers about the negotiation process. To what extent did the parties

The teacher then asks the observers about the results of the negotiations or mediations in each group. Were the negotiators able to come to an agreement? Were they close to an agreement? What issues or factors kept them from agreeing?

The teacher notes the similarities and differences, both in the process and the results, among the groups. Some groups will play their roles close to historical reality and may not be able to come to an agreement. Other groups will seriously apply the conflict resolution skills and come to an agreement that may not have been possible during this historical time. The tension between staying true to historical roles and using conflict resolution skills is where the real learning occurs. It enables students to better understand the historical limitations of the situation and appreciate the value of conflict resolution.


What Really Happened?

After reviewing the negotiation or mediation process and results in each group, the teacher provides a summary of what actually happened.

When John Slidell reached Mexico City in early December 1845, the full nature of his secret mission had already become known publicly, and President Herrera was too vulnerable to public outcry by the Mexican press to receive him. Herrera was overthrown by General Paredes, a favorite of the conservatives. John Slidell returned home. In January 1846, President Polk ordered General Taylor to occupy the disputed Texas territory, and the two countries entered a war that they each called “defensive.”

The fighting ended two years later with the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo. Mexico ceded California and New Mexico (which included the present states of Arizona, Nevada, California, Utah, and parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming) to the United States and confirmed the annexation of Texas with the border at the Rio Grande. The United States paid $15 million for California and New Mexico and assumed adjusted claims of $3 million by American citizens against the Mexican government. The United States agreed that the Mexicans living in Texas could continue to reside there and would be secure in their land and their religion, a provision that was deleted by the U.S. Senate.

The costs of war were great.

Compare the results of the negotiations or mediations in each group with what actually happened.


Questions for Discussion

Pose the following questions for the class to discuss as a whole, in small groups, or as homework.

1. Would it have been historically realistic for Mexico to have accepted a settlement to the dispute with the United States without having been forced by armed conflict and internal strife? Would Mexico’s national pride have permitted a settlement without violence?

2. Could Mexico and the United States have accepted a resolution that acknowledged the annexation of Texas by the United States, but with the southwestern boundary as the Nueces rather than the Rio Grande River?

3. How did the institution of slavery influence the concerns of each party?



1. The Conflict Resolution in History project and the teacher institutes are the work of a collaborative effort by the Center for Historical Analysis at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, the New Jersey Center for Civic and Law-Related Education at Seton Hall University, and numerous public and private schools. The project, started in 1994 as Peaceful Resolutions to Conflict in a Multicultural Society, is funded by the Ford Foundation.


References on the Mexican War

Bauer, Jack K. The Mexican War, 1846-48. New York: Macmillan, 1974.

Brack, Gene M. Mexico Views Manifest Destiny, 1821-1846: Essays on the Origin of the Mexican War. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1975.

Eisenhower, John S. D. So Far from God: The U.S. War with Mexico, 1846-48. New York: Random House, 1989.

Johannsen, Robert W. To the Halls of the Montezuma: The Mexican War in the American Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Jones, Oakah L. Santa Anna. New York: Twayne, 1968.

Meyer, Michael C., and William L. Sherman. The Course of Mexican History. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Pletcher, David M. The Diplomacy of Annexation: Texas, Oregon, and the Mexican War. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1973.

Robinson, Cecil, ed. The View from Chapultepec: Mexican Writers on the Mexican-American War. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1989.

Ruiz, Ramon Eduardo, ed. The Mexican War: Was It Manifest Destiny? New York: Holt Rinehart & Winston, 1963.

Santoni, Pedro. Mexicans at Arms: Puro Federalists and the Politics of War, 1845-1848. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1996.

Schroder, John H. Mr. Polk’s War: American Opposition and Dissent, 1846-48. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973.

Vazquez, Josefina Zoraida, and Lorenzo Meyer. The United States and Mexico. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.


References on Conflict Resolution

Fisher, Roger, William Ury, and Bruce Patton. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In. 2d ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.

Johnson, D.W., and R. Johnson. Teaching Students to be Peacemakers. Edina: Interaction Book Co., 1991.

Lantieri, Linda, and Janet Patti. Waging Peace in Our Schools. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1997.

Zimmer, Judith A. We Can Work It Out! Problem Solving through Mediation. Culver City: Social Studies School Service, 1993.


Arlene L. Gardner is codirector of the Conflict Resolution in History project and director of the New Jersey Center for Civic and Law-Related Education at Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey.
John W. Chambers, codirector of the project, is a professor of history at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, New Jersey.


Teacher Institutes and Curriculum Package


Teacher Institutes on Conflict Resolution in History are now being conducted across the country, including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. A curriculum package is planned for the end of 2002, including a Reader of Case Studies of Selected Conflicts in American History for secondary school students, a Teacher’s Guide, a videotape, and a CD-ROM.

The reader will include information and activities for students about conflict resolution and background materials for studying selected historical conflicts and questions for discussion. The Teacher’s Guide will include explanations of conflict resolution skills and role playing as a teaching methodology, as well as outcomes, assessments, and areas for further exploration. The thirty-minute videotape, for teachers to use with their students, will show a class at various points in a historical role-playing activity. The multimedia curriculum package will be rounded out with a CD-ROM, which will include visual aids, maps, primary documents, and links to additional resources on each historical conflict.

The twenty topics that we plan to cover in the lessons are


For additional information about teacher institutes or lesson plan materials, contact Arlene Gardner at (973) 761-9093 or visit


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BOX B: Results of a Preliminary Program Evaluation

The preliminary evaluation of the Conflict Resolution in History project included comments by teachers at follow-up seminars, responses by students to seven questions on a student questionnaire, and anonymous responses to thirty-one questions by teachers who participated in the first four years of summer institutes (1994, 1995, 1997, and 1998). How did the teachers respond?


97 percent said that they continue to use lessons presented at the summer institute (two to five years after the summer institute).

89 percent agreed or strongly agreed that “my students can identify causes of conflict.”

80 percent agreed or strongly agreed that “my students recognize that history is not an inevitable flow of events.”

87 percent agreed or strongly agreed that “my students gain a richer understanding of history.”

77 percent agreed or strongly agreed that “my students appear to be enjoying the study of history more.”

75 percent agreed or strongly agreed that “my teaching has become more effective.”