Start-up Country

I’ve been taking a world history class on Coursera, and I was surprised to learn that around 1100 AD, one of the largest cities in the world was located in what is now the United States. It’s in Illinois, and is known as Cahokia Mounds.

From the Cahokia Mounds official website:

A Thriving Ancient Metropolis
According to archaeological finds, the city of Cahokia was inhabited from about A.D. 700 to 1400. At its peak, from A.D. 1050 to 1200, the city covered nearly six square miles and 10,000 to 20,000 people lived here. Over 120 mounds were built over time, and most of the mounds were enlarged several times. Houses were arranged in rows and around open plazas, and vast agricultural fields lay outside the city.

The site is named for the Cahokia subtribe of the Illiniwek (or Illinois tribe, a loose confederacy of related peoples), who moved into the area in the 1600s. They were living nearby when the French arrived about 1699. Sometime in the mid-1800s, local historians suggested the site be called “Cahokia” to honor these later arrivals.

After 1200 AD, the population gradually declined.

Drawing envisioning 12th-century Cahokia Mounds. Credit: National Geographic

By the time European explorers arrived on the North American continent, Cahokia’s population had dwindled to a few small villages.

Meanwhile, in 1519 the powerful Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, today’s Mexico City, had a population somewhere above 200,000 people, making it larger than any contemporary city in Europe. (London, by comparison, had about 100,000 inhabitants.) Tenochtitlan was more advanced than any city in Europe, as well, boasting indoor plumbing for the wealthy and a municipal sewage system that involved pipes and toilets instead of throwing waste out of a window into the street. Tenochtitlan had palaces and zoos and a botanical garden. It was beautiful.

The first time I visited Mexico City, I had the privilege of touring the ruins of Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor (Main Temple), which are buried under the Zócalo, the plaza in Mexico City’s center. The ruins are not as impressive as those of Teotihuacán, a site which remains intact, but the city itself must have been an astonishing sight to the Spaniards.

Model of Tenochtitlan

Model of Tenochtitlan. Credit: Wikimedia

How did Hernán Cortés and his few hundred Spanish soldiers capture this great Aztec city, capital of the Mexica empire since 1325 — a city surrounded by water and inhabited by a well-armed citizenry that had fought off rival tribes for nearly 200 years?

Smallpox was the Spaniards’ biggest ally. Within three years of the arrival of the Spanish, Tenochtitlan’s population plummeted to somewhere in the 30,000-person range as five out of six Aztecs died from disease. (In return, the Aztecs gave syphilis to the conquistadors. That disease spread all over Europe in just a few years but killed a much smaller percentage of sufferers.)

Cortés also made alliances with the Aztecs’ native enemies — especially the Tlaxcala — and the combined forces of thousands of natives and a few hundred Spaniards with guns and horses took down the great city in 1521, only two years after Cortés’ arrival.

The conquerors inherited an Aztec government that was entrenched, functional, and familiar to the citizens of Tenochtitlan, so it made sense to keep it running. The Spanish simply lopped off the top layer of rulers and nobility and inserted themselves as the new rulers and nobles. (They did the same with the great Inca civilization, killing the last Incan leader, Tupac Amaru, in 1572.) With the Spaniards in control, Tenochtitlan morphed into Mexico City. That city has been continuously inhabited to present day — almost 700 years since its founding — and has a current population of nearly 9 million people.


In 1519, the same year that Cortés arrived at Tenochtitlan, other Spanish conquistadors arrived in Texas. While many native tribes lived in Texas at that point, they lived in small villages and had no large, centralized government. Over time, the French and the Spanish tried to build colonies in Texas, but constant warfare with the Apaches, Comanches, and other tribes left them mostly unsuccessful.

After Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, Texas became a part of Mexico. The 2,500 or so colonists dispersed across Texas were required to report to Mexico City — more than 800 miles south of San Antonio — to get government decisions and to pay taxes. (This had also been the case under the Spanish government.) The distance made getting military assistance or getting any government decisions on contested matters extraordinarily difficult.

An enterprising young American named Stephen F. Austin traveled to Mexico City and procured a large land grant from the Mexican government that would allow him to colonize central Texas with immigrants from the neighboring United States. Within a few years, Americans would outnumber Mexican citizens in Texas by nearly 4 to 1. After Mexican president Anastasio Bustamante outlawed further American immigration to Texas and sent soldiers north to seize property, the Texians revolted. The Republic of Texas won independence from Mexico in 1836, just 15 years after Mexico had won its independence from Spain.

Nine years later, Texas joined the United States, and Austin became its capital and the seat of state government. It would be 1962 before Austin’s population would hit the 200,000 mark — the conservative estimate of Tenochtitlan’s 1519 population.


What’s the point of this history lesson? It got me thinking about the role that an inflexible, distant, centralized government plays in a nation’s development. What if that government is too entrenched to be adaptive to change?

Outside of Tenochtitlan, the continent of North America had no large, entrenched government when Cortés arrived in central Mexico in 1519.


The Spanish had been early innovators, colonizing the Canary Islands by the 1400’s and growing lucrative sugar cane on large plantations. At the end of the 15th century, the rulers of the Spanish kingdoms of Aragon and Castille took a flier on a persuasive, but misinformed, explorer who insisted that the world was 8,000 miles smaller in circumference than it really was. Ferdinand and Isabella outfitted Christopher Columbus to find a western route to India, and inadvertently set off an immigration boom to the New World.

On the east coast of North America, the English were able to establish successful colonies. But England had the disadvantage of ruling from across the Atlantic. When her colonies declared their independence in 1776, England lost the fight, and the United States was born.

France claimed the Louisiana territory, which stretched from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and included the important port city of New Orleans. The territory’s distance from Paris made it difficult to manage, however, and the Haitian slave rebellion from 1791 to 1803 shut down sugar cane production and made the port of New Orleans worthless to post-Republic monarch Napoleon Bonaparte. He unloaded the whole territory in 1803 to the young American government for $15 million. Napoleon had given up on dominating the New World. It was just too hard to manage the distant territory, and he needed the money to fight the British back at home.

From the early 1500’s, Spain claimed ownership of modern Mexico, Florida, and the states from Texas west to California — but, like other European nations, the Spanish had the disadvantage of ruling from across the Atlantic. In controlling their territory within the present-day United States, they outlasted the Dutch (New Amsterdam/New York), the British, and the French — perhaps because they had a relatively more-local government seat in Mexico City. But by the 19th century, Spain, too, had lost control of her North American colonies: first Florida, then Mexico, and finally, after the Spanish-American War of 1898, the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Mexico gained independence in 1821 but kept the nation’s capital at Mexico City, more than 800 miles away from the northern territories. Mexico lost her distant northern colonies in the Mexican-American War in 1848, ceding to the United States the territory from Texas all the way to the Pacific Ocean.


In 1776 the founders of the United States established a new kind of government that would be run by its citizens and that would allow for decentralized control. With flexible, citizen-driven leadership at the local level, the country began to flourish. Even as it expanded, the United States became more economically successful.

Decision-making in the states did not require a trip to Washington. It could be done locally.


For private enterprise to be successful, there has to be (among other things) a stable government, a stable currency, and a recognition and upholding of private property rights. The United States’ government is imperfect and always evolving, but overall it’s been very successful at providing this stable environment.

What I think is especially interesting is that the parts of the U.S. currently known for innovation — California and, to an increasing degree, Texas — were part of the Wild West. The opportunity to arrive with nothing and turn it into something big has been a lure to immigrants since the New World was discovered. As the East Coast of the United States gentrified, the American West attracted immigrants hungry to forge their own way in an undeveloped country. They were creative. They were innovative. They were flexible, adaptable, and clever. They had to be to survive in an environment without infrastructure or easy access to the developed east. And the government structure that existed on a national level honored their property rights, which allowed their success to multiply.

Creativity begets creativity, as new innovators flock to the seats of innovation. We live in start-up states within a start-up country.


The innovative parts of today’s United States used to belong to Spain. Why hasn’t the former Spanish territory south of the United States been successful?

And why has the former British and French territory north of the United States had so much success?

Does Tenochtitlan have a role in this?


1325: Tenochtitlan becomes the seat of Aztec power

1521: Tenochtitlan becomes the seat of Spanish power and is renamed Mexico City

1821: Mexico City becomes the seat of Mexican power

1854: Mexico obtains its modern borders in the wake of the Mexican-American War and the subsequent Gadsden Purchase

2014: Mexico City remains the seat of Mexican power. Officially. The drug cartels might argue otherwise.


As a life-long resident of Texas, I often wonder why it is that our neighbor Mexico, a nation with so many natural resources and so many hard-working people, is in a state of chaos and, effectively, civil war.

In my lifetime the Mexican government has never been completely stable, the currency has been in a constant state of inflation, and the property rights (and human rights) of citizens and non-citizen residents have been in flux. Right now, Mexico ranks as the 63rd-best country, world-wide, in which to do business, according to Forbes. The United States isn’t exactly shining at 14th world-wide, but that 49-place gap says a lot about the difference in economic conditions within two neighboring countries. (Canada, the former British and French territory that shares our continent, comes in at number 8.)

What the gap doesn’t show is the difference in the quality of life. Most Mexicans live at or below the subsistence level. The government is corrupt; it and the police are owned by the drug cartels. The country is overrun by violence.

This is not news to anyone living in Texas or Mexico.


I love Mexico. It’s beautiful. It’s historic. The people, on the whole, are friendly and kind. I’ve made more trips there than to any other foreign country, spending time in Monterrey, in Mexico City, and in the border towns of Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros. I wish I could go back to Mexico and take my children there. I miss it. But it’s just too dangerous to visit right now. Mexico merits its own travel warning from the U.S. Department of State.

In 2012, 22 people were murdered in El Paso, Texas. On the other side of the border in the Mexican city of Juárez, 740 people were murdered that same year. Three days ago The El Paso Times reported that murders in Juárez decreased in 2013 to 450-something. They didn’t yet have an exact count. Last week, on Christmas Day, Chihuahan State Police found in the Valley of Juárez two severed heads wrapped in plastic bags.

Even the resort areas are no longer immune. On a single day last April, seven people were discovered murdered in Cancún, six strangled and the seventh decapitated. The murder rate in Mexico for 2013 exceeded that of Iraq.

And the kidnappings in Mexico — my God. In the first six months of 2013, the government reported 757 people as kidnapped. Who knows what the real number is.

It’s incredibly depressing.


It’s common knowledge that drugs and guns are the root of Mexico’s problems. If the United States would legalize drugs, perhaps the violence would stop.

I don’t know. Mexico’s instability came before the War on Drugs. I think its issues go much deeper than that.

I don’t know how the nation can transcend the corruption and crime to get to a place of peace and prosperity. I wish they could. The people deserve so much better.


What if Tenochtitlan hadn’t existed when Cortés came to Mexico? What if Mexico had looked like the rest of North America?

Without an existing, entrenched government to fall back on, would the colonists have been creative innovators who eventually kicked out the Spanish to create their own unique, flexible nation? Would they have created a bunch of small states, each responsive to its citizens? Would today’s Mexican government be stable? Would the economy look like the economies of the United States or Canada?

I can’t help but wonder how different Mexico might be, had Tenochtitlan never existed. And I can’t help but wonder, too, how different the United States might be, had Cahokia Mounds in Illinois been a mighty city when the explorers discovered it.

Categories: Brain Workouts

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4 replies

  1. I got about halfway through when I realized I was only halfway through. I will revisit this. It’s interesting!

  2. Just finished it. Very well written and incredibly interesting, especially pondering how the ancient world’s structure may actually have relevance to the present day. Was this a paper for a class? Or was this just for yourself? It’s just so polished.

    • Thanks, Natalie. I wrote it for no other reason than that it interested me. It took two days of writing and re-writing to get my thoughts put together in a coherent way. I’m glad you found it to be a good read. :)

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