Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, 1862. Mural, United States Capitol.
John Louis O’Sullivan, a popular editor and columnist, articulated the long-standing American belief in the God-given mission of the United States to lead the world in the peaceful transition to democracy. In a little-read essay printed in The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, O’Sullivan outlined the importance of annexing Texas to the United States:
Why, were other reasoning wanting, in favor of now elevating this question of the reception of Texas into the Union, out of the lower region of our past party dissensions, up to its proper level of a high and broad nationality, it surely is to be found, found abundantly, in the manner in which other nations have undertaken to intrude themselves into it, between us and the proper parties to the case, in a spirit of hostile interference against us, for the avowed object of thwarting our policy and hampering our power, limiting our greatness and checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions. John Louis O’Sullivan ((John O’Sullivan, “Annexation,” United States Magazine and Democratic Review 17, no.1 (July-August 1845), 5-10.))
O’Sullivan and many others viewed expansion, particularly to the West, as necessary to achieve America’s destiny and protect American interests. The antebellum period saw the quasi-religious call to spread democracy coupled with the reality of thousands of settlers pressing westward. The precepts of manifest destiny, grounded in the twin beliefs of virtuous American institutionalism and the uplifting effects of agrarian republicanism, rode the wagon trails westward in advance of the destinarian belief in American greatness – the proverbial city on the hill of the colonial period began its move westward.
John O’Sullivan, shown here in a 1874 Harper’s Weekly sketch, coined the phrase “manifest destiny” in an 1845 newspaper article. Wikimedia.
Although called into name in 1845, manifest destiny was a widely held but vaguely defined belief system that embraced several core beliefs from at least the founding of the nation. First, many Americans believed that the strength of American values and institutions justified moral claims to hemispheric leadership. Second, the lands on the North American continent west of the Mississippi River (and later into the Caribbean) were destined for political and agricultural improvement helmed by American example. Third, Americans who supported expansion believed that God and the Constitution (the political manifestation of divine perfection) ordained an irrepressible destiny to accomplish redemption and democratization throughout the world. All three of these claims pushed many Americans, whether they uttered the words ‘manifest destiny’ or not, to actively seek the expansion of the democracy in both word and action to the great detriment of those, most notably American Indians, already occupying the physical lands in question. The new religion of American democracy spread on the feet and in the wagons of those who moved west and sought to reconfigure their social worlds to the new realities of a new landscape, imbued with the hope that their success would be the nation’s success.
The Young America movement, strongest among members of the Democratic Party but spanning the political spectrum, downplayed divisions over slavery and ethnicity by embracing national unity and emphasizing American exceptionalism, territorial expansion, democratic participation, and economic interdependence. Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson captured the political outlook of this new generation in a speech he delivered in 1844 entitled “The Young American”:
In every age of the world, there has been a leading nation, one of a more generous sentiment, whose eminent citizens were willing to stand for the interests of general justice and humanity, at the risk of being called, by the men of the moment, chimerical and fantastic. Which should be that nation but these States? Which should lead that movement, if not New England? Who should lead the leaders, but the Young American? Ralph Waldo Emerson1
However, many Americans, including Emerson, disapproved of aggressive expansion. For opponents of manifest destiny, the lofty rhetoric of the Young Americans was nothing other than a kind of American imperialism, of imperial policies that the American Revolution was supposed to have repudiated. Many members of the Whig Party (and later the Republican Party) argued that the United States’ mission was to lead by example, not by conquest. Abraham Lincoln summed up this criticism with a fair amount of sarcasm during a speech in 1859:
He (the Young American) owns a large part of the world, by right of possessing it; and all the rest by right of wanting it, and intending to have it…Young America had “a pleasing hope — a fond desire — a longing after” territory. He has a great passion — a perfect rage — for the “new”; particularly new men for office, and the new earth mentioned in the revelations, in which, being no more sea, there must be about three times as much land as in the present. He is a great friend of humanity; and his desire for land is not selfish, but merely an impulse to extend the area of freedom. He is very anxious to fight for the liberation of enslaved nations and colonies, provided, always, they have land…As to those who have no land, and would be glad of help from any quarter, he considers they can afford to wait a few hundred years longer. In knowledge he is particularly rich. He knows all that can possibly be known; inclines to believe in spiritual trappings, and is the unquestioned inventor of “Manifest Destiny.” Abraham Lincoln2
But Lincoln and other anti-expansionists would struggle to win popular opinion and the nation, fueled by the principles of manifest destiny, would continue westward, battling native peoples and foreign nations and claiming territory to the very edges of the continent. But westward expansion did not come without a cost. It exacerbated the slavery question, pushed Americans toward civil war, and, ultimately, threatened the United States’ promises to the peoples of the world.
Artistic propaganda like this promoted the national project of manifest destiny. Columbia, the female figure of America, leads Americans into the West and into the future by carrying the values of republicanism (as seen through her Roman garb) and progress (shown through the inclusion of technological innovations like the telegraph) and clearing native peoples and animals, seen being pushed into the darkness. John Gast, American Progress, 1872. Wikimedia.
Antebellum Western Migration and Indian Removal
After the War of 1812, Americans settled the Great Lakes region rapidly thanks in part to aggressive land sales by the federal government. Missouri’s admission as a slave state presented the first major crisis over westward migration and American expansion in the antebellum period. Farther north, lead and iron ore mining spurred development in Wisconsin. By the 1830s and 1840s, increasing numbers of German and Scandinavian immigrants joined easterners in settling the Upper Mississippi watershed. Little settlement occurred west of Missouri as migrants viewed the Great Plains as a barrier to farming, the Rocky Mountains as undesirable to all but fur traders, and the region’s American Indians as too powerful to allow for white expansion.
“Do not lounge in the cities!” commanded publisher Horace Greeley in 1841, “There is room and health in the country, away from the crowds of idlers and imbeciles. Go west, before you are fitted for no life but that of the factory.”3 The New York Tribune often argued that American exceptionalism required the United States to benevolently conquer the continent as the prime means of spreading both economic and political democracy. However, the vast west was not empty. American Indians controlled much of the land east of the Mississippi River and almost all the West. Expansion hinged on a federal policy of Indian removal.
The harassment and dispossession of American Indians – whether driven by official U.S. government policy or the actions of individual Americans and their communities – depended on manifest destiny’s belief in the divinely ordained process of putting land to its best use. Of course, a fair bit of racism was part of the equation as well. The political and legal processes of expansion always hinged on the belief that white Americans could best use new lands and opportunities. This belief rested upon the belief that only Americans embodied the democratic ideals of yeoman agriculturalism extolled by Thomas Jefferson and expanded under Jacksonian democracy. Florida was an early test case for the Americanization of new lands as the territory held strategic value for the young nation’s growing economic and military interests in the Caribbean. The most important factors that led to the annexation of Florida included anxieties over runaway slaves, Spanish neglect of the region, and the desired defeat of Native American tribes who controlled large portions of lucrative farm territory.
During the early 19th century, Spain wanted to increase productivity in Florida and encouraged migration of mostly Southern slave owners. By the second decade of the 1800s, Anglo settlers occupied plantations along the St. Johns River, from the border with Georgia to Lake George 100 miles upstream. Spain began to lose control of the sparsely European-populated Florida as the area quickly became a haven for slave smugglers bringing illicit human cargo into the U.S. for lucrative sale to Georgia planters. Plantation owners grew apprehensive about the growing numbers of slaves running to the swamps and American Indian controlled areas of Florida. American slave owners pressured the U.S. government to confront the Spanish authorities. Southern slave owners refused to quietly accept the continued presence of armed blacks in Florida. During the War of 1812, a ragtag assortment of Georgia slave owners joined by a plethora of armed opportunists seized Fernandina and raided Spanish and British-owned plantations along the St. Johns River. These private citizens received U.S. government help on July 27, 1816, when U.S. army regulars attacked the Negro Fort (established as an armed outpost during the war by the British and located about 60 miles south of the Georgia border). The raid killed 270 blacks as a result of a direct hit on the fort’s gun powder stores and set the stage for General Andrew Jackson’s invasion of Florida in 1817 and the beginning of the First Seminole War.
Americans also held that Creek and Seminole Indians, occupying the area from the Apalachicola River to the wet prairies and hammock islands of central Florida, were dangers in their own right. These tribes, known to the Americans collectively as “Seminoles,” migrated into the region over the course of the 18th century and established settlements, tilled fields, and tended herds of cattle in the rich floodplains and grasslands that dominated the northern third of the Florida peninsula. Envious eyes looked upon these lands. After bitter conflict that often pitted Americans against a collection of Native Americans and former slaves, Spain eventually agreed to transfer the territory to the U.S. in exchange for $5 million and other territorial concessions as part of the Adams-Onís Treaty.
After the purchase, planters from the Carolinas, Georgia, and Virginia entered Florida. However, the influx of settlers into the Florida territory was temporarily halted in the mid-1830s by the outbreak of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). Free-blacks and escaped slaves also occupied the Seminole district; a situation that deeply troubled slave owners and constituted one of the major causes of the three Seminole Wars, between 1817 and 1858. Indeed, General Thomas Sidney Jesup, U.S. commander during the early stages of the Second Seminole War, labeled that conflict “a negro, not an Indian War,” fearful as he was that if the revolt, “was not speedily put down, the South will feel the effect of it on their slave population before the end of the next season.”4 Florida became a state in 1845 and settlement expanded into the former Indian lands.
The Florida template – a simultaneous hope of seizing American Indians’ eastern lands, controlling slave populations, reducing lands available for runaway slaves, and killing entirely or removing the American Indian problem farther west – became more widely implemented. Presidents, since at least Thomas Jefferson, had long discussed removal, but President Andrew Jackson took the most dramatic action. Jackson believed, “It [speedy removal] will place a dense and civilized population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savage hunters.”5 Desires to remove American Indians from valuable farmland motivated state and federal governments to cease trying to assimilate Indians and instead plan for forced removal.
Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, thereby granting the president authority to begin treaty negotiations that would give American Indians land in the West for their lands east of the Mississippi. Many advocates of removal, including President Jackson, paternalistically believed that it would protect Indian communities from outside influences that jeopardized their chances of becoming “civilized” farmers. Jackson emphasized this paternalism—the belief that the government was acting in the best interest of Native peoples— in his 1830 State of the Union Address. “It [removal] will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites…and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.”6
The experience of the Cherokee was particularly brutal. Despite many tribal members adopting some Euro-American ways, including intensified agriculture, slave ownership, and Christianity; state and federal governments pressured the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Cherokee nations to sign treaties and surrender land. Many of these tribal nations used the law in hopes of preventing the seizing of their lands. Most notable among these efforts was the Cherokee Nation’s attempt to sue the state of Georgia to protect their lands.
Beginning in 1826, Georgian officials asked the federal government to negotiate with the Cherokee to secure lucrative lands. The Adams’ administration resisted the state’s request, but harassment from local settlers against the Cherokee forced the Adams and then Jackson administrations to begin serious negotiations with the Cherokees. Georgia grew impatient with the process of negotiation and abolished existing state agreements with the Cherokee that had guaranteed rights of movement and jurisdiction of tribal law. Andrew Jackson penned a letter soon after taking office that encouraged the Cherokee, among others, to voluntarily relocate to the West. The discovery of gold in Georgia in the fall of 1829 further antagonized the situation.
Beginning in 1828, the Cherokee defended themselves against Georgia’s laws by citing treaties signed with the United States that guaranteed the Cherokee nation both their land and independence. The Cherokee appealed to the Supreme Court against Georgia to prevent dispossession. The Court, while sympathizing with the Cherokees’ plight, ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the case (Cherokee Nation v. Georgia – 1831). In an associated case, Worcester v. Georgia 1832, The Supreme Court ruled that Georgia laws did not apply within Cherokee territory. Regardless of these rulings, the state government ignored the Supreme Court and did little to prevent conflict between settlers and the Cherokee.
Jackson wanted a solution that might preserve peace and his reputation. He sent Secretary of War Lewis Cass to offer title to western lands and the promise of tribal governance in exchange for relinquishing of the Cherokee’s eastern lands. These negotiations opened a rift within the Cherokee nation that pitted John Ridge and his treaty-supporting faction against another Cherokee official, John Ross, and his Cherokee national faction – a group supportive of peace but refusing any removal treaty. The Jackson administration refused any deal that fell short of large-scale removal of the Cherokee from Georgia, thereby fueling a devastating and violent intra-tribal battle between the two factions. Eventually tensions grew to the point that several treaty advocates were assassinated by members of the national faction.
In 1835, a portion of the Cherokee Nation hoping to prevent further tribal bloodshed signed the Treaty of New Echota, ceding lands in Georgia for five million dollars and, the signatories hoped, limiting future conflicts between the Cherokee and white settlers. However, most of the tribe refused to adhere to the terms, viewing the treaty as illegitimately negotiated and signed by John Ridge. In response, John Ross pointed out the U.S. government’s hypocrisy. “You asked us to throw off the hunter and warrior state: We did so—you asked us to form a republican government: We did so. Adopting your own as our model. You asked us to cultivate the earth, and learn the mechanic arts. We did so. You asked us to learn to read. We did so. You asked us to cast away our idols and worship your god. We did so. Now you demand we cede to you our lands. That we will not do.”7
President Martin van Buren, in 1838, decided to press the issue beyond negotiation and court rulings and used the New Echota Treaty provisions to order the army to forcibly remove those Cherokee not obeying the Treaty’s cession of territory. Sixteen thousand Cherokee began the journey, but harsh weather, poor planning, and difficult travel resulted in between 3,000-4,000 deaths on what became known as the Trail of Tears. Not every instance was as treacherous as the Cherokee example and some tribes resisted removal. But over 60,000 Indians were forced west by the opening of the Civil War.
Indian removal also took place to a lesser degree in northern lands; the allure of manifest destiny encouraged expansion regardless of terrain or locale. In the Old Northwest, Odawa and Ojibwe communities in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, resisted removal as many lived on land north of desirable farming land. Moreover, some Ojibwe and Odawa individuals purchased land independently. They formed successful alliances with missionaries to help advocate against removal, as well as some traders and merchants who depended on trade with Native peoples. Yet, Indian removal occurred in the North as well—the “Black Hawk War” in 1832, for instance, led to the removal of many Sauk to Kansas.
Despite the disaster of removal, tribal nations slowly rebuilt their cultures and in some cases even achieved prosperity in Indian Territory. Tribal nations blended traditional cultural practices, including common land systems, with western practices including constitutional governments, common school systems, and an elite slaveholding class.
The forced-migration of American Indian nations to the near West and ongoing conflicts between white settlers and those newly arrived migrants was not the only contest for power between indigenous populations and easterners. Beginning in the late eighteenth-century, the Comanche rose to power in the Southern Plains region of what is now the southwestern United States. By quickly adapting to horse culture first introduced by the Spanish, the Comanche transitioned from a foraging economy into a mixed hunting and pastoral society. While the new Mexican nation-state, after 1821, claimed the region as part of the Northern Mexican frontier, they had little control. Instead, the Comanche controlled the power and economy of the Southern Plains. A flexible political structure allowed the Comanche to dominate other Indian groups as well as Mexican and American settlers.
In the 1830s, the Comanche launched raids into northern Mexico, ending what had been an unprofitable but peaceful diplomatic relationship with Mexico. At the same time, they forged new trading relationships with Anglo-American traders in Texas. Throughout this period, the Comanche and several other independent Native groups, particularly the Kiowa, Apache, and Navajo engaged in thousands of violent encounters with Northern Mexicans. Collectively, these encounters comprised an ongoing war during the 1830s and 1840s as tribal nations vied for power and wealth. By the 1840s, Comanche power peaked with an empire that controlled a vast territory in the trans-Mississippi west known as Comancheria. By trading in Texas and raiding in Northern Mexico, the Comanche controlled the flow of commodities, including captives, livestock, and trade goods. They practiced a fluid system of captivity and captive trading, rather than a rigid chattel system. The Comanche used captives for economic exploitation but also adopted captives into kinship networks. This allowed for the assimilation of diverse peoples in the region into the empire. The ongoing conflict in the region had sweeping consequences on both Mexican and American politics. The U.S.-Mexican War, beginning in 1846, can be seen as a culmination of this violence.
“Map of the Plains Indians,” undated. Smithsonian Institute.
In the Great Basin region, Mexican Independence also escalated patterns of violence. This region, on the periphery of the Spanish empire, was nonetheless integrated in the vast commercial trading network of the West. Mexican officials and Anglo-American traders entered the region with their own imperial designs. New forms of violence spread into the homelands of the Paiute and Western Shoshone as traders, settlers, and Mormon religious refugees, aided by U.S. officials and soldiers, committed daily acts of violence and laid the groundwork for violent conquest. This expansion of the American state into the Great Basin region meant groups such as the Ute, Cheyenne and Arapahoe had to compete over land, resources, captives, and trade relations with Anglo-Americans. Eventually, white incursion and ongoing Indian Wars resulted in traumatic dispossession of land and struggle for subsistence.
The federal government attempted more than relocation of Americans Indians. Policies to “civilize” Indians coexisted along with forced removal and served an important “Americanizing” vision of expansion that brought an ever-increasing population under the American flag and sought to balance aggression with the uplift of paternal care. Thomas L. McKenney, superintendent of Indian trade from 1816 to 1822 and the Superintendent of Indian Affairs from 1824 to 1830, served as the main architect of the “civilization policy.” He asserted that American Indians were morally and intellectually equal to whites and advocated for the establishment of a national Indian school system as an extension of the factory system coupled with an embrace of American ingenuity and perseverance.
Congress rejected McKenney’s plan but instead passed the Civilization Fund Act in 1819. This act offered a $10,000 annual annuity to be allocated towards societies that funded missionaries to establish schools among Indian tribes. However, providing schooling for American Indians under the auspices of the Civilization program also allowed the federal government to further justify taking more land. Treaties, such as the 1820 Treaty of Doak’s Stand made with the Choctaw nation, often included land cessions as requirements for education provisions. Removal and Americanization reinforced Americans sense of cultural dominance.
After removal in the 1830s, the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw began to collaborate with missionaries to build school systems of their own. Leaders hoped education would help ensuing generations to protect political sovereignty. In 1841, the Cherokee Nation opened a public school system that within two years included eighteen schools. By 1852, the system expanded to twenty-one schools with a national enrollment of 1,100 pupils.8 Many of the students educated in these tribally controlled schools later served their nations as teachers, lawyers, physicians, bureaucrats, and politicians.
Life and Culture in the West
The dream of creating a democratic utopia in the West ultimately rested on those who picked up their possessions and their families and moved west. Western settlers usually migrated as families and settled along navigable and potable rivers. Settlements often coalesced around local traditions, especially religion, carried from eastern settlements. These shared understandings encouraged a strong sense of cooperation among western settlers that forged communities on the frontier.
Before the Mexican War, the West for most Americans still referred to the fertile area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River with a slight amount of overspill beyond its banks. With soil exhaustion and land competition increasing in the East, most early western migrants sought a greater measure of stability and self-sufficiency by engaging in small scale farming. Boosters of these new agricultural areas along with the U.S. government encouraged perceptions of the West as a land of hard-built opportunity that promised personal and national bounty.
Women migrants bore the unique double burden of travel while also being expected to conform to restrictive gender norms. Societal standards such as “the cult of true womanhood,” which emphasized piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness as the key virtues of women, along with the concept of “separate spheres,” which focused on the proper roles of women in the home, often accompanied men and women as they traveled west to begin their new lives.
While many of these societal standards endured, there often existed an openness of frontier society that resulted in modestly more opportunities for women. Husbands needed partners in setting up a homestead and working in the field to provide food for the family. Suitable wives were often in short supply, enabling some to informally negotiate more power in their households.
Americans debated the role of government in westward expansion. This debate centered on the proper role of the U.S. government in paying for the internal improvements that soon became necessary to encourage and support economic development. Some saw frontier development as a self-driven undertaking that necessitated private risk and investment devoid of government interference. Others saw the federal government’s role as providing the infrastructural development needed to give migrants the push toward engagement with the larger national economy. In the end, federal aid proved essential for the conquest and settlement of the region.
American artist George Catlin traveled west to paint Native Americans. In 1832 he painted Eeh-nís-kim, Crystal Stone, wife of a Blackfoot leader. Via Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Economic busts constantly threatened western farmers and communities. As the economy worsened after the panic of 1819, farmers were unable to pay their loans due to falling prices and over-farming. The dream of subsistence and stability abruptly ended as many migrants lost their land and felt the hand of the distant market economy forcing them even farther west to escape debt. As a result, the federal government consistently sought to increase access to land in the West, including efforts to lower the amount of land required for purchase. Smaller lots made it easier for more farmers to clear land and begin farming faster.
More than anything else, new roads and canals provided conduits for migration and settlement. Improvements in travel and exchange fueled economic growth in the 1820s and 1830s. Canal improvements expanded in the East, while road building prevailed in the West. Congress continued to allocate funds for internal improvements. Federal money pushed the National Road, begun in 1811, farther west every year. Laborers needed to construct these improvements increased employment opportunities and encouraged non-farmers to move to the West. Wealth promised by engagement with the new economy was hard to reject. However, roads were expensive to build and maintain and some Americans strongly opposed spending money on these improvements.
The use of steamboats grew quickly throughout the 1810s and into the 1820s. As water trade and travel grew in popularity, local and state governments along with the federal government all allocated funds for the improvement and connecting of rivers and streams. Hundreds of miles of new canals cut through the eastern landscape. The most notable of these early projects was the Erie Canal. That project, completed in 1825, linked the Great Lakes to New York City. The profitability of the canal helped New York outpace its east coast rivals to become the center for commercial import and export in the United States.
Early railroads like the Baltimore and Ohio line hoped to link mid-Atlantic cities with lucrative western trade routes. Railroads encouraged the rapid growth of towns and cities all along their routes through the encouragement of boosterism in search of speculative profits. Not only did rail lines promise to move commerce faster, but the rails also encouraged the spreading of towns farther away from traditional locations along waterways. Technological limitations, constant repairs, conflicts with American Indians, and political disagreements, all hampered railroading and kept canals and steamboats as integral parts of the transportation system. Nonetheless, this early establishment of railroads enabled a rapid expansion after the Civil War.
Economic chains of interdependence stretched over hundreds of miles of land and through thousands of contracts and remittances. America’s manifest destiny became wedded not only to territorial expansion, but also to economic development.
Texas, Mexico and America
The debate over slavery became one of the prime forces behind the Texas revolution and that republic’s annexation to the United States. After gaining its independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico hoped to attract new settlers to its northern areas in order to create a buffer between it and the expanding western populations of the United States. New immigrants, mostly from the southern United States, poured into Texas. Over the next twenty-five years, concerns over growing Anglo influence and possible American designs on Texas produced great friction between Mexican and American populations. In 1829, Mexico, hoping to quell both anger and immigration, outlawed slavery and required all new immigrants to convert to Catholicism. American immigrants, eager to expand their agricultural fortunes, largely ignored these requirements. In response, Mexican authorities closed their territory to any new immigration in 1830 – a prohibition ignored by Americans who often squatted on public lands.
In 1834, an internal conflict between federalists and centralists in the Mexican government led to the political ascendency of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Santa Anna, governing as a dictator, repudiated the federalist Constitution of 1824, pursued a policy of authoritarian central control, and crushed several revolts throughout Mexico. Texian (as they called themselves) settlers opposed Santa Anna’s centralizing policies and met in November. They issued a statement of purpose that emphasized their commitment to the Constitution of 1824 and declared Texas to be a separate state within Mexico. After the Mexican government angrily rejected the offer, Texian leaders soon abandoned their fight for the Constitution of 1824 and declared independence on March 2, 1836. The Texas Revolution of 1835-1836 was a successful secessionist movement in the northern district of the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas that resulted in an independent Republic of Texas.
At the Alamo and Goliad, Santa Anna crushed smaller rebel forces and massacred hundreds of Texian prisoners. The Mexican army pursued the retreating Texian army deep into East Texas, spurring a mass panic and evacuation by American civilians known as the “Runaway Scrape.” The confident Santa Anna consistently failed to make adequate defensive preparations; an oversight that eventually led to a surprise attack from the outnumbered Texian army led by Sam Houston on April 21, 1836. The battle of San Jacinto lasted only eighteen minutes and resulted in a decisive victory for the Texians, who retaliated for previous Mexican atrocities by killing fleeing and surrendering Mexican soldiers for hours after the initial assault. Santa Anna was captured in the aftermath and compelled to sign the Treaty of Velasco on May 14, 1836, by which he agreed to withdraw his army from Texas and acknowledged Texas independence. Although a new Mexican government never recognized the Republic of Texas, the United States and several other nations gave the new country diplomatic recognition.
Texas annexation had remained a political landmine since the Republic declared independence from Mexico in 1836. American politicians feared that adding Texas to the Union would provoke a war with Mexico and re-ignite sectional tensions by throwing off the balance between free and slave states. However, after his expulsion from the Whig party, President John Tyler saw Texas statehood as the key to saving his political career. In 1842, he began work on opening annexation to national debate. Harnessing public outcry over the issue, Democrat James K. Polk rose from virtual obscurity to win the presidential election of 1844. Polk and his party campaigned on promises of westward expansion, with eyes toward Texas, Oregon, and California. In the final days of his presidency, Tyler at last extended an official offer to Texas on March 3, 1845. The republic accepted on July 4, becoming the twenty-eighth state.
Mexico denounced annexation as “an act of aggression, the most unjust which can be found recorded in the annals of modern history.”9 Beyond the anger produced by annexation, perhaps the most important tangible conflict between Mexico and the United States, at this point, was a narrow strip of land to which both countries now laid claim. Mexico drew the southwestern border of Texas at the Nueces River, but Texans claimed that the border lay roughly 150 miles further west at the Rio Grande. Neither claim was realistic since the sparsely populated area, known as the Nueces strip, was in fact controlled by independent American Indian tribes.
In November of 1845, President Polk secretly dispatched John Slidell to Mexico City in order to attempt a purchase of the Nueces strip along with large sections of New Mexico and California. The mission was an empty gesture, designed largely to pacify those in Washington who insisted on diplomacy before war. Predictably, officials in Mexico City refused to receive Slidell. In preparation for the assumed failure of the negotiations, Polk preemptively sent a 4,000 man army under General Zachary Taylor to Corpus Christi, Texas, just northeast of the Nueces River. Upon word of Slidell’s rebuff in January 1846, Polk ordered Taylor to cross into the disputed territory. The President hoped that this show of force would push the lands of California onto the bargaining table as well. Unfortunately, he badly misread the situation. After losing Texas, the Mexican public strongly opposed surrendering any more ground to the United States. Popular opinion left the shaky government in Mexico City without room to negotiate. On April 24, Mexican cavalrymen attacked a detachment of Taylor’s troops in the disputed territory just north of the Rio Grande, killing eleven U.S. soldiers.
It took two weeks for the news to reach Washington. Polk sent a message to Congress on May 11 that summed up the assumptions and intentions of the United States.
Instead of this, however, we have been exerting our best efforts to propitiate her good will. Upon the pretext that Texas, a nation as independent as herself, thought proper to unite its destinies with our own, she has affected to believe that we have severed her rightful territory, and in official proclamations and manifestoes has repeatedly threatened to make war upon us for the purpose of reconquering Texas. In the meantime we have tried every effort at reconciliation. The cup of forbearance had been exhausted even before the recent information from the frontier of the Del Norte. But now, after reiterated menaces, Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil. She has proclaimed that hostilities have commenced, and that the two nations are now at war. James Knox Polk ((James K. Polk, “President Polk’s Mexican War Message,” quoted in Statemen’s Manual: The Addresses and Messages of the Presidents of the United States, Inaugural, Annual, and Special, from 1789 to 1846: With a Memoir of Each of the Presidents and a History of Their Administrations; Also the Constitution of the United States, and a Selection of Important Documents and Statistical Information, Volume 2, (New York: Edward Walker, 1847), 1489.))
The cagey Polk knew that since hostilities already existed, political dissent would be dangerous – a vote against war became a vote against supporting American soldiers under fire. Congress passed a declaration of war on May 13. Only a few members of both parties, notably John Quincy Adams and John C. Calhoun, opposed the measure. Upon declaring war in 1846, Congress issued a call for 50,000 volunteer soldiers. Spurred by promises of adventure and conquest abroad, thousands of eager men flocked to assembly points across the country. However, opposition to “Mr. Polk’s War” soon grew.
In the early fall of 1846, the U.S. Army invaded Mexico on multiple fronts and within a year’s time General Winfield Scott’s men took control of Mexico City. However, the city’s fall did not bring an end to the war. Scott’s men occupied Mexico’s capital for over four months while the two countries negotiated. In the United States, the war had been controversial from the beginning. Embedded journalists sent back detailed reports from the front lines, and a divided press viciously debated the news. Volunteers found that war was not as they expected. Disease killed seven times as many American soldiers as combat. Harsh discipline, conflict within the ranks, and violent clashes with civilians led soldiers to desert in huge numbers. Peace finally came on February 2, 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
“General Scott’s entrance into Mexico.” Lithograph. 1851. Originally published in George Wilkins Kendall & Carl Nebel, The War between the United States and Mexico Illustrated, Embracing Pictorial Drawings of all the Principal Conflicts (New York: D. Appleton), 1851. Wikimedia Commons
The new American Southwest attracted a diverse group of entrepreneurs and settlers to the commercial towns of New Mexico, the fertile lands of eastern Texas, and the famed gold deposits of California and the Rocky Mountain chains. This postwar migration built upon migration to the region dating back to the 1820s, when the lucrative Santa Fe trade enticed merchants to New Mexico and generous land grants brought numerous settlers to Texas. The Gadsden Purchase of 1854 further added to American gains north of Mexico.
The U.S.-Mexican War had an enormous impact on both countries. The American victory helped set the United States on the path to becoming a world power, elevated Zachary Taylor to the presidency, and served as a training ground for many of the Civil War’s future commanders. Most significantly, however, Mexico lost roughly half of its territory. Yet, the United States’ victory was not without danger. Ralph Waldo Emerson, an outspoken critic, predicted ominously at the beginning of the conflict, “We will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man who swallows the arsenic which will bring him down in turn. Mexico will poison us.”10 Indeed, the conflict over whether or not to extend slavery into the newly won territory pushed the nation ever closer to disunion and civil war.
Manifest Destiny and the Gold Rush
California, belonging to Mexico prior to the war, was at least three arduous months travel from the nearest American settlements. There was some sparse settlement in the Sacramento valley and missionaries made the trip occasionally. The fertile farmland of Oregon, like the black dirt lands of the Mississippi valley, attracted more settlers than California. Dramatized stories of Indian attack filled migrants with a sense of foreboding, although the majority of settlers encountered no violence and often no American Indians at all. The slow progress, disease, human and oxen starvation, poor trails, terrible geographic preparations, lack of guidebooks, threatening wildlife, vagaries of weather, and general confusion were all more formidable and frequent than American Indian attacks. Despite the harshness of the journey, by 1848 there were approximated 20,000 Americans living west of the Rockies, with about three-fourths of that number in Oregon.
The great environmental and economic potential of the Oregon Territory led many to pack up their families and head west along the Oregon Trail. The Trail represented the hopes of many for a better life, represented and reinforced by images like Bierstadt’s idealistic Oregon Trail. Albert Bierstadt, Oregon Trail (Campfire), 1863. Wikimedia.
Many who moved nurtured a romantic vision of life, attracting more Americans who sought more than agricultural challenges and familial responsibilities. The rugged individualism and military prowess of the West, encapsulated for some by service in the Mexican war, drew a growing new breed west of the Sierra Nevada to meet with the Californians already there; a breed of migrants different from the modest agricultural communities of the near-west.
If the great draw of the West served as manifest destiny’s kindling, then the discovery of gold in California was the spark that set the fire ablaze. The vast majority of western settlers sought land ownership, but the lure of getting rich quick drew younger single male participants (with some women) to gold towns throughout the West. These adventurers and fortune-seekers then served as magnets for the arrival of others providing services associated with the gold rush. Towns and cities grew rapidly throughout the West, notably San Francisco whose population grew from about 500 in 1848 to almost 50,000 by 1853. Lawlessness, predictable failure of most fortune seekers, conflicts with native populations of the area – including Mexican, Spanish, American Indian, Chinese, and Japanese populations – and the explosion of the slavery question all demonstrated the danger of manifest destiny’s promise.
On January 24, 1848 James W. Marshall, a contractor hired by John Sutter, discovered gold on Sutter’s sawmill land in the Sacramento valley area of the California Territory. Throughout the 1850s, Californians beseeched Congress for a transcontinental railroad to provide service for both passengers and goods from the Midwest and the East Coast. The potential economic benefits for communities along proposed railroads made the debate over the railroad’s route rancorous. Growing dissent over the slavery issue also heightened tensions. For their part, the economic boom ushered in by the gold rush allowed the state government of California to begin work on a state rail system in the Sacramento Valley in 1854.
The great influx of diverse people clashed in a combative and aggrandizing atmosphere of individualistic pursuit of fortune. Linguistic, cultural, economic, and racial conflict roiled both urban and rural areas. By the end of the 1850s, Chinese and Mexican immigrants made up 1/5th of the mining population in California. The ethnic patchwork of these frontier towns belied a clearly defined socio-economic arrangement that saw whites on top as landowners and managers with poor whites and ethnic minorities working the mines and assorted jobs. The competition for land, resources, and riches furthered individual and collective abuses particularly against American Indians and older Mexican communities. California’s towns, as well as those dotting the landscape throughout the West, such as Coeur D’Alene in Idaho and Tombstone in Arizona, struggled to balance security with economic development and the protection of civil rights and liberties.
This cartoon depicts a highly racialized image of a Chinese immigrant and Irish immigrant “swallowing” the United States–in the form of Uncle Sam. Networks of railroads and the promise of American expansion can be seen in the background. “The great fear of the period That Uncle Sam may be swallowed by foreigners : The problem solved,” 1860-1869, Library of Congress.
The Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny
The expansion of influence and territory off the continent became an important corollary to westward expansion. One of the main goals of the U.S. government was the prevention of outside involvement of European countries in the affairs of the western hemisphere. Therefore, American policymakers sought an outlet for the domestic assertions of manifest destiny in the nation’s early foreign policy decisions of the antebellum period.
As Secretary of State for President James Monroe, John Quincy Adams held the responsibility for the satisfactory resolution of ongoing border disputes in different areas of North America between the United States, England, Spain, and Russia. Adams’ view of American foreign policy was put into clearest practice in the Monroe Doctrine, which he had great influence in crafting.
Increasingly aggressive incursions from Russians in the Northwest, ongoing border disputes with the British in Canada, the remote possibility of Spanish reconquest of South America, and British abolitionism in the Caribbean all forced a U.S. response. Despite the philosophical confidence present in the Monroe administration’s decree, the reality of limited military power kept the Monroe Doctrine as an aspirational assertion. In a speech before the U.S. House of Representatives on July 4th, 1821, Secretary of State Adams acknowledged the American need for a robust foreign policy that simultaneously protected and encouraged the nation’s growing and increasingly dynamic economy.
America…in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own…She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all…She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. The frontlet on her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished lustre the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world; she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit. . . . Her glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her Declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice. John Quincy Adams ((John Quincy Adams, “Mr. Adams Oration, July 21, 1821,” quoted in Niles’ Weekly Register, Volume 20, (Baltimore: H. Niles, 1821), 332.))
Adams’ great fear was not territorial loss. He had no doubt that Russian and British interests in North America could be arrested. Adams held no reason to antagonize the Russians with grand pronouncements nor was he generally called upon to do so. He enjoyed a good relationship with the Russian Ambassador and stewarded through Congress most-favored trade status for the Russians in 1824. Rather, Adams worried gravely about the ability of the United States to compete commercially with the British in Latin America and the Caribbean. This concern deepened with the valid concern that America’s chief Latin American trading partner, Cuba, dangled perilously close to outstretched British claws. Cabinet debates surrounding establishment of the Monroe Doctrine and geopolitical events in the Caribbean focused attention on that part of the world as key to the future defense of U.S. military and commercial interests; the main threat to those interests being the British. Expansion of economic opportunity and protection from foreign pressures became the overriding goals of U.S. foreign policy.
Bitter disagreements over the expansion of slavery into what became the Mexican Cession territory began even before the Mexican War ended. Many Northern businessmen and Southern slave owners supported the idea of expansion of American power and slavery into the Caribbean as a useful alternative to continental expansion, since slavery already existed in these areas. While some were critical of these attempts, seeing them as evidence of a growing slave-power conspiracy, many supported attempts at expansion, like those previously seen in East Florida, even if these attempts were of an extra-legal variety. Filibustering, as it was called, was privately financed schemes of varying degrees of operational reality directed at capturing and occupying foreign territory without the approval of the U.S. government.
Filibustering adventures took greatest hold in the imagination of Americans as they looked toward Cuba. Fears of racialized revolution in Cuba (as in Haiti and Florida before it) as well as the presence of an aggressive British abolitionary influence in the Caribbean energized the movement to annex Cuba and encouraged filibustering as expedient alternatives to lethargic official negotiations. Despite filibustering’s seemingly chaotic planning and destabilizing repercussions, those intellectually and economically guiding the effort saw in their efforts a willing and receptive Cuban population and an agreeable American business class. In Cuba, manifest destiny for the first time sought territory off the continent and hoped to put a unique spin on the story of success in Mexico. Yet, the annexation of Cuba, despite great popularity and some military attempts led by Narciso Lopez, a Cuban dissident, never succeeded.
Other filibustering expeditions were launched elsewhere, including two by William Walker, a former American soldier. Walker seized portions of the Baja peninsula in Mexico and then later took power and established a slaving regime in Nicaragua. Eventually Walker was executed in Honduras. These missions violated the laws of the United States, but wealthy Americans financed various filibusters and less-wealthy adventurers were all too happy to sign up. Filibustering enjoyed its brief popularity into the late 1850s, at which point slavery and concerns over session came to the fore. By the opening of the Civil War most saw these attempts as simply territorial theft and muscular articulations of individual desires toward profit and dominance.
Debates over expansion, economics, diplomacy, and manifest destiny exposed some of the weaknesses of the American system. The chauvinism of policies like Native American removal, the Mexican War, and filibustering, existed alongside growing anxiety. Manifest destiny attempted to make a virtue of America’s lack of history and turn it into the very basis of nationhood. To locate such origins, John O’Sullivan and other champions of manifest destiny grafted biological and territorial imperatives – common among European definitions of nationalism – onto American political culture. The United States was the embodiment of the democratic ideal, they said. Democracy had to be timeless, boundless, and portable. New methods of transportation and communication, the rapidity of the railroad and the telegraph, the rise of the international market economy, and the growth of the American frontier provided shared platforms to help Americans think across local identities and reaffirm a national character.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Young American: A Lecture read before the Mercantile Library Association, Boston, February 7, 1844,” accessed May 18, 2015, http://www.emersoncentral.com/youngam.htm.
- Abraham Lincoln, “Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions: First Delivered April 6, 1858,” accessed May 18, 2015, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/discoveries.htm.
- Horace Greeley, New York Tribune, 1841. Although the phrase, “Go West, Young Man,” is often attributed to Greeley, the exhortation was most likely only popularized by the newspaper editor in numerous speeches, letters, and editorials and always in the larger context of the comparable and superior health, wealth, and advantages to be had in the West.
- Thomas Sidney Jesup quoted in Kenneth Wiggins Porter, “Negroes and the Seminole War, 1835-1842,” The Journal of Southern History Vol. 30, No. 4 (November 1964), 427-450, quote on 427.
- “President Andrew Jackson’s Message to Congress ‘On Indian Removal’ (1830),” accessed May 26, 2015, http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=25&page=transcript.
- John Ross quoted in Brian Hicks, Toward the Setting Sun: John Ross, the Cherokees, and the Trail of Tears, (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011), 210.
- William C. Sturtevant, Handbook of North American Indians: History of Indian-White Relations, Vol. 4 (Smithsonian Institution, 1988), 289.
- Quoted in, The Annual Register, Or, A View of the History and Politics of the Year 1846, Volume 88, (Washington: J.G. & F. Rivington, 1847), 377.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson quoted in James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 51.
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