"Westward Expansion and The Division of a Nation"

Scott Mattler

Lightning Talk Presented: March 25, 2014
Published: March 29, 2014

The 1840s were a distinct era in which regional geography played a significant role in the development of the country. America was showing serious signs of sectionalism, but wanting to expand west never the less. Leading up to the 1840s, the west was somewhat a vague land to most Americans, fabled through the virtuous tales of mountain men such as Jim Bridger and Kit Carson. They told stories of vast uncharted lands occupied by hostile Indians in the rolling fields of the Great Plains or the towering obstacles of the Rocky Mountains and the sun burned valleys of California.

Some pioneers were starting to head out west in search of a new life. This developed a new, stimulating and enterprising trend of thought in the country. Traveling west brought a spirit of individual adventure, self-reliance and the hope for sudden riches. At the same time, exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny, beliefs hatched after the American Revolution, won the enthusiasm of young America.

Loose Mexican governing in California, English influence in the Oregon Territory, and the ambiguity of Texas' borders prompted the idea for a populating America to expand west. One of those Americans was the ambitious Democrat James K. Polk, whom during the duration of his Presidency, would face much turmoil and opposition from the Whig Party and anti-imperialists on his efforts of expansion.

So why did Polk want the west? He knew the consequences of these actions could lead to a possible war with England and another with Mexico. A sectional difference on the matter was clearly present during this time and subject to souring. Did Polk's focus on Manifest Destiny for expansion create the division between the North and South leading up to the American Civil War?

Polk, a young man who was nicknamed "Young Hickory," entered the Presidency in 1845. Two concepts dominated America during this time: slavery and westward expansion. Polk set four great measures arriving in office, all of which he achieved. The first goal was to lower the tariff of abominations. His second aimed to establish an independent treasury, somewhat like the Federal Reserve. His third goal was to drive the British out of the Oregon Territory and the final was to acquire California from Mexico. Unfortunately, his duration in office was antagonized with serious sectional and party problems. The northern states wanted Oregon for more political impact and the southern states wanted Texas and California to advance cotton culture and slavocracy.

The notion of westward expansion and exceptionalism gained support through the writings of John O'Sullivan on Manifest Destiny. The American personality was moving away from European characteristics. Rugged individualism and tenacity filled the air birthing the attitude that America was not necessarily superior, but uniquely free and self-run on democratic ideals and personal liberty.

The movement west was, in fact, started by southern central states wanting to add Texas to the union for economic purposes and slavery expansion. The northerners wanted to expand their political power as well by acquiring Oregon and northern California so as to balance out the southern influence in the senate.

In the southwest, tensions had been brewing with Mexico for a while and Polk was looking for a reason to head into the heavily populated Mexican territories of New Mexico and California. Joseph Kearny's March with his Army Of The West down the Santa Fe Trail towards what is now New Mexico illuminated more efforts to expand in southern Mexican territory.

California was poorly governed by Mexico and John Fremont's actions after the Bear Flag Rebellion in San Jose caused the secession of California from Mexico and it joined the United States. Polk's next hurdle was to acquire the Oregon Territory from Great Britain hopefully in a peaceful manner. Polk decided to avoid war with Great Britain and signed the Oregon Treaty in 1846 dividing it between the two nations at the 49th parallel. Polk's vision of America stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific was successful.

The border of Texas was originally never settled after the annexation of Texas and the Alamo. The United States claimed Texas' border went all the way to the Rio Grande and the Mexicans claimed the border at the Nueces River. Polk made an offer to the heavily debted Mexican government: $25 million for Texas, New Mexico and California all the way up to San Francisco. Mexico was aware of the bitter party and sectional divisions within the United States regarding Texas. They were also warned by England and France of the US's military might.

Ignoring the advice, Mexican officials rejected Polk's offer due to pride. In response, Polk sent General Zachary Taylor to the Nueces River with a force of about 3,500 men to defend the border. Taylor's men were fired upon, and the spilling of American blood influenced Polk to send, on May 11, 1846, a special message to Congress calling for them to declare war on Mexico. War with Mexico was declared two days later.

Fearing slavery extension and an increase in southern territory, many northerners opposed war with Mexico. This sectional attitude was violently expressed by Whig party members such as John Quincy Adams and Daniel Webster who viewed Polk as showing favoritism to the South. However Polk followed through and after many victories like the ones in Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma by American generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, America forced Mexican leader Santa Anna to sign the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in February 1848. The Rio Grande boundary was established in Texas and New Mexico and California were ceded to the United States.

America's victory in the Mexican-American war brought a surge of patriotism and exceptionalism among Democrats. However, during the course of the war with Mexico, the sectionalism of the North and South had also greatly increased. The Wilmot Proviso and the territorial organization of the newly acquired American lands welcomed bitter struggles among the nation. The political aftermath of the war raised the slavery issue in the United States, leading to intense debates that pointed to the American Civil War.

Ulysess S. Grant was a young officer during the Mexican-American War serving under General Taylor. Later in his presidency, Grant expressed his thoughts on the war in his personal memoirs stating, "The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times."

Works Consulted

PJohn Gast's American Progress, c. 1872