An age of expansionism boundless america

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Henry Clay once defended the acquisition of Florida by whatever means because “it fills a space in our imagination.” For Americans in the first half of the nineteenth century, there were many such places demanding to be filled. Ask your students to visualize the boundaries of the United States, and the answer is immediate: the Atlantic, the Pacific, Canada, and Mexico. How “natural” and firm, how predestined those boundaries seem today! If we are to understand the almost obsessive desire of earlier Americans to expand their boundaries, we must appreciate how vague and fluid the national borders were before 1850.

In 1783, only the eastern boundary of the United States was fixed. On the North, the frontier with Canada was not yet settled, and neither was the boundary with Spanish Florida in the South. One might think that the Mississippi River formed a definite western boundary, but a glance at the map shows that the Mississippi begins much west of where it ends, and its headwaters are south of the Canadian border. Added to these real difficulties, there was the abysmal state of geographical knowledge. During debates over ratification of the 1783 peace treaty, some congressmen obviously mistook the Missouri River for the Mississippi.

The Louisiana Purchase allowed the United States to take advantage of the disputed border between Louisiana and Spanish West Florida to press Spain until it finally gave up the entire peninsula. The Gulf of Mexico then joined the Atlantic Ocean in defining the coasts of the United States. The Purchase also made the Mississippi totally irrelevant as a western boundary and substituted for it a vague and vast domain that reached as far as imagination allowed. For many Americans and for Napoleon Bonaparte, Louisiana included Texas. Others erroneously believed that Louisiana extended beyond the Rocky Mountains. In the North, the Purchase petered out somewhere on the plains that stretch from the Dakotas into Manitoba.

We know now that the annexation of Texas settled the southern boundary of the United States at the Rio Grande, but we also know how porous a border it is. It is not surprising that in the 1840s many Americans considered the eastern Sierra Madre mountains a more natural frontier between the United States and Mexico. At the same time that the Rio Grande became the southern boundary, the forty-ninth parallel became the northern border, and, shortly thereafter, the acquisition of California settled the western border. After generations of living within fluid borders, Americans in 1848 could finally define their national boundaries as we do today, the Atlantic, the Pacific, Canada, and Mexico.

These boundaries have endured for so long that they now seem fixed forever. But what would happen if Canada broke up and the people of British Columbia petitioned for annexation? Would the United States pass up a chance to make Alaska contiguous with the lower states? Would the United States someday attempt to round out its queer southwestern border with Mexico and finally acquire the mouth of the Colorado River? Once people realize that boundaries can be altered, it becomes easier for them to think that those boundaries should advance. Nations commonly expand and contract. Mexico once included Guatemala and touched Canada. Perhaps the next turn of fortune will see her collecting tolls on the Great Lakes and dispensing justice in Saskatchewan.


As the American people moved west, large numbers of them found themselves living beyond the political boundaries of the United States. These Americans were children of the nation, and their “sufferings,” especially those living in Mexico (now Texas), elicited a tremendous emotional response in the United States. When the Alamo was besieged, its commander, William Travis, issued an appeal for aid to “All Americans in the World....” Travis’‘ message, which has been called the most heroic ever written by an American, has been reproduced many times. It is most easily available today in Walter Lord’s lively account of the siege of the Alamo, A Time to Stand (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1978 reprint).

Abraham Lincoln made a name for himself on the national political scene during the Mexican War. Unfortunately for him, his stand on the war nearly finished his political career. Elected to the House of Representatives in 1846, Lincoln introduced the “spot resolution” in 1847, challenging the president to prove that the war had really been started by a Mexican invasion of American soil. Lincoln’s speech against the war, given in the House of Representatives on January 5, 1848, is a good example of his ability as an orator and his political courage. The best source for this speech, or for anything written by Lincoln, is The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953-1955), a work that Basler and others keep up to date with supplementary volumes.


The author begins with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s celebration of a new generation of Americans, who, he predicted, would lead the nation to greatness. This chapter describes the achievements of this new generation: The West was seized from Mexico, an industrial revolution took off, and the population greatly increased through immigration.


In the 1830s and 1840s, American settlement pierced the line of Mississippi and reached the Pacific. Settlement often spilled over the borders of the United States and encroached on lands owned or claimed by Mexico and England.

A. Borderlands of the 1830s

The dream that Canada might someday belong to the United States came to an end in 1842 when the Webster-Ashburton Treaty settled the northeast boundary. Americans looked instead to three other territories: Oregon (an area much larger than the present-day state of the same name), where the United States and England had a joint right of occupation, New Mexico, then owned by Mexico, and California, also owned by Mexico, but virtually uninhabited.

B. The Texas Revolution

Americans, including many slaveholders, immigrated into Texas, owned by Mexico in the 1820s. These “Anglos” never fully accepted Mexican rule, especially after 1829, when the Mexican government tried to abolish slavery. After a series of incidents, armed rebellion broke out in 1835.

C. The Republic of Texas

In March 1836, a convention of Texans declared independence. After a short brutal war, Texans forced the defeated Santa Anna to sign a treaty recognizing Texas’‘ claim to territory all the way to the Rio Grande. Texas was independent, but Mexico refused to recognize the new nation.

Texas opened her lands to even more rapid American settlement, and it was the desire of most Texans to join the United States. President Andrew Jackson, however, fearing a war with Mexico and domestic political controversy, delayed annexation.

D. Trails of Trade and Settlement

One of the trails used by Americans in their westward movement, the Sante Fe Trail, was closed by Mexico as a result of its war with Texas. Along the Oregon Trail, a heavy stream of settlers moved through the Rocky Mountains and into the Oregon country. These settlers demanded that the United States end the joint occupation with England and assume full control.

E. The Mormon Trek

Among those moving west were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. Founded by Joseph Smith in 1830 in upstate New York, the Mormon church attempted to revive the pure Christianity believed to have once existed in aboriginal America. Because of their unorthodox beliefs and practices (polygamy, for example) Mormons suffered persecution that sent them ever westward. They established their own city, Nauvoo, Illinois, but after Joseph Smith was killed by a mob, Mormons resettled around the Great Salt Lake in Utah. They established a state called Deseret, and thanks to a strong central government and the discipline and dedication of the community, they transformed the desert into farmland.

Mormons at first resisted being governed by the United States after the area was taken from Mexico, and in 1857 the United States and the Mormons almost went to war. Both sides backed off, and Brigham Young, the Mormon leader, accepted an appointment as territorial governor of Utah.


America’s westward movement created a confrontation with Great Britain and a war with Mexico.

A. Tyler and Texas

John Tyler had been placed on the 1840 Whig ticket as vice president in order to get some southern votes; Whig leaders never expected him to become president in 1841. By 1844 Tyler had broken with the Whig party, and his hopes for re-election in 1844 rested almost entirely on finding a new and popular issue. He began pushing for the annexation of Texas, which was a popular issue in the South, but the North was indifferent and perhaps even hostile to the idea of adding a new slave state. When Tyler negotiated a treaty of annexation with Texas, the Senate refused to ratify it.

B. The Triumph of Polk and Annexation

At the Democratic nominating convention in 1844, southern delegates had enough strength to give the nomination to James K. Polk of Tennessee, who was strongly in favor of annexing Texas. In order to win northern support, Polk also promised to extend U.S. jurisdiction over all of Oregon. His victory over Whig candidate Henry Clay was a narrow one, but Polk and the Congress interpreted the results as a mandate for expansion. Congress annexed Texas even before Polk was inaugurated.

C. The Doctrine of Manifest Destiny

The rationale behind American expansion is summed up in the phrase, “manifest destiny,” first used in 1845. Expansion was defended on three grounds: first, God wanted the United States, His chosen nation, to become stronger; second, as Americans took over new territories, they made these areas free and democratic; and third, the American population was growing so rapidly that the nation needed more land. The only questions were how far America would expand and whether it would use diplomacy or war to do so.

D. Polk and the Oregon Question

America almost went to war with Great Britain over the ownership of the Oregon country. President Polk was actually willing to split the area with England, but his public demands for the whole territory annoyed the English, and they refused to negotiate with him. In 1846 Polk notified Great Britain that the United States would no longer agree to joint occupation. England prepared for war, but also proposed division of the area in a treaty that the Senate approved. Although the United States gained ownership of Puget Sound, a deep-water port on the Pacific, the North condemned Polk for not having persisted in his demand for all of Oregon.

E. War with Mexico

When the United States annexed Texas, it also acquired a boundary dispute with Mexico. When Polk ordered U.S. forces to occupy the disputed area, a skirmish ensued, which the president used to justify a declaration of war on May 13, 1846. Polk saw the war as an opportunity to seize California and New Mexico, those states that Mexico had refused to sell to the United States.

In the war, General Zachary Taylor defeated the Mexicans in a series of battles in northern Mexico; New Mexico was taken, and California fell to American forces. The conclusive battles were won by General Winfield Scott, who took Vera Cruz in an amphibious invasion, routed the Mexicans at Cerro Gordo, and occupied Mexico City by September, 1847.

F. Settlement of the Mexican-American War

In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which ended the Mexican War, the United States gained the Rio Grande as a southern border and enlarged its size by 20 percent with the addition of California and the Southwest.

Two powerful forces limited further American expansion, racism and anti-colonialism. The American people did not want to take in large numbers of Latin Americans, whom they considered inferior. The annexation of Texas and the war with Mexico had also aroused political contention. Most Whigs opposed the war, and many Northerners complained that the nation had been dragged into a war that benefitted only the slave-owners in the South.


Having pushed to the Pacific, Americans turned inward and developed their vast domain.

A. Triumph of the Railroad

By the 1840s and 1850s, the railroad finally began to displace the canal as the cheapest means of hauling freight. Railroad construction stimulated the iron industry, but the most dramatic side-effect of the railroad boom was in the area of finance. Railroads required enormous amounts of capital, which were raised through new techniques such as bonds and preferred stock, and by large government subsidies.

B. The Industrial Revolution Takes Off

Mass production and the division of labor transformed traditional crafts and made production more efficient. More and more work was done in a factory system, the essential features of which were the gathering of laborers in one place where they could be supervised, cash wages, and a “continuous process” of manufacturing. Agriculture remained of primary importance in the national economy, but even farming was becoming mechanized. In the North especially, advances in industry, transportation, and agriculture interacted to create a strong economy.

C. Mass Immigration Begins

By the 1840s, American industry was capable of providing hundreds of thousands of jobs, which attracted immigrants. Between 1840 and 1860, over four million Europeans, mostly Irish and Germans, came to the United States. Although many came to escape poverty-the Irish especially-most immigrants came for the opportunity to work at higher wages. Ironically, many immigrants stayed in the port cities and gladly took low-paying jobs. Since most immigrants could only afford substandard housing, urban slums spread, inspiring efforts to reduce crime, vice, and dirt, but progress was slow.

D. The New Working Class

Traditionally, women and children were factory workers. Men began to enter the factory work-force in significant numbers only in the 1840s. At that time, working conditions had begun to deteriorate. Employers were less personally involved with their laborers, and the depression that followed 1837 induced employers to demand more work for less pay. Workers responded by organizing unions.

When immigrants poured into America, they replaced native Americans in the factories. The budding union movement was badly hurt, but the new working class did not form a docile body of employees. They resented the discipline and continuous nature of factory work and clung to traditional work habits, which to the supervisors appeared as careless work habits.


The new working class posed a problem for American ideals. It had always been assumed that working for wages was merely the first step toward becoming your own master. Now, it was obvious that a permanent wage-earning class had come into existence. Politicians like Stephen Douglas hoped to create a patriotic consensus based on continued territorial and economic expansion, but expansion actually created conflicts between classes and sections that the politicians could not control.

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