Manifest Destiny Period

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Manifest Destiny

Period: 1820-1860

In 1845 John L. O'Sullivan, editor of the Democratic Review, referred in his magazine to America's "Manifest Destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions." One of the most influential slogans ever coined, "manifest destiny" expressed the romantic emotion that led Americans to risk their lives to settle the Far West.

The idea that America had a special destiny to stretch across the continent motivated many people to migrate West. The very idea of manifest destiny encouraged men and women to dream big dreams. "We Americans," wrote Herman Melville, one of this country's greatest novelists, "are the peculiar, chosen people--the Israel of our time."

Manifest destiny inspired a 29-year old named Stephen F. Austin to talk grandly of colonizing the Mexican province of Texas with "North American population, enterprise and intelligence." It led expansionists, united behind the slogan "54° 40' or fight!," to demand that the United States should own the entire Pacific Northwest all the way to the southern border of Alaska.

Aggressive nationalists invoked the idea to justify Indian removal, war with Mexico, and American expansion into Cuba and Central America. More positively, the idea of manifest destiny inspired missionaries, farmers, and pioneers, who dreamed only of transforming plains and fertile valleys into farms and small towns.

The Texas Revolution

Period: 1820-1860

American settlement in Texas began with the encouragement of first the Spanish, and then Mexican, governments. In the summer of l820 Moses Austin, a bankrupt 59-year old Missourian, asked Spanish authorities for a large Texas land tract which he would promote and sell to American pioneers.

Austin's request seemed preposterous. His background was that of a Philadelphia dry goods merchant, a Virginia mine operator, a Louisiana judge, and a Missouri banker. But early in l82l, the Spanish government gave him permission to settle 300 families in Texas. Spain welcomed the Americans for two reasons--to provide a buffer against illegal U.S. settlers, who were creating problems in east Texas even before the grant was made to Austin, and to help develop the land, since only 3,500 native Mexicans had settled in Texas (which was part of the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas).

Moses Austin did not live to see his dream realized. On a return trip from Mexico City, he died of exhaustion and exposure. Before he died, his son Stephen promised to carry out the dream of colonizing Texas. By the end of l824, young Austin had attracted 272 colonists to Texas, and had persuaded the newly independent Mexican government that the best way to attract Americans was to give land agents (called empresarios) 67,000 acres of land for every 200 families they brought to Texas.

Mexico imposed two conditions on land ownership: settlers had to become Mexican citizens and they had to convert to Roman Catholicism. By l830 there were l6,000 Americans in Texas. At that time, Americans formed a 4-to-1 majority in the northern section of Coahuila y Tejas, but people Hispanic heritage formed a majority in the state as a whole.

As the Anglo population swelled, Mexican authorities grew increasingly suspicious of the growing American presence. Mexico feared that the United States planned to use the Texas colonists to acquire the province by revolution. Differences in language and culture had produced bitter enmity between the colonists and native Mexicans. The colonists refused to learn the Spanish language, maintained their own separate schools, and conducted most of their trade with the United States.

To reassert its authority over Texas, the Mexican government reaffirmed its Constitutional prohibition against slavery, established a chain of military posts occupied by convict soldiers, restricted trade with the United States, and decreed an end to further American immigration.

Santa Anna

These actions might have provoked Texans to revolution. But in 1832, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, a Mexican politician and soldier, became Mexico's president. Colonists hoped that he would make Texas a self-governing state within the Mexican republic. But once in power, Santa Anna proved to be less liberal than many Texans had believed. In 1834, he overthrew Mexico's constitutional government, abolished state governments, and made himself dictator. When Stephen Austin went to Mexico City to try to settle the Texans' grievances, Santa Anna imprisoned him in a Mexican jail for a year.

On November 3, 1835, American colonists adopted a constitution and organized a temporary government, but voted overwhelmingly against declaring independence. A majority of colonists hoped to attract the support of Mexican liberals in a joint effort to depose Santa Anna and to restore power to the state governments, hopefully including a separate state of Texas.

Sam Houston

While holding out the possibility of compromise, the Texans prepared for war by electing Sam Houston commander of whatever military forces he could muster. Houston, one of the larger-than-life figures who helped win Texas independence, Houston had run away from home at the age of 15 and lived for three years with the Cherokee Indians in eastern Tennessee. During the War of 1812, he had fought in the Creek War under Andrew Jackson. At 30 he was elected to the House of Representatives and at 34 he was elected governor of Tennessee. Many Americans regarded him as the heir apparent to Andrew Jackson.

Then, suddenly, in 1829 scandal struck. Houston married a woman 17 years younger than himself. Within three months, the marriage was mysteriously annulled. Depressed and humiliated, Houston resigned as governor. After wandering about the country as a near derelict, he returned to live with the Cherokee in present day Arkansas and Oklahoma.

During his stay with the tribe, Houston was instrumental in forging peace treaties among several warring Indian nations. In 1832, Houston traveled to Washington to demand that President Jackson live up to the terms of the removal treaty. Jackson did not meet Houston's demands, but instead sent him unofficially to Texas to keep an eye on the American settlers and the growing anti-Mexican sentiment.

In the middle of 1835, scattered local outbursts erupted against Mexican rule. Then, a band of 300-500 Texas riflemen--who comprised the entire Texas army--captured Mexico's military headquarters in San Antonio. Revolution was underway.

The Alamo

Soon, the ominous news reached Texas that Santa Anna himself was marching north with 7,000 soldiers to crush the revolt. In actuality, Santa Anna's army was not particularly impressive; it was filled with raw recruits, and included many Indian troops who spoke and understood little Spanish. When Houston learned that Santa Anna's initial goal was to recapture San Antonio, he ordered San Antonio abandoned. But, 150 Texas rebels decided to defend the city and made their stand at an abandoned Spanish mission, the Alamo. The Texans were led by William Travis and Jim Bowie, and included the frontier hero David Crockett.

For twelve days, Mexican forces lay siege to the Alamo. Travis issued an appeal for reinforcements, but only 32 men were able to cross Mexican lines. Legend has it that on the evening of March 5, 1836, Travis, realizing that defense of the Alamo was futile, drew a line in the dirt with his sword. Only those willing to die for Texas independence, Travis announced to the garrison, should step across the line and defend the Alamo. All but two men did. One refused to cross the line, and another, Jim Bowie, too sick to move from his cot, called over some friends and had them carry him across Travis's line.

At 5 a.m., March 6, Mexican troops scaled the mission's walls. By 8 a.m., the fighting was over. 183 defenders lay dead--including several Mexican defenders who had fought for Texas independence. (Seven defenders surrendered and were immediately executed, and approximately 15 persons survived, including an American woman and her child). Mexican forces soaked the defenders' bodies in oil, stacked them like cordwood outside the mission, and set them ablaze.

If the Alamo was a military defeat, it was a psychological victory. Santa Anna's troops suffered l,550 casualties--eight Mexican soldiers died for every defender. "Remember the Alamo" became the battle cry of the Texas War of Independence.


Two weeks after the defeat at the Alamo, a group of Texas surrendered to Mexican forces outside of Goliad with the understanding that they would be treated as prisoners of war. But Santa Anna set aside the agreement. Instead, he ordered more than 350 Texans shot.

San Jacinto

The defeats gave Sam Houston time to raise and train an army. Volunteers from the American South flocked to his banner. On April 21, his army of less than 800 men surprised Santa Anna's army as it camped out on the San Jacinto River, east of present-day Houston. The next day, Houston's army captured Santa Anna himself and forced him to sign a treaty granting Texas its independence--a treaty that was never ratified by the Mexican government because it was acquired under duress.

For most Mexican settlers in Texas, defeat meant that they would be relegated to second-class social, political, and economic positions. The new Texas Constitution denied citizenship and property rights to those who failed to support the revolution. All persons of Hispanic ancestry were considered in the "denial" category unless they could prove otherwise. Consequently, many Mexican landowners fled the region.

The Texas Question in American Politics

Period: 1820-1860

Texas had barely won its independence when it decided to become a part of the United States. A referendum held soon after the Battle of San Jacinto showed Texans favoring annexation by a vote of 3,277 to 93.

The annexation question became one of the most controversial issues in American politics in the late 1830s and early 1840s. The issue was not Texas but slavery. The admission of Texas to the Union would upset the sectional balance of power in the United States Senate, just as the admission of Missouri threatened 15 years earlier. In 1838, John Quincy Adams, now a member of the House of Representatives, staged a 22-day filibuster that successfully blocked annexation. It appeared that Congress had settled the Texas question. Texas would remain an independent republic.

At this point, pro-slavery Southerners began to popularize a conspiracy theory that would eventually bring Texas into the Union as a slave state. In 1841, John Tyler, who defended slavery as a positive good, succeeded to the presidency on the death of William Henry Harrison. Tyler and his Secretary of State, John C. Calhoun, argued that Great Britain was scheming to annex Texas and transform it into a haven for runaway slaves. (In fact, British abolitionists, but not the British government, were working to convince Texas to outlaw slavery in exchange for British foreign aid). Sam Houston played along with this ploy by conducting highly visible negotiations with the British government. If the United States would not annex Texas, Houston warned, Texas would seek the support of "some other friend."

The Texas question was the major political issue in the Presidential campaign of 1844. James Polk, the Democratic candidate, ardently supported annexation. His victory encouraged Tyler to submit a resolution to Congress calling for annexation (there were not enough votes in the Senate to ratify a treaty by the required two-thirds majority; a Congressional resolution required only a simple majority). Congress narrowly approved the resolution in 1845, making Texas the 28th state.

The Mexican War

Period: 1820-1860

Fifteen years before the United States was plunged into Civil War, it fought a war against Mexico that added half a million square miles of territory to the United States. Not only was it the first American war fought almost entirely outside the United States, it was also the first American war to be reported, while it happened, by daily newspapers.

It was a controversial war that bitterly divided American public opinion. And it was the war that gave young officers named Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Thomas ("Stonewall") Jackson, William Tecumseh Sherman, and George McClellan their first experience in a major conflict.

The underlying cause of the Mexican War was the movement of American pioneers into lands claimed by Mexico. The immediate reason for the conflict was the annexation of Texas in 1845. After the defeat at San Jacinto in 1836, Mexico made two abortive attempts in 1842 to reconquer Texas. Even after these defeats, Mexico refused to recognize Texan independence and warned the United States that the annexation of Texas would be tantamount to a declaration of war.

In early 1845, when Congress voted to annex Texas, Mexico expelled the American ambassador and cut diplomatic relations. But it did not declare war.

President Polk told his commanders to prepare for the possibility of war. He ordered American naval vessels to position themselves outside Mexican ports. And he dispatched American forces in the Southwest to Corpus Christi, Texas.

Peaceful settlement of the two countries' differences still seemed possible. In the fall of 1845, the President offered $5 million if Mexico agreed to recognize the Rio Grande River as the southwestern boundary of Texas. Earlier, the Spanish government had defined the Texas boundary as the Nueces River, 130 miles north and east of the Rio Grande. No Americans lived between the Nueces and the Rio Grande, although many Hispanics lived in the region.

The United States also offered up to $5 million for the province of New Mexico--which included Nevada and Utah and parts of four other states--and up to $25 million for California. Polk was anxious to acquire California because in mid-October 1845, he had been led to believe that Mexico had agreed to cede California to Britain as payment for debts. Polk also dispatched a young Marine Corps lieutenant, Archibald H. Gillespie, to California, apparently to foment revolt against Mexican authority.

The Mexican government, already incensed over the annexation of Texas, refused to accept an American envoy. The failure of the negotiations led Polk to order Brigadier General Zachary Taylor to march 3,000 troops southwest from Corpus Christi, Texas, to "defend the Rio Grande" River. Late in March of 1846, Taylor and his men set up camp along the Rio Grande, directly across from the Mexican city of Matamoros, on a stretch of land claimed by both Mexico and the United States.

On April 25, 1846, a Mexican cavalry force crossed the Rio Grande and clashed with a small American squadron, forcing the Americans to surrender after the loss of several lives. On May 11, after he received word of the border clash, Polk asked Congress to acknowledge that a state of war already existed "by the act of Mexico herself...notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it." "Mexico," the President announced, "has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil." Congress responded with a declaration of war.

The Mexican War was extremely controversial. Its supporters blamed Mexico for the hostilities because it had severed relations with the United States, threatened war, refused to receive an American emissary or to pay the damage claims of American citizens. In addition, Mexico had "invaded our territory and shed American blood on American soil." Opponents denounced the war as an immoral land grab by an expansionistic power against a weak neighbor that had been independent barely two decades.

The war's critics claimed that Polk deliberately provoked Mexico into war by ordering American troops into disputed territory. A Delaware Senator declared that ordering Taylor to the Rio Grande was "as much an act of aggression on our part as is a man's pointing a pistol at another's breast." Critics also argued that the war was an expansionist power play dictated by an aggressive Southern slave owners intent on acquiring more slave states.


Period: 1820-1860

As Americans waited impatiently for a final peace settlement, they grew increasingly divided over their war aims. Ultra-expansionists, who drew support from northeastern cities as well as from the West, wanted the United States to annex all of Mexico. Many Southerners, led by John C. Calhoun, called for a unilateral withdrawal to the Rio Grande. They opposed annexation of any of Mexico below the Rio Grande because they did not want to extend American citizenship to Mexicans. Most Democratic Party leaders, however, wanted to annex at least the one-third of Mexico south and west of the Rio Grande.

Then suddenly on February 22, 1848, word reached Washington that a peace treaty had been signed. Earlier in February, Nicholas Trist, a Spanish-speaking State Department official, signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican War. Trist had actually been ordered home two months earlier by Polk, but he had continued negotiating anyway, fearing that his recall would be "deadly to the cause of peace."

According to the treaty, Mexico ceded to the United States only those areas that Polk had originally sought to purchase. Mexico ceded California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and parts of Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, and Wyoming to the United States for $15 million and the assumption of $3.25 million in debts owed to Americans by Mexico. The treaty also settled the Texas border dispute in favor of the United States, placing the Texas-Mexico boundary at the Rio Grande River.

Ultra-expansionists called on Polk to reject the treaty. William Tecumseh Sherman called the treaty "just such a one as Mexico might have imposed on us had she been the conqueror." But a war-weary public wanted peace. Polk quickly submitted the treaty to the Senate, which ratified it overwhelmingly. The war was over.

Digital History 2005

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