Wednesday, January 15, 2014

19th Century U.S. Manifest Destiny, Annexation and Expansion, and Slavery in Congress


Since the arrival of Europeans in North America, the concept of manifest destiny has been utilized as a justification for imperialism and expansionism.  The concept itself has deep roots to the protestant branch of Christianity and, in its various waves, has heavily associated the creation and expansion of the United States as a destiny manifested by God with strong symbolic references to ancient biblical accounts of a chosen people and a promised land.  In the first half of the nineteenth century, the ideology of manifest destiny assumed political characteristics to justify the areas of westward expansion and the annexation of Texas from Mexico, and inadvertently illuminated sharp sectional North-South and Democrat-Whig divisions that would eventually cause the American Civil War.  As in any war, the root of the American civil conflict would be caused by divided sectional interests in capital, political power, and land.

In the years leading into the conflict of 1848 between Mexico and the United States, “many Americans and Southerners still believed that it was the United States’ Manifest Destiny to eventually rule the continent.” [1], an ideology that would be fed and exploited early in the expansion era by the Democrat party within Congress and at the election polls.  One of the strongest voices for American expansionism and manifest destiny within the Democrat party was John L. O’Sullivan, who wrote in 1838 that “the boundless future will be the era of American greatness. In its magnificent domain of space and time, the nation of many nations is destined to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles; to establish on earth the noblest temple ever dedicated to the worship of the Most High” [2].  While the Whig party and 1844 presidential hopeful Henry Clay had “forecast that annexation would inevitably produce a war with Mexico” [3] and “opposition to Texas’s immediate annexation became the standard Whig campaign theme” [4], James Polk and the Democrats entered the 1844 election “committed to immediate annexation” [5].  Within two years of Polk’s election to presidency, war with Mexico erupted over the U.S. annexation of Texas and by 1848 “Mexico was defeated, and the United States had fulfilled its destiny, becoming a nation that spanned the entire continent.” [6].

The first significant national polarization that occurred over the annexation of Texas and westward expansion was “the emergence of the nation’s first truly mass-based two-party political system, a development that would critically affect all subsequent debates over slavery extension” [7].  Again, even in the establishment of what would become the democrat party “behind Andrew Jackson’s presidential candidacy in 1928” [8], the growing polarization factor of American slavery could be observed as Martin Van Buren had written about reviving two-party competition that would “best neutralize ‘prejudices between free & slaveholding state” [9] and as a “complete antidote to sectional prejudices by producing counteracting feelings” [10].

The second significant increase in polarization was the deepening animosity between the southern slave states and the north which “foundered on the question of slavery’s future expansion into southwestern territories” [11] and beyond.  The addition of further slave or non-slave states and the incorporation of those states into the Union would ultimately shift the balance of power in electoral votes and congressional voting.  The clever two-party competition originally promoted by Van Buren could not permanently contain the sectional tensions between Northern and Southern economic interests, and this can be clearly seen by the alignment of Democrat and Whig states in 1844 compared to 1860.  In 1844, northern states such as New York, Pennsylvania, and Michigan were Democrat states.  By 1960, a sharp regional division had occurred with southern states representing the democrat party, northern states representing the Republican Party, with Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri filling in a north-south buffer zone of unaffiliated party states.

In closing, the manifest destiny of U.S. western expansion and early imperialism was a temporary political dividing factor leading into the Civil War with much larger divided regional interests.  The root of the coming conflict was the expansion or non-expansion of American slavery and the national political power shifts that slavery may or may not have caused in that land expansion and creation of new states which would hold electoral votes.  Once U.S. expansion had been completed, the political lines shifted back to north-south interest lines that reflected the true origin of the conflict: capital interests behind the economic westward expansion with “widespread introduction of agricultural machinery” [12] from the capitalist-industrial north conflicting against the westward expansion of human slavery from the south.  After all, the new technological machinery of the industrial revolution had increased production levels while reducing the required amount of manual labor in favor of the capitalist-industrial north which pushed forward the political ideology of free labor (similar to the free market concept) as introduced by Northern Republicans as they “extolled the virtues of free labor” [13].

 

1.  Dunning, Mike.  2001.  "Manifest Destiny and the Trans-Mississippi South: Natural Laws and the Extension of Slavery into Mexico." Journal Of Popular Culture 35, no. 2: 111.

2.  James L. O’ Sullivan.  1839.  “The Great Nation of Futurity,” United States Democratic Review 6, no. 23 (1839): 427.

3.  Michael Holt.  2004. “The Fate of their Country: Politicians, Slavery Extension, and the Coming of the Civil War” (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 10.

4.  Michael Holt.  2004. “The Fate of their Country: Politicians, Slavery Extension, and the Coming of the Civil War” (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 10.

5.  Michael Holt.  2004. “The Fate of their Country: Politicians, Slavery Extension, and the Coming of the Civil War” (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 11.

6.  John Chiodo.  2000. "Teaching about Manifest Destiny: Clarifying the Concept." Social Studies 91, no. 5: 203.

7.  Michael Holt.  2004. “The Fate of their Country: Politicians, Slavery Extension, and the Coming of the Civil War” (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 7.

8.  Michael Holt.  2004. “The Fate of their Country: Politicians, Slavery Extension, and the Coming of the Civil War” (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 7.

9.  Michael Holt.  2004. “The Fate of their Country: Politicians, Slavery Extension, and the Coming of the Civil War” (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 7.

10.  Michael Holt.  2004. “The Fate of their Country: Politicians, Slavery Extension, and the Coming of the Civil War” (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 7.

11.  Michael Holt.  2004. “The Fate of their Country: Politicians, Slavery Extension, and the Coming of the Civil War” (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 4.

12.  Eric Foner.  1995.  “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men : The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War with a New Introductory Essay” (North Carolina: Oxford University Press, 1995), 72.

13.  Eric Foner.  1995.  “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men : The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War with a New Introductory Essay” (North Carolina: Oxford University Press, 1995), 34.

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