Manifest destiny was the 19th century U.S. belief that the country had a divine right to expand across and take over the continent.
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Key TakeawaysKey PointsThe concept of manifest destiny, coined by a newspaper editor, justified American expansion across the continent.The phrase “manifest destiny” suggested that expansion across the American continent was obvious, inevitable, and a divine right of the United States.Manifest destiny was used by Democrats in the 1840s to justify the war with Mexico.While many writers focus primarily on U.S. expansionism when discussing manifest destiny, others see a broader expression of belief in the country’s “mission” in the world.Key Termsexpansionism: A nation’s policy of broadening its territory or economic influence.manifest destiny: The political doctrine or belief held by the United States, particularly during its expansion, that the nation had a special role and divine right to expand westward and gain control over the continent.exceptionalism: In the United States, the belief that the nation does not conform to an established norm, and instead has a special and divine role to play.
Manifest destiny was the 19th century U.S. belief that the country (and more specifically, the white Anglo-Saxon race within it) was destined to expand across the continent. Democrats used the term in the 1840s to justify the war with Mexico. The concept was largely denounced by Whigs and fell into disuse after the mid-19th century. Advocates of manifest destiny believed that expansion was not only wise, but that it was readily apparent (manifest) and could not be prevented (destiny).
The concept of U.S. expansionism is in fact much older. It is rooted in European nations’ early colonization of the Americas, the establishment of the United States by white Anglo-Saxons from England, and the continued wars against and forced removal of the American Indians indigenous to the lands. In 1845, John L. O’Sullivan, a New York newspaper editor, introduced the concept of “manifest destiny” in the July/August issue of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, in an article titled, “Annexation.” The term described the very popular idea of the special role of the United States in overtaking the continent—the divine right and duty of white Americans to seize and settle the continent’s western territory, thus spreading Protestant, democratic values.
Manifest Destiny and Politics
In this climate of opinion, voters in 1844 elected into the presidency James K. Polk, a slaveholder from Tennessee, because he vowed to annex Texas as a new slave state, and to take Oregon. “Manifest destiny” was a term Democrats primarily used to support the Polk Administration’s expansion plans. The idea of expansion was also supported by Whigs like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Abraham Lincoln, who wanted to expand the nation’s economy. John C. Calhoun was a notable Democrat who generally opposed his party on the issue, which fell out of favor by 1860.
Manifest destiny was a general notion rather than a specific policy. The term combined a belief in expansionism with other popular ideas of the era, including US exceptionalism and Romantic nationalism. While many writers have focused on US expansionism when discussing manifest destiny, others see in the term a broader expression of a belief in the United States’ “mission” in the world, which has meant different things to different people over the years. For example, the belief in an U.S. mission to promote and defend democracy throughout the world, as expounded by Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson, continues to influence US political ideology to this day.
The angel Columbia was an image commonly used at the time to personify the United States. Originating from the name of Christopher Columbus, it was originally used for the 13 colonies and remained the dominant image for the female personification of the United States until the Statue of Liberty displaced it in the 1920s. During the era of manifest destiny, many images were produced of Columbia spreading democracy and other United States values across the western lands.
Key TakeawaysKey PointsThe Oregon Trail covered approximately 2,000 miles from Missouri, Iowa, or Nebraska, ending in the Oregon Territory.The Oregon Trail’s initial route was scouted by fur traders and trappers. Each year, as more settlers brought wagon trains along the trail, new cutoff routes were discovered that made the route shorter and safer.The Overland Stage Company used the Overland Trail to run mail and passengers to Salt Lake City, Utah.Both the Oregon and Overland Trail became obsolete when the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad made traveling west safer, easier, and cheaper.The original wave of western settler-invaders along the Oregon and Overland Trails consisted of moderately prosperous, white, US-born farming families from the east.More recent immigrants also migrated west, with the largest numbers coming from Northern Europe and Canada. Several thousand African Americans also migrated west following the Civil War.Key TermsOregon Trail: A 2,000-mile (3,200 km), historic east-west wagon route that connected the Missouri River to valleys in Oregon and locations in between.Overland Trail: A stagecoach and wagon trail in the American west during the 19th century.Transcontinental Railroad: A continuous train line in the United States that traveled across the country and connected the Pacific coast to the Atlantic coast.
The Oregon Trail was a 2,000-mile, historic east-west wagon route and emigrant trail that connected the Missouri River to valleys in Oregon and locations in between. The eastern part of the trail spanned part of the future state of Kansas and nearly all of what are now the states of Nebraska and Wyoming. The western half of the trail spanned most of then future states of Idaho and Oregon.
The beginnings of the Oregon Trail were laid by fur trappers and traders from about 1811 to 1840; these early trails were only passable on foot or by horseback. By 1836, when the first migrant wagon train was organized in Independence, Missouri, a wagon trail had been cleared to Fort Hall, Idaho. Wagon trails were cleared increasingly further west, eventually reaching the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Each year, as more settlers brought wagon trains along the trail, new cutoff routes were discovered that made the route shorter and safer. Improved roads, ferries, and bridges also improved the trip. There were various offshoots in Missouri, Iowa, and the Nebraska Territory; the routes converged along the lower Platte River Valley near Fort Kearny, Nebraska Territory and led to rich farmlands west of the Rocky Mountains.
From the early to mid-1830s, and particularly through the epochal years of 1846–1869, about 400,000 settlers, ranchers, farmers, miners, and businessmen and their families used the Oregon Trail and its many offshoots. The eastern half of the trail was also used by travelers on the California Trail (from 1843), Bozeman Trail (from 1863), and Mormon Trail (from 1847), who used many of the same trails before turning off to their separate destinations. Use of the trail declined as the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, making the trip west substantially faster, cheaper, and safer. Today, modern highways such as Interstate 80 follow the same course westward and pass through towns originally established to service the Oregon Trail.
The Overland Trail (also known as the Overland Stage Line) was a stagecoach and wagon trail in the American west during the 19th century. While explorers and trappers had used portions of the route since the 1820s, the Overland Trail was most heavily used in the 1860s as an alternative route to the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails through central Wyoming. The Overland Stage Company owned by Ben Holladay famously used the Overland Trail to run mail and passengers to Salt Lake City, Utah, via stagecoaches in the early 1860s. Starting from Atchison, Kansas, the trail descended into Colorado before looping back up to southern Wyoming and rejoining the Oregon Trail at Fort Bridger. The stage line operated until 1869, when completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad eliminated the need for mail service via stagecoach.
Who Were the Settlers?
In the 19th century, as today, relocating and starting a new life took money. Because of the initial cost of relocation, land, and supplies, as well as months of preparing the soil, planting, and subsequent harvesting before any produce was ready for market, the original wave of western settler-invaders along the Oregon Trail in the 1840s and 1850s consisted of moderately prosperous, white, native-born farming families from the east. More recent immigrants also migrated west, with the largest numbers coming from Northern Europe and Canada. Germans, Scandinavians, and Irish were among the most common. Compared with European immigrants, those from China were much less numerous, yet still significant.
In addition to a significant European migration westward, several thousand African Americans migrated west following the Civil War, as much to escape the racism and violence of the Old South as to find new economic opportunities. The latter were were known as exodusters, referencing the biblical flight from Egypt, because they fled the racism of the South, with most headed to Kansas from Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. By 1890, over 500,000 African Americans lived west of the Mississippi River.
The Western Frontier
As the nation expanded westward, settlers were motivated by opportunities to farm the land or “make it rich” through cattle or gold.
Describe the conditions common in western frontier towns
Key TakeawaysKey PointsWhile the motivation for private profit dominated much of the movement westward, the federal government played a supporting role in securing land and maintaining law and order.The rigors of life in the West presented many challenges to homesteaders, such as dry and barren land, droughts, insect swarms, shortages of materials, and lost crops.Although homestead farming was the primary goal of most western settlers in the latter half of the 19th century, a small minority sought to make fortunes quickly through other means, such as gold or cattle.The American West became notorious for its hard mining towns, such as Deadwood, South Dakota and Tombstone, Arizona, and entrepreneurs in these and other towns set up stores and businesses to cater to the miners.Key TermsHomesteading: A lifestyle of self-sufficiency characterized by subsistence agriculture and home preservation of foodstuffs; it may or may not also involve the small-scale production of textiles, clothing, and craftwork for household use or sale.
The Federal Role
While the motivation for private profit dominated much of the movement westward, the federal government played a supporting role in securing land and maintaining law and order. Despite the Jeffersonian aversion to, and mistrust of, federal power, the government bore more heavily into the West than any other region, fueled by the ideas of manifest destiny. Because local governments in western frontier towns were often nonexistent or weak, westerners depended on the federal government to protect them and their rights.
The federal government established a sequence of actions related to control over western lands. First, it sent surveyors and explorers to map and document the land and ultimately acquire western territory from other nations or American Indian tribes by treaty or force. Next, it ordered federal troops to clear out and subdue any resistance from American Indians. It subsidized the construction of railroad lines to facilitate westward migration, and finally, it established bureaucracies to manage the land (such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Land Office, US Geological Survey, and Forest Service). By the end of the 19th century, the federal government had amassed great size, power, and influence in national affairs.
Transportation was a key issue in westward expansion. The Army (especially the Army Corps of Engineers) was given full responsibility for facilitating navigation on the rivers. The steamboat, first used on the Ohio River in 1811, made inexpensive travel using the river systems possible. The Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and their tributaries were especially used for this purpose. Army expeditions up the Missouri River from 1818 to 1825 allowed engineers to improve the technology. For example, the Army’s steamboat, the Western Engineer, of 1819 combined a very shallow draft with one of the earliest stern wheels. During this period, Colonel Henry Atkinson developed keelboats with hand-powered paddle wheels.
In addition to river travel, the Oregon and Overland Trails allowed for increased travel and migration to the West. The completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869 dramatically changed the pace of travel in the country, as people were able to complete in a week a route that had previously taken months.
Life in the West
The rigors of life in the West presented many challenges and difficulties to homesteaders. The land was dry and barren, and homesteaders lost crops to hail, droughts, insect swarms, and other challenges. There were few materials with which to build, and early homes were made of mud, which did not stand up to the elements. Money was a constant concern, as the cost of railroad freight was exorbitant, and banks were unforgiving of bad harvests. For women, life was especially difficult; farm wives worked at least 11 hours a day on chores and had limited access to doctors or midwives. Still, many women were more independent than their eastern counterparts and worked in partnership with their husbands.
As the railroad expanded and better farm equipment became available, by the 1870s, large farms began to succeed through economies of scale. Yet small farms still struggled to stay afloat, leading to rising discontent among the farmers, who worked so hard for so little success.
Western Frontier Towns
Although homestead farming was the primary goal of most western settlers in the latter half of the 19th century, a small minority sought to make their fortunes quickly through other means. Specifically, gold (and subsequently silver and copper) prospecting attracted thousands of miners looking to get rich quickly before returning East. In addition, ranchers capitalized on newly available railroad lines to move longhorn steers that populated southern and western Texas. This meat was highly sought after in eastern markets, and the demand created not only wealthy ranchers but an era of cowboys and cattle drives that in many ways defines how we think of the West today. Although neither miners nor ranchers intended to remain permanently in the West, many individuals from both groups ultimately stayed and settled there.
The American West became notorious for its hard mining towns. Deadwood, South Dakota, in the Black Hills, was an archetypal late gold town founded in 1875. Although the town was far from any railroad, 20,000 people lived there as of 1876. Tombstone, Arizona was a notorious mining town that flourished longer than most, from 1877 to 1929. Silver was discovered there in 1877, and by 1881 the town had a population of over 10,000. Entrepreneurs in these and other towns set up stores and businesses to cater to the miners. Gambling and prostitution were central to life in these western towns, and only later―as the female population increased and reformers moved in―did prostitution become somewhat less common.
The popular image of the Wild West portrayed in books, television, and film has been one of violence and mayhem. The lure of quick riches through mining or driving cattle meant that much of the West indeed consisted of rough men living a rough life, although the violence was exaggerated and even glorified in the dime-store novels of the day. The exploits of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and others made for good stories, but the reality was that western violence was more isolated than the stories might suggest. These clashes often occurred as people struggled for the scarce resources that could make or break their chance at riches, or as they dealt with the sudden wealth or poverty that prospecting provided.
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As wealthy men brought their families west, the lawless landscape slowly began to change. Abilene, Kansas is one example of a lawless town, replete with prostitutes, gambling, and other vices, that transformed when middle-class women arrived in the 1880s with their husbands. These women began to organize churches, schools, civic clubs, and other community programs to promote family values.