Unit 5 - Period Review (Part A)
Part A - Expansion and its Consequences
In the early 1840s, America increasingly viewed territorial expansion as a means to restore its confidence and prosperity lost during the Panic of 1837. The editor John L. O’Sullivan added a divine quality to this quest when he wrote America should expand “by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread . . . [the] continent. . . .” Expansionist ideas also reflected America’s successful experiment with democracy, as leaders called on the nation to expand “the area of liberty” to include lands controlled by Mexico and by Native Americans. In addition, for slaveholding southerners and their allies, expansion meant more land for slavery and increased influence in Congress.
The War with Mexico
To resolve the troubles with Mexico stemming from the annexation of Texas into the Union by lame-duck President John Tyler, President James K. Polk pursued a two-pronged policy. He sent John Slidell to negotiate an agreement to resolve the Texas annexation and boundary problem. Polk also hoped that Slidell would be able negotiate a deal to buy California for $20–25 million. At the same time, the president ordered General Zachary Taylor and 3,500 American troops to the disputed border area. When Slidell’s mission failed, Taylor moved his troops from the Nueces River, which Mexico claimed as the border, south to the Rio Grande river. Mexico viewed this as an aggressive act, and in April 1846, Mexican and American troops clashed. On May 13, 1846, Congress declared war on Mexico.
Over the next two years, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott led American troops to victory after victory against the poorly prepared Mexican army. By 1848, most of Mexico was under American control. In addition, Stephen Kearny successfully seized parts of California and established American claims to the region. Although the war was a military success, the conflict gave Polk and the Democrats political headaches. Military successes promoted the presidential aspirations of Taylor and Scott, both of whom were Whigs. Also, by 1848, the Whigs were raising charges that Polk had deliberately maneuvered the country into war by provoking the border incident in the spring of 1846.
Under mounting political pressure, Polk accepted the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which finally resolved the issue of Texas and gave the United States control of the Mexican Cession. It did not, however, quell the political turmoil. Instead, the new territories proved to be a “dose of poison“ for American unity. Polk’s opponents charged him with provoking the war to satisfy a “slave power“ in the South. During the war, Polk’s political enemies introduced the Wilmot Proviso, which attempted to block the spread of slavery into any new lands that might be acquired from the war. Although never approved, the proviso roiled congressional debate for the next several years.
The Compromise of 1850
The immediate crisis generated by the war was California’s statehood bid in 1849. The South opposed the admission of another free state and feared the exclusion of slavery from all of the Mexican Cession. Henry Clay, sensing an opportunity to settle several sectional issues around the admission of California, proposed the Compromise of 1850. This four-part legislative package included California statehood, an end to the slave trade in the District of Columbia, a stronger fugitive slave law, and popular sovereignty for the remaining territories of the Mexican Cession. When Clay was unable to get congressional approval for the compromise, Stephen Douglas stepped in and drove the compromise through Congress as four separate bills.
Slavery and Politics
The debate over slavery’s spread also divided the political parties. The Democrats split between those who saw slaveholding as a constitutional right that should expand without restriction and the supporters of popular sovereignty, who wanted the decision about slavery left in the hands of the voters in the specific territories. The Whigs, already weakened by internal divisions, could not find a middle ground on slavery and disappeared after the election of 1852. Third parties such as the Free Soil Party and the Know-Nothing Party tried to fill the void, but neither caught on with the electorate.
When Stephen Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Bill in 1854, the nation’s fragile political alignment collapsed. Douglas’s bill divided the Nebraska territory into two territories and called for a vote among the settlers to decide the future of slavery there. This de facto repeal of the Missouri Compromise created a firestorm of protest and within months of its passage, the Republican Party formed, dedicated to combating the growing influence of the “slave power.“