Western Expansion, Manifest Destiny, and the Mexican-American War

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How did western expansion affect society socially and economically?  

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Socially, women received the right to vote partially due to westward expansion. Many territories granted women the right to vote in order to attract families to move there. Wyoming was the first territory to give women the right to vote in 1869. The West was also a very egalitarian place...

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Socially, women received the right to vote partially due to westward expansion. Many territories granted women the right to vote in order to attract families to move there. Wyoming was the first territory to give women the right to vote in 1869. The West was also a very egalitarian place that many African Americans found inviting after the Civil War. Many Eastern European immigrants moved west and helped to turn the Plains into the breadbasket that it is today. Not all social changes in the West were positive, however. Native Americans were viewed as obstacles and were pushed onto smaller and smaller reservations. White miners in California clashed with Chinese immigrants and soon pressured Congress to sign a Chinese Exclusion Bill, the first attempt by the United States to restrict immigration. Organized labor movements in the West often clashed violently with management—this was especially true of the Wobblies, who had chapters in many mining towns. While this was not uncommon in Gilded Age America, the Wobblies were deemed radical by most other labor groups.

Economically, the West was a boon to the United States. Texas cattle brought to rail heads in Kansas and Nebraska helped to feed a growing Eastern population. The mineral wealth from the West helped to fund the Civil War. California's ports gave the United States greater access to Pacific markets. Valuable farmland in the Willamette Valley and California helped to bring Americans fruit year-round once the railroads adopted refrigerated cars. The climate in the West would also help to grow the movie industry at the beginning of the twentieth century.

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This question is a bit ambiguous. The two answers so far have assumed that the question was about US expansion in America, but the question can also refer to Western expansion in general. If this is the case, then we are talking about colonialism, when the western powers of Europe were in a frenzy trying to take a piece of the rest of the world. If this is the case, then we can say that the West has it fingerprints in almost every sector of the world and they have developed it in numerous ways. This expansion has enriched the west in great ways and at times even brought wealth to other countries, but it has also brought bitterness, because some have felt exploited. The debates still go on.

 

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The above answer very nicely lays out some effects of this expansion.  They are what I would call more philosophical effects -- things like its impact on the national discourse.  I would like to point to a few more mundane impacts:

  • The expansion provided economic opportunities for people in the East.  It was the last chance to "go west," as the previous answer mentions, and try to improve your lot in that way.
  • Relatedly, the opening of the West (and advertising about that in Europe) helped to attract a flood of immigrants (largely Scandinavian and German) who came specifically to move West and farm.  The German side of my family came in this way.
  • It reduced food prices for people in the East.  The Western lands (when connected up by railroads to the East) could more produce food (especially things like grain and meat) much more efficiently and cheaply than Eastern farmers generally could.
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There were several seismic changes that resulted from Westward Expansion.  One major change was the Native Americans were relegated to merely the fringes, literally and figurative, of the national discourse.  The prospecting for both precious metals and dollars caused Native Americans to be completely displaced in the process.  This began to impact national character as the predominant belief of the cultural and economic majority began to take form in the United States.  Industrialists were also able to maximize their economic powers with Westward Expansion.  Railroads, such as the Union Pacific and Transcontinental, were built with the hands and lives of millions of immigrants and low wage earners who had no recourse as their bosses profited in amazing quantities.  At the same time, the railroads' economic profit helped to develop more towns along the way and some of the railroads were actually extended to help develop economic growth in towns that ended up currying favor with industrialists.  The notion of "Go West, Young Man," and "Manifest Destiny" had converged in the development of economic and social frontiers, representing both the very best in American growth and worst in it is tendency to silence discourse.

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