How did westward expansion impact American society?

Expert Answers
jerseygyrl1983 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I will expand on the previous educator's points.

Indeed, westward expansion increased the nation's wealth. Shortly after the Civil War, in 1865, only about 40 miles of track had been laid for the Union Pacific Railroad. The line was completed in 1869. The Union Pacific made it possible to travel from New York to San Francisco in ten days—a time frame that shortened with the development of higher-speed trains. The ability to go from one part of the country to another made it possible to transport goods and people more efficiently. The train eliminated the previous dangers that existed for those who traveled West on wagon trains, including attacks by Native tribes and harsh weather conditions.

Westward expansion became a greater possibility, not only because of the belief in Manifest Destiny (that it was the fate of the United States to stretch its borders from one ocean to another) but also due to the Monroe Doctrine. President James Monroe introduced a policy in 1823, in the midst of a presidential term, stating that the United States would stay out of European affairs as long as Europe stayed out of American affairs. This included two very important points: that Europe would not seek any colonies in the American West and that any attempt by Europe to control a nation in the Western hemisphere would be viewed by the US as an act of hostility. This doctrine ensured and validated American hegemony in the West.

The nation's ability to move westward also inspired imperial adventures elsewhere by the end of the nineteenth century. The US would later seize colonies in the Pacific, including Hawaii, and in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico. Cuba had three years of military rule, starting in 1898, after the Spanish-American War.

To the previous educator's last point, westward expansion did create the pioneer culture that has been depicted in novels by Willa Cather and in films and television shows. Indeed, one had to be plucky and courageous to survive on the frontier, which was dangerous, inclimate, and sparsely populated. However, the repeated displacement and murder of indigenous people, who were removed in favor of homesteaders, calls into question the notion that westward expansion helped to create a more democratic nation. Furthermore, slavery did expand into some western territories, including Arizona Territory. Lastly, freed slaves had fewer opportunities than whites to acquire land out West.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Westward expansion impacted American society in many ways.  Here are three:

  • It made American society richer.  Getting access to more land and more resources helped to make the country richer.
  • It helped to promote the idea that the US had a "manifest destiny" to be a great power.  Expansion was based on taking land from people (Indians and Mexicans) who were deemed inferior.  This helped promote the idea that Americans were better than others and deserved more power.
  • It is said to have helped create a more democratic and individualistic culture.  By going out west, people became more self-reliant because they had to face hardships on their own.  
wisejargon | Student

The best answer ever written to examine this question is a paper by Fredrick Jackson Turner, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," delivered to a gathering of historians in Chicago in 1893.

Three years prior to his writing this paper, the US Census department claimed that there nolonger existed on the North American continent a "frontier."  There were no more savage lands left to be conquered and civilized.

The thesis of Turner's paper was that by constantly pushing the boundaries of the frontier, the "American spirit" was renewed.  It forced individual Americans to rely on their own wits and strength, to solve problems, and to continually renew American culture.  It was out of this sense of renewal of the indiviual, unleashed from the exercise of centralized power, that the idea of "rugged individualism" was born.

This spirit of renewal is captured on the Statue of Liberty, which welcomes the immigrant with these words: 

"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"


This spirit of renewal was captured by President Kennedy when he declared in May, 1961 that America would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

And, this spirit of renewal was captured by a Science Fiction TV show in 1966 which declared at the beginning of each episode:

Space: The final frontier
These are the voyages of the Starship, Enterprise
Its 5 year mission
To explore strange new worlds
To seek out new life and new civilizations
To boldly go where no man has gone before

In order to renew the American Spirit, we need a frontier.  Fredrick Jackson Turner's point was that the American Way of Life was built upon a history of testing the boundaries of our existence.  Other empires look at their monuments, their ruins, their ancient documents and say "This is who we once were."

America looks to the future.  We conquer frontiers.  We look for challenges. That's who we are.  And when we cease to look for the next frontier.  When we stop trying looking for the next challenge, that's when we will cease being Americans.