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

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How did the westward expansion affect the United States in a positive way?

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Westward expansion affected the United States in several positive ways. First, with the incorporation of the western states such as California and Nevada, the US became a mineral-rich country. This gave its citizens the opportunity to explore and mine the ore deposits in the hope of striking it rich. In...

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Westward expansion affected the United States in several positive ways. First, with the incorporation of the western states such as California and Nevada, the US became a mineral-rich country. This gave its citizens the opportunity to explore and mine the ore deposits in the hope of striking it rich. In addition, it gave the US a significant amount of land. There was so much land that the country was able to offer its citizens land under the Homestead Act, which President Lincoln enacted in 1862. The Homestead Act gave settlers 160 acres of land, thereby encouraging migration. This did more than just encourage migration, however. It also gave the setters and general population a sense of opportunity that manifested itself in a type of entrepreneurial spirt that differed from the more staid climate in the old world.

“Manifest Destiny” conveyed the notion that the United States was destined to expand and spread democracy and capitalism across North America. Expansion gave the young United States a significant amount of free land and also helped diversify the country’s geographic footprint so that the West became the breadbasket of the country.

There were clearly negative factors associated with westward expansion and Manifest Destiny, including the forced removal of Native Americans populations from their territories. Moreover, it was a main factor that led to the United States entering into a war with Mexico.

With westward expansion, the country’s population expanded from about five million in 1800 to over twenty-three million by 1850. Many people went west in search of new opportunities. The westward expansion also ultimately led to the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, which warned European countries not to interfere with America’s ongoing expansion. This meant that the US could develop without the fear of European colonizers returning, which in turn gave Americans a sense of independence and “can do” spirit.

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The United States gained economically from its westward expansion. The region was full of silver, gold, and other precious metals. The region's grasslands were also turned into the richest grain production area in the world. During the heyday of the fur industry, the region produced beaver and other furs that could be sold around the world. The ports on the Pacific Ocean provided easy access to rich markets in China and Japan.

The United States also gained politically from westward expansion. The United States was created at a time when rival European powers jockeyed for who could control the most territory. By seizing the continent for itself and even issuing the Monroe Doctrine, prohibiting other European nations from expanding in the Western Hemisphere, the United States guaranteed for itself room to grow. While westward expansion was one of the catalysts for the Civil War, the United States did not have to fight an entrenched European power in order to expand; rather, it took on the Mexican army in 1846 and easily won the Mexican Cession.

The United States also benefited culturally from westward expansion. Frederick Jackson Turner lamented the closing of the frontier in 1890, claiming that expansion was ingrained in the American psyche. This willingness to expand made risk-taking a positive attribute in American culture. Some popular literature also comes from the period of westward expansion, such as Little House on the Prairie and paintings of Western life by Frederic Remington.

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To answer this question with a critical and accurate lens, one must think about what "positive" means in this context and for whom. In terms of nation-states, positive outcome for the state is more often than not going to result in a negative or outright genocidal outcome for a group of people, non-human animals, and/or the Earth.

The United States, as a nation-state, rich residents of the United States, and successful westward traveling settlers certainly benefitted from the westward expansion of the United States. The westward expansion resulted in more land acquisition, the development of railroads, an increase in the agricultural economy, immense wealth for industrial entrepreneurs, and greater overall power for the United States after the Mexican-American War. The fact that this "positive" gain for the United States is rooted in mass genocide, enslavement, and forced removal is often completely swept over or arrogantly justified through genocide-apologist frameworks about "progress" in history books and historical narratives.

At a minimum, the creation of governments and so-called progress occurs through coercion, displacement (whether it be of humans or non-humans), resource extraction, and massive human labor. In worse circumstances, such as in the example of the United States, nation-state building occurs through outright genocide and enslavement. The example of westward expansion as a positive gain for the United States emphasizes the inherently oppressive reality of nation-state building.

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Westward expansion was a very good thing for the United States.  It gave the country a stronger and bigger economy, made it more of a military power, and even (arguably) made it more democratic.  Of course, Native Americans were devastated by this expansion, but the United States benefitted.

Westward expansion made the country richer.  First of all, it helped drive the Industrial Revolution in the US.  As railroads expanded across the country, they helped drive industrialization by, for example, increasing the need for steel production.  Perhaps even more importantly, westward expansion gave the US more resources.  It gave the US the agricultural production of the Great Plains.  It gave the US the mineral wealth from places like Colorado, Nevada, and Idaho.  These things helped enrich the country.

By spreading from “sea to shining sea” the US became stronger.  It no longer had to worry about the possibility of having a hostile foreign power on the same land mass.  It was positioned to be a force both in the Pacific and the Atlantic.  Thus, westward expansion also increased American military power and potential. 

Finally, many scholars have argued that expansion made the US more democratic and made Americans more self-sufficient.  The US was, for a long time, a country with a frontier.  People could go out into the frontier and make new lives for themselves.  They did not have to stay in the East and work for other people.  They could go west and be their own bosses.  This, it is said, helped make the US more democratic and it helped give Americans  the idea that people are supposed to take care of themselves instead of waiting for others to take care of them. 

Again, we should not forget that Native Americans and the people of Mexico were hurt by the westward expansion.  However, if we look at this issue only from the point of view of the United States as a whole, westward expansion was a very good thing.

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