Social Change in the Nineteenth Century

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How were slavery and imperialist ambitions intertwined in the 1840s and 1850s?

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The United States was an imperialist nation by the mid-nineteenth century. But the slavery question hindered and complicated its acquisition of new areas in the West and potential lands to the South.

Texas, which had been colonized by American settlers, achieved its independence from Mexico after winning a war in 1836. It then applied for admission to the United States. Its admission was controversial because the North did not want another slave state. Texas was sought by American imperialists, but its entry was delayed until 1845.

The fate of Texas presaged an even more bitter struggle that occurred after the Mexican War (1846–1848). President James K. Polk, an imperialist president, wanted to add California and other Mexican territory to the nation. When Mexico refused to sell, he had an opportunity to take what he wanted by force.

Congressman David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, a free state, introduced a bill to prohibit slavery in territory acquired from Mexico. The South was incensed, and his measure was blocked in the Senate. But North-South tensions over the fate of slavery were exacerbated, and they continued throughout the 1850s.

William Walker, an American filibusterer, led military expeditions into Mexico and Central America in the 1850s. His actions were not sanctioned by American authorities, but Walker tried to win the support of the South. The North worried that lands Walker seized would be slave states. Walker became president of Nicaragua in 1856 before falling to a firing squad in 1860.

There was also an abortive American attempt to take Cuba. The Ostend Manifesto of 1854 was an American effort to purchase Cuba from Spain. Cuba would have become a slave state, and the North vehemently denounced the effort.

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