What caused Americas rapid territorial expansion in the 1840's?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One reason for America's westward expansion in the 1840s was a measure of economic instability both at home and abroad. The Panic of 1837 was quite devastating to the economy, as millions lost their jobs and their homes. Many looked West for new starts. There was also famine and political...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

One reason for America's westward expansion in the 1840s was a measure of economic instability both at home and abroad. The Panic of 1837 was quite devastating to the economy, as millions lost their jobs and their homes. Many looked West for new starts. There was also famine and political instability in Europe that fueled immigration to the New World. Millions of Germans and Irish came to the United States during this time.

Another aspect of westward expansion was Manifest Destiny. James K. Polk won as a dark horse presidential candidate, over the better-known Henry Clay, simply by promising to expand the United States. He settled the Oregon border and gained much of the Southwest from Mexico. The United States believed that it was destined to span the length of the continent in order to spread democracy and its ideals. Settlers believed that they were doing the work of God when they moved West in order to gain the cheap fertile land of Texas and Oregon.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

An additional factor in westward expansion was America's rapid industrialization and its attendant challenges. By the mid-19th century, cities in the East were experiencing huge population growth and expansion. Inevitably, this led to a number of significant social problems such as poverty, disease, and chronic overcrowding. Many immigrants and migrant workers from rural parts of America had moved to the cities in search of better opportunities. However, for a large number of them, disillusionment quickly set in. The wide open spaces of the West seemed like a much more attractive proposition, a place where millions could realize their hopes and ambitions far away from the squalor and rampant exploitation of life in the big city.

In heading out West, the new settlers were hoping to live out the old Jeffersonian idyll of self-reliant farmers working their own land, forming a secure bedrock upon which political society could safely rest. The chance to start over in virgin territory was irresistible for those disillusioned by life in the industrialized East. It seemed to them that opportunities to achieve the American Dream in the burgeoning towns and cities were diminishing rapidly. Small wonder, then, that hopeful eyes turned to the West and the huge promise it seemed to hold out for countless individuals and businesses alike.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are many possible ways to answer this question.  We might possibly say that this expansion was caused by:

  • Immigration.  As more people came to the US, there was more demand for land and more pressure to expand the territory of the country.
  • Military might.  The expansion in the 1840s came mostly through the Mexican-American War.  This war was won largely through the military power of the US.
  • Ideology.  In many ways, the expansion was caused by Americans' ideas about their country and its place in the world.  This is the time in which the term "Manifest Destiny" was coined.  This was the idea that the US was destined by God to expand its territory.  The idea was that the US was so superior (in terms of society, religion and government) that it deserved to take territory from more "backwards" people such as the Indians and the Mexicans.  This motivated America to push to expand its territory and made it feel it had the right to do so.

Of these, I would argue that ideology is the best answer.  This was the force that made American leaders actually go out and fight the war with Mexico.  Belief in Manifest Destiny was the major impetus behind this expansion.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team