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

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How did Westward expansion impact American society between 1800 and 1860?

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Westward expansion impacted American society between 1800 and 1860 in a variety of ways, including providing incentive for expansions in transportation and fueling the debate over slavery.

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Westward expansion played a critical role in shaping the debates surrounding slavery and the escalation of tensions between North and South which ultimately led to the Civil War. Remember, these territories would eventually be made into states (and this was a fact of which both slave-owners and abolitionists were well aware).

The turmoil over the question of slavery was awakened from the rapid expansion of the 1840s, when the United States (through its purchase of the Oregon territory and its defeat of Mexico in the Mexican-American War) would be extended to the Pacific. Later, in the aftermath of the California Gold Rush, California would apply for statehood, with slavery outlawed by its constitution.

This moment awakened debate over the issue of slavery, with both slave-owners and abolitionists entrenching themselves on this question. On the congressional level, the crisis was managed via Henry Clay's Great Compromise, but this compromise only awakened further tensions, both through its enacting of a new Fugitive Slave Act (which created an outcry among abolitionists) as well as by its introduction of popular sovereignty to the territories. Later, when popular sovereignty was expanded to Kansas and Nebraska via the Kansas-Nebraska Act, it resulted in sectarian violence between abolitionists and the defenders of slavery.

What we see in the last decade of your chosen timeframe is a period in which the United States was thrown into social and political turmoil. That turmoil was (at least to some degree) informed by the context of Western expansion, and it would ultimately lead to the Civil War.

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Westward expansion brought with it the popularization of the idea of Manifest Destiny, the grim reality of war, and the development of a sectional crisis leading to the Civil War. The notion that the United States had a right to determine the destiny of North America became increasingly popular and was propagated by politicians. The achievement of this mission required innovations in transportation, particularly in canals and railways, as well as a dynamic economy that was able to exploit resources. And, for better or worse, these conditions existed by the 1840s—allowing for the actualization of the ideas behind Manifest Destiny.

However, some impediments remained: well-armed native tribes controlled the Great Plains, Mexico controlled Texas and lands west of the Rockies, and England had claims to Oregon Country. Owing to these obstacles, expansion required aggressive imperialism and the willingness to risk war. The Mexican War—provoked by President James K. Polk (1845–49) in order to force Mexico into territorial negotiations—was intended to be bloodless and brief, but it ended up costing the US 13,000 lives and lasted nearly two years (see the link below).

The territorial gains that stemmed from American expansionism, namely the Mexican War and an 1818 agreement with the British, reignited the debate over slavery. The sense of Anglo-American superiority encouraged by expansionism may have reinforced the cultural underpinnings of slavery. Which system would spread: the hierarchical slave system of the South or the reform-minded capitalist system of the North? The so-called Great Debate over slavery and popular sovereignty led to an increasing polarization over the issue, paving the way for the American Civil War.

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Westward expansion between 1800 and 1860 impacted American society in several ways. One impact was that it allowed American industries to grow and prosper. As Americans began to move westward, they needed products in order to live in the west. Thus, businesses moved to the west and began to make the products that the people needed.

Another impact was the growth of our transportation system. As Americans moved westward, the National Road was built and extended. The Erie Canal was built to connect the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean. Our railroads expanded to the west also. The improvement in transportation also helped businesses to grow and prosper.

As a result of the westward expansion, there were many conflicts with the Native Americans. The Native Americans were forcibly relocated to lands west of the Mississippi River in the 1830s and the 1840s. When Americans expanded past the Mississippi River in the 1850s and the 1860s, more land was again taken from the Native Americans. There were many conflicts with the Native Americans.

As Americans expanded westward, Americans learned more about the geography of the United States. After the Louisiana Purchase was made, Lewis and Clark and other explorers explored the new territory that had been gained. They brought back detailed reports about the land, and new maps were created.

With westward expansion, more states entered the Union. This led to fierce debates about the spread of slavery to these new lands. This eventually became a factor leading to the Civil War.

Westward expansion impacted American society in many ways between 1800 and 1860.

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Westward expansion meant that the US acquired ever increasing amounts of land, and needed people, farmers, to settle there so it could maintained without a huge military presence.  This led to massive immigration in the second half of the 19th century, as mostly Europeans came here seeking to finally have their own land.

It also added vast resources to the United States, both in terms of potential agricultural production and things like gold, silver and timber.

It stimulated the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, and added new states to the country.

It further aggravated the divide between north and south, and accelerated the onset of the Civil War.

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The westward movement began with the Louisiana Purchase on 1803. The movement to the west during the 1800’s is also known as Manifest Destiny. From 1783 to 1815, approximately five million emigrants arrived in the United States and many of those were on quest to gain land in the west. This provided American’s with the hope to “spread” democracy around the continent.

Transportation evolved and changed as the westward expansion increased. Waterways were built, such as the Erie Canal. Goods were able to be shipped more effectively, so mercantilism became important in some areas.

In addition to new trades and transportation, borders were created to form definite boundary lines. In 1836, the republic of Texas declared freedom from Mexico, Florida was purchased from Spain and a border was created between America and Canada.

This is just the beginning of how society was affected by westward expansion. Please see the links below for more information!

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