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

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What factors led to westward expansion in the 19th century?

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The population of the United States grew rapidly during the nineteenth century, swelled by a vast influx of European immigrants. Most of the newcomers came to live in the burgeoning industrial cities of the East and Midwest, as this was where most job opportunities were available.

It wasn't very long, however, before the American Dream turned into a living nightmare for many immigrants. Instead of wealth and opportunity, they found squalor, overcrowding, and rampant exploitation. For such immigrants and a fair amount of native-born Americans, too, the wide open spaces of the West seemed to be an answer to their prayers. The availability of thousands upon thousands of acres of unspoiled virgin land out West held out the prospect of a new life far from the cities.

In the urban centers of the East and Midwest, it seemed that the American Dream was dying. But out West, it was still very much alive. The opportunity to own land and lead an independent life proved irresistible to many, fueling the almost insatiable demand for Westward expansion.

Those who made the journey out West were under no illusions that life would still be hard. But they figured that at least they'd have the chance for a fresh start—a second chance to have a crack at the American Dream.

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Westward expansion by the United States took place during the nineteenth century because of several factors.

First, the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 was extremely significant. The US had wanted to buy New Orleans from France, but it was lucky to have the opportunity to purchase all of the French territory in the heart of North America. For a mere $15 million, the United States doubled in size. The acquisition meant that the US would not be confined to the eastern seaboard of the continent.

President Thomas Jefferson, not content with the Louisiana Purchase, sent Lewis and Clark on a voyage that culminated with their arrival on the Pacific coast. From this time on, the Americans had their eye on the Pacific, and many dreamed of a nation that would stretch from it to the Atlantic.

The areas coveted by the US after the Louisiana Purchase were not well defended. By 1819, Florida had been acquired from a Spain that was too weak to defend it. The vast areas in the West were sparsely inhabited by Native Americans, Spaniards, and Mexicans. The United States's government did not respect the rights of those peoples.

Manifest Destiny was the idea that the US was destined to rule the West. In fact, it stated that God willed it, because the US needed to expand and "civilize" supposedly backward lands and peoples. Expansion to the West was delayed by the Civil War (1861–65), but it accelerated thereafter as newly built railroads spanned the continent.

Settlement of the West continued until the late nineteenth century. According to historian Frederick Jackson Turner, the "frontier" was an integral part of America's character and psyche. And the closing of that frontier by 1890 was a profound moment in national history.

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There were reasons for our westward expansion in the 19th century. One reason was our belief in Manifest Destiny. We believed it was our duty to expand from the east coast to the west coast. We also believed in was in G-d’s master plan for us to spread our way of living since we believed our way of life was superior to anybody else’s way of life. It was natural for us to do this.

People wanted to move west when they heard there were minerals in the western regions. People hoped to strike it rich and make lots of money. As people moved west, the growth of railroads followed. Eventually, businesses moved to the west in order to meet the demand for products and to seize opportunities that existed in the west.

The government also encouraged people to move to the west. They supported explorers to travel to new lands we received to learn about new regions. Lewis and Clark explored the northern portion of the Louisiana Purchase. The information they gathered made it easier for other people to head west. In 1862, the government passed the Homestead Act that gave 160 acres of land free to families that would live on the land for five years.

People realized there were opportunities waiting in western lands. Farmers, cattle ranchers, and sheepherders moved west to take advantage of the opportunities that existed. For some people, moving west was a chance to start over and improve their condition. They went west hoping to develop a better life for themselves. There were many reasons why we expanded to the west in the 19th century.

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There are a number of factors that led to westward expansion.  Among them are:

  • Immigration and a growing population.  This helped to push people westward in a search for new land and opportunities.
  • Feelings of racial superiority.  The idea of "manifest destiny" and the general idea that whites deserved the land more than the Indians did helped to push this move.
  • Technology.  Things like railroads and improved farm implements made westward expansion more feasible.
  • The Civil War.  This removed the South from Congress for a while and allowed Northerners to pass laws (like the Homestead Act and laws providing for federal help for a transcontinental railroad) that helped cause the westward expansion.

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