This chapter begins with the story of how Thomas Lincoln (Abraham's father) and his family struggled to survive in antebellum America. Abraham Lincoln worked his way up from poverty to become president of the United States, and millions of Americans believed that with hard work, they too could make something of themselves, regardless of their origins. As Lincoln's father's experience showed, however, hardship and risk were ever present in that struggle. The economic, political, and geographic expansion that Lincoln exemplified raised anew the question of whether slavery should also move west--the question that Lincoln and other Americans confronted again and again following the Mexican-American War.
The Westward Movement, pp. 396-405
Until the 1840s, the overwhelming majority of Americans lived east of the Mississippi River. The revolutions in markets and transportation, the swelling population, and a booming economy helped to propel a westward surge from the 1840s on, but settlers effectively grabbed the West by moving on their own and then demanding protection from the federal government. A clash occurred with the Mexican nation, resulting in its losing half of its territory. Furthermore, two centuries of Indian wars east of the Mississippi ended during the 1830s, but the old, fierce struggle between native inhabitant and invader continued for another half century in the West.
Manifest destiny rested on the idea that the United States was destined by God and history to expand its boundaries over the vast North American continent and, in the process, bring to other cultures and people the benefits of white culture, American democracy, and the free-labor ideal. Coined by New York journalist John L. O'Sullivan in 1845, the term spread rapidly throughout the nation. Despite the grandiose nature of the slogan, it was largely a shield for more base economic concerns. Settlers wanted land, and politicians believed that prosperity rested on controlling trade with the Far East, which required access to Pacific ports.
Oregon and the Overland Trail
One of the earliest targets of manifest destiny was the Oregon Country in the Pacific Northwest. Great Britain and the United States both claimed sovereignty in the region and, in 1818, agreed to a treaty allowing both countries' citizens equal access to the territory. By the late 1830s, white emigrants, lured by bountiful, fertile land, began to travel in wagon trains along the Oregon Trail to reach Oregon Country. On their journey, settlers encountered Plains Indians, the majority of whom were mounted, nomadic buffalo hunters and warriors. Although the Plains tribes could be fearsome, they were impacted severely by white migrants who brought alcohol and disease and killed the buffalo on which the Indians depended for survival. Yet as white migration increased, settlers demanded further government protection. Forts were established along the western trails, and the government initiated a policy of concentration, confining Native Americans to specific areas, out of the way of white migration and settlement. Far more threatening to white settlers than Indian attacks was the reality of trail life-coped with were heat, drought, treacherous rivers, disease, and myriad other hardships. The journey in particular was challenging for women, many of whom took on some traditionally male tasks. Despite the difficulties, migrants kept coming, and by 1845, Oregon had a population of 5,000 American settlers.
The Mormon Exodus
A distinctive group of pioneers moved west, but not to the Pacific Northwest. Instead, they migrated to the region of the Great Salt Lake. These people were the Mormons, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The Mormon trek resulted from a history of persecution in the eastern states. Joseph Smith Jr., founder of Mormonism, encountered strong opposition from the time he promulgated the new religion in New York in 1830. When Smith was arrested for polygamy and murdered by a mob in 1844, Brigham Young took over the leadership of the church and led the Mormons to establish a settlement in Utah. Under Young and other church leaders, the Mormons built a thriving community that was a model of discipline and cooperation.
The Mexican Borderlands
In 1821, Spain granted independence to Mexico, which then encompassed areas extending from the Oregon Country to Guatemala. However, the new republic was beset with a multitude of problems: civil wars, economic crises, Indian depredations, and endemic political instability. Compounding these was the invasion of Anglo-Americans-first traders and settlers who entered Mexico's northern provinces in the 1820s and then settlers who flocked to Texas at the invitation of the Mexican government, which wanted to populate and develop this area. The thousands of Anglos in Texas-the majority of whom were white Southerners and their slaves-soon far outnumbered the Mexican population, and the Mexican government realized its mistake. A showdown ensued between the forces of General Antonio López de Santa Anna and Anglo Texans who had rebelled against Mexico, declaring Texas an independent republic. With 4,000 troops, Santa Anna crushed the Texans at the Alamo and Goliad, but he ultimately was defeated at the battle of San Jacinto in April 1836 by troops commanded by General Sam Houston. The Republic of Texas was recognized by the United States in 1837. Meanwhile, the Mexican province of California also had attracted thousands of Anglo-Americans. Caught up in the frenzy of manifest destiny, Anglos began conspiring to "liberate" California from Mexican rule, much in the same way as had Texans. In 1845, a group of Anglos led by John C. Frémont initiated an independence movement called the Bear Flag Revolt.
Expansion and the Mexican-American War, pp. 405-416
The growing number of Anglo-Americans in the trans-Mississippi West put great pressure on the government in Washington to annex Texas, Oregon, and other territory. In the 1840s, these expansionist pressures helped push the United States into diplomatic crises with Great Britain and Mexico. When the United States annexed Texas, tensions between the two nations escalated, but it was President James K. Polk's insistence on acquiring Mexico's other northern provinces that made war between the two countries inevitable. Even more ominous was the way the politics of expansion flamed the fires of sectionalism by reopening the slavery question.
The Politics of Expansion
President John Tyler initiated the politics of expansion. He had been vice president when William Henry Harrison died in office in 1841 after serving only one month. Tyler was a states' rights Virginia Democrat who had been picked as Harrison's running mate to help broaden the Whigs' appeal in the South. Tyler was profoundly incompatible with the ideological mainstream of the Whig Party, which supported Henry Clay's American System. He soon broke with congressional Whigs, who had united behind Clay's nationalistic economic program. In 1843, Tyler decided to put the full force of his administration behind the annexation of Texas-a popular move, especially in the South. However, it was a dangerous strategy: Northerners did not want to add another slave state, and Mexico had never relinquished its claim to the territory. But Texas had been exploring the possibility of allying with Great Britain, and Tyler worked vigorously to annex Texas before his term was up. His annexation treaty failed, however, when John C. Calhoun linked it to slavery, leading northern antislavery Whigs to charge that the whole scheme was a proslavery conspiracy to benefit the South. Consequently, the Senate rejected the annexation treaty in June 1844. The issue dominated the 1844 election. Henry Clay hoped to avoid the issue by focusing on his economic program but undercut his support in the South by coming out against annexation. The Democrats chose James K. Polk as their nominee. Polk ran full force on an expansionist platform, calling not only for the annexation of Texas but for acquisition of all of the Oregon Country as well. By combining the Oregon and Texas questions, the Democrats hoped to appeal to both northern and southern expansionists. Whig candidate Henry Clay finally hinted at his support for annexing Texas, but he only undermined his popularity in the North: Polk won the election. Before he left office, Tyler won congressional approval for annexation in February 1845, and Texas entered the union as the fifteenth slave state. Polk resolved the Oregon question, agreeing with the British to divide the territory at the forty-ninth parallel.
The Mexican-American War, 1846-1848
Initially, Polk had hoped to buy Mexico's northern territory, but his envoy was rudely rebuffed by the Mexicans. The president decided that completing his expansionist agenda would require military action and ordered General Zachary Taylor to move American troops into the disputed land between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande, which was claimed by both Mexico and the United States. A skirmish resulting in American casualties gave Polk the pretext he needed, and on May 13, 1846, Congress officially declared war on Mexico. The war had many opponents in the United States, Whig critics chief among them, who charged that from the beginning Polk had contrived the whole affair and that the war amounted to bullying of a weak nation by its greedy imperialist neighbor. Polk believed that the United States would occupy Mexican territory and force the Mexicans to sue for peace quickly. In May 1846, Polk ordered Taylor to cross the Rio Grande and seize parts of northeastern Mexico, which he did. In the meantime, other offensives were taking place against New Mexico and California. In the summer of 1846, a small army under Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny occupied the town of Santa Fe with no opposition and proclaimed the annexation of New Mexico. Kearny proceeded on to California, where he joined a conflict already in progress--the Bear Flag Revolt, led by John C. Frémont. The United States now controlled the two territories for which it had gone to war. By the time of the American conquest of California, Taylor had driven deep into Mexico's interior. On February 23, 1847, Taylor's army met Mexican troops commanded by Santa Anna at Buena Vista and won another American victory. The series of victories gave the American troops a sense of superiority, but they worried about other hazards, especially the diseases that killed far more soldiers than did battle wounds.
Victory in Mexico
Even though the United States controlled all the borderlands and much of northern Mexico, Mexico still refused to end the hostilities or cede the conquered territories. At this juncture, Polk and General Winfield Scott, the commanding general of the army, launched a bold new campaign. Scott staged an amphibious landing at Veracruz on the Gulf coast and fought his way west toward Mexico City, reaching its outskirts in August 1847. After a hard fight, Americans occupied the city. Polk's peace emissary concluded the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, under which Mexico agreed to cede California and New Mexico and to recognize the Rio Grande as the Texas border. The United States agreed to assume $3.25 million in American claims against Mexico and to pay the Mexicans $15 million. The war was over, and the United States had gained a vast new territory.
The acquisition of California was one of many results of the Mexican-American War that transformed the United States. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 set off a mass migration of 250,000 people who came from all over the world to seek their fortunes in California. Most "forty-niners," the name given to these gold-seeking migrants, arrived with little capital. As a result, they lived in poorly constructed mining camps and worked long hours with the aid of a few simple tools. The hope of riches and the temporary pleasures offered by saloons and brothels sustained miners enduring the hard conditions of the camps. Some learned that more money could be made supplying the miners than could be earned digging for gold. The business of providing services for the forty-niners enabled the small port of San Francisco to grow to a city of 50,000 in the short span of three years. The absence of regular government, the volatile economy of the gold rush, and ethnic conflict between various groups of immigrants produced violence in both cities and isolated mining camps. The most severe ethnic conflict occurred between Anglo-Americans, the dominant group in gold rush California, and the Chinese, who comprised about 10 percent of the population in the 1850s. By the middle of the nineteenth century, California had become the gateway for American expansion across the Pacific, but Americans would have to develop communication and transportation routes across the vast western interior before California could be fully integrated with the thickly settled states east of the Mississippi River.
Economic and Industrial Evolution, pp. 416-421
Americans in the 1840s and 1850s witnessed huge economic growth. The phenomenal economic growth in the United States between 1800 and 1860 was the result of many factors: an increase in movement to the cities, an increase in Americans working in factories, the availability of new sources of energy-steam and coal-to fuel those factories, and a major increase in agricultural productivity. While cities and the number of factories and steam engines grew throughout the country, the heart of American economic growth during this period lay in agriculture.
Agriculture and Land Policy
Settlement in the Midwest increased agricultural productivity, first because the lack of trees meant that land demanded less energy to clear and second because the rich soil gave higher crop yields. Farmers increased their production by adopting new agricultural techniques that greatly reduced the labor necessary for producing a crop. Most important were improved tools and farm machines, such as the John Deere steel plow, introduced in 1837 and continually improved thereafter, and the McCormick reaper. The federal government made land available to settlers at the relatively low cost of $1.25 per acre, a policy that underlay the agricultural expansion of the nineteenth century.
Manufacturing and Mechanization
Because the United States was land rich and labor poor, manufacturers constantly had to find ways to save labor. Mechanization offered the best prospects. The essential features of this mode of production became the use of interchangeable parts. Within a factory setting, standardized parts could be assembled efficiently and rapidly into a final product. This practice, known as the "American system," spread from industry to industry. Manufacturing and agriculture meshed into a dynamic national economy, as New England-which led the nation in manufacturing-shipped products like clocks, axes, and guns west and south in exchange for southern and western goods like wheat, pork, whiskey, tobacco, and cotton. British goods were cheaper and better than American-made products, however, and U.S. manufacturers supported tariffs to minimize British competition. Throughout American manufacturing, though, hand labor continued to be an essential component of production, despite the advances of mechanization.
Railroads: Breaking the Bonds of Nature
The rise of railroads during the 1840s and 1850s had an enormous effect on the economy as a whole. Railroads not only offered a mode of transport and travel faster than any other, but they provided the means for cities and communities not linked by rivers or canals to participate in trade. Railroads stimulated the growth of the iron and coal industries and fostered the growth of the telegraph industry, which was used to improve communication between railroad lines to avoid collisions. Almost all the railroads were built and owned by private corporations, but government aid did come in the form of massive land grants to railroad entrepreneurs. An 1850 law provided a grant of six square miles of federal land to companies for each mile of track they built. The railroad boom of the 1850s signaled the growing industrial might of the American economy, an economy that linked an expanding, westward-moving population by muscles, animals, and farms as well as machines, steam, railroads, and cities.
Free Labor: Promise and Reality, pp. 421-426
Prosperity and advancement during the antebellum period were not accessible to all Americans. Antebellum America was a white man's world, with immigrants, and especially women and free blacks, overwhelmingly excluded from most opportunities. Discrimination against these two groups did not bother most white males, who took it for granted as the accepted order of things.
The Free-Labor Ideal: Freedom plus Labor
As the North and West grew, leaders felt compelled to explain why the changes in the regions' economy benefited some more than others. They developed the concept of "free labor"--that society was open to all individuals-that is, all white males who were hard-working, self-reliant, and independent. If one maintained these qualities throughout life, it was argued, material success would result. The free-labor system applied not only to landowners but to wage laborers as well, with the reasoning that if poor men worked hard, they could rise to the class of independent property owners. In public schools in the North and West, textbooks and teachers attempted to instill students with free-labor values: self-reliance, discipline, and above all, hard work.
Free-labor apologists considered the gaps between rich and poor to be inevitable when some individuals simply were harder workers, more able, and luckier than others. Though many men obtained the free-labor ideal, more Americans did not-that is, they remained landless and worked for wages. As with any such ideal, those who believed in it often failed to see the downside. The free-labor ideal led countless Americans, both rural and urban, to move every few years, searching for an opportunity that might never present itself. Thus, reality for many Americans, no matter how hard they worked, was not material success and security but a life of perpetual self-doubt and personal dissatisfaction.
Immigrants and the Free-Labor Ladder
The risks and vagaries of free labor did not prevent millions of immigrants, mainly from Germany and Ireland, from coming to the United States during the 1840s and 1850s. The majority of German immigrants were artisans or tradesmen who settled in urban areas, especially in midwestern cities. On the whole, German Americans attained the free-labor ideal, becoming middle-class, independent producers. Irish immigrants were driven to the United States by destitution caused by famine. They entered at the bottom rung of the free-labor ladder and had difficulty climbing up. Approximately three out of four Irish immigrants worked as laborers or domestic servants. Most settled in northeastern cities, surviving on whatever low-paid menial labor they could find. The Irish were looked down on and discriminated against by most native-born Americans, and their Catholicism aroused Protestant resentment. In America, they found abundant (if low-paying) work and could earn in one day wages that would require several weeks of work in Ireland. Still, many wage laborers realistically could not aspire to become independent, self-sufficient property holders, despite the claims of free-labor proponents.
Reforming Self and Society, pp. 426-432
Free labor's emphasis on self-discipline and individual achievement dovetailed nicely with reformers' beliefs that many social problems were caused by insufficient self-control (see chapter 10). Evangelical Protestants sought to eradicate sin and convert people, while temperance advocates fought against alcohol. Other groups sought perfection and personal fulfillment by rejecting established institutions, prescribing new modes of living, and founding utopian communities to put their ideas into practice. Abolitionists and women's rights activists perhaps faced the most overwhelming obstacles in their efforts to eliminate slavery and gain rights for women.
The Pursuit of Perfection: Transcendentalists and Utopians
The fundamental tenet of the New England-based literary and philosophical movement known as transcendentalism was that individuals should reject the materialistic world and abstract religion and instead look to themselves for truth and guidance. Unlike the transcendentalists, a few reformers sought to change the world by founding experimental utopian societies. The purpose or philosophy of these communities varied. Many, like the Fourierist communities, maintained communal ownership of property. Some, like the Oneida community, rejected traditional marriage and advocated a system of "complex marriage" instead.
Women's Rights Activists
Putting their religious ideas into practice, women constituted the core membership of most reform groups, such as peace, temperance, and antislavery societies. Yet their participation taught them basic political skills, and in 1848, the reformers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized an independent movement for women's rights. They launched their campaign at a convention at Seneca Falls, New York. The Declaration of Sentiments issued by this gathering charged that history was fraught with male abuse of women and that the goal of such injury was "the establishment of an absolute tyranny" over women. The Declaration went on to demand universal female suffrage. Although it was ridiculed, the manifesto laid the foundation for the women's rights movement.
Abolitionists and the American Ideal
During the 1840s and 1850s, abolitionists continued to agitate for emancipation, and prominent black abolitionists began taking a more visible and active part in the struggle against slavery and discrimination. Unfortunately, many white Northerners became convinced that slavery was wrong, but they still believed that blacks were inferior. Many other white Northerners shared the common view of white Southerners--that slavery was necessary and even desirable. The geographic expansion of the nation during the 1840s offered abolitionists an opportunity to link their unpopular ideal to a goal that many white Northerners found much more attractive--limiting the geographic expansion of slavery, an issue that moved to the center of national politics during the 1850s. Some black leaders, impatient with white abolitionists' appeals to the conscience of the white majority and with the persistence of racial discrimination in the North, demanded more immediate action. Although the majority of black abolitionists cooperated with white abolitionists, they nonetheless established their own newspapers, held their own conventions, and articulated their own uncompromising ideas. Free blacks aided the cause by quietly helping fugitive slaves. Former slave Harriet Tubman risked her life by making repeated trips to the South to lead slaves to freedom along the "underground railroad," which ran through black neighborhoods, churches, and homes.
Conclusion: Free Labor, Free Men
Americans saw the geographical expansion of the 1840s as a natural corollary to the nation's economic transformation. To Northerners, industrial expansion confirmed the superiority of the free-labor system, in which individuals could choose to exert themselves and succeed. Since Northerners believed that failure was self-induced, they celebrated the system. But Southerners argued that slavery was a better system; they claimed that slaves did not suffer and that their society was more advanced than that of the North. The division between the northern and southern labor systems increasingly meant that their economic interests, cultural values, and political aims were antithetical. The victory in Mexico was not sufficient to bridge the differences between the regions.