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Westward Expansion And Slavery Essay Topic

To many nineteenth century Americans, the expansion of slavery into Western territories caused a great deal of controversy. Since the drafting of the Constitution in 1787, the North and the South had grown further apart in terms of economy, ideology, and society. The North, especially, was afraid that the South would force its “peculiar institution” upon the entire Union.  These fears were realized when the expansion of slavery into western territories entered Congressional debates. The federal government, hoping to prevent a civil war, temporarily resolved the issue with compromises. As the compromises appeared to become more one-sided, however, sectional divides between the North and South became more pronounced.

View Edward L. Ayers on the Civil War from The Gilder Lehrman Institute on Vimeo:

The Sectional Divide between the North and the South

While the South utilized slavery to sustain its culture and grow cotton on plantations, the North prospered during the Industrial Revolution. Northern cities, the center of industry in the United States, became major metropolises due to an influx of immigrants. With this willing and cheap workforce, the North did not require a slave system. Although some northerners found the institution of slavery morally reprehensible, most did not believe in complete racial equality either.  Slavery became even more divisive when it threatened to expand westward because non-slave holding white settlers did not want to compete with slaveholders in the new territories.

First Steps Towards Controlling Slavery and Westward Expansion

Politicians were forced to deal with the issue of slavery and its westward expansion as early as the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The States had previously maintained a shaky balance in the Senate with an equal number of representatives from both Slave and Free States. As Missouri prepared to enter the Union as a Slave State, this tentative balance threatened to come undone. Henry Clay of Kentucky temporarily solved the issue by crafting the Missouri Compromise, bringing Missouri into the Union as a Slave State and, as a balance, Maine entered as a Free State. The Compromise also made future bondage illegal in all areas of the Louisiana Purchase north of the 36°30′ parallel with the exception of Missouri; all future states below this line would become Slave States.  This Compromise solved the immediate problem of slavery in the Louisiana Purchase by sweeping the real issue of slavery under the rug in order to placate both northern and southern politicians. In the years to come, politicians of both northern and southern states would not be so quick so compromise.

Conquests from Mexico                 

When the United States entered into a war with Mexico over Texas and its western territories, the issue of extending slavery in the west resurfaced in Congress. [explain] Representative David Wilmot of Pennsylvania first introduced a potential solution to the problem in 1846. His proposed amendment stated:

“…the acquisition of any territory from the Republic of Mexico by the United States, by virtue of any treaty which may be negotiated between them, and to the use by the Executive of the moneys herein appropriated, neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory, except for crime, whereof the party shall first be duly convicted.”

Wilmot’s proviso suggested that slavery should be prohibited in any territories acquired from Mexico. This would encourage white farmers to move west and implied that slavery was not an institution which should stretch far beyond its borders. Fearful of the southern “Slave Power” in Congress, many northern politicians quickly backed Wilmot’s amendment.  Meanwhile, southern politicians railed that such an act was unconstitutional and vehemently blocked the passage of the Wilmot Proviso.  As a result, it never passed and the issue of slavery in westward territories remained a topic of heated debate.

Territories Becoming States

Congress was forced to revisit this issue yet again when California petitioned for statehood in 1849. Because California appeared to have anti-slavery inclinations, southern democrats were reluctant to let it enter the Union and disrupt the sectional balance in Congress. The resulting Compromise of 1850 was supposed to ensure that the interests of both sides remained intact. For the North, the Compromise guaranteed that California would enter the Union as a Free State and the slave trade would end in the District of Columbia. For the South, the Compromise promised that popular sovereignty would decide the question of slavery in the Utah and New Mexico territories. Furthermore, the Compromise reshaped the existing Fugitive Slave Act and required northerners to help capture runaway slaves.  This Act enraged the people of the North as it was a direct violation of their state laws and many argued that the “people of the free states are made [plantation owners’] constables and slave-catchers, bound as ‘good citizens’ to engage in a business at which their humanity must revolt…”

Just four years later in 1854, new statehood controversies arose and forced the issue of slavery back into Congress. Kansas and Nebraska were both large territories petitioning for statehood. However, southerners opposed their admittance because the Missouri Compromise mandated that these two territories would enter as Free states. To satisfy southern states already threatening session, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  This new act repealed the Missouri Compromise; instead, the people living in Kansas and Nebraska would vote to determine the fate of the states.  When voters from nearby Missouri snuck into Kansas in order to vote to make the territory a slave state, tensions between the two sides exploded. War broke out in Kansas between pro-slavery sympathizers and abolitionists, earning it the nickname “bleeding Kansas.”  The violence in the west would soon spread east.

Check out this clip which highlights the escalating violence between the north and south on the issue of westward expansion:

The fighting in Kansas foreshadowed the great fighting that would take place just six years later. The compromises of the early nineteenth century did not settle the issue of slavery and westward expansion. Instead, they suppressed the issue and acted as temporary salves. However, as the compromises appeared to benefit Slave States more often than they did Free States, sectional antagonisms between the North and the South were becoming more distinct. Ultimately, negotiations unraveled and a bloody Civil War erupted.

Below, James Oakes: Emancipation and the Question of Agency from The Gilder Lehrman Institute on Vimeo.

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Study Questions

Not all Americans despised the Indians of the Great Plains. Describe the efforts of those who tried to help the Indians. Did their efforts pay off?

Not all whites were employed in the active destruction of the Indians. Many took a more beneficent view of the Plains Indians, seeing it as their duty to Christianize and modernize the "savages" on the reservations. To this end, the Board of Indian Commissioners delegated the task of reform to Protestant leaders, who manned the reservations. Though cloaked in goodwill, this effort served the more practical purpose of breaking the nomadic tradition of the Indians and making them into permanent and productive members of the reservations. Other attempts were made throughout the late 1800s to "save" the Indians. Richard H. Pratt founded the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania to equip Indians with the skills and culture necessary for integration into white society. However, the school uprooted Indians from their homes and made no pretense of respecting Indian culture. This sort of cultural reeducation assaulted the Indian way of life as viciously as the hunters who had slaughtered the buffalo. The movement to "civilize" the Indians was infused with a sense of cultural superiority. Pratt explained that that goal of the Carlisle School was to "kill the Indian and save the man." Other humanitarians, genuinely concerned about the Indians, suggested that the best thing for them would be to integrate the tribes into white society, instituting concepts like private property and making the Indians less culturally distinct. These concerns were expressed in the 1887 Dawes Severalty Act. The Dawes Act called for the breakup of the reservations and the treatment of Indians as individuals rather than tribes. It provided for the distribution of 160 acres of farmland or 320 acres of grazing land to any Indian who accepted the act's terms, who would then become US citizens in 25 years. While some Indians benefited from the Dawes Act, still others became dependent upon federal aid. In the end, both military aggression and humanitarian aid shared equally in the task of breaking the spirit of the Indian tribes.

How did federal land policy throughout the early years of expansion reflect the political ideology of the party in power?

The land policy of the early expansion period was the clear result of political maneuvering. During the 1790s, the Federalists knew expansion was inevitable, but feared that it would dilute their support center in the Northeast. However, they saw that the West could be a great source of revenue. The plan under the Ordinance of 1785 aimed for groups of farmers to join together to purchase townships. This system threatened to draw many in the Northeast to the West and would not maximize government profits. To solve this problem, the Federalists encouraged the purchase of land by wealthy speculators, who not only would drive up prices, and thereby profits, but also would stem the flow of westward expansion from North and South. The Republicans chastised the Federalists for transferring the public domain to the nation's people too slowly and not cheaply enough. They believed that the United States, and especially the West should belong to small farmers, who were the source of the nation's democratic purity. Thomas Jefferson had long imagined and spoke of an "empire of liberty" which would stretch across the entire continent, and took steps toward that goal most notably with the Louisiana Purchase. He desired that the American West be populated by small farmers, who would ensure democracy (and most likely support the Republican Party). Thus once in power, the Republicans acted quickly to place public lands in the hands of small farmers, decreasing the minimum size of a land purchase and cutting the minimum price per acre as well.

How did the issue of expansion, beginning with the annexation of Texas, become inexorably linked with slavery during John Tyler's presidency?

The issue of annexation was tied tightly to the issue of slavery. Northerners feared that the annexation of Texas was part of a Southern conspiracy to extend American territory southward into Mexico and South America, creating unlimited new slave states, while the north would be unable to expand similarly due to the presence of British forces in Canada. Southerners saw annexation as a way to expand the nation's cotton producing region, and as a slave state, an additional two votes in the Senate in favor of the common needs of the slaveholding South. Once in office, Tyler and his secretary of state, John Calhoun did not disguise their appeals to the South for support for annexation. Calhoun used reports that the British might pressure Mexico to recognize the independence of Texas in return for abolishing slavery there to construct theories on how the British might use Texas and abolition as a way to destroy the rice, sugar, and cotton growing industries in the US and gain monopolies in all three. Accompanying the treaty Calhoun and Tyler submitted to Congress was a letter from Calhoun explaining that slavery was beneficial to blacks who otherwise would fall into "vice and pauperism." The political designs underlying these strategies were clear: use southern support to move annexation forward. Not until James K. Polk became president did the North feel confident that expansion would proceed conservatively and that that federal government would take the desires of both North and South into account. Unfortunately, even then the issue of slavery in the West would continue to tear the nation apart, dragging it toward civil war.

Suggested Essay Topics

How had Andrew Jackson become convinced of the necessity of Indian removal by 1829? Describe some of his earlier experiences with the Indians and the ideology resulting from them.

What were some problems experienced by earlier western settler which were solved by the transportation revolution and how were they solved?

Describe the attitude of the developed East toward the settlers of the West. How did this attitude and the rivalry it spawned factor in the development of the identity of the West?

What was the role of legend in the settlement of the Far West?

What were the concept of Manifest Destiny's ideological origins? What part did the concept of Manifest Destiny play in the push to settle the West?

Explain the significance of the case of Worcester v. Georgia, both in relation to the project of Indian expansion and as it relates to the development of the federal government of the United States.

It is often said that the settlers of the trans-Mississippi West formed tighter community bonds than did Eastern inhabitants. What is the evidence in support of this statement, and what conditions of the West produced this result?

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