America: Expansionary Politics to 1877

In the class to this point we have seen the evolution of America: from the first contact of European natives, to the explosion of Civil War and reconstruction. Underlying this narrative, there are many themes which we can see when we examine the underlying story. I think perhaps the most cogent theme to examine is that of expansion. Expansion, of control over lands, of political hegemony, and of economic power underlies the story of America at this point in time. The beginning brought the Europeans, in their hunger for land, gold, and other riches to expand throughout the Americas, driving out and dominating Native populations. This tradition of expansion was then continued by the newly sovereign United States in the concept of manifest destiny, as the expansion the United States into the western frontier. Further, it was a question of expansion that was the underlying issue that set off Civil War itself. As AJBEANE noted, one of the drivers of the compromises that preceded the civil war was whether the institution of slavery should be allowed to expand. This dichotomy between containment and expansion drove the divide between North and South as each feared that if it were not to have it play out as it wished, it would lead to an expansion of the other’s political power. The drive to expand, in political power, in national land, in economic clout drove many men’s actions as the United States grew out of the seeds of European conquest, it seemed necessary that the nation must expand. This expansionary mindset perhaps drove the frontier mindset as well, as through the view of expansion, there are not fixed borders, but rather fluid boundaries which were merely frontiers to be explored and conquered.

James K. Polk: Expanding Land and Sectionalism

As President, James K. Polk was a devout Jacksonian democrat with a steadfast goal to annex new land into the Union. By expanding territory, Polk believed that a nation-wide belief in manifest destiny could eradicate the sectional disagreements that had recently emerged. Unfortunately for Polk, this plan backfired. Northern abolitionists believed that an expansion in land, also meant an expansion of the “slaveholder’s democracy” (311). This dispute led to even more tension between northern and southern states concerning the debate on slavery. In these chapters, Wilentz seems to always pair expansion and slavery together. The nation had become much more political than in earlier years and many debates arose regarding the governance of new land (slavery being the most debated topic). Because the United States was a democratic society, citizens wanted the new states to have characteristics were parallel to their beliefs. Soon, the debate on slavery enveloped the nation’s goals to expand and widened the gap between north and south. It is ironic that the frontier used to be a uniting feature of the United States, giving citizens a common goal of settling the lesser-known areas of continent and an overall feeling of nationalism. Now, people were so sectionalized and stubborn that expansion only led to more debates.

Wilentz characterizes the increased hostility between north and south during this time as a “mutual misunderstanding between Polk and his critics” (311). I agree with this statement. Polk had no intention to favor a side with his expansion policies. He was just following his Jacksonian democratic ideals of expanding the nation’s territory, and by doing so, its scope. I do think Polk could have tried harder to settle political tensions instead of focusing so much on foreign policy. But at this point in American history, I believe there was too much tension built up over regional practices that a president at this time could not do anything to successfully end the sectionalism in the states. At this point, the north and south were divided and no particular plan could appease both sides.