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Westward expansion and the controversies which accompanied it
captivated the public and their political representatives much more so than such issues as
the tariff, the National Bank, and national funding of internal improvements. There was
nothing new in the peoples living in the United States to move westward; they had been
doing it at least since 1565. Migration was a fact of life; it had been occurring in the
territory for 30,000 years. What was different was that this was the advance of an
advanced but politically split society and each side wanted to maximize its position, to
impose its will. Further, there seemed to be limits to expansion, for Texas and the Great
Plains were all that was available in the early 1840s.
United States citizens had been migrating into northern Mexico, to the state of Coahila-Texas, since the 1820s. The Mexican government initially had encouraged it, but many of the American-Mexicans were illegal aliens. Mexico tried to stem the flow but could not. Nor could it prevent the immigrant from bringing human slaves with them, something against Mexican law. As the number of Americans increased, some of them wanted to ignore their government and do what they wanted or become part of the United States. When conservatives took over the government in Mexico City and clamped down on dissent and reduced state independence, some Mexicans and American-Mexicans rebelled in 1836 and won. When the United States refused to annex Texas, they created the Republic of Texas.
Expansion was occurring in other ways. Trade between Missouri and Santa Fe, Mexico was being conducted. Fur traders were working in the Oregon country and California. Merchants from Salem, Boston, and New York were sending ships to California and from there to the Orient.
People wanted to settle new territory, either existing or to be taken. Cheap land was a major inducement. A family could get a fresh start, maybe even get rich, by migrating to the frontier. Politicians liked the issue of expansionism because it was popular and exciting. They could mobilize the voters. However, expansionism inevitably brought up the issue of whether there would be slavery in the newly-settled territories.
John Tyler ran head-on into this issue. He had become president in 1841 because the Whigs had placed him, a states rights Democrat, on the ticker in hopes of getting the most possible votes for their man, William Henry Harrison, in the election of 1840. When the Whigs took power, Henry Clay got Harrison to call a special session of Congress to pass the Whig program. Harrison died within a month of assuming the Presidency, however, and the Whigs were stuck with Tyler. The Whigs wanted to repeal the independent treasury created by the Democrats and create a third national bank, institute a higher protective tariff in order to subsidize manufacturers, and the distribute the significant amounts of revenue from the sale of public lands to the states. President Tyler agreed to the repeal of the independent treasury, but he twice vetoed the bank bill. Many Democrats feared banks, having been burnt by bad baking practices in the late 1830s. Tyler told Clay that the Whigs could either have the higher tariff or the distribution bill but not both. Clay chose the higher tariff; the tariff of 1842 raised the rates back to the 1832 levels. Clay thought he could persuade Tyler on the distribution issues if he got the preemption proviso (allowing settlers on public lands to forgo the land auction process and buy a quarter section (160 acres) at $1.25 an acre) into the Land Act of 1842. After all, preemption was something Tyler's constituency wanted. Tyler, however, wouldn't be bought. He had only let the Whigs have the higher tariff but had gotten them to pass preemption.
The Whigs disowned Tyler and the entire Cabinet, except Daniel Webster, resigned. As soon as he got the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, setting the Maine-Canada boundary, negotiated, he, too, resigned. The Democratic Party was not fond of Tyler, for he had deserted them to run on the Whig ticket in 1840. Of course he wanted to remain president. To gain support for the 1844 election, he became an advocate of territorial expansion. He secretly negotiated the annexation of Texas.
Bringing up the Texas issue was akin to lighting a match in a fume-filled room. Andrew Jackson had waited until Martin Van Buren had been safely elected president before he dared recognize the independence of the Texas Republic. Those opposed to human bondage had been convinced that the Texas independence movement was an effort to extend slavery. In fact, most of the people who were involved in the movement believed in slavery, which some anti-slavery people took as proof positive that the pro-slavery forces were trying to upset the Missouri Compromise of 1820-21.
Tyler thought that he could cause grief to his old party and that its leaders would have to support him instead of Van Buren or, failing that, he could ride a wave of pro-slavery sentiment to win as a third party candidate. So Tyler appointed John C. Calhoun, an ardent bigot and pro-slaver, as Secretary of State to negotiate the Texas annexation treaty. It was done in April, 1844 and sent to the Senate for ratification. Along with the treaty, Calhoun also sent a letter he had written to Richard Pakenham in which he criticized British involvement in the country of Texas and justified annexation as a measure to extend human bondage. The letter not only killed the treaty but also killed Tyler's hopes.
The smart money was on Clay and Van Buren being the nominees of their parties in the 1844 election but the smart money was wrong. Both published letters opposing annexation of Texas, hoping, therefore, to keep the issue out of the campaign. Clay then got nominated by the Whigs but Van Buren was denied the nomination of the Democrats even though the majority of the delegates were supposed to choose him. Many delegates were swept up in the annexation fervor and united with Van Buren's opponents to deny Van Buren the two-thirds majority the Democrats required for nomination. Even the second runner, Lewis Cass of Michigan, couldn't amass the necessary votes.
James K. Polk of Tennessee was chosen. The Democratic Party was reaching, for he had lost twice as a gubernatorial candidate in his home state. However, he could bridge the factions in the party. The Van Buren men respected him and he was a Jackson protégé. He was the party's in the House of Representatives against the Bank of the United States. As a slave owner and an outspoken advocate of immediate expansion, he was acceptable to the other wing.
The convention adopted the platform for "the reoccupation of Oregon and reannexation of Texas at the earliest practicable moment." Of course it was a lie, for it was not the case of doing anything again. Moreover, the Oregon issue was used to hide the fact that what they really wanted to do was annex the Republic of Texas. Perhaps some of the general public was fooled but anyone who followed national politics understood what was happening.
Neither Polk nor Clay received a majority of the popular vote. Clay received 48.1% and Polk 49.6%. Polk could not even carry his home state. He was elected by the Electoral College because the Liberty Party got enough votes in New York to throw that state to Clay.
The "Texas men" argued that Polk's victory was a mandate for annexation. In early 1845, Congress approved, by joint resolution, the admission of Texas as a state.
Polk turned out to be a very effective president, getting most of what he sought. He got the independent treasury started again in 1846 and a downward of the tariff. His administration reduced expenditures for federally-financed internal improvements. Like Jackson, he was not afraid to use the veto. It was in foreign policy, however, that he made his most enduring fame; he would effectively deal with the United Kingdom and Mexico.
Oregon stretched from 42° to 54° 40'' and had been jointly occupied by Great Britain and the United States with the agreement that either could end the joint occupation with a year's notice. In the early 1840s, United States citizens started moving to Oregon in large numbers and, of course, engaged in land disputes with the Hudson Bay Company. In his inaugural address, Polk acted the demagogue and restated the platform plank. He had no intention of going to war with Great Britain, however. There was not going to be a fight over 54 40'. His administration negotiated a compromise, setting the boundary between the United States and Canada at the 49th parallel. After all, it was unlikely that the enslavement of Americans would ever exist in the Oregon territory.
Mexican territory between the newly-annexed Texas and the Pacific coast showed great promise for human bondage and, perhaps equally important, trade. The prospect of gaining San Francisco harbor, the jumping off point for Pacific voyages, made some merchants salivate. So Polk started a war with Mexico to annex a large portion of that nation.
The opportunity was provided by the dispute over where the exact border was between Mexico and the United States. Mexico still considered Texas as part of its nation, for it had never recognized Texas independence. Polk ordered the army to the border between the two countries to forestall an attack by Mexico. The location of the border was in dispute, however. The United States and Texas wanted to claim the Rio Grande River as the boundary but the Mexicans argued, correctly, that the Nueces River had always been the boundary. The land between the two rivers was not particularly valuable. General W. T. Sherman, stationed there after the Civil War, remarked that if he had to choose between Texas and Hell, he'd choose Hell. It was that bad. Why the US wanted the Rio Grande boundary was because that would place Santa Fe [New Mexico] with its lucrative trade inside the US. Polk ordered the US Army to invade the disputed territory while also having his minister to Mexico try to buy the territory in exchange for the US paying the unpaid claims that its citizens had against Mexico. By doing this, Polk was tacitly admitting that it was Mexican territory, for one doesn't buy one's own property. His intentions were also clarified by his attempt to buy New Mexico and California.
Complicating matters was the fact that the two nations did had not have diplomatic relations. Therefore, Mexico refused to treat with emissaries from the US, which was standard operating procedure in diplomatic relations. Polk, however, decided to use the refusal as a cause for war. He drafted a declaration of war to send to Congress. When the US Army clashed with the Mexican Army near present-day Matamoros, Mexico and sixteen died, Polk changed his draft to assert, falsely, that American blood had been spilled on American soil and that war existed by the act of Mexico. Congress obliged with a war declaration and legislation to fight the war. Polk and much of the country had gotten what they sought, an excuse to take territory from Mexico.
The most surprising aspect of the war was how quickly the United States won; the second was in what the US took. Experts would have thought that Mexico would have won easily. On paper, at least, it had the larger army. However, the conservative governments had not adequately trained and supplied the army and, consequently, it was weak. Equally important was the positive effect of having a professionally-trained for the US army. These officers planned a three-pronged attack which was effective. Although the Mexicans fought bravely, the US army occupied their capital. Events moved so fast that it was difficult to find a Mexican government to negotiate with and to have a US diplomat sent to Mexico City to negotiate a treaty. Nicholas Trist, who had been ordered home after failing to buy Mexican territory, was still there and negotiated the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo (1818). The US agreed to pay Mexico $15 dollars and assume all claims of US citizens against Mexico. In return, Mexico recognized the legitimacy of the annexation of Texas and ceded an amount of land equal to 45% of its territory. Odd doings for a supposedly aggrieved nation which was supposed to have been invaded and its citizens killed!
The Senate ratified the treaty after some debate and a Mexican government was found to sign it. No Mexican official wanted to assume any responsibility for the loss of so much territory. In the United States, the issue was somewhat different. The debate centered on how much of Mexico to annex. Some advocated taking all of the country but enough people were smart enough to see that swallowing that much would choke the US. Others wanted to annex more of what is now northern Mexico. US bigotry saved Mexico. The Senate listened to the arguments that the nation should not have more Catholic Christians or Indians in its midst. The Treaty was ratified without calling for extra territory.
Every time the US acquired territory the slavery issue arose, for slavers wanted to have the right to take their slaves anywhere in the United States whereas the anti-slavery folks wanted the institution abolished and, therefore, opposed its expansion. The Mexican War was fought primarily by Southerners because it was, essentially, a war to expand slavery even though the entire nation benefitted from acquiring Santa Fe and California. Henry David Thoreau had gone to jail to protest the war and the young Whig Congressman, Abraham Lincoln, had spoken against it. They and others feared that the war meant the continuance of Southern control of the country. To counter the expansion of slavery, some proposed the Wilmot Proviso to be added to the declaration of war in 1846. The Proviso forbade slavery in any territory wrested from Mexico; in the testosterone-charged atmosphere of declaring war, the Proviso was defeated but not the sentiment behind it.
Governments had to be created in the new territories but Congress was divided. Southerners demanded that they be able to migrate with their enslaved humans and no law could pass the Senate because they had half the seats. The rest of the nation wanted the Wilmot Proviso and controlled a majority in the House. Polk tried to break the impasse with the suggestion that the Missouri Compromise be extended. He had little clout because he had announced that he would not seek another term and he had already used up the patronage jobs he might have used to influence the outcome. There was no one with sufficient influence to keep the lid on extremism.
The presidential election of 1848 took place in the midst of this agitated state of affairs. The slavery or the free soil issue had split both parties. The Whigs nominated a Southern planter and slave owner, the war hero Zachary Taylor, in the hopes that he could satisfy both wings. The Democrats nominated Lewis Cass but he was disliked by the Van Buren faction for having blocked their man's nomination four years before. The Free Soil Party nominated Van Buren for president and Charles Francis Adams, a son and grandson of presidents. Clearly, nominating a New Yorker and a Massachusetts man was not going to carry much of the nation but the Free Soil Party got a substantial vote and elected nine congressmen. Taylor won almost by default.
By the time Taylor took office in March, 1849, gold had been discovered in California and so many people were flocking there that a territorial government was needed there fast. Taylor told Californians to create a constitution and apply for admission as a state, bypassing the territorial stage. To him, this seemed rational for California met the requirements for statehood and needed to be fully incorporated into the body politic lest this distant province get other ideas. His suggestion infuriated Southerners who were already angry at attempts to abolish the slave trade in the national capital and whose extremists were asserting that the South would secede if the Wilmot Proviso were applied to the Mexican War booty. After all, that is not why they started and won the war.
When Congress assembled in December, 1849, many members carried revolvers and Bowie knives onto the floors of Congress and observers worried if murder was imminent. The House finally elected a speaker after sixty-three ballots on three weeks.
Henry Clay found a way. He proposed that California, as it wished, became a free state. New Mexico and Utah territories were formed from the rest of the cession and their residents would decide the slavery issue at a future date. Texas would give up claims to New Mexico in exchange for the United States government paying the Texas national debt. The slave trade was abolished in the District of Colombia but the fugitive slave law was strengthened. The South was unhappy and the Whigs were unhappy. President Millard Fillmore (Taylor had died) was pro-compromise but did not have the political skill to get it passed. It was Stephen A. Douglas who split the measures into separate bills and got a different majority coalition to vote for each; to make the majority, he sometimes had to get people to stay out of their respective chamber. It was necessary for Whigs and moderate Democrats to join forces to beat the advocates of secession in the lower South.
Everyone thought the slavery controversy had been laid to rest. In the 1852 presidential election, Franklin Pierce, A New Hampshire Democrat beat General Winfield Scott because he supported the compromise. The ominous development, however, was that the proslavery Whigs had joined the Southern Democrats, solidifying the forces who wanted to enslave humans.