Sectional Conflict, 1840-1852
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.