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The Perils Of Expansion Essay

914 words - 4 pages

Rich with exotic scenes and characters, the westward expansion of the United States has long intrigued the storyteller. Often, inspired by this setting, he has chosen to write of gunfights and Indian raids, or of idealistic pioneers battling nature on the frontier’s edge. But there exists a far darker epic of the high plains and the dry deserts: that of a nation whose drastic expansion rent it apart. The grandiose and decisive policies of American presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Polk saw the vast expanses west of the Mississippi River absorbed into the Union, extending the nation west to the Pacific and south to Mexico. Suddenly enlarged, the United States found itself beset by social, economic, and moral quandaries pertaining to the administration of its newfound territories. Unable to resolve these disputes, the nation split into factions formed along preexisting regional and political divides, which led ultimately to the violent and brutal bloodbath of civil war. The roots of this disastrous internecine conflict originated in the expansionistic strategies of both Jefferson and Polk, clearly indicting their actions as damaging to the nation they governed.
While their means of land acquisition differed, both Jefferson and Polk emphasized American expansion during their presidencies, obtaining extensive swathes of North American territory. In 1803, Jefferson’s administration finalized an agreement with France to purchase the Louisiana Territory, a large portion of central North America stretching from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. Thirty years later, this region contained several states and territories, and pioneers forged even further west, seeking new homes in the distant frontier. Obstacles remained, including the ragtag Republic of Texas, which from Mexico in 1835; a variety of Mexican-held territory, including modern New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California; and the Oregon Territory, which the United States administered in conjunction with Great Britain. James K. Polk swept the presidential election of 1844 after promising to extend America’s boundaries through the annexation of these territories; although his outgoing predecessor, John Tyler, annexed Texas in the waning days of his presidency, Polk moved quickly to accomplish his other goals. Provocative American military maneuvers precipitated a two-year conflict with Mexico; its successful conclusion gained California and the Southwest for the United States. Additionally, Polk reached a compromise with Great Britain, securing the southern portion of the Oregon Territory for American settlement.
The suddenness of this expansion proved impossible for the nation to withstand. As early as the late 1810s, hostility toward slavery had permeated the industrialized North (Forbes 5), often manifested in state ordinances prohibiting the institution. Conversely, slavery proved essential to the South’s agricultural economy, rejuvenated in the 1790s by Eli...

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