America’s Expansion Westward And The Question Of Freedom

991 words | 4 page(s)

The rumblings of western expansionism begin with the Louisiana Purchase and then accelerates in the 1830s when President Andrew Jackson instituted his Indian Removal program. Prior to Jackson’s brainchild the majority of Americans lived to the east of the Appalachian Mountains, however a half-century later almost 50 percent of all Americans would live west of the Appalachians, an extremely significant demographic shift. This rapid push westward occurs a decade before the so-called phrase “manifest destiny” enters the lexicon of American consciousness, nonetheless it was an enticing notion that was solely intended for those who were white. Historian Daniel Walker Howe argues that it hadn’t entered the collective minds of those in Washington that western expansion was for people of color, “The assumption of white supremacy permeated these policies”. Americans came to believe that western expansion was preordained, justified and inevitable. But expansion brought a litany of questions to the fore, and one that was primary had to do with freedom.

This question of freedom was pivotal to the hotly contested national debate concerning slavery and its feasibility moving into the future. The central issue for both sides of the dispute had to do with the precarious balance that had existed for decades between free and slaveholding states. As western expansion accelerated during the 1840s it was clear that the move westward was reserved for whites only, buttressed not only with the spread of slavery but also with policies towards Mexicans and Native Americans. But in reality, the territories in which white settlers would eventually encroach upon had, in a way, already been carved up as early frontiersman headed west. According to historian Daina Ramey Berry, this was a unique period in American history, “It was a place where indigenous people, and those of European, African and Mexican descent came into contact and tried to sort out their roles”. While this may have been the case, expansion throughout the west by the 1840s was as much about opportunity as it was about duty, especially given that whites were then destined to overtake the remainder of the country. Slavery was an integral part of western expansion, which was viewed as breathing new life into an abhorrent institution that was increasingly under fire both legislatively and morally. In fact, the existence of slaves in newly formed states was extremely expansive, “historians estimate that close to 200,000 slaves traveled and worked the American frontier between 1830 and 1860.” By the 1850s, the issue of slavery was not only hotly debated but was embroiling the country into an impending conflict.

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The territories to the west were seen by northerners and southerners alike as a means to improve the quality of their lives. While both could agree on this point, their visions of what it meant to live quality lifestyles differed greatly, “For northerners, it meant small, family homesteads where they could ensure self-sufficiency…For southerners, it meant the opportunity to acquire more land and more slaves on which to build their life”. But it wasn’t until the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848 that the issue of slavery came increasingly to the fore. California was poised to enter the Union as a free state and tensions between southern and northern leaders were almost at a boiling point. Concerned about tensions in Congress, President Zachary Taylor requested the austere body avoid discussing “exciting topics of a section character that provided the painful apprehensions in the public mind”. Considering what was to come at the end of the 1850s, it seems almost miraculous that a compromise on the issue of slavery was struck in 1850. The Compromise of 1850 was actually five separate bills passed by Congress that, more or less, defused tensions between free and slaveholding states. Part of the compromise was the inclusion of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which required citizens to assist in capturing fugitive slaves. The precarious balance between free and slaveholding states had been re-instilled as a result of the compromise and yet southern slaveholding states remained hopeful that an expansion of their treasured institution would seep westward and down into Latin America, once acquired. But western expansion, while holding promise in the far-off future, would not manifest in the manner in which slaveholders had hoped for. While a number of states that had emerged embraced slavery, the inevitability of a schism was only a few short years away.

In reality, freedom was never an option for slaves during America’s expansion westward. The institution was embedded in slaveholding states, and while it had the effect of splintering the country in two, it nonetheless was afforded accommodation in order to maintain the Union. What has been briefly surveyed is only a tip of what was yet to come. While expansion westward was seen as a means of improving the lives of all Americans, as long as they were white. The acceleration west could be viewed as a beginning point to a tragedy that was yet to come. It was impossible for slaveholding states to dismantle their abhorrent institution, as much as it was impossible for them to forego their visions of slavery’s expansion. The Compromise of 1850, while a brief panacea that restored a modicum of balance, did not forestall what was to be inevitable. The cherished freedoms that were envisioned existing throughout the west was an illusion to people of color, especially black slaves. Regardless of the conflict between slaveholding and free states, western expansion was reserved only for whites.

  • Berry, Daina R. “How U.S. Westward Expansion Breathed New Life into Slavery.” History. Last modified March 13, 2018. https://www.history.com/news/westward-expansion-slavery.
  • Howe, Daniel W. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Locks, Catherine, Sarah Mergel, Pamela Roseman, and Tamara Spike. History in the Making: A History of the People of the United States of America to 1877. Dahlonega, GA: The University Press of North Georgia, 2013. https://digitalcommons.northgeorgia.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=books.

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