1800-1860: Government and Politics: Overview
1800-1860: Government and Politics: Overview
A Princely Domain. On paper, the United States was an extremely large country at the close of the Revolutionary War. In the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war in 1783, the British ceded to the new nation all the territory between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River, except New Orleans and Spanish Florida. When George Washington took the oath of office as the nation’s first president five years later, he became the leader of a country that stretched for more than a thousand miles in every direction—an impressive domain by any standard. However, with the exception of outposts along navigable inland rivers, most Americans lived along a tiny ribbon of settlement on the Atlantic seaboard at the close of the eighteenth century. The grand new maps rolling off American printing presses contained another fiction as well: they failed to account for the fact that tens of thousands of Indians still occupied their ancestral lands within U.S. territory. These Indian nations included the Cherokees, Creeks, Seminoles, Choctaws, and Chicka-saws in the South and the Delawares, Potawatomies, Miamis, and Shawnees north of the Ohio River.
Western Settlement and Politics. The situation dramatically changed in the first half of the nineteenth century. Land-hungry European Americans quickly began spilling west across the Appalachians and into territory called the “Old Northwest” and north into Vermont, Maine, and upstate New York. This movement brought whites into conflict with the land’s native inhabitants, and federal, state, and local governments worked to pave the way for continued white settlement. The federal government’s methods ranged from outright warfare, practiced against native peoples during the War of 1812, for example, to a policy of forced removal of Indians to territory west of the Mississippi, the government’s basic policy in the 1830s. Westward migration did not just happen in antebellum America—it was aided and facilitated by elected officials, politicians, and judges. The federal government used force to remove Indians from east of the Mississippi River and resources to foster economic development. Not surprisingly, the settlers of the West became an important constituency in American politics. By the 1840s the West also became the center of the most serious conflict facing the new republic: whether slavery would be allowed to spread into the western territories acquired from Mexico. The government’s inability to solve the conflict over slavery in the 1850s led, ultimately, to the South’s secession from the Union and the Civil War.
The Great Land Ordinances. From the beginning of the United States of America, the federal government was instrumental in setting out the terms for settling the West. Two major land laws, the Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, set in place schemes for surveying, settling, and governing new territory. In a foretelling of major conflicts of the mid nineteenth century, Thomas Jefferson inserted a clause into the Northwest Ordinance forbidding slavery there.
The Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson also had a significant impact on Western settlement as president. In 1803 Napoleon Bonaparte afforded him the opportunity to purchase the vast lands from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. The Louisiana Purchase gave the new nation control of the entire Mississippi River valley, including the port of New Orleans, and doubled the size of the United States. Jefferson predicted that Louisiana would make the West an “empire of Liberty” for thousands of generations.
Lewis and Clark. To explore the new territory he purchased from France, Jefferson commissioned an expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. In the spring of 1804 the two men, accompanied by forty-one other explorers, set out west from St. Louis. With the help of an Indian guide named Sacagawea, the expedition reached the Pacific Ocean in November 1805 and returned to St. Louis a year later. Along the way Lewis and Clark documented and took samples of the territory’s flora and fauna and made contact with dozens of Indian nations. They also helped guarantee the wealth and promise Jefferson’s purchase would have for the young republic.
Economic Development. After the War of 1812 the federal government became more closely involved with fostering the economic development of the West. The “American System” proposed in Congress by Henry Clay of Kentucky included provisions for internal improvements, protective tariffs to aid domestic manufacture, and a national bank to facilitate credit. Clay’s plan, although controversial, helped usher in a market-driven economy that linked the West to older communities in the East. It also helped transform the frontier into an area dominated by commercial farmers eager to market their goods.
Missouri: Crisis and Compromise. The explosion of settlement and commercial growth in the West led to a conflict between North and South in the territory of Missouri over slavery. When Missouri petitioned for entry into the Union as a state in 1819, Northerners in Congress were wary of granting admission to an additional slave state. The issue of slavery’s influence and expansion was already increasing tension within the government. The Missouri Compromise, passed by Congress in 1821, ended the crisis by admitting Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state and by prohibiting slavery north of 36°30′ north latitude. This compromise, which opened up the present-day states of Oklahoma and Arkansas to slavery while prohibiting it in territory that became Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Montana, Wyoming, and North and South Dakota, diffused the slavery issue in U.S. government for almost a quarter century.
The Battle for Texas. Citizens of the United States did not stop at the Mississippi, however. Thousands of Southerners, looking for new places to grow cotton and reap fantastic profits, began streaming into the Mexican state of Texas in the 1820s. The newly independent Mexican government offered settlers free land and generous tax breaks in Texas if they promised to speak Spanish, practice Catholicism, and adhere to Mexican laws, which included the prohibition of slavery. When it quickly became apparent that the American immigrants were not upholding their end of the bargain by speaking English, rejecting Catholicism, and bringing slaves into Texas, Mexico attempted to curtail further immigration. Instead the Texans began a war for independence in 1836, which they won later that year. After declaring themselves an independent republic, the Texans quickly applied for entry into the United States as a slave state. This provided government officials with a thorny issue. If President Andrew Jackson, a slaveholder and an expansionist, annexed Texas, he would split his party over the slavery issue and start a war with Mexico. So both Jackson and his successor, Martin Van Buren, virtually ignored Texas during their terms. It was not until Texas made overtures to Great Britain that the republic was annexed and made part of the United States in 1845.
War with Mexico. Just as Jackson had feared, annexation led directly to a war with Mexico. President James K. Polk, another expansionist Democrat, used the rapid victory of American troops to press Mexico for even more Western land. The Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo granted the United States virtually all of northern Mexico—as a result of the war the United States absorbed territory that eventually became the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming.
Revival of the Slavery Issue. The acquisition of thousands of square miles of new territory only exacerbated the political crisis in Washington over whether slavery would be allowed there. A group of Northern Democrats attempted to prohibit the spread of slavery into the formerly Mexican lands but fell short of votes in the United States Senate. The issue of slavery’s expansion was at the center of the presidential campaign of 1848, and the Free Soil Party, a new antislavery party, polled more than 9 percent of the vote. Politicians in Washington made a final attempt at a compromise in 1850, passing legislation that admitted California as a free state while at the same time enacting a stronger fugitive slave law to appease Southerners.
Toward Civil War. The Compromise of 1850 proved to be short-lived. Just four years later legislation to organize Nebraska Territory, part of the original Louisiana Purchase, reignited sectional tensions over slavery. The bill’s author, Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois, planned to build a transcontinental railroad through Nebraska terminating in his hometown of Chicago. To placate Southerners he included a provision in the bill repealing the Missouri Compromise, which presumably would open the southern half of the territory, called Kansas, to slavery. “Anti-Nebraska” Northerners quickly coalesced into a new political party, the Republicans, and armed bands clashed in Kansas throughout the mid 1850s. The problem of slavery in the Western territories turned out to be one that could not be solved. While Western expansion added hundreds of thousands of square miles of territory to the United States, it also proved to be the Union’s undoing.
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