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Book Review: Manifest Destinies: America’s Westward Expansion and the Road to the Civil War by Steven E. Woodworth

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The era before the Civil War was one of opportunity and conflict: it was a time of westward expansion, war with Mexico, and slavery. An abomination to some, slavery was to others a source of wealth, which they would not relinquish without a fight. How big that fight would be was an open question, as was its ultimate consequence. Could the American political system reconcile this tremendous conflict? Or would the young nation be torn asunder? Given how the issue divided America’s major religious denominations of the time, every indication was that the conflict would be enormous.

Woodworth begins his captivating history of America’s turbulent era with a description of the development of the two-party system and how the arrangement maintained national unity by suppressing the most contentious of issues of the day — slavery — from being debated at all.

The brainchild of Martin Van Buren, the system was a response to the Missouri crisis, and Van Buren hoped that it would contain the divisive issue of slavery until it went away. He was not the only one who hoped that slavery would fade away. Even in the North, many could simply not accept emancipation for the simple reason that they would have to accept a multicultural society afterward.

The system seemed to work, and slavery remained contained. But another development threatened to destabilize the delicate balance. Expansion posed a threat to the political stability that the two-party system afforded the country because new territories could cause slavery to either solidify its influence or be its undoing.

Americans did not only migrate west to California and Oregon — they also settled in Tejas, then a vast, sparsely populated province of either Spain or Mexico and possibly part of the Louisiana Purchase. There were many potential claimants for the what would become Texas.

The settlers did not much care, bringing with them their own ideas, including slavery, which brought them in conflict with Mexican authorities, who tried to stamp out the practice that conflicted with their laws. The conflict between settlers and authorities festered, but it wasn’t until Santa Anna’s desire to pacify the obstinate settlers resulted in a war that the matter of Tejas and slavery came to national attention in America.

Admission of new states like Texas and California brought the conflict over slavery to the forefront of national politics — the new states would have to either be allowed or be forbidden slavery. The addition of a single slave state would upset a delicate balance of power in the Congress, giving slave states more votes. It was this dynamic that made what would otherwise be a simple matter of Texas becoming a state of the Union complicated. Thus, when Texas nearly unanimously voted for union, the United States balked at accepting Texas as a slave state.

This tug of war and uncertainty had larger implications — it gave the British an opening, and it seemed for a time in Washington that the Lone Star Republic would become part of the British Empire. It was this geopolitical reality that finally motivated union.  The Texas matter also highlighted the grand strategic issues in regard to expansion that 19th-century administrations in Washington had faced. Without a doubt, the administrations in Washington recognized that without westward expansion the United States would face, sooner or latter, the prospect of European empires consolidating their claims on rest of the continent, thus relegating the new republic to an inferior status in a future. 

Britain certainly wished to keep the United States weak, this desire having roots in British fear of states that wished to pursue continental hegemonies (such as Napoleonic Feance and the U.S. on the American continent) In the U.S. case this meant opposing expansion beyond the 13 original colonies. Britain worked to oppose U.S expansion through balance of power politics, and even resisted it militarily, (U.S. expansion certainly played a role in the War of 1812), and it was this strategic objective of preventing continental hegemonies triggered new machinations to prevent the annexation of Tejas. 

What is remarkable is how American politicians were able to manage the divisive issue of slavery so that it did not interfere with the strategic objective of expansion. This was not an easy thing to do. No doubt, in less capable hands, the matter of America’s contradiction — slavery — could have been easily mishandled and the United States would today be an inconseqential nation comprised of 13 states. Part of this successful political strategy of containment of explosive domestic issues like slavery was the two-party system, which left the federal government freer to respond to grand strategic issues and challenges rather than be embroiled in domestic disputes. The expansion into Texas was certainly proof that this system aided the young republic’s grand strategic objectives.

But any praise should be tempered with some moral skepticism: if slavery was an evil, and the two-party system acted to perpetuate that evil by suppressing its open debate, and if the young nation aspired to be something better than Old Europe by protecting the rights of all citizens, then the two-party system was an utter failure.

And slavery was not the only issue that gave lie to the ideals of the young nation —t he westward expansion spread liberty at the point of a gun among the native inhabitants of the western expanses.

Woodworth provides a richly texture narrative full of astutely chosen historical detail, and in doing so he whets the reader’s appetite for more. More, for example, on the larger context of the events. More analysis of what was going on.

For example, the politics of expansion were also no doubt deeply intertwined with the economics of the era, but Woodworth does not provide much in the way of economic context. The crash of 1837 was significant, and the subsequent six-year depression must have plunged the nation into crisis. It would be fascinating to know how that crisis played into expansion dreams at that stage of their development. 

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A. Jurek is one of the editors at Blogcritics. Contact me at: a.jurek@blogcritics.org