Podcast # 17: Manifest Destiny and The Mexican-American War

In the years after Jackson’s Presidency we see a number of 1 termers and 1 month long Presidency.

Martin Van Buren’s 1 term presidency was plagued by the consequences of Jackson’s decisions as President. Martin Van Buren was Andrew Jackson’s handpicked successor. A lawyer and politician from New York who had helped win President Jackson needed Northern support during his presidency. The Panic of 1837 as a response to the closure of The Second National Bank, The Trail of Tears as a result of Jackson and Van Buren’s policies towards Native Americans. His refusal to support the annexation of Texas and the economic crisis resulted in his unpopularity and William Henry Harrison’s election as President. The first and only Whig President. The Whigs created an executed a brilliant marketing campaign to elect their candidate to the Presidency. They used Harrison’s reputation as a war hero to their advantage and painted him as a man of the people saying he grew up in a log cabin. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. William Henry Harrison was born into a wealthy Virginia Planter family and his father was a signer of The Declaration of Independence. He was well educated and his family well connected and he married into an even better and well connected family. He spent years attempting to win elected office. His alliance with the Whigs would prove beneficial for him but the victory would be short lived. He died 1 month after taking the oath of office. His VP, a southerner, John Tyler became President. This was the first time in our country’s history that a President died in office. At this time there was no clear rule in the Constitution that the VP becomes President, just that the VP takes on the responsibilities of the President. John Tyler argued he was in fact the President. Harrison’s Cabinet attempted to assert their power and attempted to control him, but Tyler wasn’t having it. The Whigs referred to him as “His Accidency”. The Tyler Precedent would stand until the 25th Amendment formally made the VP the President after the death, removal or inability of the President to serve. AS President, John Tyler vetoed many Whig supported bills and as a result they expelled him from the party. He spent the duration of his Presidency battling the Whigs in the legislative branch even to the point of threatened impeachment. John Tyler, a southerner and supporter of state’s rights supported the belief of Manifest Destiny and began the process of annexing Texas to the Union in the last year of his presidency. John Tyler a Virginia plantation owner and slave holder, continued to be a supporter of states’ rights in his post presidential career and ended up supporting secession. He was elected to the Confederate Legislature and died shortly after. His death went unrecognized in the Union as many thought him to be a traitor.

Manifest Destiny: this was a term that was first used in 1845 and is attributed to editor John L. O’Sullivan. In an article in support of the Annexation of Texas, he argued that it was The Destiny of the American government to control the continent. Our God given right to control from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Now you have to consider the argument behind those words. Arguments in support of Manifest Destiny ranged from The US being superior, spread democracy (we were doing them a favor by bringing this form of government to the people in these territories, have access to Pacific ports. Not everyone supported Expansion. Some felt it was unconstitutional, American expansion would infringe upon the rights of those already living there, and many northerners and abolitionists feared this would only further spread slavery. Now who was living THERE?

If you listened to our previous podcast we discussed how President Jackson had removed Native Americans from the south east to lands WEST of the Mississippi. This was for the most part unorganized Territory and for the majority of American History you have Spain as our neighbors in the South West.

This changes when Mexico gains their Independence from Spain in 1821.

The war of for Independence from Spain took years and was costly.

Mexico controlled a vast amount of territory which is hard to do when you are newly independent, in debt and have an emerging superpower as a neighbor. Consider all the issues that the US had when it first gained its independence. Like the US in their own post-revolutionary years, they were in debt. At first, Mexico welcomed American settlers and traders that had been at one time been banned by Spain. The territory of Texas was sparsely populated and Mexico sold land grants in Texas to decrease their debt with some caveats – had to become Catholic and Mexican citizens, and follow Mexican laws). This slightly opened door was kicked open by floods of white settlers who quickly outnumbered Mexican settlers and set up cotton plantations and brought slavery with them. The original agreement allowed for a few hundred settlers to come into Texas. The number of settlers rose to 30,000. When Mexico banned slavery in 1829, the talks of a Texan rebellion increased. By 1830, Mexico banned any new settlers into Texas from The United States.

Now, we have to enter James K. Polk into the conversation.

James K. Polk was a lawyer from Tennessee and a political ally of Andrew Jackson. He began his political career in the House of Representatives, even serving as speaker of the house. After serving many years in the House of Representatives he was elected the Gov. of Tennessee. His upbringing in the western United States helped to shape his attitudes towards slavery and westward expansion. His parents were originally from South Carolina but moved west to Tennessee for the opportunities it provided. His father became a wealthy planter and slave owner. After the removal of Natives from the South, James K. Polk sold his plantation in Tennessee and bought land in Mississippi. This area would eventually become known as “The Deep South”. It was much more difficult for slaves to run away and reach freedom. An outspoken supporter of Western expansion and annexation of Texas made him an obvious choice as a candidate for President for The Democrats. When he was told of his nomination, he replied “The office of the President should never be sought or declined”. His campaign promises of a swift annexation of Texas, finalizing the northern border with Canada in Oregon, later using the rallying cry 54 40 or fight! His opponent was famous Senator, Former Secretary of State and westerner Henry Clay. Henry Clay was famous in the political world. His campaign slogan was “Who is James K. Polk’? James K. Polk was considered a “Dark Horse” Candidate. No one expected him to win. Henry Clay was a power house. It was a close election, but Polk’s vocal and clearer support for the annexation of Texas put him over the top. He had promised to only serve 1 term and so he quickly set out to accomplish his goals.

AS President, Polk brought slaves to The White House. He supported the extension of slavery into westward territories. This was the hot button issue of the time period. As a slave owner, he profited from the institution. From numerous letters he sent at this time we know a number of things when it comes to Polk and his stance on slavery. He purchased slaves while President, he hired a number of violent overseers, prior to his move to Mississippi, runaway slaves from his plantation in Tennessee was an issue. From those facts, we can assume a number of things about Polk and Slavery. Whitehousehistory.gov has a wonderful article on Polk and slavery. If you are interested learn more or just want some more specific information, that is a great place to go.

Republic of Texas

Now this is very much a condensed version, but if you want to read more about this and look at some primary source documents which I hope that you do, a great place to go is the Texas state library and archives commission. You can go to tsl.texas.gov and get a wealth of information.

So when we left off talking about Texas, the year was 1830 and Mexico had banned any new settlers from coming in. Calls for independence from Mexico and annexation to the US started and the US had attempted to purchase Texas from Mexico as early as the 1826. In 1834 When Santa Anna became President of Mexico and threw out the Constitution, many Texans wanted the old Constitution restored. The one thing people tend to remember about this time in history is The Alamo. The Mexican Army crushed the rebellion at The Alamo but it became a symbol of the fight for Texan Independence. Texas declared their Independence and created a Constitution that mirrored those of Southern States in The US and established a government similar to the US. At the Battle of San Jacinto, Santa Anna’s forces were defeated and Texas became an Independent Republic. Fearing being brought into conflict, the US didn’t respond to the request to annex Texas right away. In 1845, Mexico finally agreed to recognize Texas’ Independence but ONLY if Texas agreed they would not allow the US to annex the territory. Towards the end of John Tyler’s presidency, he sent a resolution to Congress on the annexation of Texas which only needed the vote of a simple majority and in 1845, Texas became the 28th State during Polk’s first year as President.

Mexico was furious and cut off diplomatic ties with the US. Polk attempted a last minute effort to purchase Texas, California and New Mexico for 30 million but the offer was turned down. The biggest issue was that there was a border dispute between the US and Mexico. Mexico believed the border to be the Nueces river where as the US believed the border to be The Rio Grande which was further south. When President Herrera of Mexico refused to meet with the American diplomat, President Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to Rio Grande to protect American territory. In the eyes of Mexico, they had just been invaded by The United States.

Mexican- American War 1846 – 1848

This is not a war most Americans remember. This is a war that cost the US almost 100 Million dollars. This was the first war that The US waged on foreign soil. We gained a significant amount of territory. Some supported the war. Some within the US government argued that we should attempt to seize control of all of Mexico. Others considered it a Conscienceless land grab. They felt we had taken advantage of a weaker nation. It’s important to note that during the war, Mexico changed Presidents a number of times. Incredible amounts of political instability in Mexico. They are Newly independent from Spain, waging war with France, waging war with Texas, now, waging war with USA.

After American forces were killed at what they believed to be the border of Texas, President Polk asked for a declaration of war. He claimed “American blood had been spilled on American soil” For two years and various battles within Mexico, The Mexican American war led to many casualties. Almost 14,000 Americans and an estimated 25,000 Mexicans. In one of the battles of The Mexican American War, American troops from Illinois took Santa Anna’s wooden leg and brought it back to Illinois where it is to this day in a military museum. Famous Generals in the US Military gained notoriety such as Braxton Bragg, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and both Ulysses S. Grant and Zachary Taylor who gained political notoriety and were each elected President of The United States. When the war ended with The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848. Mexico gave up 2/5 of its territory. Areas of present day California, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Utah. Mexico had to recognize the Rio Grande as the southern border of Texas. In exchange, the US paid Mexico 15 million dollars and agreed to settle any additional claims that US citizens had against Mexico. This totaled around 2 million dollars. Later in 1853, The United States would pay an additional 10 Million dollars to Mexico for the southern parts of what is now present Day Arizona and New Mexico. This is historically known as the Gadsden Purchase or the Treaty of La Mesilla. (The land was desired for a southern branch of a Trans Continental Railroad.)

In 1846, prior to the end of the Mexican American War and the knowledge of what territories may be gained by a victory, the Wilmot Proviso was proposed but never passed. The bill hoped to ban the spread of slavery into the lands gained from the Mexican-American War. The new lands gained inflamed the heated debate on the extension of slavery. The Missouri Compromise line or the 36 30 parallel was no longer going to work. A new compromise would be needed between slave and free states. This compromise would be short lived and the issue of slavery would soon come to a head with the outbreak of the Civil War.

In 1846 Polk agreed to finalize the northern border with British controlled Canada. Tensions over the Oregon territory ran high. The rallying cry of 54 40 or fight and the firm held belief of manifest Destiny spurred the desire to solidify the border. War almost broke out between the US and Britain over the territory but luckily, cooler heads prevailed. The US and Britain agreed to the borderline of the 49th parallel. The Oregon Treaty was negotiated by Sec of State James Buchanan (a future president). The land acquired from this territory would eventually be divided into both the Oregon and Washington territories.

During Polk’s 1 and only term as President, he accomplished quite a lot. The United States had achieved its goal of manifest destiny. The US government now controlled from sea to shining sea. With Pacific ports now available, the US now had new trade routes to Asia and could compete with Britain.

Polk died shortly after his term as President finished. His legacy as that of supporter of westward expansion and manifest destiny, American superiority and a slave owner. By the end of his Presidency, The United States had drastically increased in size and sectional tensions were reaching an all-time high.

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