Today In Western History: Manifest Destiny

May 11 — — 1846

On this day in 1846, President James K. Polk sends a war message to Congress, charging that “Mexico has invaded our territory and shed American blood on American soil”.  He is asking that the United States go to war against Mexico.  At stake was President Polk’s vision of what became known as “Manifest Destiny”.  Essentially this meant that the US was destined to take Mexico’s land in order to expand from “sea to shining sea”.  This war would put a politically divided and militarily unprepared Mexico up against the expansionist-minded administration of U.S. President James K. Polk.  It started with a border skirmish along the Rio Grande and eventually ended with Mexico losing about one-third of its territory, including nearly all of present-day California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico.   

Texas had gained its independence from Mexico in 1836. Initially, the United States declined to incorporate it into the union, largely because northern political interests were against the addition of a new slave state. The Mexican government was also encouraging border raids and warning that any attempt at annexation would lead to war.  In 1844 James K. Polk, the newly-elected president, campaigned that Texas

President James K. Polk, Defender of "Manifest Destiny" and instigator of the Mexican-American War
President James K. Polk, Defender of “Manifest Destiny” and instigator of the Mexican-American War

should be “re-annexed” and  the Oregon Territory should be “re-occupied,” and he quickly initiated annexation procedures.  He also had his eyes on California, New Mexico and the rest of what is today the U.S. Southwest.  He tried to buy the land in question, but Mexico refused to sell.  Polk decided to just take the land he wanted, and he instigated a fight by moving troops into a disputed zone between the Rio Grande and Nueces River that both countries had previously recognized as part of the Mexican state of Coahuila.  This would become the model for US expansion into land held by Native Americans for the next hundred years. 

Not everyone was in favor of this military expansion at the expense of another country.  A brand new Whig  congressman from Illinois,  Abraham Lincoln, had contested the causes for the war and demanded to know exactly where Americans had been attacked and American blood had been shed. “Show me the spot”, he demanded. 

Abraham Lincoln, 16th US President
Abraham Lincoln, 16th US President

Ex-slave Frederick Douglass opposed the war and was dismayed by the weakness of the anti-war movement. “The determination of our slave holding president, and the probability of his success in wringing from the people, men and money to carry it on, is made evident by the puny opposition arrayed against him.  None seem willing to take their stand for peace at all risks.”

Frederick Douglass, born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. He was born a slave, but became an Abolitionist, Suffragist, Author, Editor, and Diplomat
Frederick Douglass, born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. He was born a slave, but became an Abolitionist, Suffragist, Author, Editor, and Diplomat

Most of the opposition came from the Northern politicians and abolitionists, who saw this war as a very thinly veiled attempt to expand slavery.  They lost, we went to war, and our country’s borders moved farther west.


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