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14.1: Westward Expansion and Manifest Destiny

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    The American expansionist movement did not begin with Manifest Destiny and the push westward in the 1840s. Americans had been pushing boundaries since the colonial era, most notably across the Appalachian Mountains. Jefferson set the stage for expansionism with the Louisiana Purchase; the movement grew in the 1830s with the Indian Removal program under Jackson, “freeing” land east of the Mississippi for the expanding population. At the turn of the century, the overwhelming majority lived east of the Appalachian Mountains; just fifty years later, about half of all Americans lived west of the mountains, a tremendous demographic shift.

    The rapid western expansion of the 1840s resulted in great part from demographic, economic, and political pressures. The population of the United States grew rapidly in the period from 1800-1850, rocketing from about five million to over twenty million in a fifty-year period. Americans were increasingly land-hungry as populations grew. Throughout many of the overworked farms of the east, soil fertility was declining, making the cheap land of the west more and more attractive. Politically, many feared that if the United States did not occupy the West, then the British would. Some reasoned that westward expansion would counterbalance the increasingly industrialized and urbanized northeast, assuring that the republic of the United States would continue to be rooted in the ideals and values of Jefferson’s yeoman farmer. Expansion deeply influenced U.S. foreign policy; to the south, tensions arose with Mexico as thousands of Americans immigrated into the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas, hereafter referred to as Texas. Expansion was also deeply economically motivated. For example, Eastern merchants wanted control of west coast ports to trade with Asia. Overall, many Americans envisioned the same end, even though they favored expansion for different reasons; many, however, came to equate the idea of “spreading freedom” with spreading the United States.

    The westward expansion movement continued in the 1840s. During this period, the concept of Manifest Destiny arose to give a religious and cultural justification to American expansion across the continental United States. Millions of Americans professed the belief that the destiny of the United States was to spread democratic institutions “from sea to shining sea.” Manifest Destiny asserted that Americans would expand to the limits of North America, taking political and economic control of the continent. In the process, the inhabitants of North America, including Indians and Mexicans, would be Americanized. Any attempt to resist would be forcibly extinguished. Some would even argue that, in effect, God had chosen Americans to control the Western Hemisphere. These viewpoints are evident in the speech of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, one of the leading proponents of Manifest Destiny:

    I know of no human event, past or present, which promised a greater, and more beneficent change upon the earth than the arrival of…the Caucasian race…It would seem that the white race alone received the divine command, to subdue and replenish the earth! for it is the only race that has obeyed it—the only one that hunts out new and distant lands, and even a New World, to subdue and replenish…the Caucasian race now top[s] the Rocky Mountains, and spread[s] down the shores of the Pacific. In a few years a great population will grow up there, luminous with the accumulated lights of the European and American civilization...The Red race has disappeared from the Atlantic coast: the tribes that resisted civilization met extinction… For my part, I cannot murmur at what seems to be the effect of divine law… Civilization, or extinction, has been the fate of all people who have found themselves in the track of advancing Whites, and civilization, always the preference of the Whites, has been pressed as an object, while extinction has followed as a consequence of its resistance.

    However, the issue was certainly not that simple. The issue of expansion raised challenging and hotly-debated questions that were taken up by both the American government and the American population. Was expansionism moral, and moreover, could a government accept and even promote expansion through moral action, or were the two mutually exclusive? Would the nation fundamentally change with the incorporation of distant lands and new populations (perceived by many as “unable to assimilate” into the U.S. population)? Would unchecked expansionism threaten American military and economic security? Was the expansion of the United States synonymous with the expansion of freedom? Finally, how was the growing nation to expand without upsetting the precarious balance between free and slaveholding states? In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Southwest Ordinance of 1790 mandated the Ohio River as a dividing line: states to the south of the river would be open to slavery. Consequently, the area north of the river was largely characterized by family farms and free labor, and to the south, largely characterized by slave labor. As the expansionist movement grew in the 1840s, the nation struggled to maintain a stalemate of sorts as territories were incorporated into the nation as states. By 1850, seven states (California, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, and Wisconsin) had entered the union as free states, and six as slaveholding states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas). As the concept of manifest destiny developed throughout the 1840s, it became increasingly apparent that it was for white Americans only, not only because of the spread of slavery as a part of westward expansion, but also because of American attitudes and policies towards the Indian and Mexican populations of areas such as Texas and California. Manifest destiny also became a justification for the aggressively expansionist policies of President James Polk.


    The first movement of American settlers outside of the boundaries set by the Missouri Compromise was into the Mexican province of Texas, an area that had been sparsely populated since the early colonial era. As a newly independent country, Mexico was in a politically tumultuous state. Agustín I, emperor of the short-lived Empire of Mexico (1821-1823), hoped to populate the land that had been home to mostly Indians and Franciscan missionaries, so he invited Americans to populate Texas. At first, the invitation was extended to 300 families; however, there was no official maximum set for the future. Families were to be of good moral character, agree to abide by the laws of Mexico, and be Roman Catholic. In 1821, Stephen F. Austin led the 300 families into Texas. In the years that followed, the American population in the Mexican province exploded; by 1827, 12,000 Americans lived in Texas, outnumbering the Mexican population by 5,000.

    Screenshot (258).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Stephen Fuller Austin | Portrait of Stephen Fuller Austin. Author: Flickr user “cliff1066” Source: Flickr license: CC BY 2.0

    In later years, the American population in Mexico grew even more. The American immigrants brought hundreds of slaves with them, making Texas very different from the rest of turn-of-the-century Mexico; the institution of slavery had died out in the late 1700s throughout much of Mexico, and slavery was no longer an economic foundation of the country. However, the government seemed willing to make exceptions in order to attract immigrants to the state. Cheap land was one of the many draws for Americans, slaveholding or no; immigrants to Texas paid 10 cents an acre for land. Comparable land was selling for $1.25 an acre in the United States. Moreover, each male colonist was allowed to purchase 640 acres for himself and up to 320 additional acres for his wife, up to 160 acres for each of his children, and up to 80 acres for each slave that he brought into the province. Finally, colonists were given a ten-year exemption from paying Mexican taxes.

    Screenshot (259).png\
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Map of Mexican States and Territories in 1825 | Map of Mexican states and territories in 1825, showing Coahuila y Texas. Author: Wikipedia User “Hpav7” Source: Wikimedia Commons

    The Mexican government, believing that the Americans could be integrated into the Mexican community, passed a battery of laws. All official transactions were to be in Spanish. Colonists were to settle deep into Texas; no foreigner was to settle within 60 miles of the U.S. boundary. Finally, foreigners who married Mexican citizens would be eligible for extra land. All of these laws, the government believed, would facilitate the acculturation of Americans into Mexican society. However, all efforts failed, and political, cultural, and economic tensions emerged between the Mexican government and the “Texans,” as opposed to the Mexican “tejanos.” From a Mexican point of view, the Texans were a growing threat. Culturally, the Texans had remained distinct from the Mexican population, due in great part to the fact that, although the colonists were required to be Catholic in order to settle in Mexico, only a very small percentage of Texans professed Catholicism. Politically, Texans dominated local government. The Mexican government also felt that the Texans were an economic threat to the tejanos. In one instance, an American settler even threatened to illegally confiscate the land of any Mexican who could not produce a deed. When the Mexican government moved to stop him, he led a revolt, which was ultimately unsuccessful. Slavery emerged as an important issue of contention in Texas; the institution of slavery was tacitly illegal in Mexico, having been a part of the revolutionary ideals, and limited by a series of restrictive laws. Though many of the Anglo immigrants were not slaveholders, some slaveholding Texans circumvented this expectation by classifying their slaves as servants indentured for life. Although the expansion of slavery into Texas had started small, the population had quickly grown and became a major source of irritation and concern for the government. An 1829 government report confirmed that the colonization efforts were ultimately unsuccessful because many Texans refused to be naturalized as Mexican citizens, remaining socially and culturally distinct and isolated. The final straw, the report concluded, was the way in which the Texans ignored slavery laws.

    The government sought to weaken the influence of the Texans in a variety of ways. In 1829, President Vicente Guerrero officially outlawed slavery in Mexico; as slavery was not economically important anywhere in Mexico except for Texas, the proclamation intended directly to weaken the position of the Texans. The government also encouraged Mexican immigration into the state while simultaneously arresting further American immigration and strengthening the Texas garrisons. None of these measures succeeded; indeed, they further incited the Texans and American expansionists, who called for the incorporation of Texas into the United States through one means or another. In fact, many of the Texans had immigrated with the firm idea that Texas would eventually become part of the United States. Two presidents had even offered to purchase Texas from Mexico and were twice rejected.

    The United States was not the only foreign power with an eye to taking part of Mexico; in 1829, Spain invaded in an attempt to retake the country as a colony. The invasion failed, and General Antonio López de Santa Anna Pérez de Lebrón (Santa Anna for short) gained great popularity as the “hero of Tampico.” He helped to lead a coup against the Mexican president and was himself elected president in 1833. The conservative Santa Anna overturned the Mexican Constitution of 1824, which was based on the U.S. Constitution, in favor of a new, conservative constitution called the Siete Leyes (Seven Laws). The Siete Leyes dissolved Congress and invested power in a centralized government backed by the military. This act was the last straw for the Texans; the centralization of government was alien to the Americans, who were used to separation of powers, and meant that Texans would have no political voice at all. They revolted, raising the “Federal Army of Texas” to defend the Constitution of 1824 against Santa Anna and the centralists. Expansionists in the United States and Mexican liberals opposed to Santa Anna alike encouraged the revolt. The revolt culminated in Texas’s declaration of independence on March 2, 1836 and the formation of the Republic of Texas, or the Lone Star Republic (1836-1846). Texas was not the only Mexican state to declare independence; Santa Anna also faced rebellions in the Zacatecas and the Yucatán.

    Texas Revolution and the Lone Star Republic

    Santa Anna successfully quelled the other rebellions but faced a greater challenge in Texas. In the winter of 1835, the president himself led an army of 6,000 soldiers into Texas. He reached San Antonio in late February of 1836, roughly coinciding with the Texans’ declaration of independence from Mexico. Santa Anna found that the Texans, including notables such as Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, had taken shelter in an old mission building known as the Alamo. The events that followed have been presented in a variety of ways, most often reflecting the nationalist views of the historian. After holding the mission under siege, on March 5 Santa Anna sounded the degüello, a bugle call used by the Spanish since the earliest days of colonization to signal that the enemy was to be given no quarter; that is, they declared a battle to the death. Inside the mission, the Texans may or may not have heard and understood the bugle call. The defenders’ understanding of the upcoming battle, nevertheless, matched with Santa Anna’s as commander of the Alamo, W.B. Travis, declared there would be no surrender or retreat.

    The following morning, the Mexicans began throwing wave after wave of troops against the wall; hundreds died under heavy artillery fire from the Texans. After about an hour, however, the numerical superiority of the Mexican army prevailed, and they breached the walls of the mission. The defenders suffered catastrophic casualties. Seven men survived the battle to surrender; they were executed as prisoners. Thirty noncombatants inside the mission were spared, including several slaves of the Texans. Santa Anna hoped thereby to convince other slaves to support the Mexicans in the rebellion. The high casualty rates on both sides reinforced the idea that peaceable settlement was impossible. Another hard Texan defeat followed on the heels of the Alamo. Again, Santa Anna ordered that all survivors taken as prisoners be executed, despite the protests of his commanding general.

    After the Alamo, Americans flocked from the United States to aid and avenge their Texan compatriots. In cities such as New York and New Orleans, “Texas committees” organized volunteers to join the cause. Texans traveling to these cities gathered even more volunteers with tales of the vast acreage of available land in Texas. Up until this time, several companies of tejanos were active in the war effort and fought for independence. Indeed, largely ignored today is the fact that some of the defenders at the Alamo were tejanos. But as more and more Americans came to join in the war effort, and as more and more evident the anti-Mexican rhetoric within Texas became, most tejanos left the Texas Revolution.

    Tejanos were not the only ones fleeing the Revolution; the costly defeats at Goliad and the Alamo resulted in an exodus of civilians out of Texas to Louisiana, an exodus known as the Runaway Scrape. The Texas army under the leadership of Sam Houston was also on the run from the larger army of Santa Anna. The Revolution finally came to an end at the Battle of San Jacinto, where Houston pulled off a stunning and definitive victory when he took Santa Anna by surprise. The Texans forced Santa Anna to sign not one, but two treaties: one public, one private. The public Treaty of Velasco declared the hostilities between Mexico and Texas over but did not go so far as to recognize the Republic; the private Treaty of Velasco, however, stated that in return for Santa Anna’s freedom, Mexico would accept the independence of the Lone Star Republic. After returning to Mexico City, Santa Anna repudiated the private treaty, saying that he signed it under duress and as an individual rather than dictator of Mexico. The “Texas problem” remained an issue for Mexico, although the nation was so racked with internal problems that it never launched another full-scale invasion to retake Texas. The greatest point of dispute was the border; Texas claimed the Rio Grande as the border, while Mexico held the Nueces River as the true boundary.

    After the Revolution ended, Texas elected Sam Houston as its first president. The Lone Star Republic remained an independent nation from 1836 to 1846. During these years, tens of thousands more American immigrants poured into Texas. Some, both in Texas and the United States (particularly expansionists in the slaveholding South), considered that the annexation of the Republic to the Union was imminent; others took advantage of the plentiful land that the new government was giving to heads of immigrant households. While the U.S. recognized Texas as an independent nation, some feared that this annexation talk would inflame political tensions with Mexico. Indeed, the annexation of Texas and its boundary with Mexico would later become a causal factor of the Mexican-American War.


    The second area of great expansion for the continental United States was the Oregon Territory, comprising present-day Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia, stretching from the 42nd parallel, the northernmost boundary of California, to the 54th, the southernmost boundary of Alaska. Originally, Spain, Russia, Britain, and the United States all claimed the Oregon Territory. Eventually, Spain and Russia dropped their claims, leaving Britain and the U.S. as remaining contenders. British claims were based on prior discovery, exploration, and treaty rights; additionally, the most important colonizing agency was the Hudson Bay Company, which engaged in active trade with the Indians of the Pacific Northwest. The U.S. claims were also based on discovery, exploration, and treaty rights; additionally, a small number of Americans, including missionaries trying to convert Pacific Northwest Indians, joined the claim of occupation to the American list. The two countries temporarily resolved the matter with an 1818 agreement to a ten-year joint occupation, renewed in 1827, but the matter was far from settled. In the period from 1816 through the 1840s, few Americans and Europeans settled in Oregon. But beginning in the early 1840s, “Oregon Fever” gripped the United States. Oregon was touted as a land of pleasant climates and fertile soil. Several thousand American settlers began a great westward migration over the Oregon Trail. By the mid-1840s, some 5,000 Americans had populated the Territory, thus strengthening the U.S. claim to Oregon. “Oregon Fever,” moreover, fueled the idea of Manifest Destiny, popularizing it at the national level.

    Screenshot (260).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): The Oregon Trail | The route of the Oregon Trail is shown on a map of the western United States from Independence, Missouri in the east to Oregon City, Oregon in the west. Author: Matthew Trump Source: Wikimedia Commons license: CC BY SA 3.0

    The famed Oregon Trail traveled by westward pioneers grew from rough trails cut by trappers, traders, and explorers. It ran for about 2,000 miles from Independence, Missouri, across the western plains and the Rocky Mountains, ending in the valleys of Oregon, most notably the Willamette Valley. As more and more immigrants came, other cities such as St. Joseph, Missouri, and Council Bluffs, Iowa, vied for business as “jumping off points” onto the trail, as outfitting the westward-bound immigrants was a profitable business in food and supplies, wagon repairs and fittings, and livestock. The journey over the trail was slow, taking somewhere around five to six months to complete. Most people walked beside their wagons much of the way to reduce the load on the oxen and wagon, and because the wagons were loaded to capacity with goods. The journey was dangerous; accidents, including drowning during river crossings, were frequent. Diseases such as cholera and dysentery were the most common killers on the journey. Although Hollywood later popularized the idea of pioneers “circling the wagons” against Indian attack on the trail, such skirmishes were actually very rare and most often provoked by the immigrants themselves. While thousands of immigrants died from disease and injury over the course of the 1840s, fewer than 120 were killed in altercations with Indians. Cooperation and coordination was very important to the success of each group traveling the trail. For this reason, many groups of immigrants drew up a formal document outlining the responsibilities and work assignments of each wagon in the group. The timing of the group’s departure and their daily progress was of pivotal importance as well; they needed to be sure that they would reach the plains late enough to have adequate grazing for the livestock, but reach the western mountains early enough to avoid the winter snows. As the movement into the west expanded, new routes branched off from the original Oregon Trail. The California Trail extended the Oregon Trail south into California, the Mormon Trail into Utah, and the Bozeman Trail north into Montana.

    Election of 1844

    The issue of territorial expansion became one of the paramount issues of the election of 1844. Democrat James K. Polk, Speaker of the House and protégé of Andrew Jackson, defeated Jackson’s old enemy Henry Clay in an election that revolved largely around the issues of the possible annexation of Texas and acquiring some or all of Oregon. Polk, a more vocal expansionist, won the election by a narrow majority. The Democrats also took both houses of Congress, causing many to read the election as a mandate of expansionism.

    Many Americans, Polk among them, set their sights on taking the Mexican provinces of New Mexico and California in addition to Oregon. Polk hoped to obtain New Mexico and California peacefully but was prepared to use force to take them. To this end, Polk settled with the British on the issue of Oregon in order to conserve American strength for obtaining further territory from Mexico. The issue was further complicated by speculations and indications that Britain was considering signing an alliance with Texas, which would forestall any hopes of annexation to the U.S.

    Upon taking office, Polk therefore began talks with Britain. In the months after the election, the rhetoric over Oregon had grown increasingly heated. Expansionists demanded that the United States take all of Oregon Territory, threatening war with the slogan “Fifty-four forty or fight!” referring to the northernmost latitude of Oregon. Polk publicly embraced the demand for “all of Oregon.” However, he was more than willing to accept a boundary line along the 49th parallel, splitting Oregon between the U.S. and Britain. By accepting the 49th parallel boundary, the U.S. acquired Puget Sound, the first Pacific deepwater port held by the U.S. Acquiring part of Oregon also brought territory that would become free states into the Union, counterbalancing the possible annexation of Texas, sure to become slaveholding. By accepting less of Oregon, Polk and the nation could prepare for the coming war with Mexico. This compromise displeased many of the more militant expansionists, but others saw its pragmatism. Why “all of Texas” but not “all of Oregon”? Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri reportedly observed, “Because Great Britain is powerful, and Mexico is weak.”

    Mormon Trek

    For one group, the Mormons, westward expansion was closely linked with religious beliefs. In a migration that paralleled the early westward movement of the American population, Smith led his followers, the LatterDay Saints (or Mormons), from New York to Ohio and then on to Missouri. In each place, they were met with skepticism and, often, hostility. NonMormons were mistrustful of Mormon secret rituals, because the “new gospel” reopened the canon of the Bible, and because, led by Smith, the group denied the authority of local governments. Non-Mormons also feared that the Mormon block voting would lead to the creation of a local quasitheocracy. The Mormons were expelled from northwest Missouri in the 1838 Mormon War. They came to settle in a town in Illinois that they renamed Nauvoo, where the Saints set to construct a temple and create their new Zion. The city charter established independent courts and a Nauvoo militia. These institutions and a boom in local commerce allowed the Mormons great autonomy in the region. During this period, Smith became increasingly powerful. He expelled from the Church dissidents and many who spoke out against him. His practice of “plural marriage,” whereby he (and other Mormon leaders) was husband to multiple wives, attracted the attention and outrage of many Americans. Smith’s growing power in northwestern Missouri did not sit well with his Protestant neighbors, who feared that Mormons would come to politically dominate the region. In 1844, these concerns led to the arrest of Joseph Smith. Smith and his brother were killed by a mob as they were held for trial.

    In the aftermath of Smith’s death, Brigham Young emerged as new church leader. Young oversaw the journey over the Mormon Trail, a 1,300-mile journey westward from Nauvoo to the “promised land,” an area near the Great Salt Lake in Utah, a sparsely-populated outlying province of Mexico. The first 12,000 Mormons made the trek in 1846-1847; more came later in the period from 1848-1860. From 1856-1860, the church promoted the use of handcarts, rather than wagons pulled by draft animals, as a more affordable means of migration. Many of these so-called “handcart pioneers” were new converts to the church who had recently emigrated from Europe and now were on the last leg of their migration. Over the four-year period, ten companies of handcarts made the journey along the trail; two of the ten had significant causalities.

    Soon after the 1847 trek, Mormons found themselves once again residents of the United States after the defeat of Mexico in the Mexican-American War. The signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded much of the modern-day American Southwest, including Utah, to the United States. Utah was incorporated into a territory by Congress in 1860, and President Millard Fillmore appointed Brigham Young territorial governor.


    Americans increasingly embraced the concept of Manifest Destiny in the 1840s. Manifest Destiny was associated not only with land expansion, but also with the idea of Americanization of Indians and Mexican residents of areas such as Texas, Oregon, and California. Moreover, many Americans likened the idea of the physical spread of the boundaries of the United States with spreading freedom. The debate over expansionism was not a simple one, but raised complex questions about the nature of freedom and republicanism and the role of the state in expansion. Many feared that expansionism was a threat to the nation, whether in the form of overextension, national security, or a changing population. Private individuals engaged in commercial and agrarian enterprises at the frontiers of expansion proved to be one of the greatest sources of pressure for expansionism, as their economic activities often preceded national expansion into the territory.

    The first major movement of Americans was into the Mexican province of Texas. Beginning in 1821, American settlers poured into the region, with Americans soon outnumbering Mexicans. Cultural and religious differences and the American reliance on slave labor led to rising tensions in Texas and, ultimately, to the Texas Revolution in 1835-1836. In 1836, Texas declared independence as the Republic of Texas, or the Lone Star Republic.

    In the early 1840s, thousands of Americans pushed westward into Oregon Territory over the Oregon Trail. The United States and Great Britain both laid claim to Oregon Territory; however, the greater numbers of American settlers helped to bolster U.S. claims to the region. In 1844, James K. Polk was elected president. Although he was an expansionist and courted the American public with talk of taking “all of Oregon” for the United States, he negotiated with Great Britain to accept the 49th parallel as the boundary between U.S. and British holdings. It should be noted that expansion into both Oregon and Texas meant that the delicate balance between free and slaveholding states remained intact for the meantime. Finally, the Mormon Trek was part of a greater movement in the westward expansion of the United States in the nineteenth century.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    The concept of Manifest Destiny embraced the idea(s) that

    1. the United States would expand “from sea to shining sea.”
    2. residents of areas under expansion would be Americanized.
    3. spreading the boundaries of the United States was equivalent to spreading freedom.
    4. all of the above.


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    American settlers in the Mexican province of Texas were typically unlike tejanos in that

    1. many were slave owners.
    2. they remained religiously distinct from the Roman Catholic tejanos.
    3. they demanded popular sovereignty for all, including women.
    4. A and B.
    5. all of the above.


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    “Fifty-four forty or fight!” refers to

    1. the border dispute between the United States and Mexico: the U.S. claimed the Rio Grande as the border, Mexico claimed the Nueces River.
    2. American desires to expand to take “all of Oregon,” despite the British claims to the territory.
    3. the struggles of the settlers as they traveled over the Oregon Trail.
    4. the American desire to expand into California.


    This page titled 14.1: Westward Expansion and Manifest Destiny is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Locks, Sarah Mergel, Pamela Roseman, Tamara Spike & Marie Lasseter (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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