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The Westward Expansion Was More Fueled by Slavery and Not Manifest Destiny

“In the middle of the nineteenth century, farmers in the “Old West”—the land across the Allegheny Mountains in Pennsylvania—began to hear about the opportunities to be found in the “New West” (Corbett 435). The land was considered useless initially as it was useless before Americans started viewing it as an economic opportunity. Before the mid-19th century, some settlers had moved westward, leaving some lands like the West Mississippi unoccupied. In the late 19th century, a great historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, claimed that democracy, individualism, and American ideas of equality originated on the frontier. Manifest Destiny was a concept that meant territorial expansion throughout the continent. The concept gave Americans the right to expand its democratic institutions, spreading their thoughts, culture, and customs and leading any group they found to expand.

Meanwhile, the expansion would also increase the spread of slavery. The westward expansion would spend slavery more in Alabama, Southwest into Mississippi, and down to Louisiana. In the mid-17th century, in the 1840s, slavery had also spread across Texas (Turner 132). The westward expansion, despite aiming to achieve Manifest Destiny to expand liberty, was more fueled by slavery.

In the 19th century, the agrarian economy in the Southern United States led to widespread slavery. The Southerners needed people to aid in cultivating cash crops like cotton, sugar, tobacco, and rice, which was a part of their economy. Cotton production needed labor from planting, tending, and harvesting. Enslaved people would offer their services at a cheaper price, which allowed the Southerners to maximize their profits. Settlers carried the Southerners’ ways of life ingrained practices as they moved westwards to occupy new lands. The Southerner’s overreliance on slave labor defined their agricultural system, influencing the growth of new territories and enforcing the region’s economic reliance on slavery (Turner 135). The nation’s push towards the western frontier was driven by the economic need to maintain an agrarian economy using slave labor, which prove the connection between westward expansion and slavery.

The 19th-century Westward expansion led to the expansion of slaveholding states, which proves that slavery played a critical role as the nation moved to the frontier. The state acquired new territories through the annexation of Texas and the Louisiana Purchase, which brought controversies on whether slavery would be allowed in those areas. The controversies would further increase tensions between the South and the North as every region had different opinions towards slavery. These differences led to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which attempted to address the problem early, creating a boundary between the regions where slavery would be permitted (Cobbett 439). However, as the nation grew, the 1850 Compromise also grew, which meant another attempt to settle the differences concerning slavery status in the newly annexed regions. After the end of the American War, the United States added new territories, which would put more pressure on the Compromise of 1850 and other legislative measures to balance between enslaved persons and free states. Among the provisions in the Compromise were the admission of California as a free state and the establishment of popular sovereignty in Utah and New Mexico territories. The Compromise, however, did little to solve the problem despite the efforts; hence the tensions heightened (Isenberg 5). The debate on slavery expansion into the new territories would put the nation on the verge of civil war, which proves that westward expansion was connected to slavery.

The Kansas-Nebraska of 1854 is another example that shows the relationship between westward expansion and slavery. The act was proposed by Senator Stephen Douglas and attempted to use popular sovereignty to address slavery in Nebraska and Kansas. Popular sovereignty meant that people in each region would choose whether to allow slavery or not by conducting a popular vote. The democratic approach, however, brought consequences as it first repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which forbade slavery in northern areas (Corbett 451). The Kansas-Nebraska Act would also cause a reignition of controversy concerning the spread of slavery into the western territories, causing both pro and anti-slavery settlers to move into Kansa. The movement was to ensure they influenced the results of the popular vote. The situation would create more conflicts between the pro and anti-slavery settlers, referred to as “Bleeding Kansas.” Violent conflicts erupted as each group wanted to influence the final results and establish dominance. Despite aiming to reduce tensions, the Kansas-Nebraska Act increased conflicts, pushing the nation toward the Civil War. The violent conflicts show that the westward expansion increased slavery as there was a struggle over the territory’s views on slavery.

The Southern Planters had economic interests, which led to the desire to create new slaveholding territories. Agriculture, especially the cultivation of cash crops like cotton, was the backbone of the antebellum South economy. For the agrarian economy to be profitable, it relied on labor from enslaved people. The Southern planters who owned the large plantations perceived the westward expansion as a chance to expand their economic model into new regions. Southern planters wanted to expand slavery as settlers moved into Louisiana, Texas, and the newly annexed southwestern territories (Turner 138). Their economic motivation was that by spreading slavery’s geographic reach, they would access more fertile lands, which they would use to conduct intensive farming. The acquisition of new territories enabled the Southern planters to uphold their economic and social dominance in the Southern states by expanding crop production. This means that the Southerners’ economic interests were motivated by financial benefits and upholding their political and social dominance(Isenberg 15). Their way of life was greatly influenced by slavery; hence, bringing slavery westward enabled them to maintain their status.

Manifest Destiny was not uniform, as it was applied selectively. The Southern planters only accepted Manifest Destiny if it suited their agenda. Slavery expansion was promoted under the pretext of Manifest Destiny as a way of spreading civilization and the advantages to the Southerner’s way of life. Besides, annexing Texas and acquiring new territories after the Mexican-American war ended proved more on the selective application of Manifest Destiny (Corbett 436). Southern leaders, for instance, President James Polk, would show their interest in Manifest Destiny; however, their main aim was to access more land to extend the slave economy. Furthermore, many political compromises, like the Compromise of 1850, attempted to solve the conflict between free and enslaved states. The debates proved that Manifest Destiny was never about expanding the territories; otherwise, there would be no conflicts.

Proponents, however, argue that primarily Manifest Destiny fueled the Westward expansion. This can be explained using the Louisiana Purchase, the Oregon Trail, and the California Gold Rush. The Oregon Trail stretches from Missouri to Oregon, proving the westward migration was purely motivated by the need for new adventurers and opportunities. The settlers were attracted to Oregon by fertile lands they hoped would prosper them economically. Also, according to (A Biography of America), the 1803 Louisiana Purchase increased the size of the United States and aimed to acquire the port of New Orleans to offer more land for agrarian expansion. In addition, the California Gold Rush in 1848 attracted many settlers seeking opportunity and wealth, proving the pursuit of economic prosperity. Corbett (445) writes, “The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California, set a pattern for such strikes that was repeated repeatedly for the next decade, in what collectively became known as the California Gold Rush.” Following the discovery, people rushed to secure wealth for economic expansion. While the above instances could prove Manifest Destiny, a deeper analysis reveals the economic interests connected to slavery. The strategic expansion of slavery in territories like Mexico and Texas proved that the economic interests linked to slavery were more than the actualization of Manifest Destiny.

To sum up, the westward expansion shows an interplay between the expansion of slavery and Manifest Destiny. However, the westward expansion was more fueled by slavery. The point can be justified using the Southern economic state during the expansion, the Kansas- Nebraska Act, and how Manifest Destiny was applied selectively. When acknowledging the counterargument on Manifest Destiny being a primary driver, it is essential to recognize that territorial growth coexisted with economic interests that are tied down to slavery. Therefore, the westward expansion was fueled by slavery, not primarily the quest for Manifest Destiny.

Works Cited

Corbett, P. Scott, et al. “U.S. History.” OpenStax – Rice University, 2014. 435-464

A New System of Government.” A Biography of America, produced by WGBH Boston, 2000.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The significance of the frontier in American history.” The Structure of Political Geography. Routledge, 2017. 132-139. frontier-american-history-frederick-jackson-turner

Isenberg, Andrew C., and Thomas Richards Jr. “Alternative wests: Rethinking manifest destiny.” Pacific Historical Review 86.1 (2017): 4-17. Manifest-Destiny


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