Civil War Before THE Civil War – Manifest Destiny and Compromise (Part I)

james polkPresident James K. Polk was on a mission to expand the country westward.  The term “divine destiny” had been used by journalist John O’Sullivan in 1839, later evolving into what came to be known as “Manifest Destiny”.  Part of Polk’s plans for westward expansion involved taking possession of a vast amount of land under Mexican control and it would require a two-prong attack.

Mexican-American War

John Fremont, accompanied by Kit Carson, was sent to the far west to stake a claim to California and Stephen Kearny was dispatched to New Mexico.  In New Mexico, the governor fled Santa Fe (with lots of gold and silver) and Kearny’s troops easily secured Santa Fe without a single death.  From there, Kearny continued westward to California to join up with Fremont.

While Kearny was on his way to California, Kit Carson rode into his camp headed east back to Washington, dispatched by Captain Fremont to carry out his mission in sixty days.  Of course, Carson’s skills as a guide were legendary and Kearny thought what good fortune to have Carson come along at just the right time.  Kearny (a General) ordered Carson (who had been temporarily commissioned as a lieutenant under Captain Fremont) to hand over the papers and let someone else continue the mission.  Kearny wanted Carson’s expertise to guide him across the long stretch from New Mexico to California.  Carson was a man of honor and wanted to continue the mission he had sworn to complete — he even thought about escaping Kearny’s camp.  Kit was persuaded to relinquish his mission only because it was being handed over to his trusted friend Tom Fitzpatrick.

Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott were sent to directly engage Mexico by crossing the Rio Grande.  Meanwhile, the Whigs and anti-slavery Northerners were appalled at Polk’s actions – concerned that the acquisition of Mexican territory would lead to expansion of slave states.  At the end of the war, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo gave the United States New Mexico territory and California, as well as disputed Texas territory.

Compromise of 1850

After the war, a power struggle ensued.  Northern abolitionists feared that cotton would be planted in the new territory which would most certainly encourage slavery, while Southerners feared that slavery wouldn’t be allowed which would cause them to lose power in Congress.  Bitter disputes arose in Washington – everyone had an opinion on the issue of slavery.

Eventually a bi-partisan bill, called the Compromise of 1850, was brokered by Whig Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky and Democrat Stephen Douglas of Illinois.  As a result the following was enacted:

  • California was admitted to the Union as a free state.
  • Slave trade was abolished in Washington, D.C. (but not slavery itself).
  • Utah Territory and New Mexico Territory were created under the governance of “popular sovereignty” – these territories would decide for themselves if slavery would be allowed.
  • Texas lost a large area of western land and was compensated $10 million.
  • The Fugitive Slave Act was also passed by both houses of Congress – if a slave ran away to the North, they were to be returned to their master in the South.

1850 compromiseWith compromise came the hope that peace would prevail.  If there ever was a peace, it was short-lived, for the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 opened the wounds all over again.  The land in what is now Nebraska was a desirable place for farmers and entrepreneurs to settle, but before legal claims to land could be made the area had to be organized into a territory.

Again, slavery would become a divisive issue.  According to the Missouri Compromise of 1820 all land above the 36◦30′ parallel would be free, so again there was a concern about balance of power in Congress between the North and South.  In Congress, Senator Stephen Douglas was a vocal supporter of popular sovereignty.  He strongly advocated for the creation of Nebraska Territory, and to win Southern support he proposed that perhaps a southern state (Kansas) could be carved out that would be disposed to slavery.  However, the territories would be governed by popular sovereignty so that wasn’t necessarily a guarantee that Kansas would be a slave state if enough people in the territory opposed slavery.

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had tenuously kept the nation from splitting apart on the issue of slavery, and with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 the Missouri Compromise was repealed.  Northerners were incensed at the passage of the act and the political fallout resulted in the dissolution of the Whig Party (later Northern Whigs organized the Republican Party).

It was unlikely that Nebraska would become a slave state because cotton didn’t grow well there.  The land in Kansas, however, was different because it was similar to that of Missouri, a slave state.  Because Kansas Territory was also established under popular sovereignty the issue of slavery would be decided at the polls.  Let the cheating and voter fraud begin!

Next Week:  Civil War Before THE Civil War – Bloody Kansas

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2013.

1 Comment

  1. Good article, I remember writing about that in college…



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