After a brief Whig presidency (1841-1845, William Henry Harrison and John Tyler), the Democrats regained control of the government. Led by James K. Polk, Jacksonian Democracy had moved away from moralistic republicanism and toward an expansionist, nationalistic mode of thought. This expansionism, often expressed by the term “Manifest Destiny” – the sense that the United States had a divine mission to establish itself from the Atlantic to the Pacific – found its ultimate expression in the Mexican-American War.
Under the guise of a border dispute in the newly-admitted state of Texas, Polk sent an army to start a war with the Mexicans that resulted in the invasion and occupation of the Mexican capital and ultimately, the addition of the so-called “Mexican Cession.” This “Cession” included most of what is today the American West, including California. Northerners were slow to realize that much of the motivation for the Mexican War came from southern planters’ desire for a port on the west coast. San Diego was known to be the best port in “Alta California,” and it was a straight line to there from the heart of cotton country using the technological wonder of the railway.
The question of the expansion of slavery, exacerbated by the Mexican Cession, the discovery of gold in California (1849), and the desire of northerners like Chicagoan Stephen Douglas for their own transcontinental railroad, became a severely polarizing issue in the 1850s. The Kansas-Nebraska Act opened former “Indian territories” of Kansas and Nebraska to white settlement in 1854. Beginning with the Mexican Cession, popular sovereignty was the preferred method to decide the issue of slavery’s expansion. This led to open warfare in Kansas Territory in 1856 between pro-slavery people from Missouri and the New England Emigrant Aid Company, founders of the “free state” town of Lawrence, and other anti-slavery settlers in Kansas.
In 1854, a relatively new northern alliance of wealthy northeastern business interests and so-called “free-soiler” farmers of the Old Northwest (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin), the Mid-Atlantic states, and New England, led to the formation of the Republican Party (today’s Republican Party). When their candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, southern planters felt that their interests were acutely threatened by a northerner in the White House. Britain, France, and Holland had all emancipated their slaves in the Atlantic world, and slave owners in the southern U.S. feared this writing on the wall. Relying on the rhetoric of states’ rights and led by South Carolina, southern states began to secede from the Union after Lincoln’s election.
When Lincoln tried to re-supply Fort Sumter in Charleston, SC harbor, the South Carolina militia opened fire, beginning a Civil War that would turn into a national bloodbath – over 600,000 killed in four years. In addition to the vicious battles that exhibited early modern war tactics being used against modern weaponry, four million freed slaves and reactionary whites in the South created a social crisis that threatened to overwhelm the torn nation after the war. “Reconstruction” was the period between the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s army in 1865 and the removal of Union troops from the South in 1877.
So when the citizens of the United States ushered in the year 1877, the experiment of Reconstruction – rehabilitating the South in the image of the North – had recently been abandoned. The industrial revolution was taking hold in both the Northeast and the upper South. Railroads and factories were changing the dynamics of American politics as well as the face of the landscape. Corruption was running amok in the halls of government with the rise of corporate America and the peddling of influence by inscrutable politicians and public officials. White supremacists had “redeemed” the social structure of the South after the Union army departed in 1877. And in the West, the free Plains Indian Wars were moving onto reservations as the great bison herds were exterminated and the “concentration policy” of the Indian Bureau forced Indians to depend on corrupt Indian agents and a fickle government for their very survival. The United States was in the heat of drastic change – a process that would only quicken with the coming century.
Nicole Etchison. Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004.
Eric Foner. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
Sam Haynes. James K. Polk and the Expansionist Impulse. New York: Longman, 2002.