A Conspiracy Emerges

James Polk.

Amidst the Mexican-American War, a conspiracy emerged involving President James Polk and the exiled leader of Mexico, Santa Anna. Not only would this conspiracy embolden Whigs but Democrats would also come down on President Polk for his actions.

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The Start of the Mexican-American War

War News From Mexico. By: Richard Caton Woodville.

On the evening of April 24, 1846, Captain Seth Thornton and 68 American dragoons “went to confirm intelligence that a Mexican military force had crossed the Rio Grande” just miles away from where Brigadier General Zachary Taylor was camped. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 731.

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The Most Effective President

Inauguration of James Polk. By: Granger.

James Polk, after winning the Election of 1844, set an agenda for what he hoped to accomplish during his presidency. Rather than elaborate on this agenda during his inaugural address, President Polk instead remained secretive. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 708.

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The Annexation of Texas

President John Tyler.

President John Tyler sought to achieve much success in foreign affairs during his presidency, and part of that success, he imagined, would be accomplished through expansion of the country. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 677. The annexation of the Republic of Texas to be the 28th state in the Union was to be his goal.

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The Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842

Daniel Webster.

Daniel Webster, the Secretary of State under President John Tyler, brought a breadth of experience and dignity to the office, but he also brought “a different perspective on Anglo-American relations.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 672.

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Setting the Stage for the War of 1812

Landscape Painting of Georgia.

In the early Republic, trading became a staple of the American economy, which affected American relations with other countries in drastic ways.

American merchants “brought home products from Canton, China, and ports in the Indian Ocean, including teas, coffee, chinaware, spices, and silks, before shipping them on to Europe . . . .” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 623. America imported goods from Europe only to export them to “the West Indies, South America, and elsewhere.” Id. However, perhaps most surprisingly, between 1795 and 1805, “American trade with India was greater than that of all the European nations combined.” Id. citing Ted Widmer, Ark of the Liberties: America and the World (New York, 2008), 66.

Much of this trading arose out of the fact that America had not transformed into a purely industrial, manufacturing economy as much of Europe had during this time period. Rather, many Americans maintained their farming and picked up trading and other practices to make virtually all Americans participants in a massive national and international economic system. See Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 627. These changes had domestic political implications, with the Republicans satisfied with the economic system and the Federalists believing it was an underachieving system. Id.

The Republicans wanted to raise America’s status in the world, rather than solely focus on the state of the economy like the Federalists. Id. at 629. The Republicans wanted to create a system that prevented war from occurring and would also make America a recognized force to be reckoned with on the international stage. Id.

Republicans ultimately took actions that surprised other countries’ officials. For example, the Republicans replaced diplomatic missions with consuls who handled international trade. A Russian official commented that Americans were “singular,” and wanted “commercial ties without political ties,” which was widely considered an impossibility at the time. Id. at 632 citing Irving Brant, James Madison: The President, 1809-1812 (Indianapolis, 1956), 69.

These actions by the early Americans were largely intended to distinguish America as a player on the international stage. Perhaps out of a desire to show the world that America was not England and certainly was its own country who had its own policies, the Republicans underwent this course of action, much to the chagrin of the English and to some other government officials.

The Americans were eager to distinguish themselves and to build an economy that was sustainable. The ongoing war between Napoleonic France and England partially allowed America to use its resources to build its trade routes and grow its economy.

Some may look to these events as some of the earliest examples of American exceptionalism, which would perhaps be a keen observation. These early years of the Republic would ultimately set the stage for the War of 1812, but for the time being, Americans would have been content knowing that the economy was growing, trade was blossoming, and they were building the new country.

The Justifications for Slavery

George Washington on his Plantation.

Early Americans, both pro-slavery and anti-slavery, explored the potential justifications for slavery in the United States.

In 1764, James Otis of Massachusetts asked “Can any logical inference in favor of slavery be drawn from a flat nose, a long or short face?” after pondering why only blacks had been enslaved. James Otis, The Rights of the British Colonists Asserted and Proved (1764), in Bernard Bailyn, ed., Pamphlets of the American Revolution, 1750-1776 (Cambridge, MA, 1965), 1: 439.

Some believed that slavery could not stand against the “relentless march of liberty and progress.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 519. For example, James Madison believed that making noise on the issue of slavery would only slow down the march of progress within the United States. Id. at 525. Perhaps those who held this view perpetuated slavery, believing that it was bound to end eventually without action.

Others had more profoundly prejudiced and racist views toward slavery. Thomas Jefferson believed that “various characteristics of blacks . . . [such as] their tolerance of heat, their need for less sleep, their sexual ardor, their lack of imagination and artistic ability, and their music talent . . . were inherent and not learned.” Id. at 539. Jefferson believed that “blacks’ deficiencies were innate, because when they mixed their blood with whites’, they improved ‘in body and mind,’ which ‘proves that their inferiority is not the effect merely of their condition of life.'” Id. citing Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. Peden, 138-43.

Even entire states took action that is hard to fathom in modern times, all with the underlying belief that slavery was justified and must be protected. The state of Kentucky wrote into its 1792 Constitution that “the legislature shall have no power to pass laws for the emancipation of slaves without the consent of their owners.” Robin L. Einhorn, American Taxation, American Slavery (Chicago, 2006), 220, 232, 249, 236; Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, “A New Meaning for Turner’s Frontier: Part II: The Southwest Frontier and New England,” Political Science Quarterly, 69 (1954), 572-76. This language was added to Kentucky’s Constitution despite the fact that only a mere 16% of the state’s population were slaves. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 531.

All of these varying views affected American policy, both foreign and domestic. Taking foreign policy as an example, while Haiti had a slave revolution in 1803 that both ended slavery and proclaimed racial equality, and the United States typically was the first country to extend diplomatic relations to a new republic, it would not be until the Civil War that the “United States [would] recognize the Haitian republic.” Id. at 537.

As early Americans searched for justifications for slavery, many who were thinking critically would come to the same conclusion as James Otis: that there was no justification. However, those whose livelihoods depended on the existence of slavery were predisposed to never coming to that conclusion. Nonetheless, as is obvious from these varying views on justifications for slavery, hypocrisy was prevalent, ignorance was rampant (even amongst one of the greatest intellectuals, Jefferson), and at the very least, progress was slow.

Regardless of who was right or wrong about the issue of slavery, it is clear that the justifications for slavery ran deep, permeating societal beliefs and policy decisions, foreign and domestic. Not many issues have rivaled the contentious nature of slavery. But analyzing the justifications for slavery shows just how far an issue can reverberate throughout the country, touching even the very threads that hold society together.