‘Manifest Destiny’

The annexation of Texas in 1836 again dredged up the issue of admitting slave states into the United States and created conflict between North and South in government. During the 1820s, white settlers migrated to Texas, some bringing slaves with them. In 1829, the Mexican government banned slavery and imposed taxes which triggered resistance from the white settlers. In 1836, the Texans, both white and Mexican, declared independence, and in 1837 petitioned the United States for annexation as the twenty-eighth state, and the fifteenth slave state. Because of the issue of admitting another slave state, annexation was stalled until 1845.

Mexico was not willing to let go of their territory so easily. They refused to acknowledge Texas as being independent from Mexico. It was seen as an act of war and General Zachary Taylor was sent to Texas to help protect the border between Texas and Mexico. In 1846, Taylor was ordered to move across the disputed territory of the Nueces Strip to the Rio Grande River. That set off a border dispute since Mexico still claimed the Nueces River, which was further north, as the Texas border. Mexican troops attacked Taylor’s scouts and the US president, James K. Polk, asked Congress to declare war on the grounds that Mexico had invaded the United States.


Abraham Lincoln, lithograph by Leopold Grozelier, based on a painting by Thomas Hicks

Abraham Lincoln (pictured above), a young representative from Illinois, opposed the war. He demanded that Taylor prove that Mexico had invaded the United States and that the spot where the invasion had occurred was in fact a part of the United States. Despite this opposition, war did ensue, Mexico was defeated and the United States gained more territory that was added to Texas. But as a result of the same war, the United States also gained California, which would become a free state, along with a large portion of what would become the American south-west.

Not everyone opposed the annexation of Texas. John L. Sullivan, the editor of two Democratic Party magazines, coined the phrase ‘Manifest Destiny’ in reference to westwards expansion. Sullivan believed it was ‘an American right’ to expand and grow. He claimed that annexing Texas would help alleviate the growth of slavery by ‘draining off that labor southwardly’ and that it would hasten the end of slavery. Sullivan also proposed that each state cut from the newly acquired territory of Texas would create a free state and that Mexico would eventually absorb slavery. The idea that expansion would end slavery did not catch on, but the notion that the people of the United States had the right to expand and grow did take hold.

As states north of the Mason-Dixon Line abolished slavery, fugitive slaves realized they only had to travel as far as a free state, such as Pennsylvania, to achieve liberty. Their former owners could still pursue them, but retrieving runaways from free states was complicated by the illegality of slavery within the state. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 angered abolitionists and steeled their resolve to end slavery. The law enforced the right of slaveholders to pursue fugitives across state lines, capture them and return them. The services of slave catchers were often engaged to recover runaways. Under the Fugitive Slave Law, any African-American, free or slave, could be accused of being a runaway. As they had no rights, they were not entitled to a trial or to speak in their own defence. Slaveholders could prove ownership by appearing before a magistrate and offering oral testimony that the slave was theirs without providing any documented proof. The law went a step further and declared that anyone assisting a runaway or interfering in an arrest of a slave was subject to fines and possibly jail.

The State of Massachusetts retaliated by passing the Personal Liberty Act that same year. This new legislation made enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act difficult. It gave rights to runaways, raised the standard for proof of ownership, and made it impossible for state officers to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law by stripping the commissions of lawyers who represented slave owners. It even went so far as to forbid militias from enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law and banned the use of any state-owned building, including prisons, to detain a fugitive slave.

The passage of the Personal Liberty Act convinced Southern slaveholders that the abolitionists in the North were determined to find a means of refusing to return runaways and that they were bent on ending slavery. It threw yet another burning log of discontent on a growing bonfire of animosity between North and South.

Slaveholders knew that political influence was crucial to the preservation of slavery. Slavery was banned in the Oregon Territory in 1848 and in California in 1849, and political power seemed to be tipping in favour of the abolitionists. The South threatened to secede from the Union, and again Henry Clay stepped forward. He introduced resolutions that offered equitable compromise that would keep the balance of power in check. For the moment, the South’s fears were soothed. Once again, one of America’s greatest statesmen had stepped in and delayed a long, bloody war.

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