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Chapter 12: Expansion, Conflict, and Compromise, 1820–1850



Mexico gains independence from Spain


Texas—the Lone Star Republic—declares independence  • House of Representatives imposes gag rule


Harrison runs Log Cabin Campaign  • American Anti-Slavery Society splits, forming the Liberty Party


James K. Polk elected president


Texas admitted to the Union  • Mexican War begins


Wilmot Proviso passes in the House, fails in the Senate


Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo signed  • Gold found in California  • Whig Zachary Taylor elected president


Clay introduces Compromise  • Taylor dies; Millard Fillmore becomes president  • Compromise passed


American Party

Millard Fillmore

Gold Rush

“No Irish Need Apply” (NINA)

Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo

Anti-Masonic Party

Free Soil Party

Liberty Party


Wilmot Proviso

Compromise of 1850

Fugitive Slave Law

Lone Star Republic

James K. Polk

Stephen Douglas

gag rule

Nueces River

General Zachary Taylor

“There shall be no slavery or involuntary servitude in any territory acquired from Mexico.”

—David Wilmot, 1846


The national controversies during the Jackson administration (1828–1836) were, as we saw, disagreements over the extent of federal versus state power (see chapter 10). These were fueled by the growing economic divisions between the North and the South. After 1836, these divisions produced serious sectional conflicts in Congress, the war with Mexico, and disputes over the admission of California. Could the federal government quiet the controversies?


North and South were growing apart. The North’s population was growing much faster as business there expanded. Immigrants from Ireland poured into the cities for work, escaping anti-Catholic persecution, as well as starvation in the potato famine of 1845. Discrimination was rife (“No Irish Need Apply”), but they found work as maids, seamstresses, or laborers. The Germans received a warmer welcome; some had skills and started farms in the West. The South, too, was forced to expand as soil in the East became depleted. Also, bigger profits could be made using more slaves on more land. Both sections grew but on the basis of opposing labor systems: The North expanded its wage (free) labor, while the South moved its slave labor to the West.

Slavery and Congress

Abolitionists mounted petition campaigns to abolish slavery in Washington, D.C. Southern congressmen, of course, were opposed to this proposal. Afraid that the petitions would dominate the debate, the Democrats passed a motion in the House of Representatives to “table” (ignore) them at the beginning of each session. This gag rule lasted 1836–1844.

Political Parties

The Democrats and Whigs spanned the North and the South (see chapter 10), which kept the questions of slavery out of the spotlight. They began using nominating conventions in the 1830s, which had been developed by the Anti-Masonic Party. The American Party was a vicious anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic group. Its members were called the Know-Nothings because when asked about their secret organization, they would say, “I know nothing.”


The abolitionists distributed their denunciations of slavery through the mail, but the Democrats under Jackson and Martin Van Buren instructed postmasters to block them from going to the South. Then, in 1840, a group of political abolitionists split the American Anti-Slavery Society, forming the Liberty Party, because they wanted to run James G. Birney for president. William Lloyd Garrison, leader of the Non-Cooperators, would not run candidates under the slave-supporting Constitution.


After its Tejanos Revolution against Spain in 1821, Mexico invited U.S. citizens (Tejanos) into the state of Texas, but the Tejanos violated Mexican antislavery laws and created further tensions by refusing to assimilate. Texas, or the Lone Star Republic, declared independence in 1836 and, despite a setback at the Alamo, won independence from Mexico.

The Elections of 1840 and 1844

The Whigs won a pro-common man Log Cabin Campaign with William Henry Harrison, the hero of Tippecanoe, but John Tyler of Virginia became president in 1841, after Harrison died. In 1844, Henry Clay ran an anti-Texas campaign against the Democrat James K. Polk, whose expansionist slogans were “54° 40’ or fight,” to annex the Oregon Territory, and “Texas is Alone but Not Deserted.” Polk won. The day before he took office, the Democratic Congress voted to annex Texas.


Manifest Destiny

Expansion to the west was not only driven by competing labor systems and immigration but also by the American ideology of Manifest Destiny. Editor John O’Sullivan believed that it was not only America’s obvious fate “to o’er spread the continent” but that Americans would bring democracy to a larger number of people and a greater expanse of land.

The Mexican War

Polk tried to buy California from Mexico as soon as he entered office. The Mexicans refused to sell or to recognize American claims to the Rio Grande River as the border of Texas. They considered the Nueces River, 130 miles north, the proper border. Impatient because of British interest in California and Texas’s concern over its territory, Polk sent General Zachary Taylor into the disputed area and waited. In April 1846, the Mexicans attacked, and Polk declared that they had attacked Americans on “American soil.” The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo signed in 1848 gave California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado to the United States. The United States paid $15 million to Mexico, thereafter calling the conquered territory the “Mexican Cession.”

The Free Soilers

During the War, David Wilmot, Democratic Representative from Pennsylvania, introduced an amendment to a war appropriations bill that stated that there should be “no slavery or involuntary servitude in any territory acquired from Mexico.” Although it failed in the Senate, this Wilmot Proviso stated the kernel of the Free Soil position: There should be no extension of slavery to the west. The Free Soil Party (1848–1854) formed around this kernel, with members ranging from men like Wilmot, who did not think blacks equaled whites, to the great abolitionist orator and runaway slave Frederick Douglass.


Gold in California

Gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in California in January 1848, and by late 1849, the settlers had written a free state constitution. The number of slave states equaled the number of free states, so the admission of California would tip the balance in the Senate. Pro-slavery Southerners had called for a meeting to consider secession if the Wilmot Proviso passed. Northern antislavery forces had elected Free Soil representatives to Congress. The voting on issues pertaining to slavery was by section, not party. In the face of these difficulties, the House of Representatives took nearly three weeks and 63 votes to elect a speaker.

Clay’s Compromise

While the House was attempting to organize, Senator Henry Clay proposed a compromise package to Senator Daniel Webster, which he hoped would satisfy majorities in the House, the Senate, and the nation:

•  California would be admitted as a free state.

•  Slavery would remain in Washington, D.C., but the slave trade (selling of slaves) would be prohibited.

•  The territories of New Mexico and Utah would have no restrictions on slavery, but slavery questions would be decided later.

•  A new, strengthened Fugitive Slave Law would be enforced, wherein federally appointed commissioners were given authority to force citizens to capture runaway slaves. Previously, some states entitled suspected runaway slaves to a jury trial in which masters had to prove ownership, thus preventing the kidnapping of free blacks. In addition, state officials did not have to assist in capturing runaway slaves. After 1850, steep fines were imposed on anyone who helped runaways—including by simply ignoring or not arresting them—and bonuses went to officers who captured them. In effect, this compelled northerners to choose: either support slavery or break the law in opposing it.

Webster agreed to support the resolutions. In the debate, Senator John C. Calhoun, too sick to deliver his own speech, predicted that the Union would dissolve unless a Constitutional amendment was passed that would give the South a veto over all sectional questions. Webster answered Calhoun on March 7 in a speech that called for the Compromise as the only way to save the Union. “I speak not as a Massachusetts man but as an American…. There can be no such thing as peaceable secession.” Debate could not produce a majority. However, Stephen Douglas, the Democratic senator from Illinois, arranged for separate votes on each aspect of the Compromise. A second factor aiding passage was the support of the new Whig president, Millard Fillmore, as Zachary Taylor, elected in 1848, had died in July 1850.


Politics combined with economics and ideology to produce clashes that portended war. Acquiring territory had always created conflict with the Native Americans, but now it was causing fundamental conflicts among whites. If the slavery questions in Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico were to be decided later, had anything been solved? Was there a compromise if it was not passed as a package? Historian David Potter called the Compromise the Armistice of 1850. So far, the Union was preserved, but slavery in the territories was the chief concern of Congress throughout the 1850s. The cease-fire lasted until April 12, 1861.


•  Free labor: Labor in which the worker can leave whenever he or she wishes (as opposed to slave labor); wage labor or work for pay is free labor

•  Free Soil position: The political idea that the West should be free of slavery; in 1846, David Wilmot wrote the proviso that there “shall be no slavery or involuntary servitude in any territory acquired from Mexico,” which galvanized the antislavery forces in Congress. The question of slavery in the Old South was not addressed in the Free Soil position.

•  Manifest Destiny: The political belief that America’s obvious future was to “o’er spread the continent,” in the words of John O’Sullivan in 1846; a corollary was that Americans would bring democracy to the “ignorant and inferior” peoples of the West. The Mexican War was the classic consequence of Manifest Destiny.


1.   The Irish

(A)    settled in cities.

(B)    became farmers.

(C)    were skilled workers.

(D)    were Protestants.

(E)    were highly educated.

2.   The gag rule was favored the most by

(A)    Northerners.

(B)    Southerners.

(C)    Whigs.

(D)    Democrats.

(E)    Anti-Masons.

3.   Manifest Destiny involved

(A)    slavery.

(B)    anti-slavery.

(C)    tariff protection for New England manufacturing.

(D)    expansion to the west.

(E)    Native American rights.

4.   David Wilmot, author of the Wilmot Proviso (1846), was a congressman from

(A)    California.

(B)    South Carolina.

(C)    Pennsylvania.

(D)    North Carolina.

(E)    Kansas.


1.    A

The Irish had been poor tenants who grew potatoes in gardens around their cottages for their food. They were not skilled workers or farmers in the usual sense. They were mostly Catholics who settled in New York, Boston, and other Northern cities.

2.    B

The gag rule (1836–1844) suppressed the discussion of petitions regarding slavery (usually abolitionist petitions to abolish slavery in Washington, D.C.) in the House of Representatives. Southerners were the gag rule’s strongest supporters. Anti-Masons had no strong position on slavery, and Democrats and Whigs could be from the North or the South and, thus, did not all agree on this issue. However, some Northern Democrats voted for the gag order because they feared discussion of this issue would divide Congress and not allow other business to get done.

3.    D

Manifest Destiny was the belief in the inevitable expansion of the United States. Northerners and Southerners were in favor of expansion, and some from each side were opposed. There was no official “Northern” or “Southern” position on expansion. Expansion to new land was in conflict with the interests of the Native Americans.

4.    C

Pennsylvania Democrat David Wilmot wrote a proviso quoted at the beginning of this chapter, which passed in the House but failed in the Senate. It was a statement of the Free Soil position. By and large, Northerners were against the expansion of slavery to the west, and Southerners were not. Thus, Southern states North and South Carolina are not good answers, and California and Kansas were not states in 1846.

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