H105, American History I

Reading Guide for Week 13

Last week we examined white and black perspectives on the horrors and terrors of slavery.  Those perspectives included not only the emergence of abolitionism (i.e., the demand for the immediate and unconditional termination of the slavery system in the United States) but also Southern pro-slavery backlash against abolitionism.  Southern spokespersons associated the slavery system with economic prowess (“King Cotton”), scientific sanction, national patriotism, and Christian piety — and they invoked new pseudo-sciences like craniology, numerous constitutions and laws, and numerous Christian Bible passages all in fundamental support of slavery.  Black abolitionists sought to draw attention to the terrible suffering of enslaved people, but they tended to be marginalized even in white abolitionist organizations.  For enslaved black people, the dream was to escape, but the daunting immediate task was to survive extraordinary horror and terror on an everyday basis.

This week we will look at the question of race again, with respect to dispossession of Native American nations from their land, and with respect to an upsurge of American imperialism in Latin America and elsewhere.  The Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which added millions of acres west of the Mississippi as a safety valve for the United States, inspired not only the fabled Lewis and Clark Expedition, but continental ambitions to stretch white settlement — including cotton plantations premised upon slave labor — from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans.  One can see these ambitions in the travel literature and the artwork of the era, and in the fascination with the new technology of the railroad as it “tamed” the “wilderness.”  One can also see these ambitions in an eagerness to forcibly dispossess the inhabitants of that land — Native Americans whether relatively successful like the Cherokees, or otherwise resisting like many other Native nations.  As white Americans violently expanded their settlement across the continent, they also intensified a racial ideology which equated whiteness with property ownership, with cultural superiority, and even, crazily enough, with moral benevolence.

However, there were also unexpected events disrupting white Americans’ sense of manifest destiny.  1849 saw the California Gold Rush, which further undermined the aim to have an exclusively white nation by attracting immigrants from all over the globe to the United States.  Rather than a “European” nation, the United States increasingly became a global nation, especially in California and the American Southwest.  More ominously, the 1850s saw the escalation of sectional strife between the North and the South, in institutional politics as well as in political violence.  In contrast to European empires and Latin American countries, the United States would be among the last nations in the world to end slavery:  third to last.


Jackson and Ross annual messages (1830):  As President of the United States, Andrew Jackson sought to justify to his constituents (the American “people”) the forcible eviction of the Cherokees from their territory in western Georgia.  As Chief of the Cherokee Nation, John Ross sought to explain to his constituents (the Cherokee nation) the actions that were being taken to defend the Cherokees against outside aggression and encroachment.  What political principles did Jackson cite to justify his actions?  What political principles did Ross cite to explain his actions?

Calhoun, speech on Mexico (1848):  John Calhoun served as U.S. Senator from South Carolina from 1811 until 1850, except for two stints as Vice President, once for John Quincy Adams and once for Andrew Jackson.  The fact that Adams and Jackson were themselves political opponents is testimony to Calhoun’s four decades of wielding extraordinary power in the Senate, power tenaciously devoted to the support of slavery and white supremacy.  In 1848 the United States military soundly defeated the Mexican military.  Why was Calhoun opposed to keeping Mexican territory even though it had been conquered with the sacrifice of blood and treasure?

Calhoun, speech on Oregon (1848):  In debating whether or not slavery would be permitted in Oregon, Calhoun remained anxious about the fragility of the American nation.  Calhoun saw equal liberty not as a fundamental right belonging to everyone, but as a reward for select people.  What kinds of people did Calhoun deem undeserving of any equal liberty, and why?  What kinds of people did he deem to be deserving, and why?

Walker, The War In Nicaragua (1860):  After the 1849 Gold Rush in California, and prior to completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, Latin America became increasingly important as a transit route for passengers and cargo between the West Coast and East Coast.  In 1856 William Walker led a band of American mercenaries into Nicaragua, seized control of the country, declared himself president, and swiftly legalized slavery (which in 1824 had been abolished in Nicaragua) in order to attract American settlers from the South to occupy Nicaragua.  In 1857 other Latin American countries assisted Nicaragua in ousting the Walker regime, and in 1860 he published this narrative as a way to raise money for a new military expedition to Nicaragua (during which he would be captured by the British navy and delivered to justice in Honduras).  In what strategic ways did Walker seek to alter the society and culture of Nicaragua and transmogrify it into his image of the United States and the American South?