Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War

Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War

Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War

Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War


"A fresh and provocative contribution to our understanding of the process of party disorganization and sectional mobilization that brought the union to its final crisis". Peter S. Onuf, University of Virginia

How the territorial question and the extension of slavery led to the sectionalization of American politics

Tracing the sectionalization of American politics in the 1840s and 1850s, Michael Morrison offers a comprehensive study of how slavery and territorial expansion intersected as causes of the Civil War. Specifically, he argues that the common heritage of the American Revolution bound Americans together until disputes over the extension of slavery into the territories led northerners and southerners to increasingly divergent understandings of the Revolution's legacy.

Manifest Destiny promised the literal enlargement of freedom through the extension of American institutions all the way to the Pacific. At each step -- from John Tyler's attempt to annex Texas in 1844, to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, to the opening shots of the Civil War-the issue of slavery had to be confronted. Morrison shows that the Revolution was the common prism through which northerners and southerners viewed these events and that the factor that ultimately made consensus impossible was slavery itself. By 1861, no nationally accepted solution to the dilemma of slavery in the territories had emerged, no political party existed as a national entity, and politicians from both North and South had come to believe that those on the other side had subverted the American political tradition.


Serious history is the critique of myths . . . not the embodiment of them. Neither is it the destruction of myths. -- C. Vann Woodward

I cannot tell how the truth may be; I say the tale as 'twas said to me.

--Sir Walter Scott

On October 13, 1859, three days before John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, a worried Democratic newspaper editor, Thomas B. Stevenson, wrote to diplomat and author William B. Reed about the Democracy and the nation's future. Stevenson, an ardent expansionist, urged Reed to write an article on the territorial question in such a way as to allay the persistent and, to Stevenson's mind, infernal wrangle over the slavery issue. There were far more important matters than slavery to be considered when addressing the question of federal power and policy respecting the territories, he claimed. "They are such, in my opinion, as seriously affect the future of the Union: whether it can be legitimately strengthened by expansion, and the proper modes and ends of providing our children happy destinies in the future." Although Stevenson wanted to seize upon the issue of expansion to divert the minds of the people, he despaired because demagogy seemed ascendant. "It is easy in the North to gain power by denouncing slavery's existence in the South, and as easy in the South to win favor by denouncing its northern opponents," Stevenson observed. "It is not, I fear, either the actual status or the actual settlement of the slavery question that the antagonistic agitators really wish to effect. It is the use they can make of it as it exists." What Stevenson sensed but could not bring himself to accept was the eclipse of interparty debate between Democrats and Whigs over expansion by the regionally defined politics of the slavery extension issue. That transformation is the focus of this work.

The southern historian Charles Ramsdell once observed that no other . . .

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