Westward expansion is one of those APUSH topics that is huge. I mean, HUGE. There are a lot of smaller components that make up this large topic, and I will cover some of them here. However, the purpose of this blogpost is for you to get an overview of the types of questions you could be asked on the exam, not the content itself. I suggest you review more than the content I present here if you need a more intense refresher.
Westward Expansion: The highlights
I will cover the following topics in this section:
1. The Louisiana Purchase
2. The Lewis and Clark Expedition
3. Manifest Destiny
4. The Missouri Compromise/the Expansion of Slavery
I will not touch on The Indian Removal Act, since I have covered it in that blog post, or the Mexican-American War, which is an application of the concept of Manifest Destiny; I won’t even have time for the Transcontinental Railroad (remember how BIG I told you this topic is??). Furthermore, I will quickly go over these topics in a narrative form, so that the connections between each can be clear. Get it? Got it? Good.
The Louisiana Purchase
In 1803, French leader Napoleon Bonaparte found himself in quite a bind. Not only did he have the British nipping at his heels for power in mainland Europe, he also had a full on rebellion mounted by enslaved people in his most profitable colony: Saint Domingue (present day Haiti). It is within this context that the United States government got the real estate deal of a lifetime: France would sell the Louisiana Territory – which covered the area from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains (east-west) and the Canadian border to New Orleans (north-south) – for a cool $15 million. This event would come to be known as the Louisiana Purchase in the United States.
This was an awesome deal for Thomas Jefferson, President at the time. But there was just one problem: most people literally had NO CLUE what this territory looked like. Was it suitable for farming? What kind of crops could one grow there? Jefferson was like ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition and Manifest Destiny
Here enters the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Beginning in May 1804 and ending in September 1806, Merriwether Lewis and William Clark traversed this new territory with 33 people (including Sacagawea and one slave). Although they failed in their main mission to find a water way from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean, they documented many other discoveries (largely due to the assistance of the aforementioned Sacagawea). The explorers were a part of a tradition that justified exploration under the banner of Manifest Destiny, the idea that US expansion was inevitable and ordained by God.
The Missouri Compromise and the Expansion of Slavery
All this new land brought up some new questions for the fledgling country: which parts of this new land would be slave and which would be free? In 1820, the government reached a solution: for every free state admitted into the Union, a slave state would also be admitted. So when Maine was made a state, so was Missouri (ergo, the Missouri Compromise). This compromise also established the 36º30’ parallel as a boundary; slavery would not exist above that line. However, as the domestic slave trade flourished and the allure of cotton as a cash crop grew exponentially, the question of the expansion of slavery will not be settled until the Civil War.
Refer to John Melish’s Map here.
“To present a picture of it was desirable in every point of view. The map so constructed, shows at a glance the whole extent of the United States territory from sea to sea; and in tracing the probable expansion of the human race from east to west, the mind finds an agreeable resting place on its western limits. The view is complete, and leaves nothing to be wished for. It also adds to the beauty and symmetry [balance] of the map; which will, it is confidently believed, be found one of the most useful and ornamental [decorative] works ever executed [created] in this country.”
John Melish, 1816. Stanford History Education Group.
1. According to Melish, why did he decide to draw the map of the United States this way?
A. The map made citizens aware of how large the country was with the addition of the Louisiana Territory.
B. The map showed the distinct topographies and terrain of the country.
C. The map made expansion of the United States seem probable.
D. The map had great aesthetic value and symmetry.
2. This map most accurately depicts Manifest Destiny by
A. Showing the various terrain of the United States.
B. Outlining the place of the United States in the world.
C. Giving a geography lesson of where states currently existed.
D. Suggesting that expansion from coast to coast was inevitable.
“Our national birth (and the Declaration of Independence) was the beginning of a new history, which separates us from the past and connects us only with the future. We are the nation of progress, of individual freedom, of universal enfranchisement. Our future history will be to establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man — the undeniable truth and goodness of God. America has been chosen for this mission among all the nations of the world, which are shut out from the life-giving light of truth. Her high example shall put an end to the tyranny of kings, and carry the happy news of peace and goodwill to millions who now endure an existence hardly better than that of beasts of the field. Who, then, can doubt that our country is destined to be the great nation of the future?”
– John O’Sullivan, “The Great Nation of Futurity,” 1839. Stanford History Education Group.
Answer (a), (b), and (c) .
(a) Briefly describe ONE way in which this excerpt showcases the basic ideas of Manifest Destiny.
(b) Briefly describe ONE event from history that supports O’Sullivan’s view of the future of the United States.
(b) Briefly describe ONE event from history that contradicts O’Sullivan’s view of the future of the United States.
Correct Answers: Multiple Choice
Possible Answers: Short Answer
(a) The line “Our future history will be to establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man — the undeniable truth and goodness of God” supports the idea that of Manifest Destiny in that U.S. expansion was ordained by God and was inevitable.
(b) O’Sullivans view is supported by the upcoming Mexican-American War, where the U.S. acquired even more land than that which was acquired during the Louisiana Purchase.
(c) O’Sullivans view is contradicted by the upcoming Civil War, where the idea of the United States being a “great nation” was in question as a direct result of the questions expansion required the nation to grapple with.
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About Allena Berry
Allena Berry loves history; that should be known upfront. She loves it so much that she not only taught high school history and psychology after receiving her Master's degree at Stanford University, she is now studying how students learn history at Northwestern. That being said, she does not have a favorite historical time period (so don't bother asking). In addition to history, she enjoys writing, practicing yoga, and scouring Craigslist for her next DIY project or midcentury modern piece of furniture.
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