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U.s.  History essay question


The links between the idea of Manifest Destiny and the outbreak of the Civil War are very clear and direct.  The desire for American expansion complicated the North-South balance, worsening the existing tensions between North and South.  Failure to reach an acceptable compromise, along with a growing abolitionist movement, contributed to the Civil War.

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The idea of manifest destiny states that the United States would inevitably expand to the Pacific coast and would include what was then the northern half of Mexico.  Though some advocates used religious terms to justify it, the actual reason was desire for more agricultural land and larger markets for American goods.  American settlers had been moving into Mexican territory for years before the Mexican War, particularly California.  Americans living there wanted to join the United States, worsening tensions between the two nations.  In addition, Mexico was threatened by American plans to annex Texas, which wanted to either retake Texas or have it as an independent buffer between it and the United States.  In 1845, Texas voted to join the United States and President James Polk sent in troops, luring Mexico into attacking.  War erupted in early 1846, with the United States winning by the end of 1847.

The Civil War was caused not just by the South having slaves, since many Northerners profited from slavery and the United States was then a racist society.  It arose more from disagreements over the amount of political power slave states had, and from Southern resistance to efforts to restrict where slavery existed.  Politicians in slave states believed that the North was trying to prevent slavery from expanding, which was partly true.  By 1850, the abolitionist movement had gained momentum in the North influencing legislation like the Wilmot Proviso of 1846, which never became law but drew support from anti-slavery politicians trying to halt slavery’s spread.  In addition, the Mexican War upset the balance between slave and free states, since what is now the American Southwest was not suited for plantation slavery, due to its vast deserts and meager rainfall.  The Missouri Compromise, which barred slavery north of Missouri’s southern border, no longer looked like a fair agreement.  Congress was forced to pass the Compromise of 1850, which let California enter the Union as a free state but did not restrict slavery in the other new territories.  It also added a stronger fugitive slave law, requiring free states to capture and return escaped slaves.  (Many Northerners defied this law.)  Tensions worsened with the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which let new territories decide the slavery question for themselves.  Instead of creating peace, it led to violence between settlers in Kansas, who were mostly new arrivals who moved there to influence the vote on the slavery issue.

The North did not defeat the Confederacy through superior generalship, since the South had many more gifted commanders, including Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Nathan Bedford Forrest.  Instead, it won because of its larger population, which gave it a larger army, as well as material resources, including raw materials and industrial strength.  The South could barely supply its military with enough soldiers or supplies, while the North had large reserves of both.  With these advantages, the North could sustain the fight longer than the South, which was drained of its resources by 1865 and was no longer able to fend off the Northern offensive.

In conclusion, the desire for American expansion added to the Civil War’s causes in ways few could foresee.  Adding new territory upset an already delicate balance between slavery’s opponents and advocates, and efforts to compromise after the Mexican War only worsened the tensions and led to the violence that turned into civil war.


Boyer, Paul S. et al.  The Enduring Vision, volume 1.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.