Daniel Walker Howe, Oxford University and UCLA
November 8, 2008

The story of America’s westward expansion is usually told as a peaceful, inevitable march of settler families across the continent in search of new homes. Clearly, it seems, the expansion fulfilled America’s “Manifest Destiny”—that is, its plain, obvious destiny. But there was actually much more to the story: war and the threat of war, religious persecution, and bitter debate between American political parties and sections of the country.

It wasn’t always obvious that California, Texas, and everything in between would become part of the United States and not Mexico. American achieved its continental expansion before the Emancipation Proclamation. Therefore, when the United States expanded, should the institution of slavery expand along with it? When war broke out between the United States and Mexico, who started it? The speeches of Abraham Lincoln, then still a young man, illuminate the nature of a young society and its expansion. His attitude toward the U.S.-Mexican War is not well known—but then, the war itself is seldom noticed either, in spite of its enormous consequences.

Daniel Walker Howe won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in History for his book What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. He is Rhodes Professor American History Emeritus at Oxford University and Professor History Emeritus at UCLA. His other books include Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln.

Session One:

Focus: Are there aspects of American westward expansion that you think most people would find surprising? What would your students find surprising? Do you think American expansion should be termed “imperialism”? Who made more concessions in the settlement of the Oregon Question: the British or the Americans? Did the Mormons bring their troubles on themselves? Do you think Abraham Lincoln was a typical frontiersman? What bothered him about the American society of his day? What kind of America did he want to create?

Readings:

Session Two:

Focus: Neither the American public nor American historians have paid very much attention to the war against Mexico, despite its momentous consequences. Why do you think this is so? Why didn’t the Mexican government make the territorial concessions that President Polk’s administration demanded? Did they think they could win a war with the United States? Why did David Wilmot introduce his famous Proviso in the House of Representatives? Why did Abraham Lincoln and the Whig party want to take little or no territory from Mexico? What was Lincoln’s attitude toward President Polk? Suppose Nicholas Trist had obeyed his orders and broken off peace negotiations. What do you think would have happened then? Which aspects of the Mexican War should Americans be proud of today? Which were Lincoln proud of?

Readings: