In “A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico,” Amy S. Greenberg describes James K. Polk as an “instrument of Manifest Destiny.” Described as a mere “instrument,” Greenberg’s characterization of Polk is likely an understatement as the young president “extended the domain of the United States more than any other president.”[i] Due to his expansion of the United States as a result of the Mexican-American War and his Oregon settlement, Polk must be inextricable linked to Manifest Destiny. In fact, Polk’s 1845 Inaugural Address foreshadows the political philosophy that spread the United States across a continent.
The California Gold Rush was a shot of adrenaline in the settlement of the American West. While settlors had been trickling into California and Oregon prior to the discovery of gold by James Marshall in 1848, news of the his gold find energized people around the world to travel to the gold fields. In The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream, H.W. Brands vividly tells the story of not only the immediate effects of Marshall’s discovery, but also the broader effects of the California gold rush on the United States.
For much of the middle portion of the 19th century, Manifest Destiny – the idea that the United States was destined to occupy and remake the land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans – shaped American foreign policy. While the Louisiana Purchase and the 1846 Oregon Treaty furthered the goal of coast-to-coast settlement, the February 2, 1848 signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo completed the southern half of the Manifest Destiny puzzle and ended the Mexican American War.
While the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo resolved the issues between Mexico and the United States that led to war, it created many new issues within the United States as rival political factions vied to form the new territory in their own view.
Wars are creatures of men and do not spontaneously begin. Rather, there is some event – a casus belli – that spurs nations to battle. The siege of Fort Sumter in 1861 or the Japanese Navy’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941 precipitated years of armed struggle.
A casus belli is often controversial, such as the Thornton Affair during the Mexican American War. The Thornton Affair focused a squadron of 63 dragoons dispatched up the Rio del Norte to assess whether any Mexican troops had crossed into territory claimed by the United States. The troops were led by Captain Seth Thornton and despite indications that “the enemy had crossed in strength,” Captain Thornton pressed on. Ultimately, his men were surrounded at a ranch and captured.
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