When Standards go Wrong

March 10, 2006

I was working with state history standards again today, and I went and double checked one of them.

Arizona 1SS-E20. Describe the aims and impact of the Western expansion and settlement of the United States, with emphasis on:
PO 3. the American belief in Manifest Destiny, including how it led to the Mexican War

Now, maybe I read too much of Freehling’s Road to Disunion and Holt’s Political Crisis of the 1850s but I normally teach my undergraduates that manifest destiny was a partisan issue, not a widely held belief. Or rather, it was a Democratic Party issue that the party was pushing hard during an era when it won a lot of national and statewide elections. Did most Americans believe that they had a manifest destiny to go to the Western Shore? Well, remember that President John Tyler started talking about annexing Texas because he wanted to create an issue that would break apart the Whig party (that had kicked him out) and the Democratic Party (that he had rejected because he thought Andrew Jackson was behaving like a dictator.) He got the idea because Abel Upshar and a batch of folks in the deep south were worried that Texas might emancipate in order to receive foreign aid from Britain.

Manifest destiny, on the other hand, was Polk’s campaign platform in 1844 after it became clear that Tyler had opened up the can of western worms.

I argue that western expansion was driven by the politics of slavery, but remember that a batch of very smart Whigs were pretty darn sure that they could win elections by arguing that westward expansion would undermine American economic development, and that the future of the nation was in the cities of the east and not the wastelands of the West.

This is rambling - a sure sign that I need to stop working and go to bed. But that simple darn assertion in the Arizona standards bugs me because, well, it reverses things. Westward expansion created an ideology of manifest destiny, not the other way around.

Posted by Red Ted at March 10, 2006 09:06 PM | TrackBack