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History Mexican American War

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“Assess the following statement using concrete historical examples to explain whether you agree or disagree. ‘Cotton production and slavery were more a burden to the South than a benefit.’ Consider the statement in terms of economy, politics, and society.”

During the Antebellum era, the South made great gains from both cotton and slavery. However, each came with a set of pros and cons that relate to the economy, the political climate, and the society of the South.

In terms of economy, cotton was a great benefit to the South. Cotton was the main cash crop, and “by 1850, of the 3.2 million slaves in the country’s fifteen slave states, 1.8 million were producing cotton; by 1860, slave labor was producing over two billion pounds of cotton per year”. When the cotton gin was invented in 1793, it had a significant impact on how much cotton was produced in the upcoming years. Within 70 years of the cotton gin’s invention, the South was generating around ⅔ of cotton globally. This growth both domestically and internationally led to great wealth in the South, which certainly was not a burden to those living there at the time.

In terms of society, cotton was certainly an advantage. It was the American staple crop, and many plantation owners (a great number of which lived in the South) used it to further their wealth and social standing. Cotton, as a crop, is also particularly easy to grow, as it can flourish in many types of soil and atmospheres. Accordingly, this made it a prime choice for a cash crop as lots of people could grow it in lots of different places.

While cotton was not a burden on the South in terms of economy or society, it could have been considered one within the realm of politics. Many Southerners believed that cotton was incredibly important within the world trade, and so made the connection that if war was to be provoked between the North and the South, the South would have the support of England and France. On the contrary, a proclamation of neutrality between Great Britain and the United States was declared in 1861 by Queen Victoria, indicating that the United Kingdom would keep out of the United States’ internal affairs. While the United Kingdom declared official neutrality, Mexico attempted a political union with the Confederacy later on, which ultimately failed when the new Emperor of Mexico was given power by Napoleon III from France. Thus, the South overestimated its international control and was severely disappointed when their plans for the Civil War did not go well. It is not good to put all your eggs in one basket, so to speak. Despite this, the South was dangerously dependent on cotton, which led to significant consequences. Within the world of politics, this is a large burden that cotton had connected to it.

Similarly to cotton, slavery was a great economic benefit to the South. For example, the worth of slaves in 1860 was equivalent to three times as much money currently invested in banks at the time. It was also “‘equal to about seven times the total value of all currency in circulation in the country, three times the value of the entire livestock population, twelve times the value of the entire U.S. cotton crop and forty-eight times the total expenditure of the federal government that year’”. Slavery was worth an unreal amount of money and made many people rich, which is why it is not an economic burden.

Society in the South was built off of slavery. The one main thing that held the rich and the poor Southern white societies together was racism. Many believed that African Americans were inferior to whites, including one of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, who was from Virginia. Another thing binding Southern whites together was the fear of slave revolts, a correlation coming from Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 in which Turner (along with a few other slaves) murdered dozens of white Southerners. Southern society was highly stratified, and everyone was expected to know their place without questioning the social order. One of the largest Southern concepts is that of the “gentlemanly” figure, a man who acts appropriately in defending his or his family’s honor. An example of behavior that the South considered a “defense of gentlemanly honor and their way of life” is the beating of the senator of Massachusetts Charles Sumner. Senator Sumner was speaking about the expansion of slavery in Kansas, a decision he was against, when Representative Preston Brooks from South Carolina decided to beat him harshly with a cane, a violent reaction and one that impacted Sumner physically and mentally. A clear line of thought illustrates this, as “Brooks did not challenge Sumner to a duel; by choosing to beat him with a cane instead, he made it clear that he did not consider Sumner a gentleman” which shows the level of influence Southern society had on the actions people took, especially as Brooks chose to use that level of violence just to defend slavery. Slavery in this sense would be considered a burden, turning members of the government against each other in such an inappropriate way, causing unnecessary violence, and dividing the overall society of the United States.

Political debates about slavery raged on for years. Going back to the previous example, of Brooks beating Sumner with a cane for being anti-slavery, shows how much energy it takes to be pro-slavery. Many Southerners worried that the power balance in the government would show more favor to the North, and to put it concisely, “If new states could not be slave states, went the argument, then it was only a matter of time before the South’s clout in Congress would fade, abolitionists would be ascendant, and the South’s ‘peculiar institution’ – the right to own human beings as property – would be in peril”. Slavery was a political burden that was causing a divide between the North and the South, which will eventually lead to the Civil War.

Slavery put a large strain on the South, not economically, but socially and politically. Slavery was overall definitively a burden on the South. In contrast to this, one of the outcomes from slavery, the boom of cotton, was not a burden. Cotton made money, was not socially debated, and politically, was not a controversial issue. The American government at the time had issues debating whether or not slaves were people and not issues relating to whether or not growing cotton was moral. The South bore the burden of cotton when its extreme economic dependence led to a panic, yet the burden of slavery was not shown to its full extent until the Civil War.

Question #2: “Write your definition of imperialism. Then use this definition to argue that the United States was or was not an imperialistic nation in the 1840s.”

Imperialism, from my own perspective, is using military/political power to forcefully take control over land or another governments property to claim it as your own.

The United States has quite a bit of history that falls under this definition, especially from the very beginning. The land that the thirteen original colonies were settled on belonged to the Native Americans, not the English, yet the English still went and claimed the land for themselves with little regard for the Natives. As this was the use of political power (claiming international land), it it worth arguing that the settling of the first thirteen colonies, and the United States as a whole, is an large example of imperialism.

Another example is that of the formerly Spanish Florida. Even though Andrew Jackson attacked Spanish Florida in 1818, around 20 years from the 1840s, it is still a significant example as it feeds into the ideas of Manifest Destiny (believing it is “the divine right and duty of white Americans to seize and settle the American West”) and gives a good idea as to how the United States at the time was becoming even more imperialist over time. Particularly due to the fact that Andrew Jackson was “frustrated by his inability to punish Creek and Seminole raiders… and executed two British citizens… Outraged by the U.S. invasion of its territory, the Spanish government demanded that Jackson and his troops withdraw”. Clarifying that Jackson invaded Spanish Florida with no permission to do so, and even though Florida was still given to the United States through a treaty, Spain was almost forced to do so. Otherwise, they would have a huge conflict between the Natives of Florida and Andrew Jackson’s troops, pulling them into the conflict as well. This is one of the earlier examples of how the United States was an imperialistic nation.

One of the bigger, and more horrifying examples is the Trail of Tears. It indirectly began in 1830, when Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which asked for “the removal of the Five Civilized Tribes from their home in the southeastern United States to land in the West, in present-day Oklahoma”. The “Five Civilized Tribes” were the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Cherokee. Of the Five Civilized Tribes, the Cherokee decided to try and oppose this act passed by Congress by claiming the Cherokees were an independent foreign government. Unfortunately, the United States government used their overwhelming federal power to find the Cherokees were not an independent foreign government, thus giving them no grounds to oppose the Indian Removal Act. Many Native Americans chose to remain on their lands, and due to these circumstances, the United States government used military power to force migration on the Natives. Under my definition of imperialism, this is a definitive example, as instead of traveling to land to claim it as your own, the United States forced the original inhabitants of the land off of it so they could claim that it was theirs in the first place.

The final, and most relevant example to the 1840s, is the Mexican American War. It began with President James Polk sending U.S. troops down in 1846 to the highly debated border of Texas and Mexico, instructing them to build a fort. From this, the U.S. troops came in contact with Mexican cavalry, and around sixteen of them were killed. In order to make Congress declare war on Mexico (which would lead to seizing territory that Polk promised he would seize), Polk stated that Mexico “‘invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil’”. Congress then declared war on Mexico. The antislavery groups argued that “Polk had deliberately provoked hostilities”, which is exactly what he did, beginning a war with Mexico over Texas in order to gain Texas and California. Clearly, Polk used his political power as Commander in Chief of the United States to provoke this war, which I claim is imperialistic, as the American soldiers also had “superior weapons”, giving them an unfair military advantage. The Mexican American War also feeds into the ideas of Manifest Destiny, which is a clear imperialist ideology, that you have the “divine right” to take any land you want. From the end of the Mexican American War came the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which gave the United States territory in “California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and portions of Colorado and Wyoming” as well as giving them “$3.35 million worth of Mexican debts owed to U.S. citizens”. While receiving these debts wasn’t necessarily good for the United States, the value of the land given to the U.S. is worth a lot more than $3.35 million and the $15 million paid to Mexico for this land. Overall, the Mexican American War was completely imperialistic as the United States had both military and political advantages over Mexico, making it unfair and a huge use of power.

In summary, these three examples highlight history prior to and during the 1840s which indicates how the United States became even more imperialistic than it was in the beginning. Each example represents how the United States used its power unfairly in biased ways, especially in the 1840s, with Polk’s straightforward imperialist strategy and belief in the principles of Manifest Destiny. From these historical examples it is undeniable that the United States was an imperialist country during the 1840s.  

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