Manifest Destinies: America's Westward Expansion and the Road to the Civil War (review)
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Manifest Destinies: America's Westward Expansion and the Road to the Civil War. By Steven E. Woodworth. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. Pp. xvi, 412. $30.00 cloth)

Manifest Destinies offers a narrative history of the 1840s, a time when the appointment of the nation with one destiny, expansion to the Pacific, forced confrontation with another destiny, namely, resolution of the contradiction between liberty and slavery, though the latter required another fifteen years and a civil war to complete. The argument is made in a five-part structure that alternates between the history of the West and the efforts of the parties to grapple with the implications of expansion for liberty and slavery. The opening section on the 1840 presidential campaign, William Henry Harrison's election, and the firm establishment of a two-party system is followed by sections on the Mormon and Oregon Trail migrations, the 1844 election and the politics of the annexation of Texas, war with Mexico, and, finally, California gold, the 1848 election, and the Compromise of 1850.

Following its victory over the incumbent Democrats, the Whig Party confronted, first, the political and constitutional crisis of Harrison's death after a mere thirty-one days in office and, second, the machinations and temper tantrums of its own Henry Clay, whose ruthless determination to rule his party risked destroying it. The Whig [End Page 482] Party survived, and the two-party system was set. Both parties during the campaign and Harrison in his inaugural address expressed no interest in touching slavery. The challenge of the Liberty Party that year to two-party politics and to slavery went largely unnoticed. However, there were signs of trouble. In Baltimore, scene of the Democratic Party nominating convention, the nation's largest religious denomination met, debated slavery, accepted resolutions declaring it moral, and then proceeded to fall apart. Within a few years, the Methodist church also broke in half over slavery, anticipating the collapse of the party system, also over slavery.

The road from the Liberty Party to the Compromise of 1850, which only temporarily shored up a crumbling two-party system, begins in the second section of the book and a discussion of the Methodist and other missionaries who pioneered the way into the Far West. Succeeding chapters tell interesting if familiar tales, for example, of the horrendous winter the Donner party spent trapped in the Sierra Nevada. The chapters on the national debate over the annexation of Texas are clearly relevant to the overall theme of the book, but many other chapters are not. For example, a blow-by-blow recounting of the battles and tactics of the war with Mexico amounts to a seven-chapter-long distraction from the primary narrative of the book, after which the final section, on the political compromises that kept slavery out of the new western territories, seems anticlimactic.

The book is based entirely on published, mostly secondary sources. It is curious that Woodworth made no use of the recent, definitive volumes on the Whig and Democratic Parties by Daniel Walker Howe and Sean Wilentz, preferring instead such old chestnuts as Robert Gray Gunderson's 1957 account of the 1840 campaign. He ignores William W. Freehling's comprehensive study of slavery and expansion. His discussion of westward migrations ignores the last twenty-five years of scholarship on the West, preferring the fourth edition of the Ray Allen Billington classic, Westward Expansion (1949; repr., 1974), over more recent editions of the same book, updated by Martin Ridge to account for newer scholarship.

This is a book for general readers and there is plenty here for [End Page 483] those who simply cannot get enough of this fascinating era. It has less to offer academic specialists. Kentucky readers especially will appreciate the attention given to Henry Clay. Although the portrait of him is not flattering, it is surely accurate. That he could be so central to national politics in 1840 but by the end of the 1840s seem so strangely out of touch speaks to how much the country changed in this crucial decade.

Christopher Morris

Christopher Morris is an associate professor of history at the University of Texas...