One of the major themes defining the American history during the nineteenth century (between 1800 and 1900) was the westward expansion. The American founding fathers had envisioned the United States as a fortress of self-determination that would swathe a vast territory extending all the way across the North American continent. Their descendants had not buried this envision. Led by the then President of the United States Thomas Jefferson, American citizens believed that expansion of their territories was a crucial step towards its independence and that of the citizens. According to Jefferson, a republic relied on an autonomous, virtuous citizenry for its survival, and this autonomy and virtue would be accompanied by land ownership, chiefly the ownership of small farms. The only way to provide enough land to sustain its virtuous population and to attain the vision of Jefferson, America had to continue expanding its territories. However, the expansion was not just for the sake of covering a vast land; it was an expansion to cover fertile and productive land. It was for this reason that the expansion was mainly to the west as the continuous reports indicated that the west was a fruitful and wonderful vast land. As a result of the westward expansion, the United States was able to acquire a vast land, for example, the now states of Kentucky and Tennessee and also areas of Ohio Valley and Deep South. Although manifest destiny, imperialism, and social reasons have also been cited as the driving forces behind the American quest for westward expansion in the period of 1800-1900, the economic gain was the main motivation.
The American economic developments in the nineteenth century were largely characterized by the westward movement of the population as well as the accumulation of fertile and fruitful land. Whereas before the Revolutionary War of 1812 American land was less than one million square miles, this size had tripled after the war and America sat on a three million square land. The fruitful American land was further multiplied by 14 between 1800 and 1900 representing yearly growth of 2.7%. The westward expansion of land was followed by an increase in the population growth to the west. While only less than seven percent of the American population lived in the west before the Revolutionary War of 1812, that population grew to over 60% by 1900 with a corresponding growth of total personal income from 30% to 54% within the same period. The main drivers of the economic gain in the westward quest included the desire to acquire more productive land, decreased transportation costs, and population growth.
Right from the beginning of his tenure, President Jefferson believed in expanding the American land for its citizens to own productive land that would yield economic value. Consequently, Jefferson changed the traditional foreign policy standpoint to anti-French. He simultaneous sent diplomats to Britain and France. In Britain, the diplomats were expected to pursue policy options for expanding the commerce whereas, in France, the diplomats were on a mission to negotiate for extended trade access along the Mississippi. Led by James Monroe, the diplomats negotiating in Paris were asked by Jefferson to bargain land purchase between two and ten million dollars. The land being targeted was the New Orleans and West Florida. Astoundingly, however, Napoleon, the then France military head, offered all Louisiana land to the United States for just 15 million dollars. The acquisition of Louisiana meant that the American territory would massively extend from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River, more than a double of the American land.
From an economic standpoint, fruitful land matters and the process of acquiring it is a critical investment. At the beginning of 1800 majority of the western land had not been used for economic production. Thus, the American settlers who were migrating westward had to clear, break, drain and irrigate the land and even fence it to use for economic production of goods. Engaging in these activities was equivalent to growing the country's capital stock. In the 1830s, 40% of gross investment came from land improvement activities that included irrigation, breaking, fencing, draining and clearing. Most of these activities like land clearing were labor intensive meaning that it created employment and increased incomes to the American citizens. Fencing involved use of barbed wire which would expand industries that produced the wire and other materials required for building fences. Increased employment, as well as increased income to the citizens, acquirement of productive land and expansion of industries, was the economic gains anticipated by America during the westward land expansion.
The newly accumulated western land was put into a productive activity. The farmers cultivated various cash crops for export such as cotton. By 1820, it was estimated that the new lands in Alabama and Mississippi produced about half of the cotton produced in the entire American land. Cotton production continued to be a crucial cash crop from the newly acquired productive lands. By 1826, it comprised two-thirds of all United States exports in value terms. This is a clear indication that the westward expansion had an economic gain to America through increased agricultural productivity for export and perhaps the growth of cotton industries that would erupt as the technology expanded.
Decreased Transportation Costs
Between 1800 and 1900, crucial technological innovations emerged which led to a fall in transportation costs, ultimately accounting for economic gains that led to the westward expansion. According to Vandenbroucke, reduced transportation costs were largely responsible for land accumulation in the west in the 1800-1900 periods. As the technological innovations expanded combined with the will of the United States government, under the leadership of President Jefferson, to build infrastructure in the newly acquired land, the transportation costs drastically reduced inducing western migration as well as the redistribution of the American population. Were it not for decreased transportation costs, only 30% of the population would have occupied the western acquired land by 1900 as contrasted to the 60% historical population that migrated westward between 1800 and 1900. This perspective shows that a lowered travel costs motivated the people to migrate westwards. When one travels at a lower cost, there is an economic gain because of the low costs. For example, if one were to move alongside goods produced in the newly acquired lands, he or she would realize more profits when the transportation costs were low than when they would be high. Hence, decreased transportation costs implied an economic gain that motivated the Americans to migrate westwards between 1800 and 1900.
As soon as the idea of western expansion began, the focus was on how to reach to the vast western territories. Without transportation, there would be no way the United States could stretch its territories. After acquiring Louisiana, President Jefferson critically thought of a way that would lead from Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean which would consequently open up more ports and induce international trade. One of the results of his thoughts was the Erie Canal opened in 1825. Erie Canal connected the eastern shores of Lake Erie to Upper Hudson River in Albany opening the New York as America's busiest port. As a result, the Erie Canal opened up a passageway connecting the Northwest territorial areas including Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana. The canal encouraged western expansion by allowing the people to easily pass to these new territorial areas.
Similarly, land transportation ways and the transcontinental railroads were constructed and further encouraged the western expansion. In 1849, gold was discovered in Northern California. Many people moved to the area in search of riches from gold mines. As a result, the idea of establishing a better transport system to ferry people and the gold alongside other goods was conceived and implemented. A stagecoach line was built. Later in 1869, transcontinental railroads were invented to connect the United States to its new territories. Whereas Erie Canal and stagecoaches improved the transport, transcontinental railroads had the greatest impact. The travelers took a short period of seven days to travel to the new territories in Louisiana. Goods and services alongside people would be moved quickly to and from the newly acquired land. The stagecoaches and transcontinental railroads further encouraged westward expansion by easing movement of the people, goods, and services.
The population was one of the most important economic factors that led to westward expansion. According to Vandenbroucke, population growth during the period of 1800-1900 was largely responsible for investment in the fertile and fruitful land in the west. In fact, was it not for the population growth, less than half of the newly acquired land in the west would be accumulated by the 1900. People were required to occupy the new territories to engage in the economic activities. Labor was required to clear, break, drain and irrigate the land as well as cultivating the crops. No economic gain would be made without the population to engage in the economic activities to generate goods and income.
Moreover, the overflowing population significantly influenced the decision to migrate westwards to settle and feed the excess population. The second American census conducted in 1800 showed that there were only 5.3 million people. However, by the seventh census in 1850, the American population had increased more than four times to a total of 23.2 million. Between 1820 and 1850, an estimated four million people out of the 23.2 million migrated westwards. At this time, the United States citizens were mostly farmers who desired an arable land for cultivation of crops as well as rearing livestock. There was no land to support such economic activities in the already overcrowded and farmed-out east. Consequently, people were moving to the newly acquired spacious land in the west that would help them attain economic gains from crop cultivation and livestock rearing.
Other Economic Gains that Motivated Western Expansion
Apart from land acquisition and decreased transportation costs, there were other economic gains that motivated the people to migrate to the west during the 1800-1900 periods. As the agricultural activities generated goods and incomes, other service providers such as the banks moved to the area to provide their services to the investors. The banks offered services such as loans to the farmers and payment services. Banks crew drastically between 1812 and 1815 before the economic crisis of 1819.
Whereas economic gain may have been the main motivation among the United States citizens migration to the west, there are also other factors that played a role in the western movement. One of these factors is manifest destiny. Manifest destiny is a term that was first described in 1845 by a journalist called John O'Sullivan. According to O'Sullivan, manifest destiny was a phrase that described a belief in which Americans alongside their institutions envisioned as morally superior and hence American citizens are honorably constrained to spread those institutions with the aim of setting free people who were in the western hemisphere and had been oppressed by the European monarchies for a long time. The Americans believed that they had a moral obligation to uplift "less civilized" communities such as the people of Mexico and the Native American tribes that were still being culturally oppre...
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