By Philip Staffelli-Suel
Welcome back Junior Curators! Today we are going to learn about an important topic in U.S. history, Manifest Destiny. This was the belief that the United States should grow and expand all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The phrase was coined, or created, in 1845 and became very popular. Do you know who was president in 1845? James K. Polk, a Tennessean! Tennesseans played an important role in the idea of Manifest Destiny. Today we are going to look at three Tennesseans: James K. Polk, Davy Crockett, and Sam Houston, and how their roles related to achieving Manifest Destiny.
President James K. Polk, TSM Collection 1.872
James K. Polk ran for the U.S. Presidency in 1844. One of his campaign slogans was "54'40 or fight.” (To learn more about how latitude is measured click here.) What in the world was that all about? Well, at the time there was a border dispute between Canada and the United States at the Oregon Territory. Think the state of Oregon and Washington today. Polk wanted the U.S. land measurements to be those numbers, or he would go to war. He won the presidency and spent his entire time in office expanding the United States. In 1845, he attempted to annex what is now the state of Texas (Mexico considered it their northern border). Negotiation broke down and the U.S. declared war on Mexico. The United States won the war and gained not only Texas but much of the southwest after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
“Map of US 1849,” Union to Disunion
Davy Crockett, TSM Collection Z0005438
David Crockett, or Davy as he is most known, represented Tennessee as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1835, he moved to Texas after losing his seat in Congress. A year later in 1836, he answered a call for volunteers to fight against the Mexican army. He and a group of Tennessean sharpshooters died defending the Alamo, outside of San Antonio. Davy Crockett became a legend after his death. He represented Manifest Destiny to many people, and his death was used by others to draw up support for the Mexican American War.
Sam Houston, TSM Collection 76.55
Sam Houston was a Tennessean before he was a Texan. If you first heard his name and thought of the city, you would be right! The city of Houston was name after him. Sam Houston was a governor here in Tennessee before he went west. After the Texas Revolution against Mexico, Houston was appointed commander-in-chief of the Texas army. He and his men were on the way to the Alamo when it fell to Santa Anna, leader of the Mexican army. The two armies later faced off at the Battle of San Jacinto, where Houston won. This victory forced Santa Anna to sign the Treaty of Velasco, which declared Texas independent from Mexico in 1836. Later that year, Houston was elected the first president of the Republic of Texas. Over the next few years, Houston would advocate for the annexation of Texas. As the U.S. senator representing Texas, he advocated for the U.S. to annex Oregon County, which was in the Oregon Territory.
The United States today spans from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, but that would not be the case without the Tennesseans we talked about. They played an important role in the expansion of the United States westward. The growth of the United States did more than just make the country bigger on a map. The land taken over by the United States wasn’t empty. Many people that had been Mexican citizens as well as several Native American tribes now had to find a way to fit into American society. The belief in Manifest Destiny that these men spent their lives trying to achieve changed life on the North American continent forever.
Manifest Destiny – an idea, mostly in the early and mid-1800s, where Americans had a god given right to expand their country to the Pacific Ocean.
Campaign Slogan – motto or phrase used during a political campaign to express an idea or purpose, with the goal of getting people to support you.
Dispute – a disagreement, argument, or debate.
Annex – to add or become a part of.
Treaty – a formal agreement between two or more countries.
Sharpshooters – a person who is very skilled in shooting.
Commander-in-Chief – a head of state or officer in supreme command of a country's armed force.
Why would Americans support the idea of Manifest Destiny? Do you think that idea has any impact on how we view ourselves today?
Why do you think Davy Crockett became such a legend in the U.S.?
Why do you think Sam Houston left Tennessee to go west?
Play this super awesome Oregon Trail game!
Philip is an educator at the Tennessee State Museum.
Tennessee State Standards
4.22 Describe the experiences of settlers on the overland trails to the West, including the purpose of the journeys and influence of geography.
4.23 Examine the impact of President James K. Polk’s view of Manifest Destiny on westward expansion.
5.40 Identify the impact of important Tennesseans prior to the Civil War, including:
- David Crockett and Sam Houston (Texas War for Independence and the Alamo)
- President James K. Polk (Manifest Destiny)
- Sequoyah (Cherokee syllabary)
8.49 Analyze the concept of Manifest Destiny and its impact on the development of the nation, and describe the economic incentives for westward expansion.
8.53 Identify the major events and impact of James K. Polk’s presidency, including the annexation of Texas and the settlement of the Oregon boundary.
8.54 Describe the causes and consequences of the Mexican War, including the controversy over the Rio Grande boundary and the Mexican Cession.
“Davy Crockett,” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Davy-Crockett-American-frontiersman-and-politician, accessed September 2, 2022.
“James K. Polk,” Union to Disunion, http://projects.leadr.msu.edu/uniontodisunion/exhibits/show/manifest-destiny/james-k--polk, accessed September 2, 2022.
“Sam Houston,” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sam-Houston, accessed September 2, 2022.