It is often said that Americans know little about world geography, but it seems safe to say that, if asked to draw an outline map of the United States (at least the lower forty-eight), most Americans would do a decent job. After all, the shape of the United States is plastered everywhere. Like the Stars and Stripes and the bald eagle, the shape of the United States has become a quintessential patriotic symbol. Americans just cannot imagine the country looking differently.
It was not always this way. As late as 1844, countless Americans predicted the United States’ territorial growth was uncertain at best. As I show in my book, Breakaway Americas: The Unmanifest Future of the Jacksonian United States, many Americans believed it was just as likely US borders would forever remain east of the Rocky Mountains and north of the Red River (today’s Oklahoma-Texas border). There was good reason for this prediction: the late Jacksonian United States was mired in economic depression, social disorder, and political dysfunction. While some Americans lamented the current state of the country from within its borders, others chose to leave the country entirely: for the Republic of Texas, for Mexican California, for Oregon Country. Some were forced out by violence, most notably the Mormons and the Removed Natives who had once sought acculturation within the eastern states. All of these groups were “breakaway Americans” creating “breakaway Americas.” Breakaway Americans hoped these new polities would finally realize what the now "fallen" United States had once promised.
For a long time, historians defined this period as the moment of “manifest destiny,” in which the ideology of foreordained US expansion drove US politics and foreign policy, leading invariably to the annexation of Texas and Oregon, and the US-Mexican War. Certainly, as my book shows, most Americans did believe in the destiny of western conquest – but not by the United States. Instead, Americans as a people would do it themselves, and in the West they would implement the “American values” that the United States no longer practiced. Thus, counter-intuitively, breakaway Americans saw themselves as American nationalists, while the United States had become, essentially, anti-American.
Of course, this period did not last. By 1848, the United States bestrode much of the American West. From “breakaway Americas” to “manifest destiny” in only a few years – how did this happen so fast? How did so many different groups of Americans make such a poor prediction of the future? The answer: a series of unlikely contingencies that no one could predict. Within only a few short years, these contingencies placed expansionist James K. Polk in the White House, and he proceeded to aggressively intervene – and eliminate – every breakaway America on the continent. Polk may have claimed he was simply fulfilling the United States’ destiny, but he knew intuitively that nothing about US western conquest was destined. For a brief time, he unified his fractured party around a coherent ideology, only to see it all come apart by the end of his term.
In our present moment, amid the current pandemic, we are once again mired in political dysfunction, economic depression, and social disorder. It would be nice to agree with pundits who say we have never been more divided than we are now (with the all-important exception of the Civil War). Yet, as my book shows, division has always been with us. Each group of breakaway Americans claimed that they embodied the true, most quintessential American values – yet they all chose different values. But, as my book also shows, unexpected and unforeseen circumstances can alter the course of history. At the time, the contingencies of the early 1840s drastically – and tragically – altered the future of the United States, sparking the US-Mexican War, the conquest of Native lands in the West, and ultimately the Civil War. Perhaps, in our present moment, contingencies may once again arise that allow us to drastically alter the future – hopefully, this time, for the better.
Order Breakaway Americas: The Unmanifest Future of the Jacksonian United States -- published on April 21, 2020 -- at the following link: https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/title/breakaway-americas
Thomas Richards, Jr. earned his PhD in American history from Temple University. He is a history teacher at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, and the author of Breakaway Americas: The Unmanifest Future of the Jacksonian United States.