Scott Yenor

Lincoln and the Problem of Western Expansion

The national debate in the years leading up to the Civil War concerned the question of whether the United States should expand beyond its borders, and, if so, how should it expand. This question opened up when Abraham Lincoln was a Whig Congressman and he opposed the Mexican-American War; Lincoln opposed Stephen Douglas’s attempt to provide territorial governments for Kansas and Nebraska on the principle of popular sovereignty; and Lincoln provided a strident and seemingly pessimistic critique of “Manifest Destiny,” seeing the expansion of manifest destiny as linked to the expansion of slavery. Western Expansion was a problem for Lincoln, one that could be solved on terms other than those of Douglas’s platform. This talk helps us to see Lincoln’s establishment of the Idaho territory as part of his vision for how Western Expansion would proceed, and it explores the conditions that made it possible for his policy to become the national policy.