Diplomacy and the Territorial System, 1800-1850
by Peter J. Kastor, PhD, Washington University
On the Mississippi River, Americans believed they could create politics from scratch. After crushing Indian power, eliminating European colonial rule, and forging new communities of their own, Americans believed they could form a political system free of the sort of corruption that many associated with the entrenched forms of power in eastern states. While politics in the East and on the Mississippi would share more in common than many residents cared to admit, by 1850 they nonetheless could believe that had succeeded in their goals.
Throughout much of this half-century, territorial politics defined public life in the Mississippi Valley. Under the territorial system, the federal government took direct charge of public administration. Most public officials were appointed, reporting to superiors in Washington. Only late in the territorial process could residents vote to select a house of representatives or any form of local official. The territorial process concluded with the momentous process of writing a state constitution and seeking admission to the union, with Congress having the final say.
The territorial system provided for the smooth creation of new states, but it also created an awkward political system. Ambitious men chafed at the limited number of offices, and white men in general protested that moving from states in the East to territories in the West meant they essentially lost their vote until their new home achieved statehood. Rather than focus on securing a popular electoral base, would-be politicians spent more time establishing connections in Washington. Indeed, most of the first American leaders in the Mississippi Valley were newcomers. Most were Virginians, appointed during the first quarter-century of the nineteenth century to build new territories because they enjoyed the trust of the Virginians who served as president. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in Missouri and William Henry Harrison in Indiana are only two examples of these well-connected Virginians who enjoyed support from Washington but often faced challenges from local residents. Louisiana, Mississippi, Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Iowa were all territories along the Mississippi that secured statehood during this period.
As a result, many were surprised as the Mississippi Valley became the focal point of national politics over a very different issue: the expansion of slavery. After the admission of states like Louisiana and Illinois suggested that Congress might be able to preserve a balance between free and slave states, the question of Missouri statehood in unleashed a bitter national debate over the expansion of slavery that dominated national politics in 1819-1820.
And as the Mississippi Valley shaped the issues of national politics, so too did it shape the style of politics. The states along the Mississippi River became home to an increasingly democratic political culture characterized by raucous political debates, candidates from all ranks of the social ladder, and intense party competition (See an image from the Whig campaign of 1840, emphasizing candidate William Henry Harrison's frontier bona fides, at left). The constitutions of these new states were among the most democratic in the country. While they continued to limit suffrage to white men, these constitutions had lower property requirements and made far more offices accountable to election than the appointed offices that predominated in other regions.
In sharp contrast to this state of affairs, the Southeast seemed dominated by aristocratic slaveholders, while the Northeast seemed equally corrupt from the emerging urban political machines in cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Of course, these differences were often more apparent than real, since the democracy of the Mississippi Valley created its own forms of corruption and patronage. Still, many in the Mississippi Valley believed they might yet reform American politics.
The men who rose to senior office were a new breed, different from their territorial predecessors or from many elected officials in other regions. And by the 1830s and '40s, men like Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri and Stephen Douglas of Illinois began to assume leadership in national politics. Unleashed from the confines of the territorial system, within a generation the residents of states on the Mississippi were demanding their own voice in shaping the democratic future of the nation.
From 1800 to 1850 a series of diplomatic upheavals reshaped the landscape of power in the Mississippi Valley. Old empires collapsed, new alliances took form, and whole ways of thinking about diplomacy went by the wayside. And unlike other parts of the world, where diplomacy remained the sole preserve and usually the sole interest of a policymaking elite, in the Mississippi Valley people at all levels of society cared a great deal about diplomacy. This remained the case in no small part because people recognized that diplomatic affairs had an immediate impact on their daily lives. But it was also because so many of those people found themselves directly involved in the diplomatic process.
In 1800 the Mississippi River was themost clearly defined international boundary in the Americas. It constituted the western border of the United States and the eastern border of the colony of Louisiana. If that boundary was clear, others were not, nor, for that matter, was the issue of who owned Louisiana. European claims to the Mississippi Valley and the surrounding territory changed with dizzying speed during the eighteenth century. And other their claims were more fantasy than reality, since various Indian villages wielded day-to-authority along various stretches of the Valley.
In the midst of this diplomatic ambiguity, federal policymakers in the United States placed the Mississippi River at the center of their planning. The need to control the Mississippi was the driving force behind the American decision to accept Napoleon's offer to sell Louisiana in 1803. But the Purchase itself was vague. Boundary disputes in the area around the lower Mississippi Valley shaped relations between the United States and Spain throughout the first two decades of the nineteenth century, and repeatedly brought the two nations to the brink of war. So important did control of the Mississippi appear that when the British invaded the United States during the War of 1812, they focused on two primary targets: Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, Louisiana. Not until the 1820s did the United States remove European challenges to its sovereignty over the Mississippi Valley.
With the Europeans out of the picture, federal officials in the United States finally had the leverage to settle the ongoing diplomatic challenge from Indians, using a combination of negotiation and force (more often the former than the latter). In the South, the United States quickly became the victor and the federal government asserted its sovereignty over the Creek, the Choctaw, and other Indians of the Lower Mississippi Valley. This process happened through treaties, pressure, and outright military conquest. Much of that process was complete by 1820, and the last of the Indians in the lower Valley were among the first Indians who were forced to migrate under the Jacksonian Removal policy in the 1830s (see portrait of Andrew Jackson at left).
The situation was profoundly different in the mid and upper Mississippi Valley, which were part of a larger diplomatic region connected to the Midwest and the Missouri River Valley. The federal government was weaker, the Indians were stronger, and residents of all backgrounds were often hesitant about change. Many were used to an older diplomatic system of give and take that settled disputes, fostered trade, and prevented violent conflict. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark first entered that older diplomatic world during their epic journey of discovery from 1804-1806. They endorsed the benefits of that system, and as territorial officials after the expedition both men tried to preserve the best parts of that system and respect American pledges to Indians. As white settlers and federal leaders demanded an end to Indian power, however, both men symbolized the new diplomatic order. The first treaties that Lewis negotiated were unpopular on all sides. And during thirty years as an Indian agent, Clark negotiated many of the agreements that eliminated Indian landclaims and Indian power.
By 1850, Indians continued to live on the Mississippi Valley. Meanwhile, the number of Europeans surged as immigrants arrived by the thousands. But unlike the situation in 1800, when those people represented diplomatic claims that challenged and often overwhelmed those of the United States, by 1850 there was no place that seemed more clearly American than the Mississippi River.