As the young United States of America pushed westward from the east coast to the west, the concept of “manifest destiny” evolved. This specific expression was first used in 1845, by John L. Sullivan, editor of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review. He claimed it is, “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” He was referring to the annexation of Texas, but the process he identified had started much earlier and had been accelerated by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The 1845 statement of manifest destiny simply named the process.
Subsequent acquisitions, the Mexican Cession and the Oregon Territory, connected the country coast to coast. Tennessee, a state since 1796, was linked to the expanding nation and wider world by river travel. The Cumberland and the Tennessee Rivers merged with the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and the Mississippi, which drained the Missouri River emptied into the Gulf of Mexico.
The tobacco economy of Virginia and North Carolina spilled over into Tennessee and created conditions for the expansion of the plantation system. Planters, men of means, acquired land as the Indians were pushed out and imported slaves to produce cotton and tobacco. Between 1790 and 1860, plantations thrived in middle and west Tennessee where the land favored such agricultural practices. Yeomen farmers grew cotton as well, but on a smaller scale. Some had a slave or two, but family farmers could not compete and were increasingly marginalized. Beginning in 1819, steamboat connections facilitated the export of cotton and tobacco, and the burgeoning Industrial Revolution needed cotton. Then came the railroads.
The first railroad company in Tennessee was chartered in 1831, and the service commenced in 1842. By the Civil War, there were 1,200 miles of railroad track in the state. With the addition of the railway, the Transportation Revolution was in full swing and fed raw materials to factories at home and abroad.
The ships and railroads also brought finished products to Tennessee. It was a fully complementary system that depended on free or cheap labor. Slavery was at the heart of the system, and slavery was growing ever more problematic with abolitionists in Tennessee as well as in the North where slavery was no longer tolerated. The nation’s first abolitionist newspaper, The Manumission Intelligencer was published in Jonesborough by Elihu Embree in 1819. The name was later changed to the Emancipator. In 1824, Nashoba, a colony for freed slaves, was established near Memphis. It failed, but the impulse for freedom was there. The debate over slavery was destined to end with the Civil War (1861-1865) which brought an end to the institution of legal slavery in the country.
Slavery was not the only dark chapter during this era in American history. In 1838, the Cherokee Indians were driven from their homes and marched through Tennessee to Indian Territory, in present-day Oklahoma. This was the infamous “Trail of Tears” that saw an estimated four thousand people die on the march. They had to abandon their ancestral burial grounds and property in spite of the fact that the Supreme Court had declared the Indian removal bill of 1830 unconstitutional.
During the era of the Old South and the Transportation Revolution, two Tennesseans served as President of the United States. Andrew Jackson, the hero of the War of 1812, and advocate of the Indian removal bill, was elected twice and served from 1829-1837. James K. Polk was President 1845-1849, and presided over the acquisition of the territory from Mexico that became the Southwestern United States (the Mexican Cession) as well as the Oregon Territory. Another Tennessean, John Bell, was the unsuccessful Constitutional Union Party candidate in the election of 1860, which was won by Abraham Lincoln.
Bergeron, Paul H., Stephen V. Ash and Jeanette Keith. Tennesseans and Their History. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press. 2007.
Foner, Eric and John A. Garraty, eds. The Reader’s Companion to American History. Boston: Houghton Miflin Co., 1991.
Van West, Carroll, Ed.-in-Chief. The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Nashville: Tennessee Historical Society, Rutledge Hill Press. 1998.
Winn, Thomas Howard. “Time-Line -1780-1984 U.S. – Tennessee – Clarksville-Montgomery County.” Clarksville: Austin Peay State University. Working Document, 1984.