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Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller administering the oath of office to Benjamin Harrison on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol, March 4, 1889

[Detail] Administering the oath of office to Benjamin Harrison, 1889.

Westward Expansion

The United States grew dramatically during the nineteenth century. This expansion was featured in a number of inaugural addresses ranging from Thomas Jefferson's defense of the Louisiana Purchase in his 1805 address to Benjamin Harrison's discussion of the “near prospect of the admission into the Union of the Dakotas and Montana and Washington Territories” in his 1889 speech.

James Polk's 1845 inaugural address describes the merits of reclaiming Texas and describes the United States' “clear and unquestionable” title to Oregon before reflecting upon the growth of the nation:

[E]ighty years ago our population was confined on the west by the ridge of the Alleghenies. Within that period . . . our people . . . have filled the eastern valley of the Mississippi, adventurously ascended the Missouri to its headsprings, and are already engaged in establishing the blessings of self-government in valleys of which the rivers flow to the Pacific. The world beholds the peaceful triumphs of the industry of our emigrants. To us belongs the duty of protecting them adequately wherever they may be upon our soil.

A search on 1845 letter yields correspondence to President Polk commending him on his speech. For example, J. Huddleson's letter describes attending the ceremony with his family and proclaimed the speech “the best 'Inaugural Address' (in my humble opinion) that I ever heard or read. I never before felt such an abiding confidence, nor such a perfect unity of my hopes and anticipations, in regard to the coming administration.”

  • Who does Polk's address appeal to? Why?
  • How does his explanation of the nation's growth compare to Jefferson's claim that “[t]he larger our association, the less will it be shaken by local passions”?
  • Were all of the land claims that expanded the United States “peaceful triumphs . . . of emigrants”?
  • Why does Polk express concern in a March 5, 1849 diary entry when he learns that his successor, Zachary Taylor, believes that Arizona and California should remain independent?
  • How do Jefferson, Harrison, and Polk's inaugural speeches relate to the notion of Manifest Destiny, i.e. the United States had a divine right to become a transcontinental nation?
  • What role might such speeches have played in the westward expansion of the United States?
  • What do these speeches indicate about the specific events and concerns, as well as the motivations and vindications behind the nation's growth at different periods in its history?