The way we were—and the way we went—in 1846

What with the Mexican War, and a million square miles of new real estate, our westward destiny became highly manifest

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It was the year covered wagons began heading for California; the year the first baseball game was played; and the year when people were reading Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." It was the year the Smithsonian Institution was founded, an event just now being celebrated as the Smithsonian marks its 150th birthday, complete with a special exhibit on 1846 at the National Portrait Gallery and a large traveling show.

As author Timothy Foote, an editor at Smithsonian, points out, beyond the Institution's founding, 1846 was an astonishing and decisive year in American history. "It was the year the Mexican War began. The year when the country, taking a quantum leap forward, suddenly completed the westward course of empire that Jefferson had dreamed of when he sent Lewis and Clark out exploring 40 years before. As 1846 began, the Union occupied less than half of what is the continental United States today; when it was over we possessed, or were soon to possess, all of it."

The man who set it all in motion was President James K. Polk. The means he used to acquire California, New Mexico, and most or all of what are now Arizona, Nevada and Utah were controversial even then. "A fair number of people today," Foote writes, "can hardly mention the Mexican War without wincing as if for the transgressions of some shady relative."

We Americans, however, cannot understand our past, says Foote, if we assume that the people who lived then were just like us. Americans of 1846 could not have imagined the current deep concern for the condition of minorities, nor the environmental awareness that has us debating whether wolves should be reintroduced into Yellowstone Park.

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