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The Causes, Motivations, and Consequences of “Manifest Destiny

Posted March 29th, 2018 at 01:18 PM by Futurist

The Causes, Motivations, and Consequences of “Manifest Destiny”


Ever since 1803, when the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France, many Americans, including American politicians, began supporting a policy of expansionism. For instance, in 1786, then-future U.S. President “Thomas Jefferson wrote that the United States “must be viewed as the nest from which all America, north and South, is to be peopled” (Horsman 86). Thomas Jefferson expressed similar views in a letter to James Monroe (Jefferson 315-319). In this letter, Jefferson wrote that "it is impossible not to look forward to distant times when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits, and cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent" (Jefferson 315-319). In a similar vein, Representative John A. Harper expressed support for the U.S. annexation of British Canada in the run-up to the War of 1812 by telling the U.S. Congress that “the Author of Nature has marked [the U.S.'s] limits … on the north[] by the regions of eternal frost” (Horsman 86). Likewise, in 1811, then-future U.S. President John Quincy Adams wrote to his father, former U.S. President John Adams, that “the whole continent of North America appears to be destined by Divine Providence to be peopled by one nation, speaking one language, professing one general system of religious and political principles, and accustomed to one general tenor of social usages and customs” (McDougall 78). In addition, Adams also stated in this 1811 letter that he believes that a unification of all of North America will result in happiness, peace, and prosperity for everyone who is living there (McDougall 78). This expansionist mentality reached a fever pitch in the 1840s, when many Americans came to believe that the U.S. had a Manifest Destiny to expand (especially, but not only, westwards). There are various reasons for why many Americans, including many American politicians, embraced the concept of Manifest Destiny in the 1840s (and sometimes beyond the 1840s as well). In this essay, I will specifically address and discuss how both the racial and cultural supremacist views among White (especially Anglo-Saxon) Americans and religious language and concepts were used to advocate in favor of Manifest Destiny and U.S. territorial expansion. Also, while I will mostly focus on the 1840s in my essay, I will also talk about views and attitudes towards U.S. territorial expansion at various other points in U.S. history.

One rationale which some Americans used to justify Manifest Destiny was their belief that the United States of America and its people had a mission to spread American values and institutions in order to reshape other territories in the mold of the United States. A good example of this would be a March 2, 1846 speech to the U.S. Congress by explorer and then-future politician William Gilpin in which he states that “[t]he untransacted destiny of the American people is … to establish a new order in human affairs” which will “teach old nations a new civilization” based on freedom, liberty, democracy, and peace (Gilpin 130). Likewise, in 1839 (and without using the term “Manifest Destiny” yet), U.S. newspaper editor John O’Sullivan stated that the United States has a “divine destiny” “to establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man” (“The Great Nation of Futurity”). In this regard, proponents of Manifest Destiny viewed themselves “as [being] the heir[s] of the American Revolution” and as trying to finish the job that the American Founding Fathers started (Gomez 238). In other words, proponents of Manifest Destiny were simply taking Thomas Paine's 1776 statement that the U.S. “[has] it [its] our power to begin the world all over again” and Joel Barlow's view that the U.S. was “a savior of global proportions” to a new level (Bogues 15). In contrast to other Americans, proponents of Manifest Destiny believed “that leading by moral example was not enough and that the United States should fulfill its destiny to democratize the world by any means necessary,” including through the use of military force (Gomez 242). In this regard, the proponents of Manifest Destiny might not have been that different from the neoconservatives who played a large role in shaping U.S. foreign policy over 150 years later, in the early 21st century (Gomez 256).

In addition, many Americans (both during and after the age of Manifest Destiny) embraced religious and/or semi-religious concepts, such as “[t]he idea that the United States has a particular and exceptional relationship with God” (Gomez 236). Similar to how U.S. President George W. Bush reportedly invoked God in his decisions to invade Afghanistan and Iraq and to end the tyranny in those two countries, proponents of Manifest Destiny claimed that the U.S. is “being effectively the hand of God” and that it is “[God's] will for the United States to spread across all of North America” (MacAskill, Gomez 238, Gomez 237). Likewise, just like George W. Bush, proponents of Manifest Destiny viewed “[the United States of] America as [being] a purely virtuous entity obligated to work as a missionary of democracy,” which they considered to be “the cause of Humanity,” “throughout the world” (Gomez 239, Gomez 242). On a somewhat similar note, in 1824, then-future U.S. politician Edward Everett “characterized the westward advance in America as '[a] human family[ which was] led out by Providence to possess its broad patrimony'” (Horsman 88). Likewise, in 1827, U.S. Congressman David Trimble of Kentucky described “the American continent [as] 'the chosen land of liberty [and as the] vineyard of the God of peace,” with Americans being its Providence-selected husbandsmen who “till [its] soil[] and feed the famished nations with the food of independence” (Horsman 88). Some proponents of Manifest Destiny, such as John O'Sullivan, went further than that by arguing that “the U.S.'s “divine mission in world history exempt it from the legal and moral norms that bind other nations[] and [that] there [thus] exist no legitimate constraints on its providential mission to expand the global reach of liberty” (Gomez 240). While one might point out that some advocates of Manifest Destiny supported slavery, it is worth noting that John O'Sullivan (who, for the record, was “personally vaguely committed to the gradual end of slavery”) argued that support of slavery does not contradict the democratic principle, which he viewed as the most fundamental American value (Gomez 244). Thus, O'Sullivan argued that if Manifest Destiny causes slavery to expand, then this would not be a violation of the U.S.'s God-given mission to spread its values to other areas (Gomez 244).

In addition, it is worth noting that, just like the Crusaders several centuries earlier, some proponents of Manifest Destiny not only viewed Manifest Destiny in religious or semi-religious terms, but also viewed it in semi-Apocalyptic terms (Green, Gomez 245-246). To elaborate on this, some proponents of Manifest Destiny believed that they were “bringing the historical process to its culmination in a democratic apocalypse, followed by a '[democratic] millennium' in which peace and freedom endure across the globe” and in which “the United States [would play] the role of the messiah” (Gomez 246, Gomez 245). Indeed, some Manifest Destiny proponents, such as John O'Sullivan, also expressed “enthusiastic support for the European democratic radicals of 1848” due to their belief that this will help accelerate their Apocalyptic vision of a “complete and permanent transfiguration of politics on a global level” in the image of the United States (Gomez 247). Thus, while the United States of America was to play the primary role in causing this Apocalyptic scenario by its pursuit of territorial expansion, like-minded individuals in other countries would certainly be able to help the U.S. cause this Apocalyptic scenario (Gomez 247).

In addition to the desire to bring American values and the Apocalyptic mentality, some proponents of Manifest Destiny supported U.S. territorial expansion for ethnic and racial reasons. For instance, John O'Sullivan supported the 1845 U.S. annexation of Texas due to the fact that the “settlers [were] more or less culturally and racially homogenous” (Gomez 249). Thus, Sullivan believed that annexing Texas would increase the ethnic and racial homogeneity of the United States and “be an advantage” to the U.S. in the sense that it will “allow [the U.S.'s] empire … to exist for a longer period than any previous empire” (Gomez 249). At the same time, O'Sullivan unsurprisingly opposed the idea of having the U.S. annex all of Mexico due to his belief that “Mexicans were 'semi-barbarous' and 'substantially below our national average in both purity and intelligence', which in turn made them unfit to live in a democracy such as the U.S. (Gomez 247). To elaborate on this, O'Sullivan feared “that the forcible annexation of Mexico would contaminate the United States[ by] either causing chaos in American politics or causing Americans to make a mockery of their own democratic principles by ruling Mexico tyrannically” (Gomez 248). Democratic U.S. Senator John C. Calhoun expressed similar sentiments in a January 4, 1848 speech of his in which he stated that he “protest[s] against the [idea of] incorporati[ng the Mexican] people” into the United States due to his belief that the U.S. government “is the Government of the white man” and that annexing Mexico would “destroy[] the social arrangement which form[s] the basis of [American] society” (Calhoun). Thus, in regards to acquiring Mexican territory, individuals such as O'Sullivan wanted to acquire as much Mexican land as possible but as little Mexican people as possible (which, for the record, is what actually ended up happening).

During the mid-19th century, many “American Anglo-Saxons [considered themselves to be] a separate, innately superior people who were destined to bring good government, commercial prosperity, and Christianity to the American continents and the world” (Horsman 1). Indeed, it is worth noting that “the [German] idea of a nation possessing its own Volkgeist, [or] special national spirit, fell on fertile ground among English-speaking peoples who had long traced their institutions to a glorious Anglo-Saxon past and [who] were seeking to explain [and sometimes recreate] their success in the modern era” (Horsman 25-26). Tragically, many American Anglo-Saxons who held this belief also believed that "inferior races [were] incapable of sharing in America’s republican system and [were thus] doomed to permanent subordination or extinction" (Horsman 6). Some of the material in U.S. clergyman Josiah Strong's 1885 book is a great characterization of how many American Anglo-Saxons felt both during this time and several decades earlier (Strong 175). Specifically, Strong said that the Anglo-Saxon race is a “race of unequaled energy” and “the representative ... of the largest liberty, the purest Christianity, [and] the highest civilization” (Strong 175). In addition, Strong predicted that the Anglo-Saxon race “will spread itself over the earth” and “move down upon Mexico, down upon Central and South America, out upon the islands of the sea, over upon Africa and beyond” due to his belief that the Anglo-Saxons' great qualities and characteristics will allow them to win the upcoming battle for the “survival of the fittest” (Strong 175). Indeed, Strong argued that “even in warm climates, [the Anglo-Saxon] is likely to retain his aggressive vigor long enough to supplant races already enfeebled,” thus allowing “God's final and complete solution of the dark problem of heathenism among many inferior peoples” to be implemented (Strong 177). While one might expect such statements to be uttered by the Nazis, many Americans in the 19th and early 20th century unfortunately likewise had such a Social Darwinist mentality. Unsurprisingly, though, this type of mentality and Social Darwinism tragically resulted in the support of many, if not most, White Americans for the forcible relocation of Native Americans to reservations in the West (especially in what is now the U.S. state of Oklahoma) so that their former lands will become available for settlement by White Americans. This mentality is demonstrated by a statement which the American delegation made when it was involved in peace talks with Britain to end the War of 1812. To elaborate on this, this American delegation stated that the U.S. will refuse to “arrest[] ...natural growth within [its] own territories[] for the sake of preserving a perpetual desert for savages,” which was their description of Native Americans (Gates 507). In a similar vein, U.S. President Andrew Jackson “advise[d]” the Creek Native Americans in 1829 to relocate to what is now Oklahoma due to his belief that these Native Americans are currently too close to White Americans in order for either of them “to live in harmony and peace” and due to Jackson's belief that “many of [these Native Americans] will not work and [will not] till the earth” (King 100). Indeed, it is worth noting that when Native Americans, such as the Cherokee, refused to voluntarily leave their homes in the eastern U.S., President Jackson ended up forcibly deporting them westwards even to the point of defying the U.S. Supreme Court on this issue. In Jackson's view, however, Indian removal was a choice between backwardness and civilization, with Jackson picking civilization (Brands 489-493). To elaborate on this, Jackson stated that he would prefer a country which is “studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion” rather than “a country [which is] covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages” (Brands 490). Interestingly enough, though, according to historian H. W. Brands, President Jackson genuinely believed that forcibly deporting Native Americans to the west was a "wise and humane policy" whose goal was to save the Native Americans from “utter annihilation” (Brands 489-493). In turn, this belief of Jackson's, as well as Brand's conclusion that “Jackson was almost certainly correct in contending that for the Cherokees to remain in Georgia risked their extinction" due to the “racist realities of the time,” indicates just how vehemently racist many, if not most, Americans were during this time (Brands 489-493). Indeed, it is worth noting that the Nazis implemented a similar model in some of the parts of Europe which they conquered a century later. Just like President Jackson, the Nazis sometimes expelled people who they believed were racially and/or culturally inferior in order to allow more racially and/or culturally superior ethnic Germans to settle in these places. In the grand scheme of things, many White Americans in the 19th century had no problem with demanding and forcibly taking lands from peoples (Native Americans) and countries (Mexico) which they believed to be racially and/or culturally inferior to White Americans and to the United States of America, respectively.

While many proponents of Manifest Destiny and U.S. territorial expansion believed that this will result in an Apocalypse and in a new, peaceful, and democratic world order led by the United States, this did not end up being the case in reality. In reality, the western U.S. territorial expansion which occurred during James K. Polk's Presidency (1845-1849) created a massive dispute over whether or not slavery should be allowed to expand into these new American territories. Eventually, this dispute resulted in the repeal of the Missouri Compromise with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which in turn led to the founding of the Republican Party. After Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican to win the U.S. Presidency (in 1860), eleven Southern slave states seceded from the United States, thus causing the U.S. Civil War to break out in early 1861 as the U.S. attempted to force these Southern slave states to rejoin the Union. Thus, rather than resulting in a period of peace, the U.S. territorial expansion which was advocated by proponents of Manifest Destiny ended up causing much greater tensions in the U.S. and eventually ended up (temporarily) literally tearing the United States apart. Likewise, while the United States entered World War I in 1917 in order to make the world “safe for democracy,” Europe unfortunately ended up being engulfed by dictatorships in the next couple of decades after World War I (Wilson). More recently, the U.S.'s invasions of Afghanistan (in 2001) and Iraq (in 2003) and its attempts to establish peace and democracy there certainly had some large failures. Likewise, the racial and cultural supremacist mentality which was used to justify Manifest Destiny and U.S. territorial expansion tragically resulted in a lot of harm both to the Native Americans under U.S. rule and, later on, to other non-White peoples in various parts of the world at the hands of European imperialists. In other regards, though, the concept of Manifest Destiny and the rationales which were used to justify it ended up having a more positive legacy on the United States. For instance, U.S. Secretary of State William Seward, a staunch believer in the concept of Manifest Destiny, successfully purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. In turn, this caused the United States to acquire the massive amounts of natural resources, such as gold and petroleum, which ended up being discovered in Alaska later on (“William”). Likewise, the U.S.'s fight against tyranny and totalitarianism in World War II (1941-1945) and its restoration of democracy to Western Europe afterward resulted in a decades-long period of peace, prosperity, and democratic governance in Western Europe which continues to this very day. Likewise, while the western U.S. territorial expansion in the 1840s eventually resulted in the U.S. Civil War breaking out, it also resulted in the United States acquiring large amounts of natural resources which ended up being beneficial to it and to its economy. Likewise, the U.S. territorial expansion in the 1840s provided the United States with an outlet to the Pacific Ocean, which in turn was extremely beneficial to the U.S. due to the fact that it provided the U.S. with a quicker direct avenue to trade with Asia and with certain other parts of the world. Overall, the concept of Manifest Destiny and the arguments which proponents of this concept used to justify it ended up having both positive and negative impacts on the United States and on the world. However, one thing is certain—the concept of Manifest Destiny had an extremely massive role in United States history, thus ensuring that the United States will never be the same again. Indeed, one can argue that the concept of Manifest Destiny and the U.S. territorial expansion which it resulted in is a vital stage in the transformation of the United States of America from a small, relatively unimportant country to the superpower that it is today.

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