Manifest Destiny and Expansionism

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Manifest Destiny and Expansionism

Today it is taken for granted that the United States spans from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Coast and has defined borders with Mexico and Canada. When the country was founded in the late eighteenth century, however, the future size of the nation was by no means apparent. In 1790, 95 percent of Americans lived east of the Appalachian Mountains, which served as the western border of the original thirteen colonies . The United States held less than 900,000 square miles of territory on the eastern seaboard—far less than the 3.5 million square miles the country occupies today. Lands west of the Appalachians were claimed by native peoples and various European nations.

As soon as the nation won its independence, the American people began looking for new places to settle. Eager to spread “American ideals,” expansionists, people who wanted to see the nation expand its borders, looked to the vast regions west and south of the original thirteen states. Two vast regions had been added to the United States by the early nineteenth century: the Northwest Territory (present-day Illinois , Indiana , Michigan , Ohio , Wisconsin , and part of Minnesota ) and the Louisiana Territory (present-day Arkansas , Iowa , Louisiana , Missouri , Nebraska , North Dakota , Oklahoma , South Dakota , and parts of Colorado , Kansas , Minnesota, Montana , and Wyoming ).

American expansionism was fueled by the young nation's population growth. Pioneer settlement in the Northwest Territory resulted in an increase in farmland and overall crop production. A continuous influx of immigrants from Europe supplied more farmers and farm workers, as well as laborers for the factories that had opened across New England and the Mid-Atlantic. The population grew rapidly. In the two decades between 1840 and 1860 alone, the U.S. population more than doubled,

increasing from about 17 million to more than 38 million. As the eastern seaboard cities grew, a system of new canals, steamboats, roads, and railroads also opened up the interior to increased settlement. By 1850, almost half the population lived outside the original thirteen states.

An American destiny

The idea of Manifest Destiny had emerged around the 1820s. Speaking for millions of Americans, President John Quincy Adams (1767–1848; served 1825–29) maintained that it was God's will that a large and powerful United States would encompass the entire North American continent. This emerging concept included a sense of moral virtue—that Americans had the God-given mission to expand and develop the continent. He also expressed that it was a natural right to grow and to prosper while doing so—that this was nothing short of the “pursuit of happiness” promised in the Declaration of Independence .

Journalist John L. O’Sullivan (1813–1895) first coined the term “Manifest Destiny” in 1845 in an article he wrote for the United States Magazine and Democratic Review. He described Manifest Destiny as the nation's divine and historical destiny “to overspread the continent allotted by Providence [God's design] for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions” (as quoted in Reginald C. Stuart's book UnitedStates Expansionism and British North America, 1775–1871). Behind O’Sullivan's noble description of Manifest Destiny lay more basic human motivations: the hungering for riches, the longing to possess land, and the search for a good life—the dream of the West's common man. Expansionists argued that American democracy itself depended on widespread landownership.

Whose natural rights?

The expansion advocated by the doctrine of Manifest Destiny came at the expense of other people, especially Native Americans and Mexicans in the Southwest, whose destinies and natural rights were often overlooked by the American public. Manifest Destiny was often used as a rationalization, or excuse, for trampling upon the rights—as well as the lands and resources—of others. One pro-expansion faction, led by U.S. senator Thomas Hart Benton (1782–1858) of Missouri, voiced a decidedly racist justification for taking the land. “It would seem that the White race alone received the divine command to subdue and replenish the earth,” Benton wrote in 1846, as quoted by Page Stegner in Winning the Wild West: The Epic Saga of the American Frontier, 1800–1899. He said that unless Native Americans could adapt to the civilization brought by U.S. settlers, they faced certain destruction.

The concept of expanding the country's borders to include such a large amount of territory was by no means shared by all. The Whig Party believed that trying to govern too much territory might, in the long run, destroy the new government. Many believed that trying to reach the western shores of the continent by land was hopelessly dangerous. To settle those uncivilized lands by bringing women and children to them was considered savage.

Realizing the ideal

The fervor of Manifest Destiny was perhaps best illustrated by the U.S. expansion into Oregon and California . In the 1830s, other nations ruled the two sparsely populated areas: Oregon by England and California by Mexico. Expansionists advertised the areas as heavenly, ideal places, spawning in many people an urgent desire, or “fever,” to migrate, despite the many hardships of traveling through the wilderness and settling beyond the reaches of American civilization. During the 1840s, the United States gained control of both regions.

Between 1845 and 1848, with the annexation (addition) of the independent Republic of Texas and the acquisition of the vast Southwest Territory after the Mexican-American War (1846–48), the United States acquired more than one million square miles of land. In 1853, southern Arizona was acquired from Mexico, completing the acquisition of the territory that would eventually become the contiguous United States (all but Alaska and Hawaii ).