Manifest Destiny

views updated May 14 2018


In an essay on "Annexation" published in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review in the summer of 1845, John L. O'Sullivan (1813–1895) proclaimed that it was the "manifest destiny of the United States to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions" (p. 5). Here was the first use of a phrase that would come to loom large in antebellum America and subsequently. Better than any other slogan, Manifest Destiny expressed the powerful expansionist drive of the 1840s. In a mere four years, the expansionist movement—led by the Democratic administration of James K. Polk (1795–1849)—achieved its goal of making the United States a continental power. American territory approximately doubled as a result of Texas annexation (1845), the settlement of the Oregon boundary dispute with Britain (1846), and the Mexican cessation (1848). The continental United States as it exists today came into being. That expansionist drive, however, was not dead: Alaska was purchased in 1867. Following the war with Spain in 1898, the United States came to control Cuba, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, becoming a global power.

A large body of scholarship has been devoted to uncovering and revealing the multiple meanings and contradictions of Manifest Destiny, a phrase that brilliantly conflates matters of national self-interest—here territorial acquisition—with a divine mission for America to lead and serve other nations. The ideas that form the basis of Manifest Destiny go back to a time even before British settlement on the continent, and, as reflected in President George W. Bush's second inaugural address on 20 January 2005, persist even in the early twenty-first century.


"Any genealogy" of the term Manifest Destiny, the historian Anders Stephanson argues, must begin with the "biblical notions . . . of the predestined, redemptive role of God's chosen people in the Promised Land: providential destiny revealed" (p. 5). John Winthrop's (1588–1649) sermon "A Model of Christian Charity," evidently written on board the ship Arbella in 1630, cast the Puritans as the New Israel, the people so manifestly destined to be a light unto the nations that the claim needed no proof: "We shall find that the God of Israel is among us . . . when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, the Lord make it like that of New England. For we must consider that we shall be as a city on a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us" (p. 225). The test for the not-yet-created nation is that others come to emulate its behavior. To quote from the narrator's summary of Arthur Dimmesdale's Election Day sermon in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850), the Puritans quickly came to believe that "a high and glorious destiny" awaited "the newly gathered people of the Lord" in "the New England which they were here planting in the wilderness" (pp. 332–333).

Slightly earlier, in the 1610 A True Declaration of the Estate of the Colonie of Virginia, the Virginia Company invoked a set of related ideas to promote migration, asserting that the same God who had joined England, Scotland, and Ireland "wil not be wanting to adde a fourth" nation in North America. "In this call to renew the effort of English colonization at Jamestown," Eric Cheyfitz points out, we can locate the beginnings of the translation of the translatio imperii into the nineteenth-century idea of Manifest Destiny" (p. 111). The phrase translatio imperii et studii refers to the destined transfer westward not only of power and rule but of knowledge and discovery. Yet, such visions had to contend with the reality that the American continent already was occupied. The first book printed in English about the New World, Thomas Hariot's (1560–1621) A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588), acknowledges an Indian presence that "renders the conquest of America something other than the unilateral unfolding of a manifest destiny. It is a contest, a collision," as Myra Jehlen has put it (p. 62). With the introduction of slaves of African origin at Jamestown in 1619, the white settlers added a tragic complication to the myth that the unoccupied North American continent had been destined solely for those in the vanguard of the Anglo-Saxon movement westward.

Still, the growing prosperity of British North America and the seemingly unstoppable spread of white settlers westward seemed to provide confirmation that on this continent God's purpose was being realized. Even Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), the great American exponent of Calvinism, spoke in visionary terms of the American destiny. As Perry Miller summarized Edwards's position, the New World, "though it does not escape the brotherhood of sin . . . is nevertheless the hope of the world, if there is hope anywhere. In America alone is the spirit of God poured forth upon the common people, in plain New England churches" (p. 326). Just as America was supplying the Old World with material resources, so too, Edwards predicted, "the course of things in spiritual respects will be in like manner turned" (Miller, p. 326). Edwards's reference to the "common people" reflects an important new dimension of Manifest Destiny: that America had been selected to bring a democratic social order to the world.


And we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people—the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world. Seventy years ago we escaped from thrall; and, besides our first birth-right—embracing one continent of earth—God has given to us, for a future inheritance, the broad domains of the political pagans, that shall yet come and lie down under the shade of our ark. . . . God has predestinated, mankind expects, great things from our race. . . . The rest of the nations must soon be in our rear. We are the pioneers of the world; the advance-guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours. . . . And let us always remember that with ourselves, almost for the first time. . . . national selfishness is unbounded philanthropy; for we can not do a good to America but we give alms to the world.

Melville, White-Jacket, p. 151.


A number of poets active at the time of the American Revolution, including John Trumbull (1750–1831), Philip Morin Freneau (1752–1832), and Timothy Dwight (1752–1817), took up the related themes of Manifest Destiny and translatio imperii et studii. As John McWilliams puts it, these poets deployed "a form variously called the prospect poem, the vision poem, or the rising glory poem," enabling them to speak with "an authority both secular and spiritual." They "ascrib(ed) the American Revolution to the progressive protestant spirit of the forefathers, showing how the translatio studii has brought the forces of empire to the New World, and ending with a prospect in which various forms of republicanism, peace, and empire, spread from the United States of America across the Western Hemisphere, and often over the globe." Here one finds the "protective and progressive assumptions that were to be crucial to the Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny, the Homestead Act, and the imperialism of the 1890s." As reflected in the national seal, the Founding Fathers envisaged the nation as ushering in nothing less than a "novus ordo seclorum," a "new order of the ages" (pp. 160–161).

For such leaders as Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) and John Quincy Adams (1767–1848), the achievement of independence meant that it was time to give substance to the concept of translatio imperii et studii. Through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 Jefferson doubled the nation's size, an expansion that he conceived in racial terms. In Race and Manifest Destiny, Reginald Horsman quotes Jefferson as asserting that Anglo-Saxons were destined to "cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent, with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar forms, and by similar laws; nor can we contemplate with satisfaction either blot or mixture on that surface." In doing so, Horsman comments, Jefferson "stepped lightly over the question of what would happen to the numerous peoples in North and South America if there was to be no 'blot or mixture' in that vast area" (p. 93). Acting as secretary of state in the Monroe administration, Adams in 1819 acquired Florida from Spain and convinced President James Monroe (1758–1831) to assert in his 1823 annual message the principles that came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine. Yet, as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives until his death in 1848, Adams would oppose the Mexican-American War as an attempt to spread slavery.

Unprecedented growth during the first half of the nineteenth century strengthened the belief in America's providential mission. In November 1839, John L. O'Sullivan proclaimed America as "The Great Nation of Futurity," claiming that

the far-reaching, the boundless future will be the era of American greatness. In its magnificent domain of space and time, the nation of many nations is destined to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles; to establish on earth the noblest temple ever dedicated to the worship of the Most High—the Sacred and the True. (P. 427)

Similarly, in "The Young American" (1844), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) seemed to echo O'Sullivan's visionary rhetoric, declaring that America "is the country of the Future," the country that best embodies that "sublime and friendly Destiny by which the human race is guided." Like other proponents of Manifest Destiny, Emerson makes the remote future palpably real: "To men legislating for the vast area betwixt two oceans, between the snows and the tropics, somewhat of the gravity and grandeur of nature will infuse itself into the [American] code" (p. 217).

Such assertions of America's manifestly high destiny had become so familiar that when O'Sullivan first used the phrase in connection with Texas annexation, it attracted little attention. However, when on 27 December 1845, in an editorial on "The True Title" in New York Morning News, O'Sullivan again used the phrase, it became the focus of national debate. At issue was the dispute with Great Britain over the Oregon boundary; some expansionists pushed for a boundary at 54°40′ north latitude—all the way up to Alaska. A staunch Democrat with close ties to the Polk administration, O'Sullivan dismissed all legal quibbling in asserting America's claims:

We have a still better title than any than any that can ever be constructed out of all these antiquated materials of old black-letter international law. Away, away with all these cobweb tissues of rights of discoveries, settlement, continuity, etc. . . . And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federative self-government entrusted to us. (Quoted in Weinberg, pp. 144–145).

O'Sullivan's unilateralism in foreign policy became a lightning rod for Whig critics. Speaking in the House of Representatives on 16 January 1846, Charles Goodyear of New York scornfully characterized "manifest destiny" as the sort of claim that "has ever been used to justify every act of wholesale violence and rapine that ever disgraced the history of the world. It is the robber's title" (quoted in Graebner, p. 110). Representative Robert C. Winthrop of Massachusetts, speaking in the House on 3 January of the same year, had condemned claims made by "right of our Manifest Destiny! . . . I suppose that the right of a manifest destiny to spread will not be admitted to exist in any nation except the universal Yankee nation!" (quoted in Graebner, p. 118). Such attacks brought the phrase into the national discourse. In the event, Polk settled the boundary dispute peacefully at 49° north latitude and within the conventions of international law.


Determined to acquire California and the large New Mexican territory, Polk sent an emissary, John Slidell(1793–1871), to Mexico City to offer terms of purchase. When it became clear that the Mexican government would not accede to American demands, Polk ordered American troops under Zachary Taylor (1784–1850) into the region between the Neuces and Rio Grande. The Mexicans responded by killing some sixteen American soldiers and capturing others. Claiming that the Mexicans had "shed American blood on American soil," Polk pushed a war resolution through Congress, passed on 13 May 1846. So politically skillful was Polk—and so widely shared were the ideas of Manifest Destiny—that critics of "Mr. Polk's War" failed to mount a forceful challenge (Heidler and Heidler, pp. 141–163). Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) observed on 21 January, 1848 that

Mexico seems a doomed victim to Anglo-Saxon cupidity and love of dominion. The determination of our slaveholding President to prosecute the war, and the probability of his success in wringing from the people men and money to carry it on, is made evident, rather than doubtful, by the puny opposition arrayed against him. No politician of any considerable distinction or eminence, seems willing to hazard his popularity, or stem the fierce current of executive influence, by an open and unqualified disapprobation of the war. (Quoted in Graebner, p. 235)

With the defeat of the Mexican armies and the signing of Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, America achieved its territorial aims. The Oxford Companion to American History concludes that "in a small way, America had become an imperialist nation, the control of the South in national politics was reinforced, and the slavery issues were revived in deadly earnest" (Johnson, p. 527). But one might see the Mexican-American War as neither a "small" nor a new step in the nation's history.

With few exceptions, such as Douglass and James Russell Lowell (1819–1891) in The Biglow Papers (1848), American writers failed to mount a concerted attack on Polk's war. In a diary entry made most likely in March 1844, about the time that he delivered his "The Young American" lecture in Boston, Emerson writes that he was prepared to accept even questionable "methods" so long as territorial aims of the American race were realized:

It is very certain that the strong British race which have now overrun so much of this continent, must also overrun [Texas] & Mexico & Oregon also, and it will in the course of ages be of small import by what particular occasions & methods it was done. It is a secular question. It is quite necessary & true to our New England character that we should consider the question in its local and temporary bearings, and resist the annexation tooth and nail. (Journals, p. 74)

But the currents of Manifest Destiny were so strong that no such "tooth and nail" resistance developed. On the contrary, Walt Whitman (1819–1892) echoed O'Sullivan in an editorial on 2 December 1847 in the Brooklyn Eagle: "It is for the interest of mankind that [American] power and territory should be extended. . . . We claim those lands . . . by a law superior to parchment and dry diplomatic rules" (p. 370). Although Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) famously spent a night in jail in 1846, there is no evidence that he did so to protest the Mexican-American War. But he strongly felt the westward pull, as he wrote in the posthumously published "Walking" (1862): "I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe. And that way the nation is moving, and I may say that mankind progress from east to west" (p. 234).


Even before the establishment of America as an independent nation, such leaders as John Winthrop and Jonathan Edwards spoke of the nation's destiny in messianic terms: as a light unto the nations. At the same time, America's destiny was conflated with national self-interest, notably the need to expand across the continent. Following World War I, President Woodrow Wilson gave new emphasis to the redeemer nation concept, proclaiming that it was America's destiny to help bring freedom, democracy, and prosperity to the nations of the globe. Over the course of the twentieth century and into the twenty first, Americans have continued to search for ways to reconcile the sometimes conflicting meanings of Manifest Destiny.

See alsoBorders; Exploration and Discovery; Mexican-American War; Political Parties; Puritanism; Religion; Transcendentalism


Primary Works

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Journals and MiscellaneousNotebooks. Edited by William H. Gilman et al. Vol. 10. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960–1970.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "The Young American." In his Essays and Lectures, pp. 213–230. New York: Library of America, 1983.

Hariot, Thomas. A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. 1588. New York: Dover, 1972.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850. In Collected Novels. New York: Library of America, 1983.

Lowell, James Russell. The Biglow Papers. 1848. Edited by Thomas Wortham. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1977.

Melville, Herman. White-Jacket. 1850. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2000.

O'Sullivan, John L. "Annexation." United States Magazine and Democratic Review 17 (July–August 1845): 5–10.

O'Sullivan, John L. "The Great Nation of Futurity." UnitedStates Magazine and Democratic Review 6 (November 1839): 426–430.

O'Sullivan, John L. "The True Title." New York Morning News, 27 December 1845.

Thoreau, Henry David. Collected Essays and Poems. Edited by Elizabeth Hall Witherell. New York: Library of America, 2001.

Whitman, Walt. The Journalism. Vol. 2. Edited by Herbert Bergman et al. New York: Peter Lang, 2003.

Winthrop, John. "A Model of Christian Charity." In NortonAnthology of American Literature, vol. 1, 5th ed., edited by Nina Baym. New York: Norton, 1998.

Secondary Works

Cheyfitz, Eric. The Poetics of Imperialism: Translation andColonization from The Tempest to Tarzan. Expanded ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

Graebner, Norman A., ed., Manifest Destiny. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968.

Heidler, David S., and Jeanne T. Heidler. Manifest Destiny. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003.

Horsman, Reginald. Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Jehlen, Myra. "The Literature of Colonization." In CambridgeHistory of American Literature, vol. 1, 1590–1820, edited by Sacvan Bercovitch. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Johnson, Thomas H. Oxford Companion to American History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.

McWilliams, John. "Poetry in the Early Republic." In Columbia Literary History of the United States, edited by Emory Elliott et al. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Miller, Perry. Jonathan Edwards. 1949. New York: Meridian, 1959.

Stephanson, Anders. Manifest Destiny: AmericanExpansionism and the Empire of Right. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.

Weinberg, Albert K. Manifest Destiny. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1935.

Robert J. Scholnick

Manifest Destiny

views updated May 23 2018


MANIFEST DESTINY. In 1845 John L. O'Sullivan coined the term "manifest destiny" in reference to a growing conviction that the United States was preordained by God to expand throughout North America and exercise hegemony over its neighbors. In the United States Magazine and Democratic Review (July–August 1845, p. 5) he argued for "the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions." Around the time of O'Sullivan's writing, the United States saw an extraordinary territorial growth of 1.2 million square miles, an enlargement of more than 60 percent. Most of this growth occurred at the expense of the newly independent Mexico and the Native American nations. The expansion happened at such an accelerated pace that people like O'Sullivan thought that even larger expansions were inevitable, necessary, and desirable—hence the origin of the concept of manifest destiny.

Manifest destiny was obviously a defense of what is now called imperialism. It was a complex set of beliefs that incorporated a variety of ideas about race, religion, culture, and economic necessity. Some people, like the land speculators that settled in Florida, Texas, and Native American lands, wanted more land to get rich. Some fled poverty in Europe and eastern metropolitan centers. Some assumed that without spreading out to fresh lands the nation would languish. Some sought to perpetuate the institution of slavery by expanding it to new territories. Some believed that expansion into "uncivilized" regions would spread progress and democracy. It was convenient for all to think that they had the divine right to acquire and dominate because they had the proper economic system and the most developed culture and belonged to the most advanced race.

Origins of the Idea

This conviction of a destined glorious future for the United States had roots in colonial times. The influential Puritan John Winthrop wrote, "We shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us." Many colonial leaders adopted time-honored expansion imagery from the Bible, portraying northern European Protestant colonists as the new Israelites and North America as the new Promised Land to justify conquering new lands and dominating other cultures.

When colonists attempted emancipation from Britain, the rebellion heightened the importance of the idea that the North American colonists were special individuals selected by God to rule over an extended territory. Insurgent leaders purposely sought Promised Land imageries for the new nation's symbols. The British forces were seen as the Egyptian soldiers, the Atlantic Ocean was the new Red Sea, and George Washington became the "American Moses."

With independence came new ideas that encouraged the desire to extend the country beyond the original perimeter of the thirteen colonies. Expansionist patriots reasoned that expansion was linked to the survival of republicanism. Not only did the new nation have the divine assignment of spreading the true religion of Protestantism by example and enlargement, but it also had the responsibility of spreading its political tenets in the same manner. An upsurge in births and immigration was directly tied to the promises of expansion, which included cheap land and economic opportunities west of the Appalachian Mountains. The country's population grew from about 5 million in 1800 to more than 23 million by midcentury. The frontier offered relief in the form of land, resources, and commercial opportunities to those affected by the economic downturns of 1818 and 1829. Seizing Native American and Spanish lands would allow the national economy to expand, acquire more raw materials for fledgling industries, and secure new commercial outposts, particularly those of the Far East. Expansion would ensure new markets for an increasing U.S. industrial output. The expansionists saw no contradiction between advancing their capital and improving the world by stimulating economic activity. Popular bourgeois values of self-sufficiency and self-rule received unexpected support from the general public as it tried its luck in the new lands. These expansions, however, also created a permanent economic and cultural underclass composed of the Native Americans and Hispanics who had been living in those territories.

Manifest Destiny in Practice

The Monroe Doctrine exemplified the mood and ideas behind manifest destiny. President James Monroe said that the Americas were "not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers," paving the way for an increasing United States hegemony over its neighbors by attempting to cut off European influence in the Western Hemisphere. The gradual inroads of English-speaking settlers from the United States into the Mexican province of Texas, starting in 1823, is one of the clearest examples of manifest destiny's coming of age. Mexico opened the land for colonization, but the response was so overwhelming that Mexican authorities lost control of the province. Motivated by ideas of manifest destiny, the new English-speaking settlers rebelled in 1835 in an attempt to form an independent state. A series of reactions led to the annexation of Texas in 1845 and war between Mexico and the United States in 1846. The war ended on 2 February 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceding to United States the present-day Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas, and parts of Colorado, Nevada, and Utah. The goal of reaching the Pacific coast was accomplished.

The Civil War of 1861–1865 did not cool the expansionist impulses completely. The military strength built during the war was now used against Native Americans to gain their land in the Northwest. Expansionists, now freely using the term manifest destiny to justify their wishes, also turned their attention to the Caribbean, Central America, and the Pacific. Times had changed since the antebellum period, and now the ideologies behind manifest destiny contained elements of Darwinism and beliefs in social and climatic determinism. North Americans felt they had "the white's man burden" in the Americas and it was their responsibility to lead the inferior races in the south to better lives. These new expressions of the principles behind O'Sullivan's manifest destiny inspired the United States' intervention in the Cuban War for Independence in 1895 and in Panama in 1903. Military and technical successes in these enterprises led to a transoceanic North American empire. Altered ideas of manifest destiny, combined with other forces of the time, continued to determine international relations through the twentieth century.

Notwithstanding the popularity of the principles advanced by the different expressions of manifest destiny, not everyone accepted the expansionism they entailed. The Whig Party opposed expansion, believing that the republican experiment in the United States would fail if

the nation grew too large. Politicians from the Northeast felt they would lose political power in Congress if the United States admitted more states into the union. Attempts to expand further into Mexico were defeated by racism toward Mexicans. The abolitionists also opposed expansion, particularly if it would bring slave territories into the union. Pacifists became gravely concerned with the casualties of expansion and opposed its violence. Yet the overall opposition to the ideas of manifest destiny was modest. Most people gladly embraced the concept that they belonged to a superior culture and race, and that Providence or genetics had preordained the people of the United States for greatness. Even black leaders like Frederick Douglass accepted the principles of manifest destiny when he supported the annexation of Santo Domingo.

Native Americans and Hispanics, however, were not passive victims of the expansion. The stories of Native American and Mexican resistance to Anglo-Saxon occupation are well known. Yet some local elites seeking opportunities for profit adapted their interests to the new circumstances, even when other members of their own ethnic groups opposed their moves.


Cherry, Conrad. God's New Israel: Religious Interpretations ofAmerican Destiny. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1971.

Johannsen, Robert Walter, Sam W. Haynes, and Christopher Morris, eds. Manifest Destiny and Empire: American Antebellum Expansionism. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1997.

Joseph, Gilbert M., Catherine C. LeGrand, and Ricardo D. Salvatore, eds. Close Encounters of Empire: Writing the Cultural History of U.S.–Latin American Relations. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998.

Koning, Hans. The Conquest of America: How the Indian NationsLost Their Continent. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1993.

Owsley, Frank Lawrence, Jr., and Gene A. Smith. Filibusters andExpansionists: Jeffersonian Manifest Destiny, 1800–1821. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.

Weinberg, Albert Katz. Manifest Destiny: A Study of NationalistExpansionism in American History. New York: AMS Press, 1976.

Dennis R.Hidalgo

See alsoWestward Migration ; "City on a Hill."

Manifest Destiny

views updated Jun 27 2018


The doctrine of Manifest Destiny emerged in the United States in the early 1800s; by the 1840s it had taken firm hold. Manifest Destiny was a rallying cry for expansionism and it prompted rapid U.S. acquisition of territory during the 1800s. Adherents to the doctrine believed that the United States had a God-given duty and right to expand its territory and influence throughout North America.

Territorial acquisitions under the doctrine began in 1803, with the purchase of Louisiana Territory from France. In 1819 Florida and the southern strip of Alabama and Mississippi (collectively called the Old Southwest) were acquired from Spain in the Adams-Onis Treaty. In 1845 Texas was annexed after white settlers fought for and declared freedom from Mexico, then formed the Republic of Texas and petitioned the Union for statehood. In 1846 the western border between Canada and the United States was agreed to lie at 49 degrees north latitude, the northern boundary of what is today Washington state. In 1848, by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the U.S. secured New Mexico and California after winning the Mexican War (18461848). In 1853 southern Arizona was acquired from Mexico in the Gadsden Purchase. With the 1853 agreement over Arizona the United States had completed the acquisition of the territory that would eventually become the contiguous United States of America.

The fervor of Manifest Destiny was perhaps best illustrated by the expansion into Oregon Country, which was settled by the United States and Canada under the Convention of 1818. The territory began at 42 degrees north latitude (the southern boundary of present-day Oregon) and extended north to 54 degrees 40 minutes north latitude (the recognized southern boundary of Russian America, or what is today Alaska). In the presidential election of 1844 candidate James K. Polk (18451849) used the slogan "Fifty-four Forty or Fight" to gain the vote of the expansionists: They insisted U.S. rights to Oregon Country extended north to latitude 54 degrees 40 minutes. Polk promised he would acquire the territoryeven if it meant a fight with Britain. After he was elected, Polk settled the dispute with Britain and the boundary was set at 49 degrees north, securing the territory that is today Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming.

The expansionist doctrine was again invoked as justification for the Spanish-American War (1898), which was fought over the issue of freeing Cuba from Spain. Spain lost the war, and its empire dissolved. Cuba achieved independence (though it was occupied by U.S. troops for three years). By the close of the nineteenth century Manifest Destiny had resulted in U.S. acquisition of the outlying territories of Alaska, the Hawaiian Islands, Midway Islands, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, Wake Island, American Samoa, the Panama Canal Zone, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

See also: Alaska Purchase, Expansionists, Gadsden Purchase, Louisiana Purchase, Oregon Country Cessation, Texas Annexation, Westward Expansion


fifty-four forty or fight!

expansionist slogan during president james k. polk's administration, 18451849

Manifest Destiny

views updated May 23 2018


The mid-1840s were years of extraordinary territorial growth for the United States, a period in which the national domain increased by 1.2 million square miles, a gain of more than sixty percent. In 1845, the United States annexed Texas and the following year reached a settlement with Great Britain for control of the Pacific Northwest. Mexico's opposition to the annexation of Texas led to the Mexican War (1846–1848), which resulted in the U.S. acquisition of California and the American Southwest through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. So rapid and dramatic was the process of territorial expansion that it came to be seen as an inexorable process, prompting many Americans to insist that their nation had a "manifest destiny" to dominate the continent.

Yet the expansionist agenda was never promoted by a clearly defined movement, nor did it enjoy broad bipartisan support. Some champions of Manifest Destiny favored rapid expansion and the bold pursuit of U.S. territorial claims, even at the risk of war with other nations. Others, no less committed to the long-term goal of a U.S. empire, opposed the use of force to achieve that end, believing that contiguous lands would voluntarily join the Union in order to obtain the benefits of republican rule.

For all its brash rhetoric, American expansionism was driven by economic and geopolitical anxieties. Troubled by creeping urbanization and a rising tide of immigrants from Europe, expansionists viewed Manifest Destiny as a way to attain the Jeffersonian ideal by providing new lands and unlimited economic opportunities for future generations. Southerners anxious to add slave states to the Union were among the most ardent supporters of the crusade for more territory, and American commercial interests saw expansion as a way to gain access to lucrative foreign markets. Manifest Destiny was also a response to American suspicions of British interference in the western hemisphere, a fear that had grown more acute as the United States began to define its strategic and economic interests in terms that extended beyond its own borders.

In the 1850s, preoccupied with the increasingly bitter sectional conflict over slavery, many Americans rejected Manifest Destiny. Although Southern extremists sponsored filibuster expeditions into Latin America with the objective of gaining new lands into which to extend slavery, the expansionist movement faded from the national agenda in the years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War Instead, Americans argued over the settlement of those western lands and whether they would include or exclude slavery. That problem was not fully resolved until the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment put an end to slavery in the nation.

Ironically, Manifest Destiny proved to be a mixed blessing for U.S. society and culture. On one hand, it appeared to confirm a religious conviction that the United States had a divine mission to spread its institutions across the continent, thus contributing to the nation's sense of itself as an exceptional society with a mission to play in the world. On the other hand, it became divisive because it was associated with the spread of slavery, an institution many believed to be incompatible with American ideals. Thus, rather than uniting the nation, it further divided North and South and became a factor leading to the Civil War.

Sam W. Haynes

See also:Age of Westward Expansion.

Manifest Destiny

views updated Jun 11 2018

Man·i·fest Des·ti·ny • n. the 19th-century doctrine or belief that the expansion of the U.S. throughout the American continents was both justified and inevitable.

manifest destiny

views updated Jun 27 2018

manifest destiny the 19th century doctrine or belief that the expansion of the United States throughout the American continents was both justified and inevitable.