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Manifest Destiny is a phrase that expressed the belief that the United States had a divinely inspired mission to expand, to progress, and to spread its form of democracy and freedom. Originally a political catch phrase of the nineteenth century, Manifest Destiny eventually became a standard historical term, often used as a synonym for the territorial expansion of the United States across North America towards the Pacific Ocean.
Manifest Destiny was always a general notion rather than a specific policy. In addition to territorial expansionism, the term also encompassed notions of individualism, idealism, American exceptionalism, Romantic nationalism, White supremacism, and a belief in the inherent greatness of what was then called the "Anglo-Saxon race". Given this variety of components, the phrase defies precise definition. As Ernest Lee Tuveson has written: "A vast complex of ideas, policies, and actions is comprehended under the phrase 'Manifest Destiny.' They are not, as we should expect, all compatible, nor do they come from one source."
The phrase was first used primarily by Jackson Democrats in the 1840s to promote the annexation of much of what is now the Western United States (the Oregon Territory, the Texas Annexation, and the Mexican Cession). The term was revived in the 1890s, this time with Republican supporters, as a theoretical justification for U.S. intervention outside of North America. The term fell out of common usage by American politicians, but some commentators believe that aspects of Manifest Destiny continued to have an influence on American political ideology in the twentieth century.
Manifest Destiny was an explanation or justification for that expansion and westward movement, or, in some interpretations, an ideology or doctrine which helped to promote the process. This article then is a history of the idea of Manifest Destiny and the influence of that idea upon American expansion.
Origin of the phrase
The phrase, which means obvious (or undeniable) fate, was coined in 1844 by New York journalist John L. O'Sullivan in his magazine the Democratic Review. In an essay entitled "Annexation", which called on the U.S. to admit the Republic of Texas into the Union, O'Sullivan wrote of "our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions." Texas became a U.S. state shortly thereafter, but O'Sullivan's first usage of the phrase "Manifest Destiny" attracted little attention.
O'Sullivan's second use of the phrase became extremely influential. In a column which appeared in the New York Morning News on February 27, 1845, O'Sullivan addressed the ongoing boundary dispute with Great Britain in the Oregon Country. O'Sullivan argued that the United States had the right to claim "the whole of Oregon":
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 federated self-government entrusted to us.
John L. O'Sullivan, sketched in 1874, is generally remembered only for using the phrase "Manifest Destiny" to advocate the annexation of Texas and Oregon. That is, O'Sullivan believed that God ("Providence") had given the United States a mission to spread republican democracy ("the great experiment of liberty") throughout North America. Because Great Britain would not use Oregon for the purposes of spreading democracy, thought O'Sullivan, British claims to the territory could be disregarded. O'Sullivan believed that Manifest Destiny was a moral ideal (a "higher law") that superseded other considerations, including international laws and agreements.
O'Sullivan's original conception of Manifest Destiny was not a call for territorial expansion by force. He believed that the expansion of U.S.-style democracy was inevitable, and would happen without military involvement as whites (or "Anglo-Saxons") emigrated to new regions. O'Sullivan disapproved of the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846, although he came to believe that the outcome would be beneficial to both countries.
O'Sullivan's phrase provided a label for sentiments which had become particularly popular during the 1840s, but the ideas themselves were not new. O'Sullivan himself had earlier expressed some of these ideas, notably in an 1839 essay entitled "The Great Nation of Futurity". O'Sullivan was not the originator of Manifest Destiny, but one of its foremost advocates.
At first, O'Sullivan was not aware that he had created a new catch phrase. The term became popular after it was criticized by Whig opponents of the Polk administration. On January 3, 1846, Representative Robert Winthrop ridiculed the concept in Congress, saying "I suppose the right of a manifest destiny to spread will not be admitted to exist in any nation except the universal Yankee nation". Winthrop was the first in a long line of critics who suggested that advocates of Manifest Destiny were citing "Divine Providence" for justification of actions that were motivated by more earthly interests.
Despite this criticism, Democrats embraced the phrase. It caught on so quickly that it was eventually forgotten that O'Sullivan had coined it. O'Sullivan died in obscurity in1895, just as his phrase was being revived; it was not until 1927 that a historian had determined that the phrase had originated with him.
Themes and influences
Historian William E. Weeks has noted that three key themes were usually touched upon by advocates of Manifest Destiny:
1. the virtue of the American people and their institutions;
2. the mission to spread these institutions, thereby redeeming and remaking the world in the image of the U.S.; and
3. the destiny under God to accomplish this work.
The origin of the first theme, also known as American Exceptionalism, was often traced to America's Puritan heritage, particularly John Winthrop's famous "City upon a Hill" sermon of 1630, in which he called for the establishment of a virtuous community that would be a shining example to the Old World. In his influential 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, Thomas Paine echoed this notion, arguing that the American Revolution provided an opportunity to create a new, better society:
We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand....
Many Americans agreed with Paine, and came to believe that the United States had embarked upon a special experiment in freedom and democracy—and a rejection of Old World monarchy—which was of world-historical importance. President Abraham Lincoln's description of the United States as "the last, best hope of Earth" is a well-known expression of this idea. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, in which he interpreted the Civil War as a struggle to determine if any nation with America's ideals could survive, has been called by historian Robert Johannsen "the most enduring statement of America's Manifest Destiny and mission".
The belief that the United States had a mission to spread its institutions and ideals through territorial expansion—what Andrew Jackson in 1843 famously described as "extending the area of freedom"—was a fundamental aspect of Manifest Destiny. Many believed that American-style democracy would spread without any effort by the United States government. American pioneers would take their beliefs with them throughout North America, it was thought, and other countries in the world would seek to emulate American institutions. Thomas Jefferson initially did not believe it necessary that the United States itself should expand, since he believed that other republics similar to the United States would be founded in North America, forming what he called an "empire for liberty". With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, however, he embraced expansion. As more territory was added to the United States in the following decades, whether or not "extending the area of freedom" also meant extending the area of slavery became a central issue in a growing divide over the interpretation of America's "mission".
The Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny were closely related ideas; historian Walter McDougall calls Manifest Destiny a "corollary" of the Monroe Doctrine, because while the Monroe Doctrine did not specify expansion, expansion was necessary in order to enforce the Doctrine. Concerns in the United States that European powers (especially Great Britain) were seeking to increase their influence in North America led to calls for expansion in order to prevent this. In his influential 1935 study of Manifest Destiny, Albert Weinberg wrote that "the expansionism of the [1840s] arose as a defensive effort to forestall the encroachment of Europe in North America".