“Manifest Destiny” was a catchphrase of the 19th century that captured the destination of the United States of America to bring progress and development to the rest of the world. At the time when Americans were inspired by the successful advancement of their own country, many felt compelled to spread their knowledge and achievements further on. For politicians, this catchphrase became a reason to justify expansion and wars to increase the size of the US territory.
The phrase itself was first used by John O’Sullivan, editor of Democratic Review, in 1845. It was used to “describe this vision of a United States stretching from Atlantic to Pacific” (Gruesz). It is good to remember that the idea of “Manifest Destiny” appeared at a time when the lands to the west of the Mississippi River were in no way American. Instead, they were claimed by Mexico, England, and Native Americans. O’Sullivan (1839) in his article “The Great Nation of Futurity” expressed the belief that the formation of the United States was “the beginning of a new history, the formation, and progress of an untried political system, which separates us from the past and connects us with the future only.” The journalist notes the mistakes of the past civilizations with their corrupt aristocratic governments and cruel monarchs and praises America for upholding the principle of equality. America, O’Sullivan concludes, has no shameful past to look back on. Instead, it has a great future as “the nation of progress, of individual freedom, of universal enfranchisement” (O’Sullivan 1839).
These inspiring words were used by politicians to start a series of wars that would expand the boundaries of this democratic state. The expansion over the territory of the American continent came to Ph.D. as «extending the area of freedom», a statement made by President Andrew Jackson in 1843 (Wikipedia). America’s democratic political structure seemed to many a unique experiment, and the contemporaries believed it to be their obligation to extend it to other territories so that their residents could also share in the progress rapidly evolving in the US. The most immediate opportunity was to reach the American rule over the neighboring territories. As a result, continentalism, or belief that America would occupy all of North America eventually, dominated the American politics for writing part of the 19th century (Wikipedia).
One of the practical demonstrations of the “Manifest Destiny” principle was the expansion of the US into Texas. This area proclaimed its separation from Mexico in 1836 and was annexed by the US in 1845. However, “for the Republic of Mexico, this constituted an act of aggression against what their sovereign territory” (Gruesz). The result was the military conflict that started in 1846 as American troops led by Zachary Taylor entered Texas. In September, General Taylor had already seized the city of Monterrey. Americans had also taken control of San Francisco and Santa Fe, in this way creating a route to California. In late 1847, the occupation of Mexico’s capital, Mexico City, sealed the victory of the US troops. The US was able to gain a large part of northern Mexican territories, including the lands of New Mexico and California, paying a relatively small price. The US added almost 850,000 square miles to its territory. This victory increased the conviction that the US was headed for a glorious Manifest Destiny as it “provoked a good deal of enthusiastic war-mongering among average citizens in the U.S., although many prominent writers and politicians lamented that the war was just the kind of show of brute force they had always detested among the European powers” (Gruesz). The expansion in the South raised the hairs of many abolitionists opposed to slavery, as they were opposed to adding more lands that would become home to slave-owning plantations. It made the idea of “Manifest Destiny” more controversial when it came to the southern expansion.
In the North, “Manifest Destiny” was a less controversial, but also less influential idea. American citizens were also sympathetic with Canadians’ struggle for liberation. The preservation of British rule in the northern part of the continent long after the US itself gained independence was undesirable for many Americans. The presence of an un-democratic power was tolerated only with a grudge. It is why when the Rebellions started in Canada, American filibusters were often willing to help their fellows in the North to shake off the British rule. The liberation resulted in the establishment of a democratic government in Canada, although it did not lead to the expansion of the US rule, as the idea of “Manifest Destiny” would predict.
There were also plans to acquire the island of Cuba and make the population join the United States. Latin America was also seen by proponents of “Manifest Destiny” as a suitable target for expansion. Some expeditions in these areas were carried out even without the government support, through the actions of filibusters – ‘private’ military commanders who gathered detachments and departed for foreign lands to conquer new territories. William Walker, one of the best-known filibusters, at one time even captured Nicaragua and ruled it. The efforts of filibusters often got in the way of negotiations to purchase territories. Thus, when “in 1848 President Polk offered to buy Cuba from Spain for $100 million”, he had to tell the Spanish that the Cuban filibuster detachment headed by Narcisco Lopez intended to seize the territory by force (Wikipedia). In any case, “Manifest Destiny” did not come true for the Caribbean island as Spain refused to sell it.
The concept of “Manifest Destiny” inspired many minds in the US to wish the expansion of its territory to make other people part of the progress and involve them in democratic government. This idea fuelled the successful Mexican War. It also underlay the cooperation with Canada and less fortunate attempts to gain control of Cuba. Although it did not result in the expansion to all of the North American territory, this drive helped sizeably enlarge the area.
- Gruesz, Kirsten. Manifest Destiny and Expansion in the Americas. 26 Jul. 06 <http://humwww.ucsc.edu/gruesz/manifest.htm>.
- O’Sullivan, John L. Manifest Destiny, 1839. Excerpted from «The Great Nation of Futurity,» The United States Democratic Review, 6.23: 426-430. 26 Jul. 06 <http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/osulliva.htm>.
- Manifest Destiny. Wikipedia. 2006. 26 Jul. 06 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manifest_Destiny>.
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