What is Manifest Destiny?
Manifest Destiny was an influential cultural conviction in the 19th century United States, asserting that American settlers had been predestined to grow and spread throughout North America. This enthusiasm for expansion was rooted in feelings of American exceptionalism – believing that Americans and their ideals were one-of-a-kind with a divine mission to remake the western landscape into their image. Though many supported this idea of manifest destiny, respected figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant did not share these same passionate convictions. The term was often used to justify American expansionism, including the Mexican-American War and the negotiation of the Oregon boundary dispute, and its legacy is still felt today.
During the 19th century, Manifest Destiny permeated throughout the United States and left an indelible mark on its history. An idea of American exceptionalism, romantic nationalism, and moral obligation to propagate values across North America propelled this concept; while it was never officially enacted as a policy or principle in reality, citizens’ hearts and minds were significantly impacted by it during that period. Understanding the intricacies of Manifest Destiny and its wide-reaching impacts on American politics and foreign policy is no easy feat. In this comprehensive piece, we endeavor to thoroughly examine each aspect of this complex yet influential period in US History. From delving into the core tenets of Manifest Destiny to exploring examples throughout history, we hope you obtain an insightful appreciation for what manifested destiny has meant for America’s past and present.
The Tenets of Manifest Destiny
Manifest Destiny was rooted in three basic tenets:
- The particular virtues of the American people and their institutions.
- The mission of the United States is to redeem and remake the West in the image of the agrarian East.
- An irresistible destiny to accomplish this essential duty.
Rooted in a deep-seated belief that liberty, democracy, and equality should be broadcast to other nations through expansionism, American exceptionalism held the conviction that America was incomparable compared to countries worldwide. These principles were grounded in an unparalleled nation competing with others on a global stage.
According to historian William Weeks, American foreign policy in the early 19th century was characterized by three key components: a conviction of America’s moral superiority, belief in its mission to spread republicanism and “the American way of life,” and faith that it had been divinely appointed with a destiny to fulfill this purpose. This notion of Manifest Destiny—that God has selected our nation for an extraordinary role—was thus central to our country’s international affairs.
Controversy Surrounding Manifest Destiny
In the 19th century, Manifest Destiny was widely accepted among many Americans. However, prominent political figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant strongly opposed it due to its potential impact on democracy in America. Additionally, sectionalism caused by slavery further complicated matters by making southern states more inclined to believe in Manifest Destiny than northern ones were. This eventually resulted in the Mexican-American War of the 1840s, which initiated yet another wave of dissent within the American population. Former President John Quincy Adams was a prime example who held the idea of Manifest Destiny in high regard, only to later on altogether reject it due to its ties with slave ownership.
John O’Sullivan and the Coining of the Term
The phrase “Manifest Destiny” was first used in print by John O’Sullivan, an editor for a newspaper. Although some scholars argue that the term was authored by Jane Cazneau, a journalist and proponent of annexationism, it quickly became a popular expression to characterize the American concept of expansionism. Regardless of its source, Manifest Destiny spread like wildfire among Americans in 1845.
The Conflicting Views of America’s Destiny
Since a unified story on Manifest Destiny had not been established, varied and sometimes competing understandings of it were proposed. Some celebrated the concept as an effort to expand America’s boundaries, while others saw it as an invitation for other countries to follow suit. Ernest Lee Tuveson summarized the possible meanings of Manifest Destiny: “A vast complex of ideas, policies, and actions are comprehended under the phrase ‘Manifest Destiny.’ They are not, as we should expect, all compatible, nor do they come from any one source.”
In the 19th century, Manifest Destiny was an intricate and often contentious notion that left a long-lasting impression on American history. Despite its flaws, it mirrored the ever-increasing sense of exceptionalism and ambition among Americans, which would ultimately shape this country’s trajectory for years to come.
Pros of Manifest Destiny
- Expansion of territory and economic growth
- Spread of American culture and values
- Development of infrastructure and transportation
- Increase in trade and commerce
- Creation of new job opportunities
- Provision of land for agriculture and settlement
- Establishment of military and political power
- Enhancement of national pride and unity
- Increased access to resources and raw materials
- Establishment of American dominance over other cultures
- Development of new states and territories
- Advancement of scientific knowledge through exploration
- Increase in immigration and cultural diversity
- Improvement of American security through frontier protection
- Establishment of the United States as a global power
- Expansion of territory and economic growth: Embedded in the concept of Manifest Destiny was the notion that it was America’s destiny to take control and inhabit more territories, enlarging and enriching our country. This belief inspired rapid expansion outward, leading to a larger United States with improved economic opportunities.
- Spread of American culture and values: As colonists continued to settle in America, they propagated their culture and values – like democracy and capitalism- throughout other regions, believing that by doing so, they would promote American principles while simultaneously improving the lives of others.
- Development of infrastructure and transportation: With the acquisition of new lands, it was essential to establish transportation systems and infrastructure. Manifest Destiny served as an invitation to construct roads, ports, and railroads to link these newly acquired territories to the nation, enhancing economic development prospects and trade chances.
- Increased trade and commerce: The broadening of the United States and its infrastructure developments opened new opportunities for trading, commerce, and growth. American businesses profited from the building of these markets as well as connecting with diverse partners all over the world to increase their revenue.
- Creation of new job opportunities: As the United States grew and economic opportunities became more plentiful, individuals fortunate enough to benefit from those developments were presented with a world of possibilities. Construction, transportation, and trade rapidly flourished as unemployment levels dropped, enabling citizens all over the country to enjoy higher living standards.
- Provision of land for agriculture and settlement: The idea of manifest destiny was centered around the expansion of territory. This provided farmers with a new source for agricultural growth and an invitation to migrate toward the West. Consequently, many American agrarian businesses were able to thrive while furthering their boundaries.
- Establishment of military and political power: By settling newly discovered land, the United States was granted an opportunity to expand its military and political might. With increasing borders, it could now domestically guard against threats while quickly asserting itself in foreign places.
- Enhancement of national pride and unity: The idea of manifest Destiny was intended to create a sense of national pride and unity among Americans. The belief that the American people were destined to expand and improve the world helped to create a sense of national purpose and identity.
- Increased access to resources and raw materials: The United States acquired new resources and raw materials by acquiring new territories. This helped to fuel the country’s economic growth and provide the materials necessary to support its industries.
- Establishment of American dominance over other cultures: The territorial expansion and spread of American culture and values was seen as a way of establishing American dominance over other cultures. This was intended to demonstrate American civilization’s superiority and promote the “American way of life.” Some saw this as a way to bring social and economic improvements to other cultures, while others saw it as cultural imperialism.
- Development of new states and territories: By harnessing the principles of Manifest Destiny, the United States could acquire unprecedented amounts of land through treaty agreements, purchases, and even conquest. This facilitated immense growth for our nation geographically and politically, bringing with it plentiful resources, new citizens, and exciting economic prospects.
- Advancement of scientific knowledge through exploration: The expansion of the United States through Manifest Destiny allowed for scientific exploration and discovery of new territories. This led to the advancement of scientific knowledge and understanding of new regions and their resources. New findings in botany, geology, and geography contributed to the growth of the scientific community and the further development of the United States.
- Increase in immigration and cultural diversity: The United States Manifest Destiny expansion opened the door to diverse immigrants from Europe, Asia, and other parts of the globe. This invigorated American culture with new perspectives and customs while deepening cultural understanding. As such, America’s population became more varied regarding cultural heritage – fostering an unprecedented level of integration through cultural exchange and mutual respect.
- Improvement of American security through frontier protection: The expansion of the United States through Manifest Destiny allowed for the creation of new military posts and forts along the frontier, which helped to protect American settlements and citizens from hostile Native American tribes and foreign powers. This increased security allowed for the country’s and its citizens’ growth and prosperity.
- Establishment of the United States as a global power: By claiming and annexing new territories and states, the United States was able to solidify its position as a global superpower. Through this process of territorial enlargement, it became an influential part of international affairs and one of the world’s most powerful countries. With its expansive growth across the Western Hemisphere, the US became a major player in politics and commerce worldwide.
Cons of Manifest Destiny
- Dispossession and exploitation of indigenous peoples
- Destruction of Native American cultures and traditions
- Enslavement and exploitation of African Americans
- Expansion of slavery into new territories
- Economic exploitation of Mexico and other countries
- Disregard for international law and the sovereignty of other nations
- Expansion of imperialism and colonial rule
- Causing environmental degradation and loss of natural resources
- Increase in military conflicts and wars
- Creation of social and political tensions within the United States
- Worsening relationships with other countries
- Increase in economic inequality and poverty
- Displacement of settlers from their ancestral lands
- Corruption and abuse of power by those in authority
- Perpetuation of racist and discriminatory attitudes and policies
- Dispossession and exploitation of indigenous peoples: The implementation of Manifest Destiny led to the forced removal of Indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands, as American settlers took control of these lands and resources. Indigenous populations were often subjected to violence, disease, and other forms of exploitation as they were forcibly relocated to reservations or forced to assimilate into white American culture.
- Destruction of Native American cultures and traditions: The American settlers brought a whole new culture and lifestyle that often clashed with and posed a threat to Indigenous peoples’ traditions. Expansion into Native American lands led to devastation – sacred sites were obliterated, cultural artifacts destroyed, and traditional practices erased – resulting in centuries of Indigenous history being wiped out and their unique cultural heritage.
- Enslavement and exploitation of African Americans: Enslaved people were brought from Africa to work on American plantations and construct infrastructure projects. These individuals were subjected to brutal conditions and were denied their fundamental human rights. The expansion of slavery into new territories through Manifest Destiny perpetuated and entrenched the system of slavery and led to the further exploitation and oppression of African Americans.
- Expansion of slavery into new territories: Manifest Destiny drove slavery into new lands, including Texas and other regions in the West. This was a significant contention between northerners and southerners preceding the Civil War. The growth in slave ownership had the potential to significantly diminish stability throughout America and bolster its existing system of enslavement.
- Economic exploitation of Mexico and other countries: American influence and control expansion often came at the expense of other countries, such as Mexico. The Mexican-American War, justified by Manifest Destiny, resulted in the loss of nearly half of Mexico’s territory to the United States. This and other American expansions often involved economic exploitation and the extraction of resources from other countries, further entrenching American power and dominance.
- Disregard for international law and sovereignty of other nations: Manifest Destiny was a powerful and dangerous notion that believed American expansion, regardless of the consequences, was inevitable and justifiable. This idea drove those in power to annex territories across the nation, such as Mexican land, during the mid-1800s, without regard for international laws or treaties.
- Expansion of imperialism and colonial rule: As the United States expanded, it imposed its political and economic influence over newly acquired territories, often using military force. This resulted in the creation of colonial dependencies, where the local population had little or no control over their affairs and was ruled by American officials.
- Causing environmental degradation and loss of natural resources: The rapid expansion of American settlements and economic activities destroyed large areas of forests, prairies, and other natural habitats. This resulted in the loss of biodiversity and the depletion of natural resources, including wildlife, water, and minerals.
- Increase in military conflicts and wars: In pursuing Manifest Destiny, the United States often faced military confrontation as it embarked on its mission to transcend boundaries and extend influence. This included battles with native populations of other territories and the Mexican-American War to gain possession of lands situated southwestward.
- Creation of social and political tensions within the United States: The expansion of slavery into new territories, and the displacement and exploitation of indigenous peoples and other minorities, created significant social and political tensions within the United States. These tensions eventually led to the American Civil War, which was fought over the issue of slavery, and had far-reaching consequences for American society and politics.
- Worsening of relationships with other countries: In pursuing manifest Destiny, many nations attempted to expand their territories and colonize foreign lands without regard for international law or sovereignty. This blatant disregard caused heated tensions between countries, resulting in a loss of mutual trust and respect.
- Increase in economic inequality and poverty: As a result of territorial expansion and colonization, the wealth and resources of some regions of the country were concentrated in the hands of a few, leading to increased economic inequality and poverty for many. This was particularly true for marginalized groups, such as indigenous peoples and African Americans, who were enslaved and exploited.
- Displacement of settlers from their ancestral lands: Following Manifest Destiny often entailed settlers being forcibly or economically coerced to leave their ancestral lands, causing a painful loss of cultural identity and past ties. This further inflamed the tensions between colonists and indigenous peoples, resulting in heightened conflict across many regions of America.
- Corruption and abuse of power by those in authority: The pursuit of manifest Destiny often involved using government power and resources, which were sometimes abused by those in authority. This led to corruption, the exploitation of resources, and the neglect of the needs of local communities, resulting in further economic and political inequality.
- Perpetuation of racist and discriminatory attitudes and policies: The ideology of manifest Destiny was often intertwined with racist and discriminatory attitudes and policies, particularly regarding indigenous peoples, African Americans, and other minority groups. This perpetuated systemic inequalities and injustices, leading to long-term adverse effects on these communities and the broader society.
The End of Manifest Destiny
In the late 19th century, the long-held concept of manifest Destiny took a downturn as Americans faced pushback at home and abroad for their imperialistic activities. The country’s engagement in the 1898 Spanish-American War brought about an assertive foreign policy with acquisitions such as Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. This new wave of expansionism was met with much criticism from those who opposed imperialism and were against subjugating other countries sovereignty.
In the early 1900s, progressive values and anti-imperialist views began to spread throughout society, resulting in an abandonment of manifest destiny. People no longer saw America as a divinely chosen nation with a mission to conquer and redeem; instead, they had developed a more detailed view of its role in the world.
The end of manifest Destiny was also marked by the aftermath of World War II, as the United States emerged as a global superpower and took on a leadership role in shaping the post-war world. This new role required a more pragmatic and cooperative approach to international relations, as the country sought to promote peace and stability in a world threatened by the Cold War.
Manifest Destiny’s legacy continues to permeate American history, generating both support and criticism. As we trek into the 21st century, our nation is presented with new obstacles and opportunities that necessitate a revamped emphasis on diplomacy, cooperation, and sustainability. The termination of Manifest Destiny indicates a critical juncture in America’s narrative: recognizing its place as a capable member of the global community.
The New Manifest Destiny
In the late 19th century, a political and economic doctrine known as the New Manifest Destiny emerged. It was connected to Alfred Thayer Mahan’s concept that a nation’s prosperity came from its control over oceans. This sentiment went hand-in-hand with Herbert Spencer’s philosophy on free competition, culminating in an arms race of naval construction projects. The United States labeled this endeavor “the New Manifest Destiny” – essentially using expandable intentions masked by charitable causes.
The New Manifest Destiny saw the United States acquire parts of Spain’s declining global empire in 1898 with their Spanish-American War victory and annexation of Hawaii. This action led to the United States Navy acquiring Pearl Harbor, which had coveted port facilities. Intriguingly, support for this modern version of Manifest Destiny was the opposite of its original one. While the original doctrine was primarily supported by the Democrat Party and opposed by the Whigs, the New Manifest Destiny was primarily supported by the Republicans, especially under President Theodore Roosevelt’s vigorous promotion.
Although the Progressive wings of both parties embraced American idealism and even led to intervention in World War I, President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points program could not generate a lasting consensus among Americans. Just like expansionism before the Civil War dissolved due to slavery being such a contentious issue, post-war US isolationism caused Wilsonian internationalism to be discarded again.