Manifest Destiny

Manifest Destiny was a popular slogan in the United States in the 1840s. It was designed to signify that the fledging American republic was fated to become a nation of continental magnitude.

It was heavily influenced by the exuberant nationalism and the religious fervor of the decade and provided a rationale for the annexation of Texas, the acquisition of California, and the American claim to the Oregon country.

The slogan was in vogue in Democratic Party circles throughout the country but was especially popular in the Mid-Atlantic States and in the states of the Old Northwest. Presidents Polk, Pierce, and Buchanan were influenced by its messianic message.

The term Manifest Destiny was promoted by the United States Magazine and Democratic Review and by the New York Morning News, both edited by John L. O’ Sullivan, a Democrat, ardent expansionist, and fervent believer in American democracy. The slogan first appeared in print in the summer of 1845 in an unsigned editorial in the Democratic Review that justified the American annexation of Texas.

The editorial dismissed the suspected interference of England and France in the negotiations between the Republic of Texas and the United States as attempts to frustrate “the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

The editorial prophesied that Mexican California would become a part of the United States and noted “the advance guard of the irresistible army of Anglo-Saxon emigration has begun to pour down upon it ... ”

An editorial in the Morning News of December 1845 repeated the phrase in its discussion of the dispute between England and the United States concerning the disposition of the Oregon Country.

It dismissed England’s title to Oregon by right of discovery and exploration, and justified the claim of the United States to all of Oregon “by right of our manifest destiny ....” The sentiments expressed by these periodicals were echoed in the halls of Congress, by political and literary voices, and by newspapers across the country.

While the Whig Party did not reject the continentalism the term suggested, it was never as zealous for expansion as was the Democratic Party. Indeed, some Whigs ridiculed Manifest Destiny and its accompanying Anglo-Saxonism.

Manifest Destiny was never a coherent set of beliefs, but an umbrella phrase that included a number of disparate ideas, ranging from idealism to self-serving nationalism, incorporating themes that had been present since the colonial era, tailored to meet the conditions of the 1840s.

Advocates of Manifest Destiny asserted that Americans were a chosen people whose political and religious institutions were sanctioned by God. Some adopted the pseudoscientific racism of the era to promote the belief that the American people were a superior branch of the Anglo-Saxon race.

Enthusiasts proclaimed that Americans had been singled out by Providence to spread across the continent, carrying their democratic institutions and their Christian religion with them, not merely for themselves, but to regenerate the less fortunate occupants of the continent, mainly Mexicans and Indians. White southerners adopted Manifest Destiny as a slogan to justify the acquisition of territory for the spread of slavery.

Other Americans endorsed the idea because they feared the presence of European powers on the continent would inhibit the growth of democracy and threaten American security. Some believed that extending America’s boundaries to the Pacific would enhance commerce with Asia.

When Manifest Destiny was first conceived, its advocates did not envision armed intervention as a means for expanding America’s boundaries and its democratic and religious institutions. However, during the course of the Mexican-American War, a shift occurred. Force was accepted, and Manifest Destiny was used as a rationale in the unsuccessful movement to annex all of Mexico.

By the l850s, the views of some advocates turned from justifications of continentalism to militant advocacy of intervention beyond the borders of North America to the Caribbean and Central America. Under the guise of Manifest Destiny, American filibusters supported or engaged in revolutionary movements in Nicaragua and Cuba.

“Young America,” a political and literary group affiliated with the Democratic Party, advocated armed intervention in the Caribbean and urged American support of revolutionary uprisings in Giuseppe Mazzini’s Italy and in the Hungary of Louis Kossuth.

Beginning in 1885 a new Manifest Destiny arose, popularized by John Fiske, the historian-philosopher and Darwinian evolutionist. Fiske extolled the virtues of the Anglo-Saxon race and looked forward to the time when its institutions would be diffused around the world.

Congregational clergyman Josiah Strong embraced Manifest Destiny in the same year when he linked “a pure Christianity,” “civil liberty,” Anglo-Saxonism, and Darwinism, and declared that the Anglo-Saxon was “divinely commissioned to be ... his brother’s keeper.”

He predicted a “competition of races” in which Anglo-Saxons would prevail. In the 1890s, the Republican Party endorsed Manifest Destiny and identified itself with intervention and insular imperialism in the Caribbean and the Pacific.

President William McKinley endorsed the idealism expressed by Manifest Destiny when he justified his decision to retain the Philippine Islands at the end of the Spanish-American War. Other Republicans spoke of America’s mission to regenerate and extend the blessings of civilization to less fortunate peoples around the world.

Although the phrase Manifest Destiny fell into disuse in the 20th century, the sentiments expressed by the slogan have continued. Its idealism can be found in modern American foreign policy statements that link U.S. operations overseas with an American mission to spread liberty, freedom, and democracy.