When leaders wish to conquer foreign lands, they invariably put forth a list of
justifications. In America in the 1840s, politicians and others invoked the phrase
“manifest destiny” to optimistically explain continual territorial expansion by the United
States. In modern terms, manifest destiny might be described as something that is
“obvious and certain”. In short, leaders in the 1840s were arguing that American
expansionism was quite natural and good, determined by fate.
The term seems to have been coined mid-decade by journalist John O’Sullivan. In an
essay entitled “Annexation”, O’Sullivan urged the US to annex Texas from Mexico. Not
only was this justified because of Texans’ own wishes, O’Sullivan contended, but also
because it was America’s “manifest destiny to overspread the continent”.
In a second and more widely-read column in New York Morning News, O’Sullivan
reiterated his phrase when advocating for the US claim to “the whole of Oregon”. This
time, he added the notion of a pro-expansion God:
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.
By invoking “Providence”, the journalist was suggesting that the highest moral authority
actually supported the US annexation of the Oregon Country; since the British were not
spreading democracy, their claims had lower moral status in the eyes of God.
Ironically, O’Sullivan did not condone the violence that his phrase eventually supported.
He had expected territorial expansion to be truly “natural”, coming about through
settlements and voluntary annexation by residents. After all, residents of Texas actively
sought to become the Union’s twenty-eighth state, and thousands of Americans had
already migrated to the Oregon Country via the Oregon Trail. What could be more
obvious and certain?
The actual process of expansionism entailed violence and suppression that a kindly god
would not condone. The idea of “Indian Removal” garnered a following. Native
Americans were removed from lands by force, and at the same time, some lands were
desired solely for African American slave labor. This was clear to Henry David Thoreau,
How does it become a man to behave toward this American
government today? I answer that he cannot without
disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant
recognize that political organization as my government
which is the slave’s government also.
Ironically, O’Sullivan’s term was not popularized until seized upon by Whig opponents.
Whigs in particular contested what “Providence” would desire; the “mission” of the
United States, they maintained, was simply to behave as a virtuous (non-conquering)
example for the rest of the world.
In 1846, a Whig representative named Robert Winthrop ridiculed O’Sullivan’s concept
when speaking before Congress. Observing the notion’s self-interest and chauvinism, he
I suppose the right of a manifest destiny to spread will not
be admitted to exist in any nation except the universal
Despite this public criticism, the Polk Administration and other expansionists quickly
embraced the phrase. The era of US history encompassing the War of 1812 through the
Civil War is often called the Age of Manifest Destiny. During this time period the United
States were expanded to the Pacific Ocean, and borders began to look much as they do
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