"It is dangerous to underestimate the power of an idea.  Especially one which captures the imagination of a people.  Manifest Destiny was such an idea." - Miguel Ángel González Quiroga


"Manifest Destiny" was coined by the democrat and editor John O'Sullivan.  In 1839 he published an article titled "The Great Nation of Futurity" in his editorial in the Democratic Review.  It is this document that defines the phrase as America's god-given right to "establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man.. to the nations of the world".  It became famous when O'Sullivan used it in reference to Oregon in 1845, where he declared it was by "the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given to us".  Later this phrase was repeated in congress by Robert C. Winthrop, which gave rise to its future fame and importance in American foreign policy.

The Manifest Destiny philosophy has been referred to in reference to the explosive expansion of the United States in the 1840s.  During a four year period, the national domain increased by 1.2 million square miles, a gain of more than sixty percent.  The annexation of Texas, Oregon and California were the major contributors to this expansion.  In this essay I will be looking at the relationship between the Manifest Destiny concept and this Westward expansion, and looking at to what extent the Manifest Destiny helped shape modern America.  There are two main arguments concerning the Manifest Destiny and its role in Expansionism.

Argument 1: The Manifest Destiny was a justification of expansionism, particularly concerning the U.S.- Mexican war and Indian removal.  It was used to rationalize the aggressive expansionary policies taken by a country priding itself in its democratic institutions.
Argument 2: The Manifest Destiny was a major cause of U.S. expansionary policy in the late 1800s.  It reflected the nations romanticism and emergency as a prominent world power; that America was said to be "boundless" and blessed by god.

1822 - Monroe doctrine founded
1831 - Oregon trail founded, bringing thousands of settlers to the west
1839 - The US suffers an economic depression
1844 - Magnetic telegraph invented
1844 - James K. Polk elected to Presidency
1845 - John O'Sullivan uses "Manifest Destiny" in reference to Oregon
1846 - Rotary press invented
1846 - America declares war on Mexico
1848 - California becomes a part of the USA due to the Mexican war
1867 - America purchases Alaska from Russia

America at the time of 1840s was changing fast.  New inventions, the magnetic telegraph, the rotary press and the increasing popularity of the steam engine made communication over long distances easier and gave American nationalism an added boost to its pride.  The Oregon trail was bringing many thousands of settlers to the west, and the American population was booming.  Below, I will look at the causes of this increased movement to the west.


Religion had always been the backbone and the driving force of American colonization.  The Manifest Destiny built on this foundation by establishing that the USA had a "divine right" to expand over the continent and "shepard" the uncultured masses to their just rule.  "It was white man's burden to conquer and christianise the land" - Demkin.  This idea built on Winthrop's early ideal of a puritan "City on the Hill", a new Jerusalem founded in gods honour.  Roy H. May, Jr. describes the integration of christianity with the heart of America in his essay "America: The new Isreal". He calls attention to Jeffersons speach in 1805; "I shall need...the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessities and comforts of life".  May.Jr also notes that George Washington was known as the "American Joshua".

To cite God's backing in what was an essentially aggressive and un-Christian forceful invasion of territory and displacement of its native peoples, went some way to appease those who would otherwise take umbrage at this bullying and grabbing of land.


Historian Robert W. Johanssen describes America of the 1840s as a "Go-ahead nation".  New technology was allowing faster communication across the growing nation then had ever been seen before, and America seemed in its golden age, blooming with newly acquired wealth, land and scientific invention.  Johnssen describes the idea of "American Romanticism", inherited from the English Romantic literacy movement.  Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens, two important figures in the romantic period in England, were extremely popular in the United States.  It was a time of great pride and nationalism for America, and with frontier land being cheap and sometimes free, there was a great push to the west, where new settlers could hope to become land-owners and taste the great American dream.  The frontier was in fact, the idyllic romantic America, where "men of courage" could carve out their own little niche in the beautiful wilderness, surrounded by adventure and the prospect of wealth.  The film "Land of the Free" captures this frontier spirit, where adventurous men hitchhiked across America for a chance to ride in the great land race and stake their claim on a patch of land.  As Johnassen states - "People in the United States had a reputation that they were in awe of nothing and nothing could stand in their way. The word was boundlessness - there were no bounds, no limits to what an individual, society, and the nation itself could achieve".

Americans wanted to bring their revolutionary political system and their newfound freedom to everyone.  There was talk of even expanding to Asia.  Poets such as Kipling and Whitman lent their voice to supporting expansionism; - "What has miserable, inefficient Mexico--with her superstition, her burlesque upon freedom, her actual tyranny by the few over the many--what has she to do with the great mission of peopling the new world with a noble race? Be it ours, to achieve that mission!" said Whitman.  Two famous pictures were painted during this time, one of the American stream train brining progress and technological advancement to the west and the other of "Columbia", the American angel, bringing light to the west populated by Indians and wild animals.  The American people found in the Manifest Destiny a philosophy that crystallized their romantic dreams of the time.


There were several political issues behind the westward expansion that captured America during the 19th centenary. During the earlier half, there was fear of intervention by the European powers in the American nation.  Britain's claim to the northwest and its close relationship with Mexico were causes of great concern to America.  These fears were heightened by American slaveholders, who saw that Britain had abolished slavery in most of its colonies by 1823.  These slaveholders alleged, on the basis of little evidence, that Great Britain was actively involved in a plot to abolish slavery through North America.  This lead to an outcry in the south, which called for the annexion of Texas to secure the future of the slavery-run plantations of America.

In the 1840s, Great Britain was rumoured to be plotting with Mexico to block the annexation of Texas and plotting to acquire California.  James K. Polk, elected as a result of a very pro-expansionist campaign, took immediate steps to annex Texas and disregard British claims to Oregon.  Josefina Zoraida Vázquez stated that "Without a doubt, Polk's election to the presidency practically meant that there would be no other solution but the war".  His slogan was "Fifty-four forty or fight!", which geographically referred to his wish that the entire state of Oregon be handed over to the Americans.  When elected he eventually agreed to split Oregon with Canada, due to stubborn defiance.  Polk famously proclaimed "the only way to deal with John Bull (England) is to look him straight in the eye."

After the 1850s, the Manifest Destiny became less prominent as the civil war became the major issue.  However westward expansion became no less important in politics, as both pro-slavery and anti-slavery advocates raced westward to colonize the new states in an effort to tip the balance for their cause.  Therefore politics remained a factor in westward expansion in the 1800s.

Population and the Economy

Americas population was booming.  (1) It grew from more than five million in 1800 to more than 23 million by mid-century.  There was a need to expand into new territories to accommodate this rapid growth.  It's estimated that nearly 4,000,000 Americans moved to western territories between 1820 and 1850.  (2)During a four year period in the 1840s, the national domain increased by 1.2 million square miles, a gain of more than sixty percent.  All of this was in the western territories, so those wanting to acquire more land had little choice but to move west.

There were two main recessions during the 1840s, one in 1819 and the other in 1839.  This encouraged the expansion to the west, as frontier land was cheap and often free.  Also the political system of the states meant that only land-holding citizens were allowed to vote, and this was another cause for the push west; as new land became available more Americans were able to sample the political and economic freedom that was the American dream.  When gold was discovered in California, gold prospectors flocked to the area in what was known as the "California gold rush".  Many people made their fortunes mining the gold there, and its presence brought an enormous amount of wealth and prosperity to the west.  There was also promise of trade with China and the east through California.


Although there are elements of the Manifest Destiny evident in the increased expansion by individuals to the west, equally there are strong political and demographic factors influencing the expansion.  It can be said that the Manifest Destiny is merely an extension of the underlying belief in the supremacy of democracy, God and freedom that founded America.  The Manifest Destiny phrase simply gave focus to this joint American ideal, and re-enforced the notion that they were doing Gods work by expanding across the continent.  Without this belief in the three pillars of early America; God, self-sufficiency and democracy, it is hard to see how America itself could have been colonized, let alone the west.  At the same time, economic and political considerations of the time increased the pressure of the flow to the west.  The two worked in tandem to cause the expansion; the economic and political factors providing the practical incentive to breath life into the dreams of a "boundless" America.

(1) - Facts provided by KERA's The US-American War Documentry.
(2) - Facts provided by Sam W. Haynes
"A Go-Ahead Nation" - Robert W Johnsenn http://www.pbs.org/kera/usmexicanwar/dialogues/prelude/manifest/d2beng.html (up on 05/12/01)
"The Power of an Idea" - Miguel Ángel González Quiroga http://www.pbs.org/kera/usmexicanwar/dialogues/prelude/manifest/d2ceng.html (up on 05/12/01)
"Native American Displacement Amid U.S. Expansion" - R. David Edmunds http://www.pbs.org/kera/usmexicanwar/dialogues/prelude/manifest/d2deng.html (up on 05/12/01)
"An Ideal or a Justification?" - David M. Pletcher http://www.pbs.org/kera/usmexicanwar/dialogues/prelude/manifest/d2eeng.html (up on 05/12/01)
"An Early Agenda of Expansion" - Josefina Zoraida Vázquez http://www.pbs.org/kera/usmexicanwar/dialogues/prelude/manifest/d2feng.html (up on 05/12/01)
"Mexican Viewpoint on the War With the United States" - Jesús Velasco-Márquez http://www.pbs.org/kera/usmexicanwar/dialogues/prelude/manifest/d2geng.html (up on 05/12/01)
"Manifest Destiny" - Sam W. Haynes http://www.pbs.org/kera/usmexicanwar/dialogues/prelude/manifest/d2heng.html (up on 05/12/01)
"Manifest Destiny: An Introduction" - KERA Documentry Historians http://www.pbs.org/kera/usmexicanwar/dialogues/prelude/manifest/d2aeng.html (up on 05/12/01)
"America the New Israel" - Roy H. May, Jr. http://gbgm-umc.org/umw/joshua/manifest.html (up on 05/12/01)
"Manifest Destiny>" - Michael T. Lubragge http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/E/manifest/manifxx.htm (up on 05/12/01)
"Major Problems in American Foreign Policy Volume: I To 1914" Edited by Thomas G. Paterson

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