Manifest Destiny (American History Through Literature)
In an essay on "Annexation" published in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review in the summer of 1845, John L. O'Sullivan (1813895) proclaimed that it was the "manifest destiny of the United States to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions" (p. 5). Here was the first use of a phrase that would come to loom large in antebellum America and subsequently. Better than any other slogan, Manifest Destiny expressed the powerful expansionist drive of the 1840s. In a mere four years, the expansionist movemented by the Democratic administration of James K. Polk (1795849)chieved its goal of making the United States a continental power. American territory approximately doubled as a result of Texas annexation (1845), the settlement of the Oregon boundary dispute with Britain (1846), and the Mexican cessation (1848). The continental United States as it exists today came into being. That expansionist drive, however, was not dead: Alaska was purchased in 1867. Following the war with Spain in 1898, the United States came to control Cuba, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, becoming a global power.
A large body of scholarship has been devoted to uncovering and revealing the multiple meanings and contradictions of Manifest Destiny, a phrase that brilliantly conflates matters of national self-interestere territorial acquisitionith a divine mission for America to lead and serve other nations. The ideas that form the basis of Manifest Destiny go back to a time even before British settlement on the continent, and, as reflected in President George W. Bush's second inaugural address on 20 January 2005, persist even in the early twenty-first century.
MANIFEST DESTINY BEFORE 1776
"Any genealogy" of the term Manifest Destiny, the historian Anders Stephanson argues, must begin with the "biblical notions . . . of the predestined, redemptive role of God's chosen people in the Promised Land: providential destiny revealed" (p. 5). John Winthrop's (1588649) sermon "A Model of Christian Charity," evidently written on board the ship Arbella in 1630, cast the Puritans as the New Israel, the people so manifestly destined to be a light unto the nations that the claim needed no proof: "We shall find that the God of Israel is among us . . . when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, the Lord make it like that of New England. For we must consider that we shall be as a city on a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us" (p. 225). The test for the not-yet-created nation is that others come to emulate its behavior. To quote from the narrator's summary of Arthur Dimmesdale's Election Day sermon in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850), the Puritans quickly came to believe that "a high and glorious destiny" awaited "the newly gathered people of the Lord" in "the New England which they were here planting in the wilderness" (pp. 33233).
Slightly earlier, in the 1610 A True Declaration of the Estate of the Colonie of Virginia, the Virginia Company invoked a set of related ideas to promote migration, asserting that the same God who had joined England, Scotland, and Ireland "wil not be wanting to adde a fourth" nation in North America. "In this call to renew the effort of English colonization at Jamestown," Eric Cheyfitz points out, we can locate the beginnings of the translation of the translatio imperii into the nineteenth-century idea of Manifest Destiny" (p. 111). The phrase translatio imperii et studii refers to the destined transfer westward not only of power and rule but of knowledge and discovery. Yet, such visions had to contend with the reality that the American continent already was occupied. The first book printed in English about the New World, Thomas Hariot's (1560621) A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588), acknowledges an Indian presence that "renders the conquest of America something other than the unilateral unfolding of a manifest destiny. It is a contest, a collision," as Myra Jehlen has put it (p. 62). With the introduction of slaves of African origin at Jamestown in 1619, the white settlers added a tragic complication to the myth that the unoccupied North American continent had been destined solely for those in the vanguard of the Anglo-Saxon movement westward.
Still, the growing prosperity of British North America and the seemingly unstoppable spread of white settlers westward seemed to provide confirmation that on this continent God's purpose was being realized. Even Jonathan Edwards (1703758), the great American exponent of Calvinism, spoke in visionary terms of the American destiny. As Perry Miller summarized Edwards's position, the New World, "though it does not escape the brotherhood of sin . . . is nevertheless the hope of the world, if there is hope anywhere. In America alone is the spirit of God poured forth upon the common people, in plain New England churches" (p. 326). Just as America was supplying the Old World with material resources, so too, Edwards predicted, "the course of things in spiritual respects will be in like manner turned" (Miller, p. 326). Edwards's reference to the "common people" reflects an important new dimension of Manifest Destiny: that America had been selected to bring a democratic social order to the world.
CONTINENTAL DREAMS AND MANIFEST DESTINY AFTER INDEPENDENCE
A number of poets active at the time of the American Revolution, including John Trumbull (1750831), Philip Morin Freneau (1752832), and Timothy Dwight (1752817), took up the related themes of Manifest Destiny and translatio imperii et studii. As John McWilliams puts it, these poets deployed "a form variously called the prospect poem, the vision poem, or the rising glory poem," enabling them to speak with "an authority both secular and spiritual." They "ascrib(ed) the American Revolution to the progressive protestant spirit of the forefathers, showing how the translatio studii has brought the forces of empire to the New World, and ending with a prospect in which various forms of republicanism, peace, and empire, spread from the United States of America across the Western Hemisphere, and often over the globe." Here one finds the "protective and progressive assumptions that were to be crucial to the Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny, the Homestead Act, and the imperialism of the 1890s." As reflected in the national seal, the Founding Fathers envisaged the nation as ushering in nothing less than a "novus ordo seclorum," a "new order of the ages" (pp. 16061).
For such leaders as Thomas Jefferson (1743826) and John Quincy Adams (1767848), the achievement of independence meant that it was time to give substance to the concept of translatio imperii et studii. Through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 Jefferson doubled the nation's size, an expansion that he conceived in racial terms. In Race and Manifest Destiny, Reginald Horsman quotes Jefferson as asserting that Anglo-Saxons were destined to "cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent, with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar forms, and by similar laws; nor can we contemplate with satisfaction either blot or mixture on that surface." In doing so, Horsman comments, Jefferson "stepped lightly over the question of what would happen to the numerous peoples in North and South America if there was to be no 'blot or mixture' in that vast area" (p. 93). Acting as secretary of state in the Monroe administration, Adams in 1819 acquired Florida from Spain and convinced President James Monroe (1758831) to assert in his 1823 annual message the principles that came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine. Yet, as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives until his death in 1848, Adams would oppose the Mexican-American War as an attempt to spread slavery.
Unprecedented growth during the first half of the nineteenth century strengthened the belief in America's providential mission. In November 1839, John L. O'Sullivan proclaimed America as "The Great Nation of Futurity," claiming that
the far-reaching, the boundless future will be the era of American greatness. In its magnificent domain of space and time, the nation of many nations is destined to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles; to establish on earth the noblest temple ever dedicated to the worship of the Most Highhe Sacred and the True. (P. 427)
Similarly, in "The Young American" (1844), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803882) seemed to echo O'Sullivan's visionary rhetoric, declaring that America "is the country of the Future," the country that best embodies that "sublime and friendly Destiny by which the human race is guided." Like other proponents of Manifest Destiny, Emerson makes the remote future palpably real: "To men legislating for the vast area betwixt two oceans, between the snows and the tropics, somewhat of the gravity and grandeur of nature will infuse itself into the [American] code" (p. 217).
Such assertions of America's manifestly high destiny had become so familiar that when O'Sullivan first used the phrase in connection with Texas annexation, it attracted little attention. However, when on 27 December 1845, in an editorial on "The True Title" in New York Morning News, O'Sullivan again used the phrase, it became the focus of national debate. At issue was the dispute with Great Britain over the Oregon boundary; some expansionists pushed for a boundary at 54°40north latitudell the way up to Alaska. A staunch Democrat with close ties to the Polk administration, O'Sullivan dismissed all legal quibbling in asserting America's claims:
We have a still better title than any than any that can ever be constructed out of all these antiquated materials of old black-letter international law. Away, away with all these cobweb tissues of rights of discoveries, settlement, continuity, etc. . . . 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 federative self-government entrusted to us. (Quoted in Weinberg, pp. 14445).
O'Sullivan's unilateralism in foreign policy became a lightning rod for Whig critics. Speaking in the House of Representatives on 16 January 1846, Charles Goodyear of New York scornfully characterized "manifest destiny" as the sort of claim that "has ever been used to justify every act of wholesale violence and rapine that ever disgraced the history of the world. It is the robber's title" (quoted in Graebner, p. 110). Representative Robert C. Winthrop of Massachusetts, speaking in the House on 3 January of the same year, had condemned claims made by "right of our Manifest Destiny! . . . I suppose that the right of a manifest destiny to spread will not be admitted to exist in any nation except the universal Yankee nation!" (quoted in Graebner, p. 118). Such attacks brought the phrase into the national discourse. In the event, Polk settled the boundary dispute peacefully at 49° north latitude and within the conventions of international law.
MANIFEST DESTINY AND THE MEXICAN-AMERICAN WAR
Determined to acquire California and the large New Mexican territory, Polk sent an emissary, John Slidell
Mexico seems a doomed victim to Anglo-Saxon cupidity and love of dominion. The determination of our slaveholding President to prosecute the war, and the probability of his success in wringing from the people men and money to carry it on, is made evident, rather than doubtful, by the puny opposition arrayed against him. No politician of any considerable distinction or eminence, seems willing to hazard his popularity, or stem the fierce current of executive influence, by an open and unqualified disapprobation of the war. (Quoted in Graebner, p. 235)
With the defeat of the Mexican armies and the signing of Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, America achieved its territorial aims. The Oxford Companion to American History concludes that "in a small way, America had become an imperialist nation, the control of the South in national politics was reinforced, and the slavery issues were revived in deadly earnest" (Johnson, p. 527). But one might see the Mexican-American War as neither a "small" nor a new step in the nation's history.
With few exceptions, such as Douglass and James Russell Lowell (1819891) in The Biglow Papers (1848), American writers failed to mount a concerted attack on Polk's war. In a diary entry made most likely in March 1844, about the time that he delivered his "The Young American" lecture in Boston, Emerson writes that he was prepared to accept even questionable "methods" so long as territorial aims of the American race were realized:
It is very certain that the strong British race which have now overrun so much of this continent, must also overrun [Texas] & Mexico & Oregon also, and it will in the course of ages be of small import by what particular occasions & methods it was done. It is a secular question. It is quite necessary & true to our New England character that we should consider the question in its local and temporary bearings, and resist the annexation tooth and nail. (Journals, p. 74)
But the currents of Manifest Destiny were so strong that no such "tooth and nail" resistance developed. On the contrary, Walt Whitman (1819892) echoed O'Sullivan in an editorial on 2 December 1847 in the Brooklyn Eagle: "It is for the interest of mankind that [American] power and territory should be extended. . . . We claim those lands . . . by a law superior to parchment and dry diplomatic rules" (p. 370). Although Henry David Thoreau (1817862) famously spent a night in jail in 1846, there is no evidence that he did so to protest the Mexican-American War. But he strongly felt the westward pull, as he wrote in the posthumously published "Walking" (1862): "I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe. And that way the nation is moving, and I may say that mankind progress from east to west" (p. 234).
MANIFEST DESTINY GOES MARCHING ON
Even before the establishment of America as an independent nation, such leaders as John Winthrop and Jonathan Edwards spoke of the nation's destiny in messianic terms: as a light unto the nations. At the same time, America's destiny was conflated with national self-interest, notably the need to expand across the continent. Following World War I, President Woodrow Wilson gave new emphasis to the redeemer nation concept, proclaiming that it was America's destiny to help bring freedom, democracy, and prosperity to the nations of the globe. Over the course of the twentieth century and into the twenty first, Americans have continued to search for ways to reconcile the sometimes conflicting meanings of Manifest Destiny.
See also Borders; Exploration and Discovery; Mexican-American War; Political Parties; Puritanism; Religion; Transcendentalism
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Robert J. Scholnick