Western Expansion, Manifest Destiny, and the Mexican-American War

Start Your Free Trial

What did John O'Sullivan think America stood for?  

Expert Answers info

Queen Langosh eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2011

write5,599 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Social Sciences

O'Sullivan is most famous for his famous assertion that it was the "Manifest Destiny" of the United States to expand throughout the North American continent to the Pacific. This vision was closely tied to his understanding of what America stood for. 

O'Sullivan was a vocal advocate of what has become known as "American exceptionalism." He thought that the United States was different than any other nation because it was founded upon democratic principles. He claimed that, unlike European powers, the United States had no entrenched aristocracy, and had only fought wars, he claimed, in defense of liberty. As he said in his essay "The Great Nation of Futurity," published in the United States Democratic Review in 1939:

Yes, we are the nation of progress, of individual freedom, of universal enfranchisement. Equality of rights is the cynosure of our union of States...We move onward to the fulfillment of our mission--to the entire development of the principle of our organization--freedom of conscience, freedom of person, freedom of trade and business pursuits, universality of freedom and equality.

Yet for all this, we should understand that O'Sullivan's vision of American exceptionalism was highly racialized. As mentioned above, he thought this vision of American progress entitled the nation to take over lands inhabited and controlled by allegedly inferior Mexicans and, for that matter, Native Americans (a point made in a 1845 essay entitled "Annexation"). He looked forward to the day when slavery would be eliminated, but as much to get rid of African-Americans as to end the institution itself. O'Sullivan's view of America, then, was that it was a white man's democracy, and that its commitment to individual rights and liberty for white men made it, to borrow the title of his essay, "The Great Nation of Futurity."

See the links below for unabridged copies of the two O'Sullivan essays mentioned in this response.

check Approved by eNotes Editorial