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

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Does the belief in Manifest Destiny still exist among Americans today?

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The idea of Manifest Destiny, a term coined by President James Polk in 1845, first began when the Puritans left England to seek religious freedom and construct their “city upon a hill.” These pioneers started the uniquely American belief that this land was a pristine and untouched canvas—perfect for Americans to carve and shape. America continues to believe in Manifest Destiny as is evidenced by our national mission, government structure, and focus on American security.

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Manifest Destiny, as a feeling of divine obligation to spread from “sea to shining sea”, built slowly over our history. Each generation demanded more and more territory. America purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon in 1904, making it the largest land purchase between two countries in the world’s history. From there, America gained more land from England and purchased or annexed land from Mexico. In the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, the United States paid $10 million for a 29,670 square mile portion of Mexico that would become the states of Arizona and New Mexico. Along the way, America’s government made it clear that Native Peoples’s sovereignty was less important than the dominant group’s own “American Dream” and nationalist expansion.

Although we may think that Americans no longer adhere to this antiquated notion, it is clear that we still hold onto this historic sentiment in our national mission, government structure, and focus on American security. America’s idea of Manifest Destiny was always grounded in our belief in enlightenment thought, like John Locke, Montesquieu, and Voltaire. These philosophers’s ideas are embedded in our constitution. For example, John Locke thought that people were born with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and property. Montesquieu believed in separation of powers and checks and balances. Lastly, Voltaire developed the idea of freedom of speech. We hold these ideas close to our soul as a nation and think that all valid and just governments must do the same.

We believe that our government is the pinnacle of virtue, democracy, and goodwill, and we continue to extend it within our country and internationally. For example, Native peoples in America are still treated like second class citizens. Many continue to live in abject poverty on under-resourced reservations. We also continue to invade countries under the guise of fixing their governments to look more like ours (e.g. the Iraq War of 2002). America continues to be criticized for our veiled colonialism on every continent, such as our holding of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the US Virgin Island as territories. We also continue to build our army and stockpile weapons—including nuclear weapons—while we tell other countries that they must abide by nuclear non-proliferation orders. In these ways, America continues to extend its roots of Manifest Destiny.

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The concept of Manifest Destiny is the belief that the American way of life is superior and should be spread to other areas of the world. There is an element in this thinking that suggests that people in some parts of the world are inferior to Americans. This belief includes that God wanted Americans- specifically white, male, Christian Americans- to spread their way of life to other places throughout the world.

There are various things to consider when deciding whether Manifest Destiny still exists today. One idea to determine is if many Americans continue to believe that the American way of living is the best way and should be protected within the country and spread elsewhere. For example, is the current concern about immigration to the United States a fear that the American way will be disrupted, or are other factors involved? Are the international efforts of the United States based on trying to spread the American way to other parts of the world? You should consider if American involvement in Afghanistan and in Iraq is based on spreading a way of life or trying to bring political stability or instability to these regions. Do Americans provide economic and military support to countries in order to gain influence and to impose the American way of doing things in these countries? Your answers to these questions will help you to determine if the belief in Manifest Destiny is alive and well today in the United States.

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Yes, the idea of manifest destiny still exists in the minds of many Americans today and has been a driver of contemporary politics.

Manifest Destiny is the mid-nineteenth century concept that it is obvious ("manifest") that white northern Europeans are fated or meant by God (destined) to control and govern the entire North American continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Many Europeans settlers considered European culture superior to native culture, and democracy superior to European forms of government: therefore, they believed God wanted the United States to spread its particular culture and democratic norms (though "democratic" then only extended to white males) across the continent. This ideology fueled westward expansion, erasing doubts about the morality of what we might be doing to indigenous peoples and cultures.

Today, many still consider the United States as meant or destined to be a white, Christian nation. This feeds xenophobia, or fear of foreigners, and racism, a feeling of superiority to darker skinned peoples. This has led many to support a politics of curbing immigration, expelling immigrants who are undocumented, separating immigrant children from parents, and favoring policies that promote Christian worldviews, sexual morality, and the erasure of affirmative action programs in favor of white rights. People would not call this manifest destiny, but it does spring from the conviction that the United States was meant for white Christians.

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If we define "Manifest Destiny" in a broad sense, it clearly does still exist in the minds of many or most Americans today.  In a broad sense, Manifest Destiny is the idea that the United States is somehow special and that it is destined to spread its culture and its governmental system across the world.  It is hard to deny that we still feel this way.

In the 1800s, the term "Manifest Destiny" had a much more imperialistic flavor.  We do not have that idea today.  We no longer think that we would be justified in actually taking land from other countries in the way that we took much of Mexico in the 1840s.  So, in that sense, Manifest Destiny does not still exist as a belief in our minds.  We can see this in the fact that no one thinks that we should take Iraq or Afghanistan in the way we once felt justified in taking the Philippines.

On the other hand, we still do think that other countries ought to become more like us.  We can see this in our dealings with Iraq and Afghanistan among many others.  We do feel that it is our destiny and our duty to spread democracy across the world.

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