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

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The historical significance and motivations behind Manifest Destiny


Manifest Destiny was a 19th-century doctrine that justified American expansion westward across North America. Its historical significance lies in its role in promoting U.S. territorial growth, often at the expense of Native American lands and other nations. The motivations behind Manifest Destiny included a belief in American cultural and racial superiority, economic opportunities, and the desire for more land for settlement and cultivation.

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What is the historical significance of Manifest Destiny?

The philosophical impetus for Manifest Destiny had been provided as far back as the 1770s by Thomas Jefferson. His somewhat idealized conception of the republic was based upon a nation of independent, self-reliant farmers, both large and small. Jefferson shared the almost universal prejudice of his class that rural life was superior to life in the cities. Ownership of land gave people a stake in society; their connection to the soil provided stability and a sense of responsibility which, in turn, provided a large pool of citizens from which the nation's governing class could be drawn.

Expansionism is also prefigured in Madison's discussion of the dangers of factions in Federalist No. 10. Madison argued that the only way to minimize these dangers was to deal with their possible effects; one of the methods to achieve this was to greatly expand the size of the republic. This way, he believed, it would be harder for a majority of citizens to form themselves into a factional tyranny, as they would need to persuade more people of the justice of their cause.

Prior to the 1840s, Western expansion was not only a matter of theory, it was a reality for millions, both white settlers and Native Americans alike. However, in this particular decade, the process accelerated rapidly. One of the reasons for this was economic. In the eastern states, industrialization was growing apace, changing the very foundations of society, along with the nature of the economy. More and more people found themselves working for the first time in factories and large-scale manufacturing plants that spearheaded the new industrial revolution. 

Inevitably, with such rapid industrialization came a number of serious social problems, such as crippling poverty, overcrowding, and disease. As conditions in the cities deteriorated, many looked to the wide open spaces west of the Mississippi. Many hoped to be able to live out the dream of Jefferson's rural idyll. The opportunity to lead a free, self-reliant life on one's very own land proved irresistible to millions.

However, a number of other factors prompted western expansion, not just those related to the acquisition of land. The Western territories' vast, largely unexploited mineral wealth held out the prospect of untold riches to those who previously could have only dreamed of getting rich. The greatest example of this insatiable lust for gold is the Gold Rush of 1848, which led to an enormous growth in California's population and the establishment of its eventual statehood.

The hunger for religious freedom must also be taken into account. In 1848, facing widespread persecution in the Midwest, the Mormon Church, under the leadership of Brigham Young, took part in an exodus to the Great Salt Lake Valley in order to establish their godly kingdom on earth.

In examining all these factors, we can detect a common element. All those who headed west, for whatever reason, were attempting to realize for themselves the promise of America. Land ownership, wealth, self-reliance, and religious freedom had long been integral components of the American psyche, taking on the character of almost a civic religion. When the journalist John O'Sullivan described Western expansion as the nation's "manifest destiny," he was simply coining a pithy expression that articulated how many Americans already felt. What the Founding Fathers had achieved back east, a new breed of pioneers would achieve in the wide open spaces of the West. 

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What is the historical significance of Manifest Destiny?

Manifest Destiny was a phrase used to justify the inevitability of the United States’ territorial expansion westward and beyond. The idea was fronted to support the annexation and acquisition of new lands in the Americas. Manifest Destiny is historically significant because it explains the United States’ territorial boundary. The idea further explains how the United States grew into an imperial power, as well as defines aspects of its foreign policy.

It is important to note that it was through the principle of Manifest Destiny that the European colonists displaced the Native Americans and expanded westward. The idea also explains the Louisiana Purchase that significantly increased the United States’ territory. Further, expansions were realized in Mexico and Canada.

For purposes of military and economic growth, the United States annexed Hawaii, which provided an essential port for trade and military operations at Pearl Harbor. Previous success through the idea of Manifest Destiny served to bolster the nation’s zeal towards international acclaim and success.

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What is the historical significance of Manifest Destiny?

Manifest Destiny had an important impact on history. The concept of Manifest Destiny, at first, meant we should expand from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. As a result of this policy, we began to expand our control over the land that is now part of our country. We eventually got control of the Pacific Northwest by agreeing to split the Oregon Territory with Great Britain. We got the southwestern part of the United States by going to war with Mexico in the Mexican-American War. This land was part of the Mexican Cession. We also took land from the Native Americans by forcing them to move to the land west of the Mississippi River. Thus, expansion across what is now the United States impacted Mexico, the Native Americans, and the British.

In the late 1800s, we began to believe we should take the concept of Manifest Destiny worldwide. We believed we should spread our way of life worldwide by gaining control of colonies. Since there wasn’t much land left to colonize, we were most likely going to have to go to war to gain control of these lands. This led us into a conflict with Spain. We were concerned about the Spanish treatment of the Cubans. When newspapers exaggerated this poor treatment, American public opinion turned against Spain. When the U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana harbor, we blamed Spain. The pressure increased to declare war on Spain, which occurred in 1898. As a result of the Spanish-American War, we were able to spread our control around the world. We got control of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.

Manifest Destiny had an important historical impact at home and abroad.

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What motivated Manifest Destiny?

A statement which explains one of the motivations behind Manifest Destiny is the following passage from White-Jacket by Herman Melville:

We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people—the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world. God has predestined, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls.

These words were written five years after the term "Manifest Destiny" was coined in a newspaper article by John O'Sullivan. Although Melville does not use the term, the attitude he expresses perfectly encapsulates the missionary zeal of Manifest Destiny.

In religious language, Melville states that Americans are the exceptional people of the modern age, as the Israelites were the chosen people of Biblical times. God has chosen America, and expects great things from this own country. Expansion of American territory, one of the primary concerns of those who believed in Manifest Destiny, was not motivated by greed for land and resources, but by a much nobler motive. It was, they argued, the duty of Americans to extend their borders and their influence as wide as possible, since by doing so, they would extend the influence of freedom, and of God.

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