Manifest Destiny

The Democratic Review Magazine.

While many Americans would come to embrace manifest destiny, the idea that America would achieve its imperial destiny and dominate the continent, it was not a politician or president who coined the term. Rather, it was coined in 1845 in New York’s Democratic Review magazine. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 702-03.

The Review argued: “It is time now for opposition to the annexation of Texas to cease,” as it was “the fulfilment [sic] of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” “Annexation,” Democratic Review 17 (July 1845): 5. While the article was unsigned, it is widely believed that John L. O’Sullivan authored the article. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 703.

Regardless of which individual coined the term, it became part of the American vocabulary. Manifest destiny became a label and justification for “policies that might otherwise have simply been called American expansionism or imperialism.” Id. Various policies were justified with manifest destiny, finding examples of the principle in Thomas Jefferson’s and Andrew Jackson’s presidencies. See id.

This principle was not just envisioned by humans, according to its most vigorous supporters. Robert Walker, Secretary of Treasury under President James Polk, stated: “A higher than any earthly power still guards and directs our destiny, impels us onward, and has selected our great and happy country as a model and ultimate centre of attraction for all the nations of the world.” Robert J. Walker, “Report as Secretary of the Treasury for Fiscal Year 1846-47,” Niles’ Register 73 (Dec. 18, 1847): 255.

Supporters of manifest destiny were varied as well, with “[w]estern land speculators, railroad promoters, and small farmers eager for a chance to start over.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 705. The New York Morning News stated that westward expansion was part of democracy:

“To say that the settlement of a fertile and unappropriated soil by right of individual purchase is the aggression of a government is absurd. Equally ridiculous is it to suppose that when a band of hardy settlers have reclaimed the wilderness, multiplied in numbers, built up a community and organized a government, that they have not the right to claim the confederation of that society of States from the bosom of which they emanated.” New York Morning News, May 24, 1845, quoted in Frederick Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History (New York, 1963), 22-23.

Virtually all of the supporters of manifest destiny ignored the fact that the land they spoke of was not vacant. Thousands upon thousands of Native Americans were already living on those lands, many of which had only come to those areas after being forced to leave the eastern part of America.

Nonetheless, supporters of manifest destiny, and the very idea itself, made clear that nothing would stop or significantly impede America from becoming a country that dominated the continent. With President Polk in the White House, manifest destiny was one step closer to becoming reality.

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