The Whigs’ Manifest Destiny

William Ellery Channing. By: Henry Cheever Pratt.

The Whigs had their own approach to interpreting manifest destiny, and that approach mainly applied to shaping America’s foreign policy.

Henry Clay, one of the most prominent Whigs and nearly the victor in the Election of 1844, summed up the Whig approach to manifest destiny in a letter to a fellow Kentuckian: “It is much more important that we unite, harmonize, and improve what we have than attempt to acquire more.” Henry Clay to John J. Crittenden, Dec. 5, 1843, Papers of Henry Clay, ed. Robert Seager II (Lexington, Ky., 1988), IX, 898.

Whigs saw America’s role as setting a democratic example, not an example of conquest. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 706. William Ellery Channing wrote to Henry Clay: “The United States ought to provide its less fortunate sister republics with support, [and] assume the role of a sublime moral empire, with a mission to diffuse freedom by manifesting its fruits, not to plunder, crush, and destroy.” “Letter to the Hon. Henry Clay on the Annexation of Texas,” Aug. 1, 1837, in William Ellery Channing, Works (Boston, 1847), II, 181-261.

Rather than dominate through force, the Whigs hoped to establish an American empire of commerce, spreading America’s economy and culture by “expanding trade and Christian missions.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 706.

One prime example of this occurred when Daniel Webster was Secretary of State in 1842. See id. When the Sandwich Islands, now known as Hawaii, were caught between French and British interests and ultimately annexed by Britain, President John Tyler made a statement that the Monroe Doctrine extended to the Sandwich Islands. See id. In other words, America would protect the inhabitants of the Sandwich Islands. Within a matter of months, the British Empire disavowed its annexation, and by the end of 1843, “both Britain and France had promised to respect Hawaiian independence.” Id. at 706-07 citing Presidential Messages, IV, 211-14; David M. Pletcher, The Diplomacy of Annexation: Texas, Oregon, and the Mexican War, (Columbia, Miss., 1973), 208.

The Whigs were drawing a stark contrast from the Democrats, hoping to establish American dominance through economic, or soft, power. Others, like the Democrats, sought to spread American influence through the country’s strength.

These two perspectives are similar to the modern political parties. It is often misconstrued that those who hope America will have economic dominance inherently do not want America to be dominant at all. It can be viewed as a sign of weakness. However, most Americans would agree that a balance must be achieved. Otherwise, America runs the risk of spreading itself too thin and dedicating an inordinate amount of resources on nothing more than a pyrrhic victory.

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