February 21, 2024
John O’Sullivan and America’s Manifest Destiny

John O’Sullivan and America’s Manifest Destiny

When leaders wish to conquer foreign lands, they invariably put forth a list of justifications. In America in the 1840s, politicians and others invoked the phrase “manifest destiny” to optimistically explain continual territorial expansion by the United States. In modern terms, manifest destiny might be described as something that is “obvious and certain”. In short, leaders in the 1840s were arguing that American expansionism was quite natural and good, determined by fate.

The term seems to have been coined mid-decade by journalist John O’Sullivan. In an essay entitled “Annexation”, O’Sullivan urged the US to annex Texas from Mexico. Not only was this justified because of Texans’ own wishes, O’Sullivan contended, but also because it was America’s “manifest destiny to overspread the continent”. In a second and more widely-read column in New York Morning News, O’Sullivan reiterated his phrase when advocating for the US claim to “the whole of Oregon”. This time, he added the notion of a pro-expansion God:

And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.

By invoking “Providence”, the journalist was suggesting that the highest moral authority actually supported the US annexation of the Oregon Country; since the British were not spreading democracy, their claims had lower moral status in the eyes of God. Ironically, O’Sullivan did not condone the violence that his phrase eventually supported. He had expected territorial expansion to be truly “natural”, coming about through settlements and voluntary annexation by residents. After all, residents of Texas actively sought to become the Union’s twenty-eighth state, and thousands of Americans had already migrated to the Oregon Country via the Oregon Trail. What could be more obvious and certain?

The actual process of expansionism entailed violence and suppression that a kindly god would not condone. The idea of “Indian Removal” garnered a following. Native Americans were removed from lands by force, and at the same time, some lands were desired solely for African American slave labor. This was clear to Henry David Thoreau, who asked:

How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today? I answer that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.

Ironically, O’Sullivan’s term was not popularized until seized upon by Whig opponents. Whigs in particular contested what “Providence” would desire; the “mission” of the United States, they maintained, was simply to behave as a virtuous (non-conquering) example for the rest of the world.

In 1846, a Whig representative named Robert Winthrop ridiculed O’Sullivan’s concept when speaking before Congress. Observing the notion’s self-interest and chauvinism, he commented:

I suppose the right of a manifest destiny to spread will not be admitted to exist in any nation except the universal Yankee nation.

Despite this public criticism, the Polk Administration and other expansionists quickly embraced the phrase. The era of US history encompassing the War of 1812 through the Civil War is often called the Age of Manifest Destiny. During this time period the United States were expanded to the Pacific Ocean, and borders began to look much as they do today.