California Gold Rush
Turner on 'The West and American Ideals' (Excerpt) (1914)
of the Era: Manifest Destiny (1845)
Corwin Criticizes Concept of 'Manifest Destiny' (Excerpts) (1847)
Polk's First Annual Message to Congress (Excerpts) (1845)
O'Sullivan Calls for the Annexation of Texas (1845)
O'Sullivan on Manifest Destiny (Excerpts) (1839)
of One Traveler's Journey Along the Oregon Trail (Excerpts) (1849)
of the United States
and Clark Expedition
History: The Debate Over Slavery
Article Written: April 10, 2006
Noble Ideal or Excuse for Imperialist Expansion?
By Phil Allard
The issue: Does the U.S. have a "manifest destiny" to expand all the way to the Pacific Ocean? Or is Manifest Destiny merely an excuse to take other people's lands?
- Arguments for Manifest Destiny:
Being more advanced and enlightened than other cultures, the U.S. has a
God-given right to expand its borders. In fact, the U.S. has an
obligation to bring its civilizing influence to the west. Expansion
will also strengthen the foundations of the Union, making it
invulnerable, and is necessary to accommodate the increasing population
of the U.S.
- Arguments against Manifest Destiny:
God would not grant any country the right to expand at the expense of
the native inhabitants whose land would be taken, and the lives of
those who would die in wars over territory. The term "Manifest Destiny"
is merely an excuse for the U.S. to take other people's lands.
Furthermore, spreading too far across the country will weaken the
country's vital institutions, making the Union vulnerable
During the 19th century the U.S. population was expanding at a rapid
pace. For a variety of reasons, intrepid Americans ventured forth to
settle western lands as they heeded the famous words commonly
attributed to New York Tribune
editor Horace Greeley: "Go West, Young Man." Meanwhile, the nation
expanded by acquiring title to more and more territory, whether by
purchase or negotiation or as a result of war. Many Americans began to
believe that it was the nation's "Manifest Destiny" to expand westward.
refers to a concept often used to explain or justify American
expansion, especially in the decades preceding the Civil War (1861-65)
and again in the late 19th century. While debate over expansion goes
back to the beginnings of American expansion in the late 18th century,
the phrase "Manifest Destiny" did not come into vogue until the 1840s. The phrase was coined by the editor of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, John O'Sullivan.
In an article written in support of U.S. annexation of Texas, O'Sullivan referred to the "manifest destiny"
of the United States to "overspread the continent allotted by
Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying
millions." (Texas was then functioning as an independent nation. Many
Texans favored annexation, but the territory was also claimed by
Mexico.) In other words, O'Sullivan thought it was "manifest,"
or evident, that the United States was destined by God to spread its
rule across the continent. (While he gave a religious dimension to the
idea, he might instead have said that it was simply right, or natural
for America to spread across the continent.) [See John O'Sullivan Calls for the Annexation of Texas (primary document)]
The notion of Manifest Destiny
explained the mindset of many expansionist policy makers of the time,
who sought to push the nation's borders further west. Political leaders
such as President James K. Polk (D, 1845-49), Representative James
Buchanan (D, Pennsylvania) and Senator Stephen A. Douglas (D, Illinois)
used it to justify efforts to acquire the Oregon Territory, California
and the vast Mexican lands in the Southwest.
that Americans were divinely ordained to stretch across the continent
also likely motivated many pioneers to migrate west. In any case, the
belief was partly rooted in a kind of "romanticism" of the time—an
optimistic faith in human nature and progress toward a better society
and the achievement of great dreams. The idea of Manifest Destiny
was also grounded in part in a belief that American political and
social institutions and American culture, particularly that of white
America, were superior to the institutions and cultures of other
nations and peoples. [See Historian Turner on 'The West and American Ideals' (Excerpt) (primary document)]
But in order for Americans to keep going west, lands had to be acquired
through negotiation or war. It was also accepted by many that huge
numbers of Indians could be uprooted to make room for settlers and a
transcontinental railroad to link east and west. In addition, struggles
over which new territories should be free and which should be open for
slavery helped to fuel the Civil War.
By the late 1840s, the quest for Manifest Destiny
had led Polk to threaten war with Britain over Oregon. It also led him
to wage war with Mexico in 1846. As a result of negotiations with
Britain and military victory over Mexico, the U.S. completed its
westward expansion. Its landmass, which had already almost doubled with
the purchase of the Louisiana territory in 1803, now grew by more than
one-third with the acquisition of the Oregon Territory, California,
Texas and the New Mexico and Utah territories.
As the notion of Manifest Destiny
played out the country grew by leaps and bounds, and Americans settled
the vast western regions of the continent. In this vein, a Philadelphia
newspaper proclaimed the United States to be a nation rightfully
bounded on the "East by sunrise, West by sunset, North by the Arctic
Expedition, and South as far as we darn please." But expansion was not
unanimously hailed; there were many critics who argued against what
they saw as imperialist expansion, and who warned that Manifest Destiny had a darker side, such as the forced relocation of Indians to make way for white settlers.
Did the U.S. have a "manifest destiny"
to expand its borders to stretch from ocean to ocean? Or was the
concept simply an excuse for an unjust "land grab" of territory that
rightfully belonged to others?
Supporters of Manifest Destiny
used two main arguments. Some advocates believed that the U.S., as a
more advanced culture, had a God-given right to expand its borders.
Such expansion would have a civilizing influence in the west, they
argued. Many asserted in particular that such expansion benefited
Indians and people in newly acquired territories by spreading American
democratic, cultural and religious values and institutions.
Others argued that the territorial expansion that Manifest Destiny
entailed strengthened the foundations of the new union, making it
invulnerable. In addition, they said, expansion into new territories
was necessary to accommodate a dramatic increase in U.S. population.
Opponents of Manifest Destiny,
on the other hand, argued that a just God would not grant a right to
American expansion at the price of the rights and lives of tens of
thousands of innocent native people. They protested that the idea of "Manifest Destiny"
was extremely dangerous since it gave the U.S. an excuse to commit
barbarous acts at will. When expansion led to war, opponents became
even more vocal.
Other critics argued that the
Constitution did not give the country the right to acquire new lands.
They also warned of the dangers of expansion under Manifest Destiny: that the country's vital institutions would suffer as the country spread itself too thin. Abolitionists also criticized Manifest Destiny because they believed it would increase the possibility of the spread of slavery.
When the Constitution was adopted in 1787, the nation consisted of 13
colonies located in the East. In 1803, the country's landmass nearly
doubled when the U.S. bought two million square miles of land from
France in the Louisiana Purchase. The purchase extended the U.S. from
the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and from the Gulf of
Mexico to the Canadian border. The following year, President Thomas
Jefferson (D, 1801-09) commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark
to explore the territory, and accounts of their exploration began to
enthrall much of the country.
Many Americans were happy with the land purchase, but some doubted
whether the president had a constitutional right to acquire new
territory, because the Constitution did not specifically list that as a
federal function. And debate soon arose over which parts of the new
lands would become free states and which would become slave states. At
the time, there were 11 free states and 11 slave states. A swing either
way would give the North or the South an advantage in congressional
representation. Congress's solution was the 1820 Missouri Compromise,
which admitted Missouri as a slave state, and Maine as free, while
barring slavery "forever" in the Louisiana territory north of latitude
36° 30'. [See Missouri Compromise (sidebar)]
A sense of national destiny
or purpose had been part of the country's consciousness since its early
days. In 1783, future President George Washington (Federalist, 1789-97)
called the country a "rising empire." President James Madison
(Democratic-Republican, 1809-17) spoke of "one great, respectable, and
flourishing empire." But the word "empire" at that time probably meant
something like "sovereign nation" rather than, say, "nation having
dominion over far-flung lands and peoples," as it later came to mean.
Jefferson believed that European settlers would eventually people the
continent across to the Pacific, although he believed that the
territory along the Pacific coast would be "a great, free and
independent empire" populated by Americans "unconnected with us but by
the ties of blood and interest."
A landmark statement of
policy proclaimed in 1823 by President James Monroe
(Democratic-Republican, 1817-25) later became a rallying point for Manifest Destiny.
The so-called Monroe Doctrine stated that the U.S. would not tolerate
any new intervention by a European colonial power in the Americas. The
policy put on record that the U.S. believed itself the dominant power
in the hemisphere. In subsequent decades, many U.S. presidents would
take the Monroe Doctrine to heart.
As settlers sought to expand their holdings, they increasingly came
into contact with the Indians who inhabited those lands. In order for
the U.S. to expand as settlers wished, the issue of the Indians had to
be addressed. To address the "Indian problem," Congress on May 26,
1830, passed the Indian Removal Act and President Andrew Jackson (D,
1829-37), who had gained prominence fighting against the Indians in
several skirmishes, signed it into law two days later. Under the act,
the government would negotiate with Indians to relocate from their
eastern lands to land reserved as "Indian territory" in the west. [See Indian Removal Act]
However, while the removal was intended to be voluntary, when many
Indians refused to leave they were forcibly removed by U.S. troops.
Thousands of Indians died during the long westward journey, including
an estimated 4,000 who died along what came to be known as the "Trail
With a policy in place for Indian removal, more lands now became
available for white settlement. Several factors converged to make
moving south or west appealing to many Americans. A key factor was
rapid population growth, fueled by immigration and a high birthrate.
Large families were considered beneficial for working farms. By the
late 1830s, the U.S. population grew to more than 23 million, from some
five million in 1800. It was estimated that nearly four million
Americans moved to western territories between 1820 and 1850.
The government also made much of the land in the Western territories
cheap or even free. By moving to frontier areas, many people in the
East were able to leave an economic depression of 1839 behind them. To
many of those people, frontier living was synonymous with
self-sufficiency, an integral American trait. In addition, merchant
marines saw an opportunity to take advantage of new commerce by
building West Coast ports that they expected would lead to increased
trade with Pacific countries.
There was perhaps no stauncher believer in the ideal of Manifest Destiny
than Polk. During his campaign and after he took office, he made it
known that his goal was to expand the country's territory. In his
inaugural address, Polk declared: "The world beholds the peaceful
triumphs of the industry of our emigrants [pioneers]....The
jurisdiction of our laws and the benefits of our republican
institutions should be extended over them in the distant regions which
they have selected for their homes."
One of the first
areas Polk set his sights on was Oregon. The vast Oregon Territory
stretched between the 42nd parallel, just above Spain's Mexican lands,
and the 54th parallel, just below Russia's Alaskan territory. It
consisted of the areas that are now Oregon, Washington, parts of Idaho
and Wyoming, as well as parts of what is now Canada. The U.S., Britain,
Russia and Spain had all laid claim to parts of the territory, although
Russia and Spain eventually abandoned their claims.
In 1818, the U.S. and Britain reached an agreement setting the 49th
parallel as the boundary between U.S. and British territory up to the
Rocky Mountains. However, when they could not agree on a border west of
the Rockies, they agreed to jointly occupy the disputed territory for
10 years. When that term expired, they agreed to extend joint
Most of those who initially traveled to Oregon were fur trappers and
traders, but by the 1840s, more and more Americans were traveling there
to set up homesteads. Marcus Whitman, a young doctor, and his wife,
Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, had traveled to the Oregon territory in 1836
as part of a Methodist missionary movement. A few years later, Whitman
returned to Boston to promote the attractions of life in the Pacific
Northwest. Whitman's message reverberated all over the East Coast, and
in 1843 he led nearly a thousand migrants out west along the Oregon
Trail, a 2,000-mile trail that stretched from Independence, Missouri,
across Oregon to Oregon City.[See Account of One Traveler's Journey Along the Oregon Trail (Excerpts) (primary document)]
As the settler population in Oregon grew, debate intensified over
control of the disputed portion. Polk called on Congress to pass
legislation that would protect the settlers making their way to the
Pacific Northwest. He said he had no doubt that "our title to the
country of Oregon is clear and unquestionable." Polk demanded that
England grant the U.S. ownership all the way up to the 54th parallel,
thus including a substantial chunk of what is now Canada. He indicated
that he was willing to go to war with England in order to secure the
land. [See President Polk's First Annual Message to Congress (Excerpts) (primary document)]
However, Polk's demand was a negotiating ploy. In his private journal
he wrote that he actually did not want war with Great Britain, and as a
Southerner he was not eager to add free states to the Union. He also
knew that the lands above the 49th parallel were not prime farmland.
But by threatening war he was able to extract a compromise, and in
1846, the U.S. and Britain agreed to establish the boundary line
between American and British territories at the 49th parallel, where
the U.S.-Canadian border remains today.
Perhaps the defining aspect of the Polk administration, however, was
the war with Mexico. Texas had declared its independence from Mexico on
March 2, 1836, when Texas was under siege by Mexican forces. Mexico
never formally recognized Texas's declaration of independence, which
became a bone of contention when Texas joined the United States in 1845
under Polk's stewardship.
Many American settlers who lived in Mexico did not object to becoming
part of the U.S., because when the area belonged to Mexico, settlers
had to become Mexican citizens and convert to Roman Catholicism. As the
Anglo-Saxon population grew, so did the desire to become part of the
U.S. The annexation of Texas also pleased many Southerners because
Texas had been part of the original Louisiana Purchase, but had been
traded to Spain in 1819 for Florida.
It was also understood that Texas would come in as a slave state. That
fact, in turn, upset many people from the North, who also lamented that
the war was just the kind of show of brute force they had always
detested among the European powers.
Tensions between the U.S. and Mexico over Texas reached a breaking
point the following year. As hostilities led to combat, Polk said,
"After reiterated menaces, Mexico has passed the boundary of the United
States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the
American Soil. She has proclaimed that hostilities have commenced, and
that the two nations are at war." [See Mexican-American War]
The war would last two years. When peace was negotiated, the defeated
Mexican government had little choice but to cede nearly half of its
northern territories (500,000 square miles) to the U.S. Under the
Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the Rio Grande was fixed as the southern
boundary of Texas. The U.S., in return for $15 million, acquired
territory that today includes the states of California, Arizona, New
Mexico, Nevada, and Utah as well as parts of Colorado and Wyoming. In
fact, critics of the war claimed that Polk intentionally provoked the
war with Mexico in order to win California.
Following the conclusion of the war with Mexico, attention turned
southward. Polk sought to purchase Cuba from its Spanish colonizers,
but Spain refused to sell the island. Attention turned to Cuba again
during the presidency of Franklin Pierce (D, 1853-57). In 1854 three
American diplomats, Buchanan (ambassador to Britain at the time),
Pierre Soulé (ambassador to Spain), and John Mason (ambassador to
France) met in Ostend, Belgium; seeking to convince Spain that it
needed to sell Cuba to the U.S. or risk a war in which it would lose
Cuba by force.
The diplomats were speaking on behalf of southern slave holders who had
wanted the U.S. to acquire the island and continue the practice of
slavery on it. The time was urgent, slavery advocates believed, because
Spain was considering emancipating all Cuban slaves because of recent
slave rebellions in various Caribbean islands, including Haiti.
However, the diplomatic mission to Spain had not been approved by
Pierce, and he immediately renounced it. Public reaction to the affair,
both at home and abroad, was exceedingly negative.
The beginning of the Civil War put a damper on Manifest Destiny
desires, but they would resurface later in the century with regard to
expansion to the Caribbean. In 1898, the U.S. finally succeeded in
wresting Cuba from Spain in the Spanish American War. However, as
during the 1830s and 1840s, the benefits and drawbacks of expansion
were hotly debated. [See Spanish-American War]
Supporters of Manifest Destiny were motivated by two beliefs: the nation's God-given destiny
to expand its civilizing influence across the continent and the
practical need to expand the nation's borders. Most advocates of Manifest Destiny
believed that American society, being predominantly white northern
European, or "Anglo-Saxon," and Christian, was more advanced and
enlightened than other cultures. American novelist Herman Melville
summed up that belief when he stated, "We Americans are the chosen
people—the Israel of our time."
Adherents to the ideal of Manifest Destiny
asserted that, as the chosen nation, the U.S. had an obligation to
mankind to expand its reach and spread its culture, bringing God,
technology and civilization to the west. O'Sullivan had elaborated on
that idea in an 1839 article: [See John O'Sullivan on Manifest Destiny (Excerpts) (primary document)]
far-reaching, the boundless future will be the era of American
greatness. In its magnificent domain of space and time, the nation of
many nations is destined to manifest to
mankind the excellence of divine principles; to establish on earth the
noblest temple ever dedicated to the worship of the Most High—the
Sacred and the True. Its floor shall be a hemisphere—its roof the
firmament of the star-studded heavens....
Others stressed a more practical need for expansion. The U.S. was
experiencing a big growth in population, they said, and the U.S. needed
to expand to accommodate those people. Furthermore, they contended,
expansion would make the new nation more secure. Many agreed with
author and diplomat George Bancroft when he said: "The acquisition of
California by ourselves is the decisive point in the perfect
establishment of the Union." Now the nation rested on a "foundation
that cannot be moved," he continued. In his inaugural address, Polk
laid out further benefits:
can fail to see the danger to our safety and future peace if Texas
remains an independent state, or becomes an ally or dependency of some
foreign nation more powerful than herself. Is there one among our
citizens who would not prefer perpetual peace with Texas to occasional
wars, which often occur between bordering independent nations? Is there
one who would not prefer free intercourse with her, to high duties on
all our products and manufactures which enter her ports or cross her
frontiers? Is there one who would not prefer an unrestricted
communication with her citizens, to the frontier obstructions which
must occur if she remains out of the Union?
Advocates of fulfilling the nation's Manifest Destiny
argued that critics' concerns that expansion would weaken the union by
stretching it too far had not been borne out. Polk asserted that the
addition of new territories had in fact bolstered the Union:
our population has expanded, the Union has been cemented and
strengthened. As our boundaries have been enlarged and our agricultural
population has been spread over a large surface, our federative system
has acquired additional strength and security. It may well be doubted
whether it would not be in greater danger of overthrow if our present
population were confined to the comparatively narrow limits of the
original thirteen States than it is now that they are sparsely settled
over a more expanded territory. It is confidently believed that our
system may be safely extended to the utmost bounds of our territorial
limits, and that as it shall be extended the bonds of our Union, so far
from being weakened, will become stronger.
Other advocates simply subscribed to the romantic notion of moving west
to establish new lives on the frontier. The very idea of Manifest Destiny
encouraged men and women to dream about boundless opportunity,
supporters said. Senator James Semple (D, Illinois), in debate in the
House over Oregon, noted that in 1843, as many as 1,500 settlers
traveled to Oregon "to reclaim this vast wilderness, and to unite, by
civilization and human intercourse, the shores of the Pacific with the
great West of the Union." Indeed, proponents pointed out, Manifest Destiny inspired pioneers to transform plains and fertile valleys into farms and small towns, helping to build up the nation.
The government not only had a divine right to expand its influence,
supporters said, it also had a duty to incorporate territories to
protect those American citizens who had settled there. Semple asserted
that such expansion expressed the will of the nation to expand. "It is
impossible for [the government] to overlook the expression of public
opinion on this point, so emphatically and universally pronounced. How
was it to act? Was it to allow Great Britain to exercise jurisdiction
over its citizens?" he asked.
Whatever their reasons for seeking expansion, proponents of Manifest Destiny
defended the government's right to acquire new territories, even though
the Constitution did not specifically give it the authority to do so.
Supporters were sometimes labeled as "loose constructionists," because
they interpreted the Constitution "loosely" or broadly enough to say
that, under it, land acquisition was an implied power of the federal
Overall, for supporters of Manifest Destiny,
all factors indicated that the U.S. should push westward. Buchanan
perhaps best summed up the national mood regarding expansion when he
stated: "Prevent the American people from crossing the Rocky Mountains?
You might as well command Niagara not to flow. We must fulfill our destiny."
Critics of Manifest Destiny
rejected the idea that it was God's will or even a good thing for the
country to expand when it resulted in warfare and the subjugation and
mistreatment of native peoples. Expansionists used the concept to
justify their cruel treatment of those peoples, critics asserted. Manifest Destiny, with its talk of the need to "civilize" the "savages" who occupied the west, was also blatantly racist, they asserted.
Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, in a letter written to
former Senator Henry Clay (Whig, Kentucky) about the annexation of
Texas, described the impact of Manifest Destiny:
Indians have melted before the white man, and the mixed, degraded race
of Mexico must melt before the Anglo-Saxon. Away with this vile
sophistry! There is no necessity for crime. There is no fate to justify
rapacious nations, any more than to justify gamblers and robbers, in
plunder ... We talk of accomplishing our destiny. So did the late conqueror of Europe [Napoleon Bonaparte]; and destiny consigned him to a lonely rock in the ocean, the prey of ambition which destroyed no peace but his own.
Critics grew particularly incensed when the concept was used to justify
wars of expansion. God would not destine a nation to kill and subjugate
people, they argued. If the "war be right then Christianity is wrong, a
falsehood, a lie," Congregationalist minister Theodore Parker asserted
in opposition to the war with Mexico.
Many in particular portrayed the Mexican-American War as a land grab,
aimed at the conquest of a vulnerable neighbor with little ability to
defend itself. Critics argued that Manifest Destiny
was used to justify imperialism, and that the U.S. would never have
tolerated being treated the way it was treating other countries.
Senator Thomas Corwin (Whig, Ohio) was a particularly strong critic of
the war with Mexico. According to him: [See Senator Corwin Criticizes Concept of 'Manifest Destiny' (Excerpts) (primary document)]
one come and demanded Bunker Hill of the people of Massachusetts, had
England's lion ever showed himself there, is there a man over 13 and
under 90 who would not have been ready to meet him; is there a river on
this continent that would not have run red with blood; is there a field
but would have been piled high with the unburied bones of slaughtered
Americans before these consecrated battlefields of liberty should have
been wrested from us? But this same American goes into a sister
republic and says to poor, weak Mexico, 'Give up your territory—you are
unworthy to possess it—I have got one-half already—all I ask of you is
to give up the other!'....
critics asserted, overexpansion was a threat to the country; it risked
spreading the nation's institutions too thin, they warned. "Possessed
of a domain, vast enough for the growth of ages, it is time for us to
stop in the career of acquisition and conquest," Channing wrote to
Clay. "Already endangered by our greatness, we cannot advance without
imminent peril to our institutions, union, prosperity, virtue, and
Other critics echoed Channing's belief that the U.S. already had enough land, and should stop seeking more. Supporters of Manifest Destiny
exaggerated the stresses of a growing population, they asserted. Corwin
argued that the U.S. had enough land, and that it was not worth waging
war for "room." He asserted:
your country, extending from the Alleghany Mountains to the Pacific
Ocean, capable itself of sustaining in comfort a larger population than
will be in the whole Union for one hundred years to come. Over this
vast expanse of territory your population is now so sparse that I
believe we provided, at the last session, a regiment of mounted men to
guard the mail from the frontier of Missouri to the mouth of the
Columbia; and yet you persist in the ridiculous assertion, 'I want
room.' One would imagine, from the frequent reiteration of the
complaint, that you had a bursting, teeming population, whose energy
was paralyzed, whose enterprise was crushed, for want of space.
Opposition to Manifest Destiny
was also strong among the "Conscience Whigs," a small group mostly from
the New England states who saw expansion as facilitating the spread of
slavery. That would only increase the tension between a precariously
balanced North and South, they warned. In opposing war with Mexico,
Corwin presciently claimed, "Should we prosecute this war another
moment, or expend one dollar in the purchase or conquest of a single
acre of Mexican land, the North and the South are brought into
collision on a point where neither will yield. Who can foresee or
foretell the result!"
Not only was Manifest Destiny
morally wrong, critics argued, but its realization through territorial
expansion was unconstitutional. Those critics, called "strict
constructionists," maintained that the Constitution never expressly
gave the country a right to acquire new lands, so the government did
not have the right to acquire territory. That view had also been
expressed by opponents of the Louisiana Purchase.
In short, opponents questioned both the ideal of Manifest Destiny and its practical consequences. "I spurn the notion that patriotism can only be manifested
by plunging the nation into war or that the love of one's country can
only be measured by one's hatred to any other country," declared
Representative Robert Winthrop (Whig, Massachusetts) in congressional
debate in January 1846. He warned of the "danger of fixing our views so
exclusively on our own real or imagined wants as to overlook the rights
When O'Sullivan wrote the following words in the article "The Great Nation of Futurity," in The United States Democratic Review in 1839, he was giving voice to a sentiment that many American agreed with:
far-reaching, the boundless future will be the era of American
greatness. In its magnificent domain of space and time, the nation of
many nations is destined to manifest to
mankind the excellence of divine principles... [H]er high example shall
smite unto death the tyranny of kings, hierarchs, and oligarchs, and
carry the glad tidings of peace and good will where myriads now endure
an existence scarcely more enviable than that of beasts of the field.
Who, then, can doubt that our country is destined to be the great
nation of futurity?
At the time O'Sullivan
wrote the article, many Americans felt strongly that their nation was
ordained for great things by their Christian God. They believed that
the U.S. was destined to grow and prosper and that its expansion would
serve to benefit mankind. The goal of territorial expansion became the
expressed goal of many politicians, including Polk.
Motivated in part by this overarching belief, the U.S. built a
transcontinental railroad, peopled much of a continent and built a
prosperous nation. However, the principle also had its critics, who
pointed out that in the process the U.S. went to war with Mexico,
risked a war with Great Britain, and displaced tens of thousands of
Despite lack of agreement on the value of Manifest Destiny,
the U.S. would eventually expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific
Ocean, and from the 49th parallel in the North to the Rio Grande River
in the South. The U.S. would become a world power with seemingly
boundless resources, particularly since the end of World War II
1) What factors were responsible for fueling U.S. expansion across the
continent? Do you think it was inevitable that the U.S. would take
possession of the continent from ocean to ocean? Why or why not?
2) What did John O'Sullivan mean when he described the U.S. as the "great nation of futurity"?
3) Many critics of Manifest Destiny
claimed that it resulted in barbaric treatment of the Indians, who were
often forced off their lands to make room for white settlers. Could the
U.S. have expanded westward without displacing the Indians?
4) Describe what the U.S. would be like today if it had not followed an
expansionist agenda, and Spain, France and Russia still possessed
territory on the continent.
5) Imagine that you are a settler traveling to the territory of Oregon:
Write a letter to a friend back home describing your journey.
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