History Post #1: The Manifest Destiny: What is it and why was it influential in the expansion of America?

So here is an essay that I wrote during my second year of my undergraduate degree. I personally think it is one of the best essays that I have written in my academic career but I also though it would be interesting to give you a little history blog post on a topic that I found super interesting! So I hope you enjoy reading and if you have any questions then please comment below 🙂 If you would like to use any of this information then please reference me or the books that I have linked below! Thank-you.

Disclaimer: The purpose for this post is not to use my essay for your own gain but merely to educate yourself on this topic. 

Explain why the ‘Manifest Destiny’ proved to be a hugely influential idea in the internal expansion of America?

In the mid-nineteenth century many Europeans migrated to America, largely from Germany and Ireland, due to religious persecution and crop failures in Europe in the 1840s.[1] During this period, it is estimated that over 2 million Europeans moved to the United States in search of a new life.[2] The consequence of the mass European migration was that they brought more poverty and fewer jobs to the people who were already living in America at that time.[3] Overpopulated urban areas and poverty were two reasons why the Manifest Destiny was ‘born’ and was a hugely influential on the American people.

The people who had been brave enough to immigrate to America from Europe, may have then chosen to migrate further, along with the earlier settlers into the undiscovered lands, described by the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1803-1806[4]. The Lewis and Clark expedition gave them a sense of adventure and freedom whilst the overpopulated areas gave them the desire for a better life. These reasons combined to reinforce their belief that they should move on into unexplored lands.

America was growing, Louisiana was purchased from the French in 1803, this deal was named “The Louisiana Purchase” and was 530,000,000 acres of land and therefore it doubled the size of America.[5] This purchase may well have marked the start of America’s interests in expansion and occupation of new land.[6] The phrase “Manifest Destiny” was first used and made popular by an American newspaper editor named John O’ Sullivan in 1845,[7]  and by the mid- nineteenth century the Manifest Destiny was acknowledged in America, as a national vision.[8] The phrase and ideology was ‘invented’ years after the Louisiana Purchase. This strongly suggests that America’s interest in expansionism started back in 1803 or earlier, long before the idea of a Manifest Destiny was coined. There may have been other factors, such as the War of 1812, which that focused attention on expansionism as a form of nationalism in America, certainly the country did grow after the conflict with the British Empire.[9]

The Monroe Doctrine in 1823[10] focused on consolidating American power in the territories that had been already gained, but it did not abate the wish spread. Instead, it moved American foreign policy away from entering costly wars, such as the one in 1812 and focused on the consolidation of American territories, which also helped to develop the American identity.

During the time period of the Monroe Doctrine, America was negotiating with Spain, regarding the purchasing of Florida[11] which officially became a state of America in 1845.[12] Florida became American, the same year that the phrase ‘Manifest Destiny’ became popular. Indicating that the concept of the Manifest Destiny may already have existed in the minds of the citizens and politicians, it had just not been labelled and brought to their attention. Thus the social ideology of expansion had begun many years before the name was attached to it. This fact clearly illustrates the manipulative power of the Manifest Destiny, because expansionism increased dramatically after the Manifest Destiny ideology was put in the limelight by the press and politicians.

The ideology of the Manifest Destiny encouraged expansion and settlement into the continent of America, and it claimed that it was God’s will that they should do so. This gave credibility and encouragement to the growth that was already underway and greatly accelerated the process. The belief justified large scale continental growth.[13] John Quincy Adams (the sixth President of the United States) tried to develop the ideology of the Manifest Destiny into a movement. His vision was for expansionism to grow towards the Pacific coast, however, there were many obstructions to this movement and it was never officially achieved.[14] The fact that the President at the time of the Manifest Destiny supported and encouraged this belief, adds weight to why it proved to be such an influential idea.

American families were large and people were willing to move repeatedly in search of a better life.[15] The population of people living in urban areas in 1790 was 201,655, compared to 1860, when it rose to 6,216,518.[16] Thus by 1860 overcrowding resulted in a very different quality of life than in 1790. The American people were starting to realise the effect of the new settlers and the countries new religious and ethnic diversity.[17] The government encouraged families to move to new territories, with the assurance of better land and opportunities. They made land very cheap to buy, so it was easily affordable for ordinary Americans who wished to move.[18] They also promised working men better jobs, the ability to move up the social ladder and an escape from the bad work environment of the urban cities.[19] These promises were not all they seemed, as although the land was cheap, it was still not easily affordable and the jobs that were available at the time were mainly agricultural.[20] Perhaps without knowing about the unaffordable land and low paid work, many people moved, only to find that they couldn’t survive, which led to squatters on the land and posed a new problem for the government.[21]

Though the Manifest Destiny proved to be a hugely influential idea, it was not always a good thing. It justified the forceful removal of Native American Indians from their native lands and it also created hostility with the lands of Mexico which were occupied by America in 1846, in order to expand their borders still further.[22] The Native American Indians had lived peacefully on the lands of North America for many years, until their homes, land and freedom were significantly changed by the ideological practice of the Manifest Destiny[23] . Even though the Native Americans still had original entitlements to their lands,[24] an Indian Removal Act was passed and became law in 1830. This law allowed the government to move tribes off their land. For example the native Indians of Mississippi.[25]

The tribes did not surrender their lands without a fight and refused to give up that easily. Naturally they were unwilling to move off the land that had rightfully been theirs. They protested in ways such as armed uprising and petitions to congress.[26] The Cherokee tribe hoped to gain support from Supreme Court in regards to them staying on their land without interference, and although the Supreme Court ruled in their favour, the “Indian Removal Act” forced them to move anyway.[27] Even though the tribes fought hard, the authorities, who were mainly White American Christians, did not help them. In 1838, the Cherokee Indians were forced, by the U.S. government, to leave their homes and left to walk, with whatever they could carry, towards Oklahoma which was 800 miles away. It is estimated to have taken them six months to arrive in Oklahoma, which was still an Indian Territory at the time, and many of their people died on the journey.[28] This example, shows the intensity of the fanatical belief in the Manifest Destiny, as the White American people believed that they had superiority and a God given right to take the lands that the native tribes had lived on, forcing them to move with great suffering.

Historians such as Robert Hine and John Mack Faragher have argued that the Manifest Destiny was merely propaganda designed to draw the people’s attention away from the debate over slavery in the Northern and Southern states.[29] Many Northern states had freed the slaves, whilst the Southern states, known as “slave states” had not. This argument may have some truth to it because the Manifest Destiny was also linked to slavery and the eviction of Native American Indian tribes from their land. For example John Quincy Adams “Could not subordinate the moral problem of slavery, and its extension, to a getting of land.’’ Indeed, when the Manifest Destiny became tied to slavery in Texas, he was ready to repudiate it.”[30] The Manifest Destiny did give opportunities for freed slaves to settle, as contrary to popular belief, it was not just white Americans who looked to move west. Martin Delany, an African American abolitionist wrote that African Americas should move to Central America, as he wanted Black Americans to join in the Manifest Destiny ideology by moving and creating their own Black state.[31]

The rest of the world was watching the United States. “At the same time, the United States became, and to a degree remained itself, a romantic ideal to which reformers in other parts of the world looked for guidance and inspiration.”[32] This can also be linked to the American dream, this phrase was first used in 1931[33] and it finds its roots in the ideals of Manifest Destiny and may offer one explanation as to why the United States remained, to some extent, a romantic ideal.

This is mere speculation, but the fact that America thought that they were being looked up to by other countries, may have further encouraged the implementation of the Manifest Destiny. Not only did they believe they were chosen by God but they also knew that other countries admired them. For example, Mexico had originally respected and looked up to America, that is until  America supported the Texan Revolution, which then led to tension and distrust between the two countries.[34]

“By the time of the Civil War, the United States had become a Christian nation.”[35] The religious aspect of the Manifest Destiny was a major contributor to its influential ideology. Many of the original people who came to settle in America were deeply religious, therefore because the Manifest Destiny claimed that they were the people chosen by God to occupy the lands, many Americans at this time, saw it as their duty to expand across the entire continent and even evangelize Latin America, as new states were created from lands previously owned by Spain.[36] Latin Americans were by this time mainly Catholic and opposed to the Americans who were largely Protestant, thus with the Manifest Destiny view they saw it as their mission to evangelize Latin American’s to become Protestants.[37]

In the 20th century, the Manifest Destiny had a very different definition to that of the 1840s. Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States mentioned the Manifest Destiny in his 1919 speech, after World War I. By this time the Manifest Destiny had manifested not only into American expansionism but also into an incentive for Americans to take leadership in the world.[38] Once again this shows the huge effect of the Manifest Destiny, because even 70 years on, in1919, the ideology was still important enough for it to be used in Woodrow Wilson’s speech. There is no evidence of the Manifest Destiny formally ending, but if there had to be a date for the end of America’s demand for expansionism, it would probably be 1959 when Hawaii and Alaska became the last states to join the United States.[39] Although the God-given ideology had faded from popularity in the early 1900s.

In conclusion, the ‘Manifest Destiny’ proved to be a hugely influential idea for the internal expansion of America for many reasons. Firstly, many Europeans migrated to America which caused urbanised areas to become so overpopulated that people needed to move. A sense of adventure (due to Lewis and Clark) and the search for a better life with more opportunities for ordinary Americans was another reason to move into new lands. For politicians and the Presidents, it justified expansionism and the occupation of new territories. Either by purchasing land from France and Spain, or by force, such as the war with Mexico and the removal of Native Americans from their rightful lands, which the Americans then occupied. The influence of the Manifest Destiny left America in a strong political state and social state although it did have its consequences, for example the Indian Removal Act. At that time, it was the Manifest Destiny that gave them the belief in their ‘God given right’ and therefore their duty to evangelise and expand the American nation. This belief seems to have carried on into the 20th century, with President Woodrow Wilson making reference to the Manifest Destiny; although the ideology did not carry on, the impact of the belief did, and it stayed in American’s minds. The Manifest Destiny has affected America today, as it provided the credibility for expansionism and the ideology helped develop other patriotic concepts such as “The American Dream.” Without the Manifest Destiny America would not have the size and cultural diversity that it has today. However, without this belief it may have saved the lives of many Native Americans, and their heritage and modern culture would likely be very different to what it is today.

[1] Z.L. Miller, The Urbanization of Modern America, (USA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: 1973) p.37

[2] Ibid, p.37

[3] D. Ward, Poverty, Ethnicity and The American City 1840-1925, (USA: Cambridge University Press, 1989.) p.13

[4] “The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.” <http://lewisandclarkjournals.unl.edu&gt; [Date Accessed: 23/3/15] Published by: University Of Nebraska–Lincoln. Published: Unknown.

[5] “Milestones: 1801–1829” <https://history.state.gov/milestones/1801-1829/louisiana-purchase&gt; [Date Accessed: 16/3/15] Published: Office of the Historian. Published: Unknown.

[6] A.S. Greenberg, Manifest Destiny and American Territorial Expansion, (USA: Bedford/St. Martins: 2012) p.7

[7] S. Larsen, “A STUDENT WORKS PUBLICATION — High School Thesis” <http://www.californiaindianeducation.org/student_works/manifest_destiny_crimes&gt; [Date Accessed: 25/3/15] Posted by: California Indian Education, Published: April 30th 2012.

[8] A.S. Greenberg, Manifest Destiny and American Territorial Expansion, (USA: Bedford/St. Martins: 2012) p.1

[9] K.J. Bauer and R.W. Johannsen, The Mexican War 1846-1848, (USA: Macmillan: 1974) p.1

[10] “Monroe Doctrine (1823)”  <http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=23&gt; [Date Accessed: 25/3/15] Published on: ourdocuments.gov. Published: Unknown.

[11] “The Monroe Doctrine (1823)”  <http://web.archive.org/web/20120108131055/http://eca.state.gov/education/engteaching/pubs/AmLnC/br50.htm&gt; [Date Accessed: 25/3/15] Published by: Internet Archive. Publish Date: Unknown.

[12] “A Century of Law making for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875” <http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=005/llsl005.db&recNum=779&gt; [Date Accessed: 25/3/15] Published by: The Library of Congress. Published on: Unknown.

[13] A.S. Greenberg, Manifest Destiny and American Territorial Expansion, (USA: Bedford/St. Martins: 2012) p.1-2

[14] F. Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History, (USA: First Harvard University Press, 1995) p.215

[15] A.S. Greenberg, Manifest Destiny and American Territorial Expansion, (USA: Bedford/St. Martins: 2012) p.9

[16] H.P. Chudacoff, The Evolution of American Urban Society, (USA: Prentice-Hall: 1975) p.32

[17] S.E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History Of The American People, (USA: Yale University Press: 1974) p.749

[18] A.S. Greenberg, Manifest Destiny and American Territorial Expansion, (USA: Bedford/St. Martins: 2012) p.9

[19] Ibid, p.18

[20] Ibid, p.18

[21] Ibid, p.10

[22] Ibid, p.3

[23] S. Larsen, “A STUDENT WORKS PUBLICATION — High School Thesis” <http://www.californiaindianeducation.org/student_works/manifest_destiny_crimes&gt; [Date Accessed: 25/3/15] Posted by: California Indian Education, Published: April 30th 2012.

[24] A.S. Greenberg, Manifest Destiny and American Territorial Expansion, (USA: Bedford/St. Martins: 2012) p.10

[25] “Primary Documents in American History: Indian Removal Act” <http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/Indian.html&gt; [Date Accessed: 24/3/15] Published by: The Library of Congress. Published: September 2014

[26] A.S. Greenberg, Manifest Destiny and American Territorial Expansion, (USA: Bedford/St. Martins: 2012) p.19

[27] “Removing Native Americans from their Land” <http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/immigration/native_american2.html&gt; [Date Accessed: 25/3/15] Published by: The Library of Congress. Published: Unknown.

[28] M. Burgan, The Trail of Tears, (USA: Compass Point Books: 2001) p.4-6

[29] M.S. Joy, American Expansionism 1783-1860, (Routledge: 2013: New York)  p.84

[30] F. Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History, (USA: First Harvard University Press, 1995) p.216

[31] A.S. Greenberg, Manifest Destiny and American Territorial Expansion, (USA: Bedford/St. Martins: 2012) p.135

[32] M. Bradbury and H. Temperley, Introduction to American Studies, (USA: Addison Wesley Longman Inc, 1981.) p.7

[33] L.R. Samuel, A Cultural History: The American Dream, (USA: Syracuse University Press: 2012) p.1

[34] K.J. Bauer and R.W. Johannsen, The Mexican War 1846-1848, (USA: Macmillian: 1974) p.3-4

[35] L.I. Sweet, Communication and Change in American Religious History, (USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co: 1993) p.270

[36] Ibid, p.2

[37] E. L. Cleary, How Latin America Saved the Soul of the Catholic Church, (USA: Paulist Press: 2009) p.115

[38] S.W. Twing, Myths, Models, and U.S. Foreign Policy, (USA: Lynne Rienner Publishers: 1998) p.23

[39] “Presidential 1959: Eisenhower signs Hawaii statehood bill” <http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/eisenhower-signs-hawaii-statehood-bill&gt; Published by: History.com. Published: Unknown.


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