The words “Manifest Destiny” is perhaps one of the most politically-intriguing and morally-infused phrases in the history of the American nation. It has ingrained itself in the hallowed halls of American political discourse, and has been debated – time and again – regarding its morality, political philosophy, and ethical value. It is also a prime source for reasoning behind the current turmoil within the United States regarding race and racial inequality, founded upon the notion that individuals born out of a certain stock are better human beings than others. It has thus shaped and transfigured the identity of the American nation – for better or for worse – in the course of its rich history. And yet, its connotations and the principles upon which it is founded is not isolated to a certain point in time. Much may be owed to Europe and its colonial origins, including the Enlightenment principles that have so guided the American Revolution. Given these nuances, much critical perspectives and scholarly research must thus be encouraged in the current scheme of American society, influenced as it is both by the successes of the past and the failures of history.
“Manifest Destiny” is a phrase used to express the belief that it was the fate of the United States to expand across the American continent (Mountjoy 9). It is a political doctrine aptly equipped for conflict between the United States and its colonies and territories (Coles 404). By 1850, American expansion was viewed in the United States less as a victory for the principles of free democratic republicanism than as evidence of the innate superiority of the Anglo-Saxon branch of the Caucasian race. In the middle of the 1800s, thus, a sense of racial destiny permeated discussions of American progress and the future of American world destiny. The American Anglo-Saxon race, for people in the middle of the 19th century, was a separate, innately superior people who were destined to bring good government, commercial prosperity, and Christianity to the American continents and to the world (Horsman 2). And yet, the conceptualization of “Manifest Destiny” must not have emerged out of thin air. Surely, there must have been precursors to the sentiment that one race is superior to another?
The concept of a distinct, superior Anglo-Saxon race, with innate endowments enabling it to achieve a perfection of governmental institutions and world dominance, was the fruit of a string of ideas that stretch back to at least the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Horsman 9). Firstly, the English break with the Roman Catholic Church may be seen as a guiding factor in the establishment of Anglo-Saxon centrism (Blair 6-9). Another facet of the formation of this identity is the Germanic Romantic thinking in the last decades of the eighteenth century, where the idea of a nation’s possessing its own national spirit, fell on fertile ground among English-speaking peoples who had long traced their institutions to a glorious Anglo-Saxon past and were seeking to explain their successes in the modern era (Horsman 26). The emergence of new scientific thinking brought about by Enlightenment also contributed to an abundance of “proofs” by English and American Anglo-Saxons regarding their superiority as a race. These precursors of Manifest Destiny may be observed as visibly intertwined with political and economic devices by which human nature has so often operated upon. The context of mid-1800s America was no different.
In the 1840s, John O’Sullivan was the first to coin the term “Manifest Destiny” in an essay entitled “Annexation” in the July-August 1845 issue of the Democratic Review. In the work, he voiced support for the American acquisition of Texas, believing that it was the “fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions” (Mountjoy 10). By doing so, he was the main propagator of the notion that newly discovered land belonged in the hands of white settlers (Stefancic 532). The concept incorporated two interrelated components: the expansionist mission to settle the land to the Pacific shore, eventually establishing commerce with Asia, and the belief in Anglo-Saxon racial superiority. With the first component, came the justification for Indian removal, the annexation of Texas, and the lust for Mexico’s land. With the second component, Anglo-Saxonism and racial superiority was entangled with the economic desire for trade and expansion, resulting in the closing of the frontier in the West, and the victory of the United States in the Spanish-American war. The end result was the taking of the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico and the establishment of the United States as a world military and colonial power (Saito 146-160).
Within the following centuries, Manifest Destiny was to become a critical basis not only for expansion, but also for racial segregation, as it advocated for the fundamental separation between Anglo-Saxons and other races such as Asians and Africans. Much of the discord between African-Americans and whites – the Ferguson riots being a prime example – may thus be seen as one of the results in the propagation of Manifest Destiny as a political principle. Its distinctly moral dimensions, thus, must be examined further, and not only by academics, but also of the ordinary layperson, if only to encourage critical thinking and careful examination of their widely held beliefs.
Blair, Peter Hunter. An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge: Cambridge Universtiy Press, 2003. Print.
Coles, Roberta. “Manifest Destiny Adapted for 1990s War Discourse: Mission and Destiny Intertwined” Sociology of Religion 63.4 (2002):403-426. Print.
Horsman, Reginald. Race and Manifest Destiny. Harvard: Harvard College, 1981. Print.
Mountjoy, Shane. Manifest Destiny: Westward Expansion. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009. Print.
Saito, Natsu Taylor. Meeting the Enemy: American Exceptionalism and International Law. New York: NYU Press, 2010. Print.
Stefancic, Jean. “Terrace v. Thompson and the Legacy of Manifest Destiny. 12 Nev. Law Journal 532 (2012). Print.