John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, “had charged the English settlers in New England with a special and unique Providential mission,” (Scott, n.d., p. 1). The belief that Anglo-Saxon settlers were blessed by God and entitled to political and economic sovereignty over the American continent would become known as Manifest Destiny. Manifest Destiny refers mainly to the philosophy motivating territorial expansion, but also coincided with religious ideology prevalent in the United States during the Great Awakening and the Second Great Awakening. Moreover, Manifest Destiny is related to other American values including those of “rugged individualism” and “domination over the wilderness,” (Tveskov & Cohen, 2015, p. 191). Manifest Destiny was also a racist philosophy, as it is characterized specifically by the perception of Anglo-Saxons as “separate, innately superior people who were destined to bring good government, commercial prosperity, and Christianity to the American continents and the world,” (Horsman, 1981, p. 2). Manifest Destiny began as an extension of religious ideology and later became more political propaganda, motivated by economic rather than spiritual reasons.
Although Manifest Destiny was the reason for initial settlement and colonization of the Americas, the term came to full fruition during the early and middle 19th century. Andrew Jackson’s encroachment into Seminole Territories in Florida, leading to Seminole Wars signaled the intent of the United States to expand its boundaries from ‘sea to shining sea.’ The term “manifest destiny” seems to have been coined by John L. O’Sullivan in 1845, when he wrote about “the right of our manifest destiny to over spread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us,” (cited in “Manifest Destiny,” n.d.). The following year, on January 3, 1846 Representative Robert C. Winthrop of Massachusetts delivered a speech to Congress referring to the “new revelation of right which has been designated as the right of our manifest destiny to spread over this whole continentâ€¦so clear, so pre-eminent, and so indisputableâ€¦the right of manifest destiny,” (cited by Pratt, 1927, p. 795). During the 19th century, Manifest Destiny reached a peak, especially as Westward expansion became feasible and desirable for economic and political reasons. Expansion into the Oregon territories and the lands governed by Mexico were the most significant manifestations of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.
Manifest Destiny started as a religious ideology and later became more politically and economically motivated during the 19th century. The Great Awakening and religious evangelism grew as a social movement throughout the colonies, and later remained as a fundamental feature of American life. America was presented as a divinely inspired, spiritually ordained nation that was more enlightened than its European counterparts or its counterparts among the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The religious underpinnings of Manifest Destiny became less important than the political and economic ideologies that prevailed throughout the 19th century, including the issue of slavery.
Thus, the economic and political motivation for manifest destiny became much more salient than the religious motivations. During the first few generations of nationhood, it became apparent that the east coast was insufficient to contain the population of Anglo-Saxon residents, who had been immigrating from European nations in increasing numbers. A high birth rate also prompted the desire for more land. An economic depression in 1818, and later in 1839, further provided impetus for westward exploration and expansion, which led to conflict between the indigenous people living on those lands and the settlers who felt they had a moral, divine, and legal right to appropriate those lands. Because of the importance of land ownership in providing political empowerment as well as economic security, many people opted to become pioneers in the movement westward. Land parcels were deemed free, and the settlers established their own communities in which they could exercise their perceived rights as citizens of the nation in self-determination and rugged individualism.
Therefore, the concept of Manifest Destiny appealed to almost everyone who had the right to vote. It appealed to slave holders as well as abolitionists because of the Missouri Compromise. It became critical to maintain a political balance of power in Congress and the Senate through the creation of new states, and westward expansion enabled changes to take place in the federal government. At the same time, westward expansion allowed new territories and states the opportunity for self-governance that challenged the authority of Washington. Manifest Destiny appealed to a broad segment of Americans, include workers and businessmen, Whigs and Democrats, because all males of voting age stood to benefit from westward expansion. A second economic crisis in 1837 sparked the need for access to natural resources for industry and farming. Industrialists benefitted from access to natural resources and labor, while laborers of course welcomes the opportunity for self-employment.
Manifest Destiny is a defining feature of American identity, politics, and history. The idea that the United States was divinely ordained had prevailed long before the War of Independence, and continued to form the basis of American mythos and consciousness. Manifest Destiny reached a peak in the 19th century, when a new wave of imperialism took over American politics. Politicians and businessmen alike became willing to commit acts of genocide in order to acquire lands that would benefit the dominant culture and ruling classes.
Horsman, R. (1981). Race and Manifest Destiny. Harvard College.
“Manifest Destiny,” (n.d.). Retrieved online: http://www.pbs.org/kera/usmexicanwar/prelude/md_introduction.html
“Manifest Destiny – The Philosophy That Created A Nation,” (n.d.). American History. Retrieved online: http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/essays/1801-1900/manifest-destiny/manifest-destiny-the-philosophy-that-created-a-nation.php
Pratt, J.W. (1927). The origin of “Manifest Destiny.” The American Historical Review 32(4), 795-798.
Scott, D.M. (n.d.). The religious origins of manifest destiny. National Humanities Center. Retrieved online: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nineteen/nkeyinfo/mandestiny.htm
Tveskov, M. & Cohen, A. (2015). Frontier forts, ambiguity, and manifest destiny. Chapter 8 in Rethinking Colonial Pasts Through Archaeology. Oxford University Press.
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