- Manifest Destiny
- A slogan of American territorial expansion that was coined in the 1840s. Justi-ficatory rhetoric throughout the continental expansion of the United States was clothed in various garbs, of which Manifest Destiny is the best known, and to invoke a diversity of principles such as natural law or geographical predestination all tailored to meet the same end - an extraordinary ideological cocktail concocted to assist an exceptional, and evident future sanctioned by providence. Its most illustrious forerunner was probably John Quincy Adams whose “hemispheric” dreams left no room for the European nations on the North American continent. The phrase “manifest destiny,” was presumably coined by the lawyer, editor, journalist, and diplomat John L. O’Sullivan who twice used his felicitous formulation, first in his United States Magazine and Democratic Review about the annexation of Texas and next in the New York Morning News about the acquisition of Oregon. The phrase owes its lexical status to the assertion that the American claim to the latter was the “best and strongest,” because “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.”Its author unmistakably captured the mood of the times, the expansionist fever of the 1840s, yet very few historians mention the fact that O’Sullivan’s Manifest Destiny, as applied to territorial expansion, was nonviolent, that the man was a cultural nationalist who hoped for the creation of a genuinely American literature, and that he was the discoverer and publisher of several talented writers of his day. Manifest Destiny - a multifaceted and elusive doctrine that looms much larger than O’Sullivan’s 1845 editorial views - ought from the start to be relativized and divested partly of its Americanness. Every great nation - England, France, Spain, Holland, for example - has at some time in its history claimed to have a special destiny and has justified that claim in racial and/or religious, if not mystical, terms. And expansionistic nationalism - usually territorial conquest - has generally been the corollary of a regional or world destiny.The English colonists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were true to their fatherland’s “Anglo-Saxon” destiny. Had not England long felt predestined to take over and develop the New World, viewing herself as the only nation capable of such a colossal undertaking? It can be argued that nineteenth-century Americans elaborated a self-serving, expansionist doctrine, which, despite its native trappings, was in no small degree rooted in the European past and culture in that it echoed specifically Britain’s own cult of the Anglo-Saxons’ superiority, destiny, and mission and more generally the Western world’s belief in its role as the vehicle of progress in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.The United States is the only nation to have consistently sought to shape the world in its own image. As a matter of fact, American nationalism from the start was unique and, paradoxically, laid claims to universality: alone among the nations of the earth, the United States was “the embodiment of an idea”; the English tradition of liberty; and the war for independence was fought to uphold “the birthright of mankind.” “It has been our fate as a nation,” Richard Hofstadter once observed, “not to have ideologies but to be one.” The young republic had none of the usual attributes of nationhood: a historically defined territory, a common religion, and distinctive cultural or spiritual features. Initially, its unifying element was the cult of freedom, realized through representative government. Empire building by way of westward expansion came next, uniting the American people through the frontier experience and strengthening their budding nationalism. Vastness of territory would soon come to be regarded as a blessing, contrary to Montesquieu’s view that smallness was the surest guarantee of virtue and health for a republic.The significance of Manifest Destiny divides historians. Daniel J. Boorstin for one contends that the new nation’s destiny was more “uncertain” than “manifest” at first and that the Founding Fathers gave little thought to the potential conquest of the continent. Many historians of continental expansion have scrutinized, and generally criticized, the motives behind territorial aggrandizement, be they economic, political, or cultural. Most have challenged the validity and relevance of the Manifest Destiny ideal. But all recognize the impact of this legitimizing myth of empire on popular beliefs about U.S. history, if not on foreign policymaking. It should be noted that the component parts of that myth underlie the nationalistimperialist ideologies of other nations - witness “the White Man ’ s Burden, ” “Nordic supremacy,” “ la mission civilisatrice , ” “ sacro egoismo, ” and the like. The reactivation of Manifest Destiny apropos of the acquisition in the late nineteenth century of noncontiguous territories certainly underscores the similarity and continuum between continental and overseas expansion, although some American scholars are reluctant to admit the identical character of the two movements. Lexical disagreements may conceal ideological ones; “expansionism” fares better than “imperialism.” The use of the latter term still generates unease and controversy among historians and therefore requires some caution on the part of their readers. Nevertheless, dictionary definitions do reflect a form of historical consensus; with time many radical historians, thanks to the quality of their research, have influenced the more orthodox scholars and even achieved respectability, as in the case of William Appleman Williams, the New Left revisionist and founder of the “Wisconsin School.” In the 1970s, many of his scholarly contributions were regarded as so many ideological tracts. Today even the most conservative historians acknowledge the importance of his work and pay lip service if not tribute to his views. His best-known book, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, has become a classic.There still is room for disagreement in the analysis of causes and effects, of motivations and accomplishments. Manifest Destiny, in particular, whether viewed as a driving force, a rhetorical device, an ideal, an a posteriori justification of conquest, or the quintessential expression of American nationalism, permits a host of interpretations or nuances. For Ronald Reagan in his 1964 speech, “A Time for Choosing,” America was “a beacon of hope to the rest of the world” and “the dream of America” was “the last best hope of man on earth.” Whether the United States is or not “the last best hope of man on earth” is open to question, but the problem is that it thinks it is. If its continued self-righteous perception of itself as democracy incarnate distinguishes it from other democracies, its self-serving justificatory rhetoric does not, for all nations with liberal traditions evince great disingenuousness when it comes to the least palatable manifestations of their self-interest and great ingenuity in concealing them under the guise of piety or altruism.See also <
>; < >; < >; < >; < >; < >; < >.FURTHER READING:Boorstin, Daniel J. The Americans. 3 vols. New York: Random-Vintage, 1973;Graebner, Norman A. Empire on the Pacific: A Study in American Continental Expansion. New York: Ronal Press Co., 1955;Hietala, Thomas R. Manifest Design: Anxious Aggrandizement in Late Jacksonian America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985;Horsman, Reginald. Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981;Kohn, Hans. American Nationalism: An Interpretative Essay. New York: Macmillan, 1957;Merk, Frederick. Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History: A Reinterpretation. New York: Knopf, 1963;Osgood, Robert E. Ideals and Self-Interest in America’s Foreign Relations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953;Stephanson, Anders. Manifest Destiny: American Expansionism and the Empire of Right. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995;Weinberg, Albert K. Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History. New York: AMS Press,  1979.SERGE RICARD
Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.