Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Manifest Destiny

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 10, 2014

When you hear talk of manifest destiny, what you’re hearing is someone discussing a policy of imperialistic expansion defended as necessary or benevolent. In fact, it was believed in the 19th century that God had given the United States of America not only a right, but a duty, to expand across North America even that expansion was at the expense of those who already inhabited the land.

Recently, the GAP offered T-shirts with the phrase Manifest Destiny emblazoned on them, and due to public outcry, they removed them from shelves quickly.  Why?  Because manifest destiny was the excuse used by non-Natives to abuse and destroy the livelihood, culture, heritage and way of life of the North American Indian who welcomed Europeans to North America’s shores.

In the book, “Providence and the Invention of the United States: 1607 – 1876” by Nicholas Guyatt and published in 2007, the author wrote:

Finally, and in the hands of more cynical exponents, manifest destiny could be used to make controversial objectives seem not only assured but consistent with the course of American history. During the Mexican War, as overzealous expansionists argued for the extension of the United States to the isthmus and even for the replacement of the existing Mexican population with a new wave of American settlers, this cynicism was assailed in the halls of Congress and threatened to contaminate the providential idiom entirely. But taken as a whole, manifest destiny proved remarkably durable over the ambiguousness and shifting ground on which manifest destiny’s proponents had briefly united.

In a speech by one-time Speaker of the House of Representatives, Robert Charles Winthrop (12 May 1809 – 16 November 1894), as representative for the state of Massachusetts, to the House of Representatives on January 3, 1846, the following was said with regards to a resolution that had been table with regards to the termination of the joint occupation of Oregon:

I mean that new revelation of right which has been designated as the right of our manifest destiny to spread over this whole continent. It has been openly avowed in the leading Administration journal that this, after all, is our best and strongest title — one so clear, so re-eminent, and so indisputable, that if Great Britain had all our other titles in addition to her own, they would weight nothing against it. The right of our manifest destiny!

The idiom was one that American columnist and editor, John L. O’Sullivan (15 November 1813 – 24 March 1895) used in an editorial he wrote for the New York Morning News entitled, “Manifest Destiny” published on December 27, 1845 — one week before the expression was first introduced to Congress by Robert C. Winthrop. The editorial read in part:

To state the truth at once in its neglected simplicity, we are free to say that were the respective cases and arguments of the two parties, as to all these points of history and law, reversed — had England all ours, and we nothing but hers — our claim to Oregon would still be best and strongest. And 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.

John L. O’Sullivan had used the idiom earlier in an article he wrote for the United States Magazine and Democratic Review in the summer of 1845. The article was entitled, “Annexation.” In that editorial, he wrote that Americans had certain rights described as follows:

… by 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 federatative self-government entrusted to us.

Many believe that John L. Sullivan coined the phrase, and while it’s true that he used the idiom, he did not coin it.

When American preacher and theologian, Andrews Norton (31 December 1786 – 18 September 1853) published his book entitled, “A Discourse on the Latest Form of Infidelity” on July 19, 1839 — one that was entered according to Act of Congress in the Clerk’s Office of the District Court of the District of Massachusetts — he had something to say about manifest destiny.

There is a favorite phrase, of frequent use in popular addresses — manifest destiny. It is said to be the manifest destiny of this race to spread over this whole continent, carrying with it its laws, institutions and enterprise. The expression is unfortunate, and requires qualification … Destiny implies a tendency to a fixed end without the power of any agent to prevent.

From this, the fact emerges that the idiom was used often in 1839 and with the expectation of being understood by those who heard it said or read it in published works.

Four years earlier, in a book entitled, “A Discourse Upon The Life, Character, and Services of the Honorable John Marshall” authored by U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Joseph Story (18 September 1779 – 10 September 1845) and published on October 15, 1835 — also entered according to the Act of Congress that year by the publisher, James Munroe & Co., in the Clerk’s Office of the District Court of the District of Massachusetts — the following passage was included, attributed to Mr. Winthrop. The speech was made to the House being in Committee of the Whole on the state of the Union, and having to do with appropriations for the improvement of specific rivers and harbors.

We rejoice, too, that the great West is waking up to a consciousness of her own interests, and her own rights, in relation to the exercise of this power. We rejoice that she is rapidly reaching a strength and a maturity, when these interests must be consulted, and these rights allowed. We hail her advent to the political mastery over our affairs as most auspicious,in this respect at least, to the general welfare of the nation. We will go with her in the fulfillment of her “manifest destiny” in this way, if in no other. We look to her mighty and majestic voice, as it shall come up, at no distant day, from a vast majority of the whole people of the Union inhabiting her rich and happy valleys, to command the resumption of a policy which has been too long suspended; to overrule both the votes and the vetoes by which it has been paralyzed …

Years before, with the publication in 1821 of a book entitled, “In Commemoration of the First Settlement of New England” by Congressman for Massachusetts, Daniel Webster (18 January 1782 – 24 October 1852) and dated December 22, 1820 the following not only speaks of manifest destiny but speaks passionately about its place American society.

If otherwise, who is there in the whole breadth and length of the land, that will care for the consistency of the present incumbent of the office? There will then be new objects. Manifest destiny will have pointed out some other man. Sir, the eulogies are now written, the commendations of praise are already elaborated. I do not say everything fulsome, but everything panegyrical, has already been written out, with blanks for names, to be filled when the Convention shall adjourn. When manifest destiny shall be unrolled, all these strange panegyrics, wherever they may light, made beforehand, laid up in pigeon-holes, studied, framed, emblazoned and embossed, shall all come out, and then there will be found to be somebody in the United States whose merits have been strangely overlooked, marked out by Providence, a kind of miracle, while all will wonder, that nobody ever thought of him before, as a fit and the only fit man to be at the head of this great Republic!

It is most probable that with the use of the idiom in 1820, that it comes from some time after the American Revolutionary War between the United States and Great Britain when the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783. Five years later, the United States Constitution was adopted after New Hampshire ratified it. The concept of manifest destiny began to be seen in earnest with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 (thereby doubling the size of the United States), the manifest destiny expansion of the North American continent was in full swing.

Idiomation pegs the idiom to sometime between 1783 and 1803, although the concept seems to have been around considerably longer. Unfortunately, Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published mention of manifest destiny than Daniel Webster’s use in 1820.

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