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Manifest Destiny, meaning "obvious (or undeniable) fate" was a belief originally held by Democratic Republicans, specifically Warhawks during the presidency of James Madison, that stated the United States had a divinely-inspired mission to expand itself and its system of government from ocean to ocean and to the western frontier.
Origin of the phrase
The phrase "manifest destiny," was coined by New York journalist John O'Sullivan in 1845, when he wrote that "it was the nation's 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." That same year on December 2, U.S. President James Polk announced to Congress that the Monroe Doctrine should be strictly enforced and that the United States should aggressively expand into the West.
Implications and practice
In the 1840s the phrase was used by politicians and leaders to justify and promote territorial expansion across the North American continent by providing a sense of mission to citizens. In theory, one aspect of this desire was its principle to bring the ideals of democratic self-government to any peoples capable of it; in practice, however, this often meant excluding Native Americans and those with non-European ancestry. Another desire was the acquisition of new lands, since land could represent potential income, wealth, self-sufficiency, and freedom.
Many American pioneers had a strong sense that the nation's freedoms and ideals were of far-reaching importance and needed to be brought to new lands by broadening the nation's reach and extending its borders. Two centuries earlier, John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony had argued that his colony would be a City on a Hill, demonstrating to the rest of the world how a free, godly society could function. Extending this idea, many argued that it was divine imperative that the United States should stretch over the entire North American continent. The Young America movement encouraged by Franklin Pierce actively promoted this vision.
As the citizens of the U.S. spread westward, intense conflict with both the Native Americans and Mexico were inevitable. Already heavily depopulated due to diseases, the Native American peoples were unable to compete against the encroaching settlers and the advanced military that accompanied them; the rapidity and force of their disappearance from the West is one of the major blemishes on American history; particularly brutal episodes such as the Trail of Tears are merely examples of the widespread and systematic extermination of these people. Conflict with Mexico was more formal but also resulted in the (perhaps opportunistic) large scale acquisition of land for U.S. settlers. President Polk made it clear in his diaries that he had every intention to seize any Mexican territory that fell into American hands. These two effects of Manifest Destiny have strongly colored its representation in historical hindsight; in spite of (or perhaps because of) strong belief in God and democracy, the imposition of majority rule on minorities can be horrific. It is said that a majority can be just as despotic as an absolute monarch. It should also be noted that the doctrine almost always described the white man as "God's chosen" who was bound to displace the "primitives" in his way.
The first Americans to reach the Oregon Territory were not farmers, but fur traders. They had come to trap beaver, whose skins were in great demand in the Eastern United States and Europe. At first the merchants traded what furs were supplied by the Native Americans. As more people expanded westward, not only did the demand for furs increase but the Frontiersmen also began doing more of their own hunting, taking away business from the Native Americans. The fur traders had so much competition between themselves, Native Americans, and new settlers moving west, that the beaver population was all but killed off, and the frontiersmen had to move further west and find a new way of life.
In the 1840s young settlers started leaving America for the Oregon Territory because of economic difficulties in the U.S. Life on the trail was extremely difficult for them, with most people walking the 2000 mile journey as only pregnant women, the sick, and the elderly rode in the wagons. These pioneers fought Native Americans along the route, as well as skirmishing with them for possession of land once they arrived. Once the settlers emigrated to Oregon territory they found the land to be more fertile than they ever imagined.
Native Americans were greatly affected by the westward expansion as well. They were in a constant struggle for survival. They competed with frontiersmen for the fur trade. They competed for land with settlers moving to Oregon, and Mexicans farming in Texas. Their way of life was constantly being challenged by new peoples encroaching on their native lands.
Tejanos, or Mexicans farming in Texas were affected by westward expansion also. They now had Native Americans being forced southward by American settlers moving in on their farmland. As Mexico and America intensified their fight over the right to own Texas, Mexican farmers found themselves becoming outnumbered by the American settlers moving in to the region.
The British still laid claim to at least part of the Oregon territory throughout the early 1800s. This claim allowed for them to have great shipping capabilities on the west coast of North America. As American settlers moved in to the western territories in greater number British shipowners were happy to make more money due to the increased need for trade and supplies. However, when the American settlers began to greatly outnumber the British colonists, Americans pressured the British to give up their claim to Oregon territory. This allowed the Americans to fulfill their Manifest Destiny and own land all the way to the Pacific Ocean. This impacted the British shipowners in a negative way as many were forced to move their operations far north to a much less populated Canadian territory.
The subsequent effects of the country's western expansion through the end of the 19th century were profound, and perhaps even more far-reaching than its promoters could have anticipated. Oregon territory proved as fertile as expected (although rainier and more remote than imagined). Discovery of gold in 1849 in California and other mineral wealth elsewhere accelerated growth and the growth of several huge new industrial empires. The turmoil of the American Civil War and freeing of the slaves stimulated further migration westward to new lands. It can be argued that disagreements over whether slavery had a part in the nation's Manifest Destiny lay at the heart of that conflict.
Manifest Destiny and various other statements of moral, political, and often racial superiority were used to justify the displacement of Native Americans. Similar doctrines (such as the white man's burden) were concurrently being used by Europeans elsewhere in the world to justify colonial conquests in Africa and Asia.
The term "Manifest Destiny" is still sometimes mentioned in Canada when the subject of Canadian-American relations is discussed. Some Canadians, in fact, still believe that the United States has never really abandoned its goal of fulfilling its Manifest Destiny by annexing Canadian territory. (See also: 51st state.)
- Lewis and Clark Expedition
- Oregon Country
- United States territorial acquisitions
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