The Myth of Manifest Destiny

Livia Gershon:

In high school history class, you might have learned that US leaders and citizens in the nineteenth century believed in “Manifest Destiny,” the inevitable extension of national power across the continent. From that perspective it might look like the destruction of Native nations, the establishment of the western states, and the creation of the US as we know it was almost inevitable. But, as Andrew C. Isenberg and Thomas Richards Jr. write, that’s not really how it looked to a lot of people at the time.

The first known use of the phrase appeared in 1845, as part of a pitch for the annexation of Texas. Newspaper editor John L. O’Sullivan wrote of the “manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

But, Isenberg and Richards write, this was not conventional wisdom at the time. Just ten years earlier, former President John Quincy Adams had warned that any conflict with Mexico would be chancy, particularly given the likelihood that Native American nations and enslaved people would ally with the other side. Many US leaders also opposed President Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policy, not for humanitarian reasons but because, as a writer for the Arkansas Gazette put it in 1839, “the policy of concentrating on our borders large bodies of armed and hostile Indians, smarting under a sense of recent injury, was generally supposed to be rather dangerous to the quiet of the frontier.”