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“Manifest Destiny”: between supporters and critics

Updated on April 27, 2014

Manifest Destiny” is a term that originated in the mid-Nineteenth Century in the United States. It expressed the belief that it was the Anglo-Saxon American’s providential task to expand their civilization and institutions across the breadth of North America.

The concept, unlike the term, can be traced back to America’s Puritan heritage. The early Puritan settlers always held the idea that they were chosen by God for the task of civilizing the world. John Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill” famous sermon clearly demonstrates this belief. The notion of the “Manifest Destiny” was also echoed by Thomas Paine in the highly influential pamphlet “Common Sense.” Some scholars go far by arguing that the belief has a relation to some ancient western civilizations like that of the Romans who believed that geographical expansion is a key to power. However, it was not until the mid-Nineteenth century that this concept was given the name “Manifest Destiny” by J.L. O’Sullivan.

Although rejected at first, the idea of “Manifest Destiny” began to spread among Americans. Despite the opposition to this belief, a majority of politicians and other important figures could play a key role in convincing the U.S. citizens of the “Manifest Destiny”. Few years later, a majority of Americans were exited, if not obsessed, with westward expansion. This made “Manifest Destiny” grow and become the most important movement of its time. As a result it could serve as a justification for the annexation of many territories and other expansion procedures.

Among the supporters of “Manifest Destiny” was J.L. O’Sullivan, the originator of the term. It appeared for the first time in his famous essay “The Great Nation of Futurity”. O’Sullivan supported the Southern Confederacy during the Civil War which means he believed that expansion must be with slaves and this, probably, what made the “Manifest Destiny” highly criticized. Other figures, like J. Strong, could adapt the belief to religion. Strong stated that the United States is the Christian Anglo-Saxon civilization and that it should carry the Christian Gospel to the rest of the world or what he called “Weaker Races”. The similarities between Strong’s ideas and those of the puritans can be easily discovered. Among the few writers who supported the belief was Walt Whitman who viewed expansion as a means for universal brotherhood, which meant that he believed in “Internationalism” policy.

However, this popularity of “Manifest Destiny” did not prevent it from being harshly criticized by some important figures back then. Carl Schurz, for example, supported the union and opposed “Expansion with Slaves” during the Civil War. He also opposed the war with Spain in (1898-1899) and the appropriation of further territories under the guise of “Manifest Destiny”. The notion was also criticized by political and social movements. Republicans, who were forced to accept this belief later on, contradicted with democrats who were generally supportive when it came to expansion. Isolationists, in the late Nineteenth Century and the early Twentieth Century, were against the fast spreading ideology of “Internationalism” which originated from the belief of “Manifest Destiny”. Internationalists were those who figured out that American ideals and culture can be spread throughout the world without geographical expansion.

Probably, what started as a “concept” or a “belief” took decades to prosper within the American society and could move to be a “Social Theory” then to be a “movement” in which all Americans could participate. It even went further to be adopted as a political doctrine by the U.S. government in order to establish a policy that would pave the way for the Internationalism of America. It caused the U.S. to break the Isolation policy and shift to open the doors for diplomatic relations with other nations or even intervene in other countries affairs. The link between the U.S. current policy and “Manifest Destiny” can be clearly noticed. But this did not prevent “Manifest Destiny” from being strongly opposed by historians and scholars who argue that it only served as an excuse for the expansion of slavery, annexation and purchase of lands, wars against Mexico (1846-1848) and Spain (1898-1899) and Indians removal. Some scholars dared to call it “a curtain” which is hides some of the dirtiest and bloodiest facts in the American history.

John Louis O'Sullivan (November 15, 1813 – March 24, 1895)
John Louis O'Sullivan (November 15, 1813 – March 24, 1895)
Carl Schurz (March 2, 1829 – May 14, 1906)
Carl Schurz (March 2, 1829 – May 14, 1906)

If you were chosen to go back the 19th century, what would you do?

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      bilal taibi 6 months ago

      i look forward to seeing other american ideologies being tuckled this way by you sir

    • profile image

      Mendo Del Locas 17 months ago

      plausibly put, well done Amin

    • profile image

      L'med Merada 2 years ago

      that was very original and stated from a very objective point of view

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      amel 2 years ago

      Full of information nice

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      joe808 3 years ago

      Good job, but i want to know more about the future of this belief.

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      anonymous 3 years ago

      full of arguments, nice work.