John O’Sullivan and Manifest Destiny

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This painting shows "Manifest Destiny" (the belief that the United States should expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. In 1872 artist John Gast painted a popular scene of people moving west that captured the view of Americans at the time. Called "Spirit of the Frontier" and widely distributed as an engraving portrayed settlers moving west, guided and protected by Columbia (who represents America and is dressed in a Roman toga to represent classical republicanism) and aided by technology (railways, telegraph), driving Native Americans and bison into obscurity. It is also important to note that Columbia is bringing the "light" as witnessed on the eastern side of the painting as she travels towards the "darkened" west.

Manifest Destiny was first applied to Texas and Oregon, although the concept predated American expansionism beyond the Louisiana Purchase territory.

John L. O’Sullivan

The debate over the Oregon Territory between the United States and Great Britain during the Polk Administration first applied the notions of Manifest Destiny to American ownership of continental North America. Although alluded to in earlier writings, an editorial in the December 27, 1845 New York Morning News, attributed to John L. O’ Sullivan, referred to American claims to the entire Oregon territory : “…that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given to us…”

The Justification for Manifest Destiny

In the House of Representatives, Stephen Douglas, as Chairman of the Committee on Territories, refuted British claims based on legal principles by asserting that American claims were based on a “higher law.” Like Douglas, other ultra-expansionists applied the principles of geographic predestination to give manifest destiny a moral grounding. Americans had demonstrated this in Texas, turning a barren land into what historian Frederick Merk called “a smiling society of homes…Here was a plan, favored by God, for North America.”

Historians note that John O’ Sullivan never advocated governmental action to bring to fruition an inevitable conclusion for America. In his essay The Great Nation of Futurity he refers to “a Union of many Republics.” What distinguished these many republics from the rest of the world was, according to O’ Sullivan, a radically new system devoid of the shackles of the old European civilizations. O’ Sullivan declares that, “our natural birth was the beginning of a new history…” The same ideas can be traced in earlier writings such as the Monroe Doctrine in which President Monroe delineates differences between the American system and the system of monarchical, conservative Europe.

New Lands for America’s “Multiplying Millions”

In 1851 an editorial in the Terre Haute Express, attributed to John B. L. Soule, provided one of the most famous frontier quotes: “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.” American expansion allowed for a continual westward movement, a migration to populate the fertile lands of the continent. Swelling hordes of Irish and German immigrants further added to the tide of pioneerism.

In 1845, John O’ Sullivan’s “Annexation” declared that, “the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” Bringing with them the ideals of democracy, these millions would, ultimately, help to shape America as “the great nation of futurity.” In his essay on “Futurity,” O’ Sullivan quoted Benjamin Franklin: “where liberty dwells, there is my country.”

Manifest Destiny as an Extension of Mission and a Providential Plan

The late professor Albert Weinberg of Johns Hopkins University identified Manifest Destiny as an expansionist phase that can be traced to John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill.” The role of God in anointing America as the bearer of a unique vision was there from the foundation of the nation during the colonial period. O’ Sullivan would opine that “We are the nation of human progress…Providence is with us…” Further, this “nation of many nations” was “destined to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles.”

Writing on the social transformations resulting from the American Revolution, Gordon Wood of Brown University, stated that the Revolution “made the interests and prosperity of ordinary people – their pursuit of happiness – the goal of society and government.” This was John O’ Sullivan’s concept of the national soul: “the heart of American people.” This was the “high destiny” of America and would become the future history of its people.

Sources:

  1. Frederick Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History (New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1966) pp. 46-47
  2. John O’ Sullivan, “The Great Nation of Futurity,” The United States Democratic Review, Volume 6, Issue 23, 1838, pp. 426-430, accessed April 1, 2010, The Making of America Series at Cornell University
  3. John O’ Sullivan, “Annexation,” The United States Democratic Review, Volume 17, No. 1, July-August 1845
  4. Albert K. Weinberg, Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History (Gloucester, Mass: Peter Smith, 1958, first published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, 1935)
  5. Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992) Introduction