The term manifest destiny, coined by newspaper editor John O’ Sullivan, is meant to describe the essence of the 19th century belief that the United States was destined to expand across North America, from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific Ocean. As a result of the belief in manifest density, much of American policy in the late 18th and 19th centuries was focused on rapid expansion and finding ways to annex more land. The annexation of states like Texas, Oregon, California and new-Mexico were a result of this belief in manifest westward expansion. Unfortunately this continental expansion had serious negative repercussions for Native Americans, since continental expansion required that Native American land would need to be occupied and annexed. As a result the US government developed a number of policies and treaties to remove Native Americans from their land as American expansion continued westward. The US adoption of the Removal Act of 1830 gave the President power to grant Native Americans land west of the Mississippi River in exchange for their homelands. With this policy in place the Jackson administration was free to persuade, bribe and threaten tribes into signing treaties relinquishing the claim to their native lands. In the instances where tribes made efforts to resisting signing the treaties, the US government would take military action and forcibly remove Native Americans from their homes.
The dogmatic American belief in the concept of manifest destiny led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans from their homes and onto reservations. Beyond that, belief in the idea of manifest destiny directly contributed to other adverse consequences for Native Americans like the US government continually breaking its treaties and the continuation of Native American Genocide. While the concept of manifest destiny is no longer part of American policy, its effects is still felt by thousands of Native Americans to this day. The isolation imposed on many Native Americans from when reservations were established have resulted in levels of unemployment tremendously higher than that in the general population and average incomes that are far lower than most. Beyond that, Native Americans suffer a significant health burden, with far greater rates of morbidity, mortality and disease than any other group of people in the United States.
"What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization and religion?"
Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal speech to Congress, 1830 (via theamericanfreedomarchive)
"On such a subject, I thought with the ancient Romans, that it was right never to cede any land or boundary of the republic, but always to add to it by honorable treaty, thus extending the area of freedom; and it was in accordance with this feeling that I gave our minister to Mexico instructions to enter upon a negotiation for the retrocession of Texas to the United States."
Andrew Jackson on the annexation of Texas, 1948 (via theamericanfreedomarchive)
Continentalism stands for the idea that the US would, eventually, expand to occupy the entire expanse of the North American continent. Sociologists now use the term to refer to the economic and social policies spearheaded to encourage and advance conquest and integration of Westward lands with the rest of the US.
Though as you have already learned Manifest Destiny is not limited to conquest of the entire continental US—there are many US occupied territories, countries, and other lands that fall outside of the North American continent—Continentalism is more limited to a specific vision: Unification of the entire continent under one common government, culture, and “people.”
In the 1800’s and 1900’s Continentalism can be seen throughout various pushes to expand the US Westward. Some examples include:
Westward movement along the Oregon Trail, resulting in White settlement of Oregon, ultimately bringing Oregon in as the 33rd state.
“Discovery” of modern Washington state by Lewis and Clark in 1805, subsequent period as the Washington Territory, and later entry into the Union as the 42nd state in 1889.
Do you know the story behind the expansion of the US? Test your knowledge by checking out the blurbs below. The list is by no means exhaustive, but should give you a general idea about how the US expanded.
At the time of the purchase (1803) acquisition of the Louisiana territory nearly doubled the size of the US. President Thomas Jefferson purchased the territory for an astounding $ 11,250,00 in cash, and cancellation of $ 3,750,000 in French debt to the US. This equates to roughly 3 cents per acre. In 2012 dollars, this is about $ 233,000,000, roughly 42 cents per acre. Because of the predominant view at the time that Native Americans did not truly “own” their land, whether Native inhabitants of the Louisiana Territory agreed with the purchase was of little concern to France or the US.
Indian Removal Act
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 authorized the forced removal of Indian tribes from the South Eastern US to “Indian Territory,” which makes up modern Oklahoma. Indian Removal spaked expansion of the US in two ways: (1) it pushed White settlers into lands that were in the territorial US at the time (e.g. Florida) but that had previously had limited White settlement, and (2) it pushed expansion outwards as a means to facilitate acquiring land to place removed Indian tribes on.
Alaska was first colonized by Russia, not the US, having reached first contact in the 17th century. The US acquired what is now Alaska in 1867. Like the lands acquired via the Louisiana Purchase, the US bought Alaska from another country, Russia, for $ 7.2 million dollars—today that’s roughly $ 120 million dollars.
As was the case in Hawaii, Native Alaskans were not given a voice in the decision to have their lands acquired by the US. Congress attempted to remedy this partially in 1971 when it passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
In January of 1893 the Queen of the Hawaiian Republic, Queen Lili-uokalani, was overthrown by a forces associated with the US government. The events precipitated in part through the concerted efforts of US settlers that had strategized to take over the Hawaiian islands years before. After the presidential election of 1896, the annexation of Hawaii to the US came up for public debate in the US. In Hawaii, the majority of Native Hawaiians opposed annexation. Despite their protests, annexation was approved by Congress in July of 1898.
In Hawaii today, many Native Hawaiians continue to question he legitimacy of the US’s acquisition of the island chain, with some groups even calling for an initiative to “take back” Hawaii.
Guam, a Pacific Island territory of the US, was first acquired by the US in 1898, the result of an exchange between the US and Spain that ended the Spanish-America War. Colonization has had devastating effects on Guam, with occupation by Spanish, German, Japanese and American governments leading to loss of indigenous language and culture as well as, as some argue, aspects of indigenous culture.
After playing a major war in the Pacific Front during World War II, Guam officially became a part of the United States through the Guam Organic Act of 1950, which structures the island’s government as well as extends US citizenship to citizens of Guam. However, unlike most other US citizens, citizens of Guam are inelligible to vote for the US president and also do not have a voting representative in the US House of Representatives or Senate.
Puerto Rico is an island in the Caribbean which was originally populated by indigenous peoples known today as the Taínos. Europeans first made contact with the inhabitants of the island in 1943 during Christopher Columbus’ second voyage to the Americans. As the island was rich in natural resources and gold Spain took control of the island through warfare and colonization, later importing African slave labor to help cultivate the land. Puerto Rico remained under Spanish control until the Spanish-American war in 1898 when Spain ceded the island to the United States through the Treaty of Paris. Since that time Puerto Rico has remained under the control of the United States as an unincorporated territory. Just like Guam, citizens of Puerto Rico were extended US citizenship by an act of Congress—the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917. Also, just like citizens of Guam, Puerto Ricans are inelligible to vote in the US presidential election and do not have voting representatives in the US House of Representatives or Senate.
Today there is a great deal of controversy on the Island, with some Puerto Ricans wanting to become a US state, and others seeking independence. For the last several decades the President of the US has maintained a working group known as the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, to study and report back on politics on the island as well as to consider the possibility of inviting Puerto Rico to apply to become a state.
If you were to pick up a book and read about Manifest Destiny, a lot of what you would see is stuff about restless pioneers fearlessly blazing into the unknown, for the betterment of an entire nation. There is a lot of talk about discovery, and fear and excitement of the unknown. However, history tells us that the West was by no means unoccupied, and was not in need of “discovery.”
Much of the modern US was already settled and occupied by indigenous peoples for tens of thousands of years prior to European, and later American, first contact. What did the Western pioneers accomplish? While we should by no means diminish the achievements of the pioneers, we should do our best to put their achievements in context. White pioneers did not discover the Western US, instead they brought news and information about it to the predominantly White population of the early-American nation.
The rhetoric we encounter in the context of Manifest Destiny, though dismaying, is helpful to help us better understand the racial politics that underlay discovery and settlement of the US. Realizing this wrinkle can help us unpack the loaded language. What does it mean to be the original occupant of lands that others have claimed to discovered? How does this mindset discount the achievements, triumphs, and strengths of indigenous persons? How has the White-explorer’s sensed entitlement to “settle” the rest of the world shaped America?