Manifest Destiny

In the 19th century, Manifest Destiny was the widely held belief in the United States that American settlers were destined to expand throughout the continent.

Virtues of the American People

Historians have for the most part agreed that there are three basic themes to Manifest Destiny: the special virtues of the American people and their institutions, America’s mission to redeem and remake the west in the image of agrarian America, and an irresistible destiny to accomplish this essential duty.

Historian Frederick Merk says this concept was born out of “A sense of mission to redeem the Old World by high example…generated by the potentialities of a new earth for building a new heaven”.

Historians have emphasized that “Manifest Destiny” was a contested concept—Democrats endorsed the idea but many prominent Americans (such as Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and most Whigs) rejected it. Historian Daniel Walker Howe writes, “American imperialism did not represent an American consensus; it provoked bitter dissent within the national polity…. Whigs saw America’s moral mission as one of democratic example rather than one of conquest.”

Manifest Destiny

The phrase “manifest destiny” is most often associated with the territorial expansion of the United States from 1812 to 1860. This era, from the end of the War of 1812 to the beginning of the American Civil War, has been called the “age of manifest destiny”. During this time, the United States expanded to the Pacific Ocean—”from sea to shining sea“—largely defining the borders of the contiguous United States as they are today.

In 1845, O’Sullivan wrote an essay entitled Annexation in the Democratic Review, in which he first used the phrase manifest destiny. In this article he urged the U.S. to annex the Republic of Texas, not only because Texas desired this, but because it was “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions”. Overcoming Whig opposition, Democrats annexed Texas in 1845.