Manifest Destiny – A Case Study in National Purpose?

(Sorry I keep throwing these things on you guys)

An interesting discussion has been enfolding over at Zenpundit’s place. The topic of the day is grand strategy and its relation to moral and national purpose. My previous foray into the topic, “Dreaming Grand Strategy”, drew the attention of Mark Safranski (the Zenpundit) and he was quick to devote a post to my argument that the decision making class must agree upon a common sense of purpose before a grand strategy can be formulated. His critique of my piece is valid and more than worth reading.

Another critique was made by Democratic Core, one of the commentators participating in the thread following Zen’s post. Democratic Core sees the U.S.-Mexican War as an essential counter-point to those claiming American foreign policy is driven by the sentiments of the American demos. Says he:

Daniel Walker Howe’s outstanding book What Hath God Wrought makes a case for the conclusion that the [Mexican-American] war was largely the implementation of the vision of one man, President Polk.  The election of 1844 was one of the closest in US history and Polk won largely because of a fluke: the Liberty Party siphoned off votes from Clay in upstate New York and the nascent Democratic machine in NYC generated enough fraudulent votes of Irish immigrants to put NY in the Democratic column.  There was no vast public support for either annexation of Texas or war with Mexico, the pillars of Polk’s campaign.  Nor is it clearly the case that Polk was simply serving the interests of the “slave power” by promoting the war, as abolitionists argued.  Polk’s key motivation for pushing for a war with Mexico had less to do with the annexation of Texas, which was basically a fait accompli before the war started, than with the annexation of California, something with which Polk was obsessed.  California was never viewed as a likely slave state, and ironically, it later became the backbone of the Republican Party in opposing westward expansion of slavery.  After the war started, again, primarily because of provocations Polk created, public support for the war remained highly divided with little of the country expressing much enthusiasm for the war.  The two highly competent generals responsible for winning the war, Scott and Taylor, were outspoken Whigs and were personally opposed to the war.  Hard to see that demos or anything other than Polk’s personal nationalistic vision had much to do with this war.

I found Democratic Core’s comment to be quite interesting, as it was through study of the U.S.-Mexican war my ideas on grand strategy and national purpose were first born. Needless to say, I respectfully disagree with Democratic Core’s view. However, as I am currently 5,000 miles removed from the library I would use to strengthen my position, I cannot write a direct response. I will have to settle for something not quite as good: the essay I wrote that prompted my first musings on the nature of grand strategy.

The essay is only loosely related to grand strategy itself. Its  fiery darts are not aimed at those dismissing the role purpose plays in developing grand strategy, but in economic  determinists and realists who believe that culture and ideology are  bit players on the international stage. However, it throws light on the links that tied the ethos of antebellum America and the extraordinary territorial expansion that occurred during this time. It should thus suffice as a response to Democratic Core’s critique.


America’s Expansionist Identity, 1846-1848

The 11th President of the United States attained to office on March 4, 1945. By the time he left Washington D.C. four years later the United States had doubled in size, gaining sovereignty over more than a million square miles of new territory. While in the present it is easy to take the United State’s current shape and form for granted, the republic’s rapid westward expansion was in its time an incredible and controversial event. The incorporation of the Republic of Texas, the territory of Oregon, and the two Mexican territories of New Mexico and Alta California was unprecedented; not once had the America state acted with such great aggression for the sake of land. While disquieting to contemporary European observers, America’s expansionist bout offers an unparalleled case study for modern scholars investigating ideology’s relationship with a state’s foreign relations: during the 1840s there were few forces with larger influence on the American polity than the unique mission Americans claimed as theirs. Far from being an irrelevancy, American culture became the determining factor of her fate. The antebellum expansion of the United States was, first and foremost, an exercise in American self-identity.

Any investigation of the identities and ideologies of the past is reliant upon the public rhetoric of those who were living there. There are certain weaknesses to this approach; Jacksonian democracy was rife with party machines, factional infighting, electioneering, and self-serving policies shrewdly hidden in ornate expressions and orations. These realities cannot be denied. However, alone they cannot destroy the value public rhetoric holds as a tool for historians examining the intersection of ideology and policy. The democratic nature of American political institutions ensured this; if statesmen ignored popular opinions and discourse when drafting their orations they risked losing both influence and, when the bridge between their views and the public’s was too great, office. Even the most stringent of realists was beholden to the ideological whims of his constituency. His pronouncements, out of necessity, resonated with the polity that elected him.[1] The same principle applies to the editor and pamphleteers of the day: it is safe to assume that wherever a political doctrine was preached in abundance its believers were abundant as well.[2]

The picture painted by such antebellum rhetoric – that is to say, America as her citizens described her – is that of a virgin land populated by a chosen people. Americans, regardless of their place on the political spectrum, spoke of themselves as a unique race that was destined to enact the great experiment that was democracy. By starting this experiment, by freeing themselves from the shackles of monarchy, the American people had been released from the old world’s regime of toil and tyranny. Editorials of the day championed the life of the American citizen, reminding Americans that theirs was the gift of liberty, happiness, and progress. In contrast, the masses of the Old World had to “endure an existence scarcely more enviable than that of the beast of the field.”[3] The United States had escaped history; her advancement was the advancement of the entire human race. She was, in the words of one the Democratic Review’s most passionate editorials, “The nation of human progress.”[4] Now the American people were free to attain the fate ordained for them on the nation’s seal: Novus ordo Seclorum, “A New Order for the Ages”.

Americans went about constructing the new order with gusto. The Antebellum was the golden age of religious millennialism; spiritual fervor expressed itself in dozens of attempts to build a new Zion on American soil.[5] Obsessed with “improvements”, Americans tirelessly sought to improve the moral and physical conditions of both the polity and the state.[6] Fitting for a country that left behind the normal course of history, “Go ahead” became a national motto: the United States was a “go-ahead” country, and Americans were a “go-ahead” people.[7]

This ethic of can-do improvement was not limited to internal affairs. The logical extension of equating American improvement with the progress of humankind was that the United States had a providentially assigned role to improve the entire world. The Democratic Review explained that America’s “high destiny” was to “establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man the immutable truth and beneficence of God. For this blessed mission to the nations of the world, which are shut out from the life-giving light of truth, has America been chosen”.[8] Cyrus Dunham, a Representative in the House, stated this vision with language even more theatrical than the Review’s:

I believe, Mr. Chairman, that we were placed here for a wise and glorious purpose – to restore poor, downtrodden humanity to its long last dignity, to overthrow despots, and shed abroad a genial influence of freedoms, to break the bonds of the oppressed and bid captives go free, to liberate, to elevate, and to restore… by the sword and the spirit of the genius of our institutions.[9]

The providential destiny to “shed abroad” freedom and liberty translated easily into a policy of expansion. Significantly, Representative Dunham proclamation of American mission was part of his argument in favor of the Homestead Act. Dunham could see no better way to bring freedom to the world than to open up the American plains to those who would have them. Dunham’s position reflected a broader attitude of period; freedom was seen as contingent on a society of independent yeomen who would not be corrupted by financial interests, equal before each other and the law. The preservation of liberty, and by extension, the progress of humanity, was thus dependent on opening up land.[10]Other aspects of the American conception of self lent themselves to expansionism; the conviction that America was, in the words of the New York Sun, “leaven to millions[in Europe]—a light and fire, illuminating their souls and warming their hearts and hand” which would cause the poor oppressed masses of the world “to shout in the ears of their tyrants, “we too are men – we will be free!”’[11] This was America as the pole star of liberty, the torchbearer that illuminated the world with freedom. The flame of liberty, it was thought, would reach its greatest brilliance if the institutions of liberty were to stretch from tropic to arctic, proving that freedom could take root in any place possessed by those who valued it.[12]

It was within this context the phrase “extending the area of freedom” first came to being. The phrase had originated with a well publicized letter written by Andrew Jackson in support of the annexation of Texas, but three years later Americans were using it to argue for territorial concessions in the War with Mexico.[13] The phrase was emblematic of both the arguments used in favor of expansion and the popular perception of the nation’s growing territory. “Acquisitions of territory in America” the New York Morning News proclaimed in a similar vein, “are not to be viewed in the same light as the invasions and conquests of states in the old world… our way of lies not over the trampled nations but through desert wastes, to be brought with our industry and energy into the domain of civilization…. We take from no man, the reverse, rather—we give to man.” [14] While Polk – the originator of expansionist drive – was not one to use florid rhetoric, historians have pointed out that he too justified the war as “a moral duty….. [that] would advance the cause of republican liberty itself.”[15]

Yet not all Americans were as quick to justify expansion by conquest as President Polk. While the majority congressmen and essayists supported territorial acquisition, a large and vocal minority intensely opposed the annexation of more land. Viewing the flood of editorials, petitions, and orations that ripped apart the young republic after Congress declared war, there exists a temptation to portray the America of the 1840s as a union bitterly divided by expansion. However, this partisan rancor was never a reflection of widespread opposition to continental expansion. It was a reflection of opposition to the means by which continental expansion was taking place.

There were few statesmen who so adamantly opposed both the admission of Texas to the union or the seizure of Northern Mexico as John Quincy Adams. As a Representative in the House he voted and spoke adamantly against both.[16] But two decades years earlier, as President, Adams had a remarkably different view of expansionism. In 1819 he declared to his cabinet

The world shall be familiarized with the idea of [our] proper dominion of North America. From the time we became an independent people it was as much a law of nature that this should become our pretensions as that the Mississippi should flow to the sea.[17]

Adams was one of the first statesmen to articulate the ideal of continental expansion as the inevitable destiny of the union.[18] Why then, when expansion actually came, did he oppose it with unparalleled vehemence?[19] The answer can be found in Adam’s strong abolitionist views. Famous for his oratorical attacks on slave power, Adams feared that expanding America’s borders in the southwest extended not the area of freedom, but of slavery.[20] When Oregon, a land in little danger of becoming a slave state, was placed upon the national agenda, Adams became one of the most eloquent expansionists in the house.[21] Adams was hardly against expansion; he was simply against expansion coupled with slavery.

Near every opponent of territorial expansion followed this pattern. John C. Calhoun, a stalwart conservative who decried the U.S.-Mexican War, had no problem with expansion itself, but preferred “growing and speeding out into unoccupied regions, assimilating until we incorporate” over conquest.[22] Henry Clay, leader of the Whig Party, whose election planks opposed both the incorporation of Texas, and later on, the annexation of Mexican territory, wrote that he supported expansion if it “if it could be accomplished with the common consent of the Union and without war”. [23] Whig journals were to follow Clay’s position, calling for the United States to purchase, not conquer, California and the West.[24]

At first glance the most powerful expression of anti-expansionist sentiment was the Whig Party’s lockstep endorsement of “No Territory”. However, a closer look reveals that Whig unanimity was just as much an attempt to hold together a party rife with sectionalism as it was a protest against expansion. Ever a unionist, Daniel Webster opposed incorporating large swathes of land before they had seen American settlement, predicting that it would inflame sectional tensions and ferment disunion across the country.[25] While prophetic in the long term, Webster’s vision reflected more present realities: the question of territory had thrown the Whig Party into a crisis matched only by the Party’s dissolution a decade later. The infamous “Wilmot Proviso”, an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have forbid the establishment of slavery in any territorial acquisitions made by the United States, split the party in two.[26] On this count the Congressional votes on the proviso are telling. The proviso was accepted in the House, 85 to 79, but all those in favor (save two Democrats) were Northerners. The party breakdown was quite different: 53 Whigs supported the bill, 28 Whigs opposed it. [27] Facing a war within their own ranks, the slogan “No Territory” became an escape from sectional infighting; it was, in the words of a noted historian, “a tent sheltering all. In both sections it would keep Whig clothes dry in the storm that was rending the Democratic Party over the issue of slavery in the Mexican cession.” [28]

The failure of the “All Mexico” to gain widespread public support also seems to undermine connections between ideology and policy: if expansionism was an integral part of the national mission, why did annexation stop at the Rio Grande?  The answer is once again found firmly rooted in the American polity’s sense of identity – an identity limited to those belonging to the “Anglo-Saxon race”.

Declarations of American purpose and destiny often doubled as avowals of the unique characteristics of the Anglo-Saxon race. Anglo Saxons were, as a rule, viewed to be more industrious, more responsible, and more capable of self-governance than any other people in the world. In the summer of 1846 the New York Herald, the nation’s most popular newspaper, outlined the relationship between race and American progress in front-page editorial. According to the editor, America was a success because her people had wisely “kept aloof from inferior races… and barbarism [had] receded before civilization.”[29] Robert Stockton, the commodore who captured San Francisco and a confidant of President Polk, confirmed this, stating that he was “unwilling [to believe] that the Anglo-Saxon race shall perpetually recoil from any given boundary”. For the Anglo-Saxon, expansion was “an inevitable destiny”.[30] Whigs, who believed that governmental institutions were a reflection of cultural and racial attributes, also credited American success to her Saxon heritage.[31]

Thus the central problem with “All Mexico” was the Mexicans. Incorporating the entirety of Mexico’s territory was impossible without incorporating the people who lived there. Americans were not prepared for such a policy; few thought that Mexicans had the capacity or restraint to hold aloft the torch of freedom. In 1847, ardent expansionist Edward Hannegan summarized this view on the Senate floor: “Mexico and the United States are peopled with utterly unhomogenous races. In no reasonable period could we amalgamate.” The Mexicans appeared “utterly unfit for the blessings and the restraints of rational liberty, because they cannot comprehend the distinction between regulated freedom and that unbridled licentiousness which consults only evil passions of the human heart.”[32] The Democratic Review agreed, proclaiming, “The annexation of the country [Mexico] to the United States would be a calamity. 5,000,000 ignorant and indolent half civilized Indians… would scarcely be a desirable incumberance [sic], even with the natural wealth of Mexico.”[33] As long as annexing territory entailed integrating large numbers of Mexicans into the union, the project lacked public support. [34]

The most significant aspect of these varied attacks anti-expansionist orations and essays was that missing from them: a serious attack on the idea of national expansion. Some opposed territorial enlargement because they feared the spread of slavery; others stood against it because they thought freedom could not be spread by the sword. All, however, believed that freedom should be spread. America was not divided whether she should expand, but on how she should do so. As the Wilmot Proviso showed, the true divide was not drawn on partisan lines, but on sectional ones. Unfortunately for the republic, this division did not turn out to be as illusionary as that between the expansionists and their detractors. It was, perhaps, the irony of expansion: American continentalist sympathies brought about the destruction of their source. The decade following the United State’s Westward expansion was a tumultuous one; the United States became embroiled in a bitter sectional debate to decide who would govern the lands she had conquered. As the regional divides grew more pronounced the old national identity that drove expansion wore away, replaced by two new identities, and two new Americas. As with the old, these new identities would also lead policy makers to war, though theirs was of a much deadlier sort than that what went before.

“It is hard to write a history” the American Whig Review told its readers, for though “the statistics may be correct, the spirit is wanting.” The great challenge facing those who will write histories of the U.S.-Mexican war would be capturing “the spirit of the people, the deep emotion under laying all” that was of “equal importance” to “the muster of our forces or the maps of our battles.”[35] The importance of “spirit” in the course of human events was well recognized in the antebellum; having witnessed their nation brought to war by its dictates, they could not deny its influence. The same awareness of “spirit”, or ideology, is not common today. It is easy to see why: identity is an elusive thing. An intangible item, “spirit” does not leave a clear and irrefutable mark on the historical record. There are no archeological remains, causality reports, shipping logs, or annals that cry out, “this was the spirit of my time!” To find the character of a people is to labor, to search through the scaffolding, to piece together hundreds of accounts and narratives into one cohesive whole. Much easier is to describe events in terms of economic relationships or political power plays. Yet the cost for ignoring culture’s impact on history is high. Ideology and identity create empires. In the late 1840s, they did just that.


[1] Michael Hunt, Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy, (New Haven: 1987), 15.

[2] Frederick Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission in America. (New York: 1965), 35.
[3] “The Great Nation of Futurity”. Democratic Review. Issue 23. (Nov. 1839), 430.
[4] Ibid. 427. Democratic journals were hardly the only ones to describe America as the manifestation of humanity’s ultimate potential. Consider this passage from the American Whig Review:  “The highest glory and the chief hope of safety for our [American] civilization, lie in the fact that it gives free scope to the great leading tendencies of human nature and human society that it embraces and, to some extent, harmonizes them all.” Excerpted from “Civilization: American and European”,  American Whig Review, vol. 4, issue 1, (July 1846), 27.
[5] Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought, (Oxford: 2007), 285-292.
[6] Ibid, 255, 283, 552, 629.
[7] Robert Johansson, “Young America and the War with Mexico” Dueling Eagles:Reinterpreting the U.S.-Mexican War, ed. Richard V Francvigla and Douglas Richmond, (Fort Worth: 2000), 157; Heitala, Manifest Design: American Exceptionalism and Empire, (Ithaca: 2003),  95-96.
[8] “Great Nation of Futurity”, 30.
[9] Congressional Globe (here after CB), 32 Cong., 1 sess. Appendix, 410 (April 6 1852).
[10] This argument is expanded in Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. (Cambridge: 1950). See also: Heitala, Manifest Design, 95-151
[11] New York Sun, May 6, 1848. Quoted in Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission, 200.
[12] Ibid, 200-201.
[13] Howe, What God Hath Wrought, 703; Allen Weinberg, Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansion in American History. (Baltimore: 1935), 101.
[14] New York Morning News, editorial, October 13,1845. Quoted in Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission, 16.
[15] Ronald Lee, “Justifying Empire: Pericles, Polk, and a Dilemma of Democratic Leadership”, Polity, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Summer, 2002), 226.
[16] For Quincy’s resistance to the annexation of Texas, see John Quincy Adams. Memoirs. Ed. Charles Francis Adams. (Philadelphia, 1874.) XII, 171. For his resistance to annexing Mexican territory, see John Quincy Adams to Albert Gallatin, Dec 26, 1847, quoted in Daniel Walker Howe, What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815-1847. (Oxford: 2007), 812.
[17] Adams, Memoirs. vol I, 438-437.
[18] Weinberg, Manifest Destiny, 36.
[19] Adams went so far as to say that the annexation bill reduced the constitution to “a menstruous [sic] rag!” See Adams, Memoirs. XII, 171.
[20] Howe, What Hath God Wrought, 671.
[21] For a typical example, see Congressional Globe. 29 Congress. 1 Session, 342. (Feb 9 1846).
[22] Quoted in Weinberg, Manifest Destiny, 160.
[23] Henry Clay to Thomas Peters and John Jackson, Aug 31, 1844.
[24] Stephenson Anders, Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right, (New York: 1995), 56.
[25] Heitala, Manifest Design, 187.
[26] For the full text of the amendment, see CB. 29th Cong, 1rst Sess. (August 8, 1846). 1217.
[27] Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission, 175.
[28] Ibid, 173. For a more thorough overview, see Michael Morrison, “New Territory vs. No Territory: The Whig Party and the Politics of Expansion”, Western Historical Review, vol. 26, (1992) 39-48.
[29] Quoted in Hietala, Manifest Design, 155.
[30] Glenn Price, The Origins of the War with Mexico: The Polk Stockton Intrigue, (Austin: 1967), 67.
[31] Morrison, “New Territory vs. No Territory”, 39. 
[32] CB. 29 Congress, 2 Sess. 516 (Feb. 26, 1847).
[33] “Mexico—The Church and Peace”, Democratic Review, Issue 21, (August 1847), 101.
[34] Support for “All Mexico” was strongest in the urban Northeast, among the urban poor targeted by Democratic leaders. As the majority were immigrants or the offspring of such, they were considerably less concerned with the notion of assimilating a foreign culture. Still, even the Northeastern Democratic Review came out against “All Mexico.” 
[35]Critical Notices: The Mexican War. Edward D. Mansfield”, American Whig Review. Vol. 7, Issue 6,(June 1848), 653.

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