- Jacksonian Democracy - background and introduction
- Jacksonian Democracy - the "corrupt bargain" and the election of 1824
- Jacksonian Democracy - mudslinging and the election of 1828
- Jacksonian Democracy - spoils system, Bank War, and Trail of Tears
- Expanding democracy
- The presidency of Andrew Jackson
- Indian Removal
- The Nullification crisis
- The age of Jackson
- Manifest Destiny
- Annexing Texas
- Developing an American identity, 1800-1848
- James K. Polk and Manifest Destiny
In the mid-nineteenth century, newspaper editor John O'Sullivan coined the term 'manifest destiny' to describe the belief that God intended for the United States to occupy North America from Atlantic to Pacific.
- Manifest Destiny was the idea that white Americans were divinely ordained to settle the entire continent of North America.
- The ideology of Manifest Destiny inspired a variety of measures designed to remove or destroy the native population.
- US President James K. Polk (1845-1849) is the leader most associated with Manifest Destiny.
- Manifest Destiny inflamed sectional tensions over slavery, which ultimately led to the Civil War.
From sea to shining sea
In 1845, newspaper editor John O’Sullivan coined the term “Manifest Destiny” to describe the ideology of continental expansionism.
Though the term was new, the ideas underlying it were much older, dating back to the first colonial contact between Europeans and Native Americans. The ideology that became known as Manifest Destiny included a belief in the inherent superiority of white Americans, as well as the conviction that they were destined by God to conquer the territories of North America, from sea to shining sea.
The ideology of Manifest Destiny justified extreme measures to clear the native population from the land, including forced removal and violent extermination. For proponents of Manifest Destiny, the American Indians were mere impediments to the forward march of racial and technological progress, and they advocated pursuing a policy of Indian Removal.
Painting: John Gast, American Progress, 1872. The artist depicts Columbia, an allegorical figure of America, bring elements of 'civilization' west. As railroads, settlers, and telegraph wires come west, American Indians and bison scatter before them.
James K. Polk and Manifest Destiny
US President James Polk, who served one term in office, from 1845 to 1849, is the leader most associated with the ideology of Manifest Destiny. Polk was a Democrat from Tennessee who had served as Speaker of the House of Representatives and Governor of Tennessee before becoming president. As president, he led the United States to victory over Mexico in the Mexican-American War, which culminated in the transfer of a vast new territory, comprising almost the whole of the modern-day Southwest, from Mexico to the United States.
Polk also resolved the boundary dispute with Great Britain over the Oregon Territory, which had been jointly occupied since 1818. Polk's administration negotiated the Oregon Treaty of 1846 with Britain, which accepted a division of the territory between the United States and Canada at the 49th parallel. The territory acquired by the United States under the provisions of the treaty include the present-day states of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, as well as parts of Montana and Wyoming.
Map of Oregon territory, showing the present day states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming.
Consequences of Manifest Destiny
Polk's embrace of Manifest Destiny and the acquisition of new territories inflamed tensions between abolitionists and slaveholders and heightened conflict between white settlers and Native Americans. While the North and South fought over whether the new states admitted to the Union were to be free states or slave states, the battles between the Plains Indians and settlers in Texas grew particularly vicious. Though Comanches put up an especially fierce resistance to the encroachment of white people onto their lands, they were ultimately vanquished and relocated to a reservation in Oklahoma in 1875.
Meanwhile, the debate over the Wilmot Proviso was one of the major events leading up to the Civil War. The proviso, which was strongly opposed by the slaveholding South, asserted that the Mexican-American War had not been fought for the purpose of expanding slavery, and stipulated that slavery would never exist in the territories acquired from Mexico in the war. Ultimately, Polk’s territorial expansionism, though aimed at national unity, wound up intensifying sectional conflict and further paving the road to civil war.
What do you think?
Why do you think Polk went to war with Mexico but negotiated with Great Britain?
In your view, what was the most significant component of the ideology of Manifest Destiny?
What sorts of policies were justified in the name of Manifest Destiny?
What were the most consequential outcomes of the ideology of Manifest Destiny?
Want to join the conversation?
- From Sea to Shining Sea. Is that an allusion to something famous?(11 votes)
- From the author:It's also referenced in the song "America the Beautiful."(25 votes)
- what would have happened if polk had stood by his phrase, "all of oregon or none?"(10 votes)
- They probably wouldn't have gotten any of the territory.(19 votes)
- In the last paragraph, it says "The conquest of new territories on the North American continent inflamed sectional tensions over slavery." What do sectional tensions mean?(7 votes)
- I think it means different sections were divided and thus tense over slavery.(7 votes)
- How was Manifest Destiny or territorial expansion supposed to help achieve national unity?(5 votes)
- Manifest destiny helped increase national unity because the US was growing stronger, and making people believe that the US had the right to expand furthered their belief the the US was the place to be. However, Manifest Destiny eventually led to the fall of national unity because of it sponsoring increased sectionalism and disagreement about how new states and territories were to be governed.(9 votes)
- Why do you think Polk went to war with Mexico but negotiated with Great Britain?(5 votes)
- I feel that it was all about military might. Britain had a lot of power projection, and a large imperial military to boot. Mexico was a lot weaker--filled with political instability, and a lot newer with a weaker military.(5 votes)
- How did manifest destiny inspire and encourage people to fulfill their "Manifest Destiny"?(2 votes)
- There is a natural tendency of capital to concentrate. Concentration of land ownership proceeds through phases. First there are dispersed settlers, who colonise the land. Then, some of them, or an outside force spots, and rightly so, that the greatest cost was to convert the land into agricultural use. When this initial job is done (deforestation, irrigation, roads) the cost of farming the land drops dramatically. A big landowner can keep the land with a limited army of serfs. People, who are not happy with the situation, are free to search for new pastures green. In fact, it is not the religious or political differences, but this quest for new land, which led to emigration to Americas in the first place. John Kenneth Galbraith is a USofA author/economist who dwells on this, but the process is millennia long. It is at the source of Jubilee Year in ancient Israel. So, manifest destiny was just an "ideologisation" of a "natural" process. The process can be stopped, or even reversed, but it requires social consensus, laws and strong enforcement.(7 votes)
- do people still profess to believe in manifest destiny? or are these beliefs expressed in a subtler way/under other names (white supremacy, etc.?)
(i'm a liberal christian, and it's truly awful how people, historically, have twisted the bible to serve their own sinful natures.)(4 votes)
- People will twise ANYTHING to serve our own sinful desires. Much that was at the root of Manifest Destiny in the 19th century has resurfaced in the movement called Christian Nationalism in the 21st Century. It can be seen in Russian Church support of the imperialist expansion there, too.(3 votes)
- what would have happened if we did not start going westward(0 votes)
- Well the West acted as if a safety valve... If too many people settled in the cities, labor competetion and disease most likley would have damaged the cities! Time to go west YEEEE-HAWWW(8 votes)
- How did the Mexican-American war become a point of contention in dividing the US?(2 votes)
- The Mexican-American War added a whole lot of territory to the Union, and people were unsure whether the new territory should be free or enslaved. The Gold Rush in California caused California to want statehood much more, which only put more pressure on the issue of slavery, which wedged the north and south apart even further.(3 votes)
- Its a flashback of something that was breathtaking you know...(3 votes)