10 Events in the Path of Manifest Destiny
10 Events in the Path of Manifest Destiny

10 Events in the Path of Manifest Destiny

Larry Holzwarth - May 30, 2018

10 Events in the Path of Manifest Destiny

George Alfred Thompson, Mark Twain, and Buffalo Courier editor David Gray (right) all staunch opponents of the concept of America’s manifest destiny. Library of Congress

The Components of manifest destiny

At its core, the concept of manifest destiny was entwined in the belief that the success of the United States was foreordained by God. Throughout its history references to the Almighty having bestowed the United States with opportunities to be had nowhere else on Earth have been uttered by its leaders. Abraham Lincoln referred to the United States as the “last, best hope of Earth”. The Declaration of Independence placed a “firm reliance” on the belief that its signers and the nation it created were protected by “Divine Providence”. This core belief led to another element of the concept, that of the virtues of the American political system.

Since the Founding Fathers were divinely guided in their work it was only logical that the system they created was blessed with virtues which exceeded all other forms of government. The proponents of the concept of manifest destiny extolled these virtues both as they pushed westward expansion and they called for war with societies which stood in the way, since those societies were obviously (to them) inferior. John L. O’Sullivan, who coined the term in 1845, claimed that it reflected the need for the United States to “…establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man.” O’Sullivan, however did not support war as a means of completing America’s manifest destiny.

It was O’Sullivan’s belief that other nations would observe the superiority of the American system and the success of its citizens, and desirous of the same for themselves would either adopt the American system or petition to join as another state, with each state in effect a republic. This was a far cry from the practices and events which were the result of the manifest destiny advocates which came after him. Once the southern democrats, who wanted America to remain a largely agrarian society, came to support manifest destiny – at least as it pertained to free whites – it became a subject of ridicule among those supporting industrialization.

Manifest destiny is often considered to have been complete shortly after the Civil War, with the reduction of the American Indians on the Great Plains and in the Southwest, and the settlement of the West. This is incorrect. From its inception the belief extended to the United States’ duty to bring the virtues of its systems to the rest of the world. Although the term fell out of use gradually during the last half of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, it remained very much a part of American expansion as it acquired overseas territories and engaged in other wars.

Following the Civil War and the completion of Reconstruction the United States became more involved in international affairs. The purchase of Alaska extended America’s borders far into the Pacific via the long chain of the Aleutian Islands. The United States had long coveted the island of Cuba, as well as key Pacific possessions for the support of its Navy and for the riches they offered. Manifest destiny did not stop with the conquest of the continental United States. It expanded as the believers in the concept continued to pursue their goal, expressed by O’Sullivan as the “…moral dignity and salvation of man.

10 Events in the Path of Manifest Destiny
The sunken USS Maine in Havana Harbor, colors still flying from its mast, was used to justify America’s declaration of war on Spain in 1898. Library of Congress

Manifest destiny and the Spanish American War

In the mid-1880s politicians, scholars, editors, and ministers continued to support the concept that it was America’s manifest destiny to be the guiding light of the world. America was claimed to have perfected liberty for its inhabitants, which probably came as a surprise to the former slaves and their descendants in the segregated South, as well as the immigrants living in the tenements of the Northern cities. American women were still seeking the vote, with little support and less success. For the proponents of manifest destiny was time to move the concept of American virtues overseas, and the revolution against Spanish rule in Cuba was an opportunity to bring them to the benighted island.

During the Spanish American War the United States Navy destroyed Spanish Naval squadrons in the Philippines and Cuba, and swept aside Spanish troops on the island of Cuba. Cuba had long been a target for American expansion, but the United States did not retain the island following the brief war with Spain. The United States did however expand into the Pacific by forcing Spain to cede the Philippines and Guam. In the Caribbean the US claimed the island of Puerto Rico. That same year President William McKinley annexed the Hawaiian Islands, formerly the Republic of Hawaii, claiming that the United States needed the islands, “…as much and a good deal more than we needed California. It is manifest destiny.”

The annexation of Hawaii included Midway Island (which is actually an island group), Palmyra Island, and Johnston Island, among others. Manifest destiny extended into the Pacific. Part of the reason was the need to maintain overseas coaling stations for the coal burning ships of the day, and part of the reason was to deny their use by potential enemies. The Pacific islands were acquired as colonial possessions, rather than as territories intended to become additional states, for over a century all have remained US possessions (other than the Philippines and the state of Hawaii). Cuba was considered a protectorate of the United States.

The Spanish American War was the end of Spain as an imperial power and as an international power, a gap into which the American government promptly stepped. What some called manifest destiny others, including Grover Cleveland, called imperialism, since none of the territories acquired by the United States were likely to become states. Hawaii finally did, after years of heavy American military presence altered the demographic makeup of the islands. Within a few years of seizing the former Spanish territories, the United States acquired the Canal Zone, a step in the completion of the Panama Canal begun by France, which they had failed to complete.

The great empires of Europe, the Russian, German, French, and of course the global British Empire, viewed this expression of manifest destiny, if that is what it was, with increasing alarm. The Germans, British, and Dutch competed for the wealth of the Southwest Pacific, with its reserves of oil, rubber, and coal. So did the emerging Japanese empire. From the end of the Spanish American War through the end of the Cold War the United States considered the Pacific to be a vital part of its national interests, and still maintains military bases and satellite tracking and communications stations throughout its vast expanse.

10 Events in the Path of Manifest Destiny
In this cartoon based on a Rudyard Kipling poem, John Bull and Uncle Sam carry other ethnic peoples towards civilization. The Ohio State University

Manifest Destiny and Racism

After the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish American War, the Philippines became an American territory, ceded by Spain but not surrendered by the Filipinos. America inherited a war, which quickly became both bloody and controversial. In the Senate, during the debate over ratification of the Treaty of Paris which ended the war, several Senators opposed the US takeover of the islands. Senator Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina, an unapologetic white supremacist, argued on the Senate floor against ratification of the treaty. “Why are we bent on forcing upon them a civilization not suited to them…” Tillman demanded.

Tillman also read aloud on the floor of the Senate several stanzas from a poem by the English writer Rudyard Kipling, which was published in the New York Sun three days later. The poem was entitled The White Man’s Burden, and was written to address the American occupation of the Philippines. Its publication was intended to garner support for the Treaty of Paris. It directly linked with the American concept of manifest destiny. The poem exhorted Americans to meet the need to supervise and civilize the “captive peoples” that were “half devil and half child”. Its publication both supported imperialist ambition and defined the subjugated as being made better by the imperialists.

The poem reintroduced the idea of divine duty, as it was a portion of the idea of manifest destiny, but expanded it beyond the American ideal to all of the white race. It met immediate resistance in the United States, notably from Mark Twain. Twain’s response was the essay To the Person Sitting in Darkness, a stinging paper condemning the idea of Empire as improving the lives of the subjugated people. Twain compared the imperialist ambitions of the United States to those of the Kaiser’s Germany and Russia under the Czar, directly listing President McKinley as being their peer and compatriot.

Kipling sent the poem to Theodore Roosevelt, Governor of New York at the time, urging him to use the poem to help support ratification of the Treaty of Paris, accompanied by a letter in which Kipling wrote, “American has gone and stuck a pick-axe into the foundations of a rotten house, and she is morally bound to build the house over, again, from the foundations, or have it all fall about her ears.” Roosevelt agreed, and avidly supported the Treaty of Paris and the American occupation of the Philippines. Roosevelt had been an enthusiastic backer of war with Spain and the opportunity to spread American democracy to the Pacific and in the Caribbean.

Kipling’s poem and the believers in the concept of manifest destiny found common ground in the need to improve the lives of people whom Kipling referred to as “half devil and half child.” The Philippine American War and subsequent rebellions such as the Moro Rebellion would plague American troops in the islands for over a decade, as the Filipino people rejected American manifest destiny, determined to find their own. Over a hundred thousand civilians and rebel troops died in the Philippine American War. Eventually the Philippines obtained independence in 1946, but the US military presence remained for decades.

10 Events in the Path of Manifest Destiny
A cartoon in Puck lampoons Uncle Sam and Columbia caring for the less enlightened of the world, a facet of manifest destiny. Wikimedia

Overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii

The Kingdom of Hawaii was an independent nation, so recognized by the United States, which relied on trade with several nations for its economic survival. Sugar was a major product for export, and American sugar plantations owners developed increased influence in the Hawaiian government over time. Sugar tariffs between the United States and Hawaii were a longstanding source of friction between the sugar plantation owners, the government of the islands, and the US government. Between the 1860s and the 1890s Hawaii suffered numerous open rebellions and changes to its constitution and form of government, all of them with the active participation of American residents of the islands.

In January 1893 a group of conspirators overthrew the ruling dynasty of the Hawaiian Islands and created a provisional government with Sanford B. Dole as its president. The coup was supported by a detachment of US Marines under the orders of US Minister to Hawaii John Stevens. The presence of the Marines was explained as being necessary to protect property owned by Americans in the islands, and to ensure the safety of the Americans and Europeans present. A detachment of sailors from USS Boston also participated in the coup. The goal of the conspirators was the annexation of the islands by the United States.

Sanford Dole was a believer in manifest destiny who sought the westernization of Hawaii under the model of American democracy. He believed that the adoption of American culture would better the Hawaiians, at the same time improving relations with other nations. After the overthrow of the monarchy Dole attempted to have Hawaii annexed by the United States, but found his efforts blocked by President Grover Cleveland, an adherent to the belief that manifest destiny was little more than imperialist ambition. Dole’s efforts were supported by the sugar and coffee planters, mostly American, in the islands.

Lobbyists working for Dole’s provisional government labored in Washington for annexation, finding support from the advocates for America’s manifest destiny, which increased as tensions with Spain over the Philippines and Cuba were exaggerated by the yellow journalists of the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt argued for the annexation of the islands for use as a naval coaling station for the Pacific fleet. When William McKinley assumed the Presidency he moved to annex Hawaii as the Territory of Hawaii and appointed Dole as the territorial governor.

McKinley cited manifest destiny in his announcement of the annexation and in other circumstances later defending the act. As a US territory the tariffs on sugar and other products from the islands were no longer in effect, and those involved in trade with Hawaiian plantations prospered. Dole, who was a distant cousin of the founder of the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (Dole Food Company today) became a federal judge after Theodore Roosevelt became President. Hawaii remained a territory until 1959, when it became the United States’ first and to date only overseas state.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Manifest Design: American Exceptionalism and Empire”, by Thomas R. Hietala, 2003

“United States expansionism and British North America, 1775-1871”, by Reginald C. Stuart, 1988

“Narrative History of Texas Annexation”, by Jean Carefoot, Texas State Library and Archives, online

“James K. Polk, Continentalist”, by Charles Sellers, 1966

“Agents of Manifest Destiny: The Lives and Times of the Filibusters”, by Charles H. Brown, 1980

“The great father: the United States government and the American Indians”, by Francis Paul Prucha, 1995

“The War with Spain in 1898”, by David F. Trask, 1996

“John O’Sullivan Declares America’s Manifest Destiny, 1845”, by John L. O’Sullivan, The American Yawp Reader.

“Blood, Class, and Empire: The Enduring Anglo-American Relationship”, by Christopher Hitchens, 2004

“Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure”, by Julia Flynn Siler, 2012