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.