Manifest Destiny for Almost Everyone

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams

I have until now minimized my use of the phrase in the title, but one can’t go without it forever. In school, I learned that Manifest Destiny enjoyed great support in the antebellum United States. Disputing the point seems futile, given a comparison of the nation’s borders in 1790 or 1800 and those same borders in 1850. But expansion had its critics too. Some of Jefferson’s own party saw him as a traitor to its principles for the Louisiana Purchase. The annexation of Texas proved too controversial to get through the Congress with a proper treaty, so John Tyler finessed it via a joint resolution with a slim and sectional majority. Whigs in the North and South at the time did not necessarily mind expansion, but did not like expansion with a war thereafter and preferred to grow the nation by treaty and purchase.

Expansion found its adherents chiefly in the South and chiefly for the cause of slavery. But some Northerners, including Stephen Douglas, supported expansion. So did John Quincy Adams, no friend to slavery, right up until Texas bound it to the peculiar institution in his mind. The chief supporters of a policy need not be it sole supporters.

In understanding expansionism and the kind of belief in an inevitable racial and national progress that would spread the United States across the continent which drove it, I want to explore a two different kinds of expansion and their nuances. All fit under the rhetorical rubric of Manifest Destiny, the nation’s redeeming, regenerating, divinely sanctioned place as a shining city on the hill, a light to the world, an oracle of progress, and so forth. They don’t all fit within the usual generalizations.

Expansion by definition involves space; things that take up more space than previously have expanded. But expansionism involves both more and less than that. Painting a larger section of the map in red, white, and blue forms a part of expansion, but not all of it. Legal expansion, de jure territorial growth, makes enough intuitive sense that I don’t think it requires a lot more explanation. Most of what I have read on expansion has focused on it and the generalizations hold fairly well here. Southerners had more interest in it than Northerners and their interest bound tight to their interest in growing slavery. As a matter of simple pragmatism, taking on old and enfeebled empires like Spain or new and weak ones like Mexico made more sense than collision with the world’s leading superpower, and so even absent those sectional interests one would expect legal expansion to skew West and South.

But all that land we took from Mexico in one of history’s greatest acts of armed robbery came with decidedly few people who counted to nineteenth century Americans. To them, almost nobody lived in the Mexican Cession. White, Protestant Americans could flood in and set up their independent little farms to enjoy the kind of self-sufficient freedom from the constraints of others and decide their own involvement in the market economy in a way once possible back East but now living on only in the history books. That demographic expansion did not always come with legal expansion. The future Texans expanded demographically before they did legally. So too did the Mormons in Utah, though they hardly meant that when they left the United States.

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Conversely, Cuba offered opportunities for some demographic expansion, but chiefly for men like Quitman who involved themselves in stealing it away from Spain. The island had European settlement going back farther than all of North America and an established, wealthy planter class. A Cuban annexation would have helped the South politically, but not given the same kind of opportunities to vast numbers of Americans who took a personal interest in a kind of demographic expansionism. But those vast multitudes did have one genuinely, nigh-universally popular form of demographic expansionism: going west.

After the Mexican War, the United States owned legal title to all the land between British Canada and Mexico, from sea to sea. Those vast, “empty” lands held the nation’s future and the personal futures and hoped-for fortunes of at least hundreds of thousands of Americans of both sections. They certainly saw westward demographic expansion as inevitable and in the national interest. Who was using all that land anyway, a bunch of Indians? Surely not. They don’t differ so much from the future Texans, except in that the United States already owned the territory they wanted to settle. Small farmers in the Midwest might not care about Cuba and might have opposed the Mexican war, but they had a very keen interest in the land just over the Missouri river in the future Kansas, Nebraska, and Dakotas.

That interest expressed a kind of Manifest Destiny, if an internal one that involved less filibustering and more acts of Congress. In the old Southwest, it had an exponent in Andrew Jackson and operation in his Indian Removal program. But twenty years had filled in some of that territory, if perhaps not as much as Southern radicals feared, and left Southerners to look to Texas and Arkansas for the future. Waves of white settlement had done the same to sections of the old Northwest, pushing the frontier further out west every year. Here, as with Mexico, sat land filled only with people who did not really matter and who only stood in the way of the national destiny and personal aspirations of the settlers. In that sense, Manifest Destiny really did represent something close to a national consensus even if it always fell short of that in the realm of international politics.

That Manifest Destiny proved far more dangerous to the nation’s domestic harmony than the more sectional interest in Cuba and helped ignite the great sectional crisis that undid the Armistice’s finality all of four years later.

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