Manifest Destiny

by | Jul 23, 2012 | History

In 1839, John O’Sullivan, editor of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, wrote a piece titled “The Great Nation of Futurity” in which he argued that the United States had a divine destiny to occupy the American continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And thus was born the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. In […]

In 1839, John O’Sullivan, editor of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, wrote a piece titled “The Great Nation of Futurity” in which he argued that the United States had a divine destiny to occupy the American continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And thus was born the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

In some ways, Manifest Destiny was a rather benign doctrine. When O’Sullivan published his article, the United States possessed virtually all of the land east of the Mississippi, as well as the Louisiana Territory. Americans had begun to settle in Texas, California, and the Oregon Territory. Given this westward expansion, it seemed only natural that America would ultimately possess all of the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

But there was more to Manifest Destiny than merely the articulation of what seemed to be the natural expansion of the United States. O’Sullivan argued that America’s guiding principle was not individual liberty, but the implementation of God’s word:

The far-reaching, the boundless future will be the era of American greatness. In its magnificent domain of space and time, the nation of many nations is destined to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles; to establish on earth the noblest temple ever dedicated to the workshop of the Most High—the Sacred and the True.

America, O’Sullivan held, had a preordained fate to spread God’s word—America was the chosen land, and Americans were the chosen people. Manifest Destiny injected a fervent nationalism into the culture. Webster defines nationalism as “loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially : a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interest”. In other words, nationalism holds that the interests of the nation supersede the interests of the individual. The individual must put aside his personal interests for the alleged good of the nation as a whole. Nationalism is a form of collectivism. At its core, Manifest Destiny was a collectivist doctrine.

O’Sullivan stated his position more explicitly in an earlier article in his journal:

In the first place, the greatest number are more likely, at least, as a general rule, to understand and follow their own greatest good, than is the minority.

In the second, a minority is much more likely to abuse power for the promotion of its own selfish interests, at the expense of the majority of numbers—the substantial and producing mass of the nation—than the latter is to oppress unjustly the former.

While acknowledging that the majority could oppress the minority, O’Sullivan regards this as unlikely. And if it does occur, it is preferable to oppression by the minority. To O’Sullivan the majority was more likely to recognize the “public good” than the minority, which would be more interested in their own personal interests. And how would the majority determine the “public good”? By a vote—through a democratic process.

(I should note that O’Sullivan does state that government should be restricted to administering justice, protecting the rights of citizens, and preserving social order. In all other issues, individuals should be guided by what he calls the “voluntary principle”. But he fails to fully identify the implications of the “voluntary principle” and his emphasis on majority rule undermines his better aspects.)

The popularity and influence of O’Sullivan’s journal gave his article great exposure, and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny was injected into the national debate. Indeed, the election of 1844 was essentially a referendum on Manifest Destiny. Henry Clay—a regular candidate for President—was opposed to the annexation of California, Oregon, and Texas, while James Polk favored expansion. Clay’s opposition centered primarily on the slave issue—he feared that Texas would enter the Union as a slave state and shift the balance of power in Congress. While Polk’s victory was one of the closest popular votes in history, it was seen as an endorsement of Manifest Destiny. During his term in office Polk secured most of the land that would eventually become the 48 contiguous states.

The appeal of Manifest Destiny was a symptom of the growing influence of collectivism in America. Sectional and commercial interests had been dividing the nation for decades, particularly in regard to tariffs. In these issues, both sides generally focused on the benefits or costs to a group, whether it was a particular industry or a particular region. Manifest Destiny was, in many respects, an attempt to unite these competing groups under a common banner to promote the nation as a whole.

Where the Founders advocated the rights of individuals, the nation’s leaders were now focused on the nation itself, that is, individuals as a collective. The Founders created a system in which each individual could pursue his own values and happiness; by the mid-nineteenth century politicians were actively pursuing the greatness of the nation. It would not be long before this became a dominant political policy.

In many ways O’Sullivan and his supporters were the religious right of his day. His arguments were not unlike those we hear from today’s conservatives. While the words of O’Sullivan (and today’s conservatives) often sounded like a defense of individual freedom, they embraced mysticism, altruism, and collectivism. Having accepted these basic premises, O’Sullivan had no intellectual argument against what we could call the radical left of the time. Nor do today’s conservatives.

Brian Phillips is the founder of the Texas Institute for Property Rights. Brian has been defending property rights for nearly thirty years. He played a key role in defeating zoning in Houston, Texas, and in Hobbs, New Mexico. He is the author of three books: Individual Rights and Government Wrongs, The Innovator Versus the Collective, and Principles and Property Rights. Visit his website at texasipr.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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