American westward expansion is idealized in Emanuel Leutze‘s famous painting Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (1861). The title of the painting, from a 1726 poem by Bishop Berkeley, was a phrase often quoted in the era of Manifest Destiny, expressing a widely held belief that civilization had steadily moved westward throughout history.” (Caption and photo credit: Manifest Destiny, Wikipedia). See also the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Sara Carr Upton.
We have already covered the subject of “Manifest Destiny.” I used one of two descriptions provided by Wikipedia in its entry on “Manifest Destiny.” According to William E. Weeks, Manifest Destiny has the following themes:[i]
- the virtue of the American people and their institutions;
- the mission to spread these institutions, thereby redeeming and remaking the world in the image of the United States;
- the destiny under God to do this work.
This description is the current description of Manifest Destiny, as it has been interpreted, and it is almost synonymous with the currently contested Doctrine of American Exceptionalism. (See Manifest Destiny and Doctrine of American Exceptionalism, Wikipedia.)
The second description, Robert J. Miller‘s, seems an invitation to settle Louisiana, the territory bought from France in 1803 for 15 million dollars. Its three themes are:
- The special virtues of the American people and their institutions;
- America’s mission to redeem and remake the west in the image of agrarian America;
- An irresistible destiny to accomplish this essential duty.[ii]
The Doctrine of Discovery (1823)
The Monroe Doctrine (1823)
The Manifest Destiny (1845)
Robert J. Miller has linked Manifest Destiny with the Doctrine of Discovery. The Doctrine of Discovery seems an afterthought. It was formulated in 1823 and legitimized colonialism, but that same year, on 2 December 1823, the Monroe Doctrine put an end to any further attempt to colonize America.
Therefore, neither doctrine is particularly edifying. The past, i.e. two to three hundred years of “discovery,” was rationalized by the Doctrine of Discovery, but “discovery” could not be repeated, except by Americans whose “irresistible destiny” was to stretch their boundaries all the way to the Pacific Ocean and, possibly, to the British territories located north of the 49th parallel, the future Canada.
So Manifest Destiny, a term coined by columnist John O’Sullivan in 1845, is perhaps best defined using William E. Weeks , except that Weeks’ three themes make “Manifest Destiny” more or less consistent with the notion of American Exceptionalism.
Alexis de Tocqueville was the first to use the word “exception” with respect to America. For Tocqueville, American democracy was different from other democracies, but he did not suggest that it was superior to other democracies. On the contrary, other democracies were not to emulate democracy in America.
In his Democracy in America (1835 and 1840), Alexis de Tocqueville (29 July 1805 – 16 April 1859; aged 53 [tuberculosis]) wrote that “a thousand special causes… have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects[:]”
“The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people.” (See American Exceptionalism, Wikipedia.)
Doctrine of Discovery
Doctrine of American Exceptionalism
The Doctrine of Discovery, the Monroe Doctrine and the Manifest Destiny all converged to create the concept of American Exceptionalism. According to the Doctrine of American Exceptionalism, America is qualitatively superior to other nations and its mission is as defined in the Manifest Destiny: to remake the world “in the image of the United States.” The concept of Manifest Destiny, which made it the destiny of Americans to conquer and settle the West, developed into American Exceptionalism, a notion that cannot be linked with Alexis de Tocqueville’s use of the word “exceptional” because it borders on imperialism and has promoted the pejorative but fading image of the “ugly American.”
If one adheres to the notion of American Exceptionalism, the President of the United States can, theoretically, invade sovereign countries and effect strikes against other countries. Exceptionalism is a deeply-rooted notion that empowers America. However, it also constitutes a threat to US citizens. The United States remains a superpower, but is it America’s duty to protect the entire world, making itself an intruder, but also placing a terrible burden on the war-weary shoulders of its citizens? Not long ago, President Obama was considering a military strike against Syria, which may have been catastrophic.
The Annexation of Texas and the Oregon Country
At any rate, if we step back, the concept “Manifest Destiny” was used not only to colonize Louisiana, but also to annex Texas (1845). Louisiana had been claimed by France and sold to the United States. It was not annexed. Yet, it was inhabited by Amerindians whose displacement is a great tragedy and who were killed quite wantonly as Americans pushed their boundary all the way to the Pacific Ocean, led by God.
Manifest Destiny also legitimized the annexation of the Oregon Country, the Pacific Northwest, a disputed territory until the Oregon Treaty, signed on 15 June 1846 in Washington DC. Under the terms of the Oregon Treaty, territory located north of the 49th parallel became British as did Vancouver Island in its entirety. So this is how the West was won, a rather sad chapter in the history of the United States. Sad, because of the displacement of Amerindians. However, as we will see, in the days of “Manifest Destiny,” slavery, formerly a right, morally and legally, was becoming a wrong.
In short, the Doctrine of Discovery (1823), the Monroe Doctrine (1823), the Manifest Destiny (1845) and related doctrines I will not discuss, boil down to American Exceptionalism, which Russian President Vladimir Putin is currently challenging. (See The American Thinker.)
Slavery & Racism
Although Exceptionalism served to legitimize the Annexation of the Republic of Texas (1845), it led to the Mexican-American War of 1846. It also served to justify the annexation of the Oregon Country. However, problems arose with respect to the possible annexation of Mexico. On the one hand, nineteenth-century ideology could not allow slavery. But, on the other hand, did the US want to welcome Mexicans, many of whom were métissés, half-breeds. One can dictate away slavery, but not racism.
Manifest Destiny threatened to expand slavery and was therefore rejected by prominent Americans (such as Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant and most Whigs and Republicans [today’s Democrats]). (See Manifest Destiny, Wikipedia.) Moreover “[b]y 1843 John Quincy Adams, originally a major supporter, had changed his mind and repudiated Manifest Destiny because it meant the expansion of slavery in Texas.” But what of Métis?
On 4 January 1848, in a speech to Congress, Senator John C. Calhoun (18 March 1782 – 31 March 1850) of South Carolina expressed considerable racism.[iv] Slavery was useful as slaves provided cheap labour. The loss of slaves would literally impoverish slave owners, usually owners of plantations. Mexicans would not be slaves, but they would not be altogether human. Let us quote Senator John C. Calhoun:
“We have never dreamt [sic] of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race—the free white race. To incorporate Mexico, would be the very first instance of the kind, of incorporating an Indian race; for more than half of the Mexicans are Indians, and the other is composed chiefly of mixed tribes. I protest against such a union as that! Ours, sir, is the Government of a white race…. We are anxious to force free government on all; and I see that it has been urged … that it is the mission of this country to spread civil and religious liberty over all the world, and especially over this continent. It is a great mistake.” (See Manifest Destiny, Wikipedia.)
It could be said, therefore, that the Declaration of Independence, signed on 4 July 1776, was mere rhetoric and an ideal until the abolition of slavery in the United States, which would not necessarily eradicate racism. Founding Father Thomas Jefferson (13 April 1743 – 4 July 1826) owned hundreds of slaves, yet he was the principal writer of the Declaration of Independence according to which “all men are created equal:”
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Given the degree—the debt-ceiling crisis—to which extremist Republicans opposed and still oppose the Affordable Care Act: sabotage! Given also that, according to the Washington Times, not only has the NSA been listening on the conversations of friends of the United States, but it appears it has also used German Chancellor Angela Merkel‘s mobile telephone to spy on President Obama, it could be that the lofty ideals expressed in the US Declaration of Independence have not been attained. One also wonders whether or not the Civil War is over.
“It seems straight out of a grade-B movie, but it has been happening for the past 11 years: The National Security Agency (NSA) has been using Mrs. Merkel as an instrument to spy on the president of the United States. We now know that the NSA has been listening to and recording her cellphone calls since 2002.” Read more:
[i] Weeks, William Earl, Building the continental empire: American expansion from the Revolution to the Civil War. (Ivan R. Dee, 1996), p. 61.
[ii] Robert J. Miller, Foreword by Elizabeth Furse, Native America, Discovered and Conquered: Thomas Jefferson, Lewis & Clark and Manifest Destiny (Praeger: Lincoln Connecticut and London, 2006).
[iii] Weeks, William Earl, loc. cit.
[iv] Arthur de Gobineau (14 July 1816 – 13 October 1882) wrote an Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races. He developed a theory of the Aryan Master Race. He was a friend of Alexis de Tocqueville, which seems very strange.
[v] Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum
John Trumbull‘s famous painting is often identified as a depiction of the signing of the Declaration, but it actually shows the drafting committee presenting its work to the Congress (Caption and photo credit: Wikipedia)
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I apologize for the use of certain words. My mother would be very upset.