Land-as-Growth (3): “Manifest Destiny”

Sometime in the mid-to-late 1800s, national “growth” via acquisition of land found an almost religious rationalefor what every American school-child now knows as “manifest destiny”–belief that the United States was pre-ordained to grow into an Atlantic-to-Pacific power–and maybe beyond. But “manifest destiny,”  as introduced and originally used,  did not emphasize material achievements or anything related to economics. Instead, it focused solely on the nation’s moral ideals.

The phrase “manifest destiny,” which entered everyday conversation just before the Mexican-American war, was coined by New York City-based journalist John L. O’Sullivan. In an article entitled “A Divine Destiny for America” (1839), O’Sullivan presented his perspective on patriotism (note, among other things, how he emphasizes “progress”):

…our national birth was the beginning of a new history, the formation and progress of an untried political system, which separates us from the past and connects us with the future only… …. The far-reaching, the boundless future will be the era of American greatness. In its magnificent domain of space and time….

In an essay published six years later (“Annexation,” 1845),O’ Sullivan introduced the phrase “Manifest Destiny” and outlined his vision of the U.S. for the next 100 years.  Many things jump out to the contemporary reader, including his racism (examples are too frequent and painful to cite). O’Sullivan saw the railroad and telegraph as forms of infrastructure that could pay for themselves; and most importantly (for our present purposes), he saw “growth” and “progress” as measures of population:

…our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.
…California probably, next fall away from the loose adhesion which, in such a country as Mexico, holds a remote province in a slight equivocal kind of dependence on the metropolis.

O’Sullivan wrote about “natural growth,” “ the natural flow of events,” “ possession of the homes conquered from the wilderness,” and “the still accumulating momentum of our progress” that culminate in  “the two hundred and fifty, or three hundred millions…destined to gather beneath the flutter of the stripes and stars, in the fast hastening year of the Lord 1945!” [exclamation in the original]

Given our current concerns about growing economic inequality, it is noteworthy that O’Sullivan, like virtually all other writings whose thinking shaped American thinking, emphasized “equality;” e.g.

…. 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 worship of the Most High—the Sacred and the True.  Its floor shall be a hemisphere—its roof the firmament of the star-studded heavens, and its congregation an Union of many Republics, comprising hundreds of happy millions, calling, owning no man master, but governed by God’s natural and moral law of equality, the law of brotherhood—of “peace and good will amongst men”….

 Although he never specifically said so, it seems safe to assume that by “equality” O’Sullivan meant equality of opportunity; equality in fair payment for value of work performed; and equality of human value in the eyes of the law and a Higher Power–not equality in distribution of the nation’s wealth.  As we will see when we examine today’s political debates, this distinction–although obvious–is often overlooked and distorted.



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