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Manifest Destiny and Mission in American…

Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History: A Reinterpretation

by Frederick Merk

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“And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.” With these words in December 1845 did John L. O’Sullivan, editor of the New York Morning News, coin a term for the expansionist sentiment of his day, a term which has remained in our historical consciousness to this day. [1] But what, exactly, was (or is) manifest destiny, and more particularly, was it an aberration mostly confined to the later 1840s, or has it been present (under whatever name) more generally throughout American history? Frederick Merk adopts the first, narrower, approach, calling it “a form of expansionism novel in name, appeal, and theory” (p. 24). While this might be problematic for contemporary readers, it need not prevent a consideration of Merk’s book on his own terms.

He begins with the indisputable fact that during the administration of James K. Polk the land area of the United States, which had been nearly unchanged for over forty years, increased by over 60 percent with the annexation of Texas, the settlement of the Oregon boundary, and the acquisition of California and New Mexico as a result of the Mexican War. In order to determine how and why this happened, Merk is primarily concerned to study public opinion—newspaper editorials, debates in Congress, and public oratory more generally. In particular, he (with his wife, who assisted him and apparently did much of the research) provides an exhaustive survey of the attitudes of the press; at many points the narrative degenerates into a succession of block quotations—sometimes more than a page in length—from the editorials themselves. This, together with the often less than ideal organization of the work, makes for a rather wearisome reading experience.

Merk finds Democrats generally favorable and Whigs generally opposed to the program of manifest destiny. The northeastern Democratic press, and most particularly that of New York City, led the way, with followers concentrated in the Great Lakes areas in which migrants from New England were heavily represented. Southerners were much less enthusiastic. But divisions were never absolute, as they seldom are. A Southerner who heartily approved the annexation of Texas as a slave state, for example, could be (and usually was) cooler to the idea of adding any territory which might be gained from Mexico as a result of the war, and downright hostile to the idea of taking Oregon all the way to 54° 40′ latitude. Henry David Thoreau’s refusal to pay his poll tax because of his opposition to the Mexican War is well known, but Moses Beach, a fellow New Englander and the editor of the New York Sun, was an advocate for the “All Mexico” movement. And there never was agreement on what, exactly, should be the ultimate territorial result of manifest destiny: while most could agree on the area which did eventually become the continental United States, others would have added all of Canada, or all of Mexico, indeed, all of North America or even the entire hemisphere. The opposition to “All Mexico” generally correlated with racist attitudes toward the Mexicans who would be absorbed by the annexation of Mexican territory, and in any event that particular movement quickly faded away with the approval of the treaty ending the war.

Merk’s next-to-last chapter, a treatment of post–Civil War insular imperialism, fits somewhat awkwardly with the rest of the book. The problem lies not so much in the factual record which he marshals relating to Hawaii, Cuba, and the Philippines, nor with his acknowledgement of the attitude of Anglo-Saxon racial superiority which coincided with that record. Rather, it is with his assertion that this movement of the 1890s, like that of the 1840s before it, emerged out of nowhere, so to speak, and represented a contradiction to American norms: “Continentalist and imperialist doctrines were never true expressions of the national spirit. They were the very opposite” (p. 261). Merk contrasts manifest destiny with mission (hence the book’s title), “a truer expression of the national spirit . . . idealistic, self-denying, hopeful of divine favor for national aspirations. . . . Mission was a force that fought to curb expansionism of the aggressive variety. . . . It is still, as always in the past, the torch held aloft by the nation at its gate—to the world and to itself” (pp. 261–62, 266). Perhaps that was a defensible position at the height of the Cold War in 1963; it is much less so today. Most historians, and indeed I think most informed Americans, would no longer make such a distinction, seeing instead a single, more continuous thread running through our history, one which historian Walter Nugent has recently denominated “habits of empire.” [2] This is not to criticize Merk for writing the book that he wrote instead of the book that I might have written. As a study of public opinion in the 1840s and 1890s, it no doubt still has a place; as a sensible interpretation of manifest destiny and mission, it now falls short.


[1] Quoted in Julius W. Pratt, “The Origin of ‘Manifest Destiny,’” American Historical Review 32 (July 1927): 795–98, 796. Pratt notes that O’Sullivan had used the term several months earlier, but it was this later passage in an editorial in his newspaper which triggered its adoption and use by others.
[2] Walter Nugent, Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008).
  danharness | Sep 17, 2013 |
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