Americans Traveling West and Manifest Destiny

The idea of “Manifest Destiny” is something taught in American schools to children learning about the history of the country. But when this idea is presented to children, there are usually important concepts left out, which leaves the student with an incomplete picture of what was really going on. Manifest Destiny started almost immediately after the end of the war of 1812 and continues to be referenced to this day. It has been expanded upon by American presidents from Abraham Lincoln to George W. Bush and has been used as an example of the best, and worst, that America has to offer. In order to understand Manifest Destiny, it is important to understand the people who settled the United States and the era in which the country was born.

Manifest Destiny is the idea that American ideals and institutions should be installed into the areas around the world that are perceived to need them. The initial push created by Manifest Destiny was the push for American settlers to head out west and claim the land for their own. But the United States also uses portions of the Manifest Destiny idea when it acquires territories such as Puerto Rico and installs the “American way of life” in these areas.

The United States was founded by people with strong religious beliefs. Those settlers created a country that they felt offered the most comprehensive and helpful institutions, virtues, and political ideals. When the British army was finally defeated at the end of the War of 1812, the idea that American virtues needed to be spread to the western territories grew in strength. Many political leaders who believe in Manifest Destiny felt that it should be applied to the entire world and not just North America. The influence of the British Empire and the manner in which Britain imposed its will on the rest of the world had a strong influence on the way that many of the Manifest Destiny politicians presented their information.

The idea of Manifest Destiny was never put into any kind of official political policy and it never became a mandated directive from the federal government. One of the reasons that many American politicians actually opposed Manifest Destiny was slavery. Politicians such as John Quincy Adams did not support Manifest Destiny because, at that time, spreading American institutions meant expanding slavery to other parts of the world. It was the potential expansion of slavery that caused some powerful American politicians, such as President Abraham Lincoln, to loudly oppose the idea of Manifest Destiny.

The people who did execute policies of Manifest Destiny did so in a variety of ways. The more notable instances of Manifest Destiny at work include:

  • War of 1812 – The American government was threatening to annex British land in Canada prior to 1812, and that was one of the reasons for the War of 1812. Once the war ended, Manifest Destiny caught on quickly throughout the new country.
  • Louisiana Purchase of 1803 – Prior to opposing Manifest Destiny, John Quincy Adams firmly believed in a concept known as “Continentalism.” This was the idea that the entire North American continent not only needed America to expand, but all of the continent’s inhabitants wanted America to expand. To further his goal, Adams helped Thomas Jefferson to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which pushed the country even further westward.
  • The Treaty of 1818 – One of Adams’ last acts as a believer in Manifest Destiny was the Treaty of 1818 with Britain and Ireland. The Treaty of 1818 established the border between Canada and the United States, and it pushed the United States’ territory all the way out to the Pacific Ocean. The state of Oregon was originally a territory that was co-owned by Britain and the United States.
  • The Texas Revolution – In 1835, settlers who had been living on the Mexican-owned territories of Texas declared that they wanted independence from Mexico so that Texas could become an American state. The Republic of Texas was establish in 1836 and recognized as an American territory by the United States government. But it took the Mexican-American War of 1846 to finally make Texas an American state.
  • Homestead Act of 1862 – With the Homestead Act of 1862, the American government gave settlers land in the western territories. The only compensation the government wanted was that the land was to be developed and turned into viable settlements. Nearly 600,000 settlers took the government up on its offer and the New West was open for business.

When the United States annexed Hawaii in 1898, President William McKinley called the process “Manifest Destiny.” While the American settlers were benefiting from the westward expansion, Native Americans had their worlds altered forever. Part of Manifest Destiny was that all of the inhabitants of the territories the United States occupied had to “act like Americans.” This meant that the American government expected the Native Americans to start taking on more European customs. When most Native Americans refused, the government took swift and often violent action.

Manifest Destiny is often referred to when American troops are sent overseas to fight in the defense of democracy. Many historians point to Manifest Destiny as the rationale used by the American government in introducing democracy to Japan after World War II. The conflicts in Vietnam, Korea, and some of the Middle Eastern conflicts of the 21st Century all seem to have some measure of Manifest Destiny involved in their planning. It is a concept that created the westward push in the continental United States, and it seems to still influence the newest policies of the American government.