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Manifest Destiny. An Introduction

Manifest Destiny -- a phrase used by leaders and politicians in the 1840s to explain continental expansion by the United States -- revitalized a sense of "mission" or national destiny for Americans. No nation ever existed without some sense of national destiny or purpose.

The people of the United States felt it was their mission to extend the "boundaries of freedom" to others by imparting their idealism and belief in democratic institutions to those who were capable of self-government.

But there were other forces and political agendas at work as well. As the population of the original 13 Colonies grew and the U.S. economy developed, the desire and attempts to expand into new land increased. For many colonists, land represented potential income, wealth, self-sufficiency and freedom. Expansion into the western frontiers offered opportunities for self-advancement.

To understand Manifest Destiny, it's important to understand the United States' desire and need to expand. The following points illustrate some of the economic, social and political pressures promoting U.S. expansion:

Finally, just look at a map of the original thirteen colonies, all of the current States on the Atlantic Ocean except Florida. If all of those State lines were extended westward it would be a swath not unlike the current Mainland U.S. Manifest Destiny was conceived after Florida was part of the Union and after the Louisiana Purchase. Leave out Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California and the swath is even more dramatic.

Mexico's Dream of New Spain

While the United States put into motion a quest for its Manifest Destiny, Mexico faced quite different circumstances as a newly independent country. Mexico achieved its independence from Spain in 1821, but the country suffered terribly from the struggle. The war caused severe economic burdens and recovery was difficult. The fledgling nation's first attempts at creating a new government included placing the country under the rule of an emperor, despite the excellent example of Washington. The Catholic culture was more accepting of central power, even corrupt power than the protestants were. In 1824, the monarchy was overthrown and a constitutional republic was formed. But internal struggles between the various political factions, such as the Centralist, Federalist, Monarchist and Republican parties, drained even more of the country's energy and resources. These political factions were not united and new struggles broke out by the different sides as each tried to secure dominant rule.

Mexico inherited vast northern territories with its independence from Spain. These northern lands were underpopulated, so amid its internal political struggles and economic deficits, Mexico was also challenged to colonize these territories and guard its borders. Protecting and colonizing Mexico's northern territories proved to be nearly impossible for the staggering country:

Due to Mexico's culture, there were fewer opportunities for individual self-advancement in the frontier regions and people were less motivated to relocate. Colonization was pushed primarily as part of the government's political agenda. Constant warfare with Native Americans discouraged people from settling into the areas. The national military system was unable to provide support to guard the countries vast borders. Mexico's military was unable to exercise authority in the border areas because Mexican citizens were unwilling to go to such an unpromising land. Frontier communities were poor, for the most part, and these poverty-stricken areas could not support the complex institutions that the central government tried to put in place. The communications necessary to unify the regions were slow and unreliable.

Frontier society was more informal, self-reliant and egalitarian than the core of Mexico's society. Thus, frontier communities were often at odds with the central government, which imposed restrictions that affected the economy of these societies.

This was especially true of the Californios. Born under Spain's Flag, they had high hopes for the new revolution, hopes that were repeatedly dashed. They were dismayed by the corruption in Mexico, finally rejecting Governors sent by the central government. At the same time they found the Yankee sea Captains and crews to be able and honest. The Yankee seaman who stayed as well as immigrants from Oregon and from the East were found to be honest and industrious. General Vallejo said once that wherever Americans settle they build a little bit of heaven.

An example may be when gold was discovered near Los Angeles, long before 1848. Californios and Indians went into the area slowly and in small number, just as the early Californians were to slowly go to Coloma. Individuals took out hundreds of Dollars in gold per day until Mexico put a limit on earnings and people no longer found it worth the effort. Word never spread and few today even know of this discovery. The Great-grandsons of the Conquistadores had lost their will.

The Beginning

The Louisiana Purchase began a long interest in the west. At that time, 1803, Pittsburg was the west and soon Longfellow would call Cincinnatti "The Queen City of the West." The vast territory available seemed unfillable but the stories were fantastic, even the true ones.

John Quincy Adams, perhaps the greatest secretary of state in American history, began the adventure of settling the far west and laid the seeds of Manifest Destiny.

Adams' greatest diplomatic achievement as secretary of state was undoubtedly the Transcontinental Treaty with Spain, signed on Feb. 22, 1819 (ratified Feb. 22, 1821). By this treaty Spain acknowledged East Florida and West Florida to be a part of the United States and agreed to a frontier line running from the Gulf of Mexico to the Rocky Mountains and thence along the parallel of 42 degrees to the Pacific Ocean. This included ceding the East Coast of Texas to Spain. In this negotiation, Adams took skillful advantage of Andrew Jackson's military incursions into Florida and of Spain's embarrassment in the revolutions of her American colonies.

Adams criticized Spain for not being able to control Florida and allowing Indians and outlaws to use it as a haven for attacks on the United States. He told the Spanish negotiator, "Florida is a derelict, sserving Spain no other earthly purpose than as post of arrogance to us." Spain ended givng Florida to the U.S. in return for $5 million.

This introduced the arguments that the U.S. had interests in territory that was contiguous to the U.S., served as a nuisance and was not being developed. Together with the reference to earthly purpose this treaty marked the beginning of Manifest Destiny.

Over the opposition of Henry Clay, ambitious speaker of the House of Representatives, Adams deferred recognition of the independence of the new states of Spanish America until the Transcontinental Treaty was safely ratified. Immediately afterward President Monroe recognized Colombia, Mexico, Chile, the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata, and later Brazil and the Confederation of Central America. Peru remained to be recognized by Adams as Monroe's successor. The idea of drawing the frontier line through to the other ocean in the Spanish treaty was Adams' own inspiration. It has been called "the greatest diplomatic victory ever won by a single individual in the history of the United States."

At the same time Secretary Adams defended the northeastern frontier against proposed British "rectifications" and held the line of 49 degrees in the Oregon country. Except for an overcontentious wrangle on commercial reciprocity with the British West Indies, his term as secretary of state, in the aftermath of Waterloo, was marked by unvarying successes, including the Treaty of 1824 with Russia.

Coincidentally, immediately after this treaty there was a great exploration of the far west begining with the fur trappers, American, French-American from St. Louis, British and French-Canadian. These trappers went where no man had gone before and reported back. They lived in the wild, fought Indians and each other and brought back great wealth. The American trappers took it on themselves to push to the boudaries of American Claims and even beyond. They told first of the fantastic Yellowstone valley, the Great Salt Lake, great gorges, immense rock formations and beautiful valleys between towering mountains.

At first the fight was with the British trappers who often came into U.S. territory. They also made contact with Mexico. A number of trappers lived in Taos and Jedediah Smith explored for beaver down the Colorado River, through California to Oregon and back to the Rockies.

Jedediah Smith and Richard Henry Dana, author of Three Years Before the Mast, reported of the lack of control Mexico exercised over their northern territories.

In the early 1840's Kit Carson, mountain man, fur trapper and genuine hero, guided Lt. John Charles Fremont's party to California twice. Ordinary Americans were walking, riding and driving wagons over the immense mountains to Oregon and California. Although they suffered much and many died, the trip was becomming almost routine.

In 1845 a New York editor wrote exuberantly that it was America's "Manifest Destiny to over spread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providnece has given us for the development of the great experiment of Liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us."

John Quincy Adams


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Last Updated 1/20/99

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