Global Policy Forum

An Ideal or a Justification?


A Conversation With David M. Pletcher
Indiana University

Public Broadcasting Service

What were the driving forces behind the United States' quest for Manifest Destiny during the 19th century?

The term "Manifest Destiny" was, in part, an expression of a genuine ideal on the part of Americans. But it was also a justification, in that they wanted territory and needed an excuse or justification for a push into territory that they did not control.

The idea of Manifest Destiny was foreshadowed by some of the writings during the revolutionary times, with the desire for Canada in the period between the American War for Independence and the War of 1812. It rationalized the Louisiana Purchase and United States' support for Texas independence and annexation.

More broadly stated, Manifest Destiny was a conviction that God intended North America to be under the control of Americans. It's a kind of early projection of Anglo-saxon supremacy and there's a racist element to it.

But there was also an idealistic element. It was very hard to measure the two, since it would differ from person to person. If you asked a person to define Manifest Destiny, he might tell you it is an ideal, or he might say, "Well, we want the land and this is the easiest way to justify our taking it."

How were the United States' actions to fulfill its perceived Manifest Destiny viewed by outside nations?

The attitude of Europeans and other observers was one not of fear of the United States, but a combination of lack of respect and a conviction that Americans were essentially hypocrites to talk about ideals then aim at expanding their land holdings.

This conviction developed, in part, out of American propaganda and publicity. The Americans did a great deal of talking and writing about liberty, but at the same time, they expanded the idea of Manifest Destiny. It was their destiny to expand across North America. The people poised in the way of that expansion, were aware of this, especially the Mexicans.

Mexicans were torn between two conflicting attitudes about the United States. One was an attitude of admiration, the other was an attitude of fear that the Americans would try to detach border territories from Mexico's lands.

Many Mexicans wanted to imitate the United States--its prosperity, the development of its economy and its agriculture. But they wanted to do so without losing land in the process.

Were Mexico's fears about the United States justified?

Well, the events of the 1830s and '40s would suggest that their fears were justified. One must take into consideration the fact that the Texans, by revolting against Mexico, were doing practically the same thing that the Mexicans themselves had done when they revolted against Spain. So the arguments Mexico used to protest Texas' right to revolt were a bit hollow. Texans were well aware of this, so they paid little attention to what the Mexicans said.

Who were the people and what were the forces behind U.S. opposition to western expansion and the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny?

Expansion was always a very divisive issue that provoked as much opposition as support in some parts of the country. At first, the opposition to expansion came from those who believed that the United States could not succeed as an experiment in self-government if it grew too large. This became a political position of the Whig Party during the 1840s and was one of the bases for their opposition to the war with Mexico.

There were many citizens who felt that a democracy like the United States could succeed only if it were relatively small and close to the people. In a sense, this was a Jeffersonian ideal. There were others who saw possibilities for greatness on the part of the United States in growth and economic development. This was, in some degree, the Hamiltonian ideal and those who supported it stood behind expansion of the United States, especially in the West, and the expansion of American commerce.

At first, basis for opposition to U.S. expansion was a feeling that it would contribute to the downfall of the nation. Later, the Northeast and East Coast felt they would lose power if the United States admitted more states in to the Union. Finally, the abolitionists in the North were afraid that the conquest of Mexico would lead to the incorporation of more slave territory into the United States.

During the course of the conflict with Mexico, the opposition to the war became focused upon the abolitionists movement and opposition to the expansion of slavery. There was, of course, some sympathy with the Mexicans and some pacifist opposition to the war itself as the casualty lists grew longer. But the abolitionist movement became a means of focusing this opposition into a powerful political movement that President Polk had to pay attention to.

Texas annexation seemed to be a part of the natural expansion of the United States -- a logical sequel to the Louisiana Purchase. It became more controversial, however, partly because of Mexican opposition to the annexation and partly because of the conviction in the North that Texas represented an expansion of slavery. John Quincy Adams, a member of the House of Representatives, even thought of the push for Texas annexation as a slaveholder's conspiracy, although I think historians have convincingly proven that there was no conspiracy.

More Information on Empire?
More Information on US Westward Expansion


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