The year 1803 is a very big year when it comes to the history of the United States of America. It is the year of one of the greatest diplomatic accomplishments in American history . The United States acquired approximately 828,000,000 square miles of territory from France peacefully and cheaply, doubling the size of the country. This vast territory stretched east to west from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and north to south from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border in the north. This land became known as the Louisiana Territory, and it is considered by many to be one of President Thomas Jefferson’s greatest achievements.
It was a new beginning for the United States, and the key to the nation’s health, according to President Jefferson, was westward expansion. However, there was a problem. Nobody really knew what was out there. In 1804 President Jefferson sent “The corps of discovery”, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, to explore the newly acquired land. Over a three year period the Corps of Discovery would discover the Pacific Ocean, and travel nearly 8,000 miles in order to clear the path for Americans to start going westward.
The United States no longer had to fear Spanish or French interference with American trade. The Mississippi River, the port city of New Orleans, and the Gulf of Mexico were in the possession of the United States, and the expedition of Lewis and Clark had cleared the path. The United States was primed and ready to go west, and go west is exactly what they did.
By the year 1840, about 7 million Americans, or about 40% of the population, had moved west passing the Appalachian Mountains. John O’Sullivan, a journalist, put a name to the pull of Americans westward. He had called it “Manifest Destiny” “It was, O’Sullivan claimed, ‘our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.’ The term and the concept were taken up by those desiring to secure Oregon Territory, California, Mexican land in the Southwest, and, in the 1850s, Cuba.”
Manifest destiny did not come without its problems to the United States though. There were many questions to answer, the issue of slavery being one of them. When it came to the frontier of that time, it seemed that every conversation was about the slavery question, and the question was whether slavery would be allowed in the new western states. The issue became so heated that in 1820, less that 2 decades after the purchase of the Louisiana territory, the Missouri Compromise attempted to resolve the question. As the Louisiana territory brought about that heated debate about slavery to the country, it would eventually lead to the American Civil War. Another “problem” brought about by Manifest Destiny was that there were people living in the areas that Americans wanted to go and settle in. Native American tribes were there, Mexicans had Texas, California, New Mexico, and Arizona, and Great Britain made claims to the Oregon country.
The purpose of my historiographical essay will be to probe the minds of historians who write about, and have different opinions on Manifest Destiny. This paper will examine the historiography of Manifest Destiny including the role it played in the Mexican-American war, expulsion of Native Americans off their lands, causes of the American Civil War, and other topics.
I would like to use two historical lenses in order to complete my final paper. The first of which will be through an imperial history perspective. With an imperial history approach I will be able to study multiple historians’ beliefs on how Manifest Destiny led to the beginnings of the American empire through the beliefs and ideologies of the American people, while also using the comparative dimension of the longue durée. On the following pages I will investigate and examine books and articles written about the role of Manifest Destiny in the early American empire, from the Mexican-American war to the mass removal of Native Americans. Manifest Destiny led to “opposing the anti-Native American policies. Citizens of the States were led to believe that the United States was destined to take over the continent of North America. Some felt that such was white America’s destiny due to the appeal of freedom and democracy. Many of the white Americans felt that it was up to them to further develop the lifestyles of the Hispanics and Native Americans. They believed that these other simple living races were incapable of technologically and spiritually advancing into the future.”
The second historical lens I would like to use to complete my paper will be the cultural/political history lens. The use of the cultural/political history lens will allow me to see how Manifest Destiny, and the beliefs and ideologies of the American people affected the decision making process of political leaders that helped shape the future outcome of the country.
There is a plethora of information and knowledge available about Manifest Destiny. Manifest Destiny is one of the most popular topics of the early 19th century. Historians in the foreground of Manifest Destiny include John Belohlavek, Louis Filler, and William W. Freehling. These authors/historians offered differing views on the role that Manifest Destiny played in the 19th century. My plan is to consider the differing viewpoints, examine them, and add those viewpoints to more equally important experts of Manifest Destiny. The books and articles that I have studied so far, have given me a brief overview of Manifest Destiny and the role it played in our nation. What I will try to do is to go in deeper to find out what Manifest Destiny’s role in the life of the American citizens was, and what effects it had on the peoples of America in the 19th century.
Manifest Destiny has given the United States some benefits, but along with that it has also had some seriously negative effects. Both the good and the bad of Manifest Destiny can still be felt to the present day. There are many historians that have written about Manifest Destiny and one does not have to look very far to find differing views on the roles that Manifest Destiny played in this country. My historiography of Manifest Destiny begins with a source that puts the causes of the Civil War squarely on the shoulders of Manifest Destiny. This source was written by the historian, and professor at Purdue University, Michael A. Morrison. Morrison’s focus is on the early republic of the United States, and in this particular case how Manifest Destiny affected slavery and the American west. Morrison is the author of the 1997 book Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War. Morrison analyzes how the territorial question of Manifest Destiny and the extension of slavery led to the sectionalization of American politics.
He states that the common bond of the American Revolution had held Americans together until arguments over the slavery extension into the western territories led southerners and northerners to discrepant understanding of the Revolution’s legacy. As we can see from the title of the book, Morrison comes to the conclusion that the failure of the North and the South to agree on how the slavery issue in the west should be handled, contributed to the bloodiest conflict in American history. Morrison takes great pains in carefully analyzing speeches, pamphlets, and newspapers; he also outlines the competing ideas over the future of the West. Perhaps Morrison’s best accomplishment is to point out that this prolonged debate over Manifest Destiny’s role in the conflict that would soon erupt, centered on the meaning of republicanism. As the professor of the University of Virginia and historian Peter S. Onuf says this book is “A fresh and provocative contribution to our understanding of the process of party disorganization and sectional mobilization that brought the union to its final crisis”.
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For a more cultural view of Manifest Destiny, I will turn to an American historian, and Singletary Professor of the Humanities Emeritus at the University of Kentucky, William W. Freehling. Freehling is also a History Book Club main selection and winner of the Owsley Prize. In his book Road to Disunion, Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854 Vol. 1. Freehling presents the argument that until 1854 the South was very divided on the issues brought about by Manifest Destiny. Freehling believes that it was the world where Deep South cotton planters clashed with South Carolina rice growers, where the spirit of everyone being equal that was sweeping the North came down through the Border States that were already uncertain about slavery, where even sections of the same state divided bitterly on key issues. While researching, I noticed differences between Morrison and Freehling on their views of the South. Unlike Morrison, who believed that the South was always unified on issues concerning Manifest Destiny, Freehling believed that there were, “various Souths, indeed so many Souths that no South existed before the mid-1850s other than a divided one.” When it came to the new territories and the feelings towards Manifest Destiny, a consensus could not be reached within the South. The only time a major consensus was reached was in 1854 when the problem of westward slavery expansion became a central issue of national politics. This account adds to the historiography of Manifest Destiny by revealing how the attempts to obtain more slave territories for the country in the 1850 also revealed Southern disunity. This controversy proves that while studying Manifest Destiny is one of the main themes in the American historical scholarship there are areas in the American historiography that need to be deeply researched. Moreover, various times in the past attracted the interest of researchers in varying degrees.
It is necessary to underline the essence of Manifest Destiny idea. It was not a definite law or rule implemented to apply or reorganize any aspect of the U.S. political, social or cultural functioning. Though Manifest Destiny had a sharp beginning it described processes of American exceptionalism through American territory growth. The study of any period in the history of the United States begins literally with hot pursuit and the second half of the 30 – 40s of 19th century is not an exception. Thus, historiography started here with the first works such as biographies of leading political figures, written in the midst of the event or in the coming years and decades. Almost immediately after the war with Mexico the first studies of its causes, course and consequences appeared. These works often contained extensive insertion of the documents of the epoch from the pen of the protagonists (in the first place – their correspondence) or associated with their activities. In addition, contemporaries and active participants in the events or their immediate family members played the role of historiographers, and that in some cases allows to use this correspondence both as literature and as sources. Nearly all of these works are full with tendency of that time, the desire to justify the actions of certain officials, as well as uncritical attitude to the sources, which is determined by the characteristics of their use.
Frank L. Owsley and Gene A. Smith admitted that formation of scientific historical school in the United States referred to the end of the 19th century and was associated with the development of progressivist historiography. The authors revealed that a special role was played by the works of one of its founders, Frederick Jackson Turner, at the turn of 19th-20th centuries. Turner developed the concept of a border (frontier) and its special role in American history. The problem of spatial evolution of the United States was the highest Turner’s interest which attracted him primarily. Owsley and Smith gave Turner’s description of the development of the United States in the 19th century as follows: “Weak Atlantic colonies occupied territory, extending to the other end of the continent, have acquired ownership of associates in the Caribbean, and the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Asia, and they also provided a connection between the two oceans through the Panama Canal.” Owsley and Smith neither agreed nor denied Turner’s statements. However, they noted that much more than joining new territories Turner was interested in the development of the space already included in the United States. For Turner the frontier was not an external line indicating the limit of the state, but the inner boundary, the boundary of the assimilated areas, which represented the outer edge of the waves – the point of contact of savagery and civilization: “The existence of the uninhabited land zone, its continuous reduction and the promotion of American settlement westward explain the development of America.” According to the Turner’s view, the origin of “Jacksonian democracy” owed to two factors – the sectional controversy and constant movement of Americans to the West.
Turner’s concept was further developed and studied in details in the works of Robert J. Miller and Robert E. May. Both authors paid attention to the party-political struggle revealing social and economic factors, which, as it appeared, had enormous impact on the political and military life of the country. The classical work of progressivist historiography is America’s Imperial Burden by Ernest W. Lefever. According to Lefever, trying to reach absolute freedom, people let the struggle of labor and capital begin; on this basis the author concluded the anti-capitalist directional transformations of Democratic Party and a national character of its support. The events of the early 1840-ies, the crisis of the Whig party associated with the discussion of socio-economic problems and issues in the agenda and the question of Texas – were, in his opinion, the result of irrepressible political ambitions of Tyler. The annexation of Texas destroyed the unity characteristic of the period of Jacksonian democracy.
Going back to the cultural lens of Manifest Destiny I came across the historiography developed in the southern states, which has its own, special way. Again, Miller as the brightest critic of slavery as a factor of Manifest Destiny argued with Ulrich Phillips, the most prominent representative of the so-called school of the Southern “Bourbon”. In his works, Phillips served as an apologist for slavery, which he justified in both economic and social terms. Based on the study of the documents that belonged to slave owners the author drew an idyllic picture of slavery as a patriarchal institution. One of the central Phillips’s theses was the fact that slavery was the most humane way of the connection between labor and capital. The leading traditionalist direction, for which apologetic perception of the US actions in the international arena was typical, remained in the historiography of foreign policy during the first half of 20th century. Still unsurpassed by careful study of diplomatic documents is the book by Wilson Filibusters and Expansionists: Jeffersonian Manifest Destiny, 1800-1821. Unfortunately, the tasks of the author did not include the identification of the root causes of the conflict and the analysis of the link between foreign and domestic policy. Moreover, Smith puts all the blame for the conflict that developed into the war on Mexico.
After World War II, the dominant position in the historiography of foreign policy was taken by the representatives of the school of political realism, which argued that the behavior of states in the international arena was not determined by abstract ideals but by the set of so-called realities – military and economic potential, and the public interest. The most influential representative of realism, who devoted a number of works to special events in the middle of the 19th century, is Frederick Merk. Wondering to what extent available to the US government funds had been adequate to put foreign policy objectives, the researcher came to the following conclusion. Often the United States were not guided by a realistic assessment of its own power, but idealistic views on the morality and legality of their claims in the international arena. In this regard, Merk considered the doctrine of Manifest Destiny as the driving force of expansion in the 1840s. In the 1970s, Merk and others revised basic provisions of progressive historiography, traditional economic history and theory of realism. A call to progressives was thrown by the new political history, new social history and ethno-cultural trends. The widespread use of statistics and quantitative methods allowed researchers to study the behavior of the American grassroots elections. Ethno-cultural research foundation was laid by Lee Benson. Benson’s refusal to consider Whigs as conservatives, and democrats as liberals was the step forward compared to the progressives. The merit of this trend lies in the fact that its supporters were able to clearly identify the electoral support of both parties at the local level, thus refute the belief of their predecessors that the political preferences and voting behavior were determined by social class only. However, an exclusive focus on the ethnic, religious and cultural factors, ignoring the national political and socio-economic demands and slogans of the Party, the quantitative analysis of materials at the local level (in any state, and sometimes district), as well as the thesis of the loyalty of voters to once selected party led to the fact that these researchers did not correlate with the behavior of the electorate. Eventually, the followers of pure ethno-culture were unable to explain either the appearance of the two-party system of democrats – the Whigs nor its decline, and the Civil War did not fit into their picture of American history.
Since the 1970s critical direction of historiography was actively developing, its supporters were aiming to refute the prevailing within the new science of history idea of the primacy of political consensus in American society. The authors such as Wilson and others focused on the opposition of democrats to Whigs. Wilson, for example, argued that while the Whigs were aimed at improving the social society in time, for the democrats the conquest of space by expansion was the most important. Here the author underlined that the democrats and Whigs represented the incompatible values: democracy and capitalism, respectively.
In terms of methodological confusion initiative passed to the representatives of the southern school. Neoburbons abandoned most odious theses of Phillips (we described his attitude towards slavery above), but the problem of slavery still was the object of their most careful attention. It should be noted that this direction was not uniform. The major specialist in the southern economy, Freehling argued that the spread of slavery led to the folding of a special, non-capitalist southern civilization. Following Phillips, Freehling somewhat emphasized the paternalistic nature of the relationship between slave owners and slaves. According to Freehling, the consensus on the issue of slavery existed in the south eclipsed all political and economic differences between southern democrats and the Whigs.
Further there was the research on the integration of foreign policy in the broader context of American history. The main opponents of the realists and neo-realists are the representatives of constructivism (critical school) and neo-liberalism. Critics of realism insisted on the unity of foreign and domestic policy and the inability of their separate study. They argued that the foreign policy of the state was the result of the confrontation of interests of different groups within the country. Again, Frederick Merk made the largest contribution to the study of the territorial expansion of the United States in the middle of the 19th century within the framework of the critical methodology. The author focused on internal factors that led to the acquisition of new territories – the division of the country on the issue of slavery, wide propaganda campaign of supporters and opponents of the expansion, and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny that arose as a result of expansionists’ propaganda.
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The sustained research of Charles Sellers, D. Pletcher, R. Horsman, and T. Hietaly was a part of the same paradigm of Merk. However, it did not prevent these historians from coming to diametrically opposite conclusions. Charles Sellers was sure that expansionist policy of James K.Polk was determined by the forces that brought him to power, and Polk had no other choice but to go to war with Mexico. David Pletcher claimed the uselessness of war launched by the President: peaceful colonization of territories belonging to Mexico in the very near future led to the fact that California and New Mexico were to repeat the fate of Texas – to declare independence and become a part of the United States. The result of the aggressive foreign policy of Polk, in terms of Pletcher, led to unjustified death of American soldiers. Reginald Horsman focused on the accompanying expansion with cross-cultural conflicts that inevitably led to military clashes. In his opinion, the main reason, according to which the United States could reach a peaceful settlement with Britain in Oregon, and start the war against Mexico at the same time, was that the mass perception of British as Anglo-Saxon brothers, while the Mexicans seemed non-white race with an alien culture and traditions. Thomas Hietala, one of the first American scientists, linked the continental expansion of the middle of the 19th century to imperialism of the 19th-20th centuries. Considering the war with Mexico as an imperialist one, he denies the existence of the fundamental difference between the US policy and empire building, which at that time the British and French were engaged in. The doctrine of Manifest Destiny was, in his view, the ideological justification for the assignment to the United States the exclusive right to own North American continent. Hietala presented the expansionists’ logic as following: “If the enemy was strong, he posed a threat to American security, and America should get rid of him; if the opponent was too weak, he proved with that his own inferiority <…> and his territory was supposed to be a part of the United States.”
Voices for the need to create a new generalizing picture of American history, uniting the achievements made by the experts of various directions (the problem is called the search of new synthesis) are stronger at the present stage of the development of American historiography. Narrow specialization and substitution of general methodological principles of private research techniques gives birth to a dead end, which is shown by the examples of ethnic and cultural areas, new economic history and neoburbons. However, the leading specialists in the 19th century gradually recognized that the way out of this situation could be found in the intersection of economic and political history. In this regard, the four representatives of different directions – Charles Sellers, M. Holt and M. Morrison are illustrative examples.
At the beginning of the 1990s Charles Sellers released his interpretation of the evolution of American society in the period between 1815 and 1846, where the author put the emphasis on the development of American economy. Sellers brought the term ‘market revolution’ into scientific use. Based on the understanding of the era as the conflict between labor and capital, he argued that the development in this period was determined by the opposition of wide circles of workers and farmers with impersonal forces of the capitalist market economy. In many ways Michael Holt is characterized by painstaking study of the behavior of the electorate with the help of quantitative methods. However, recognizing the impact of ethnic, cultural and religious factors on the political life, Holt increasingly emphasized the importance of economic interests, which, in his opinion, was ultimately determined by the behavior of voters. Michael Morrison’s characteristic study of territorial expansion was held in the context of the overall political development of the United States. According to the author, the origins of American expansionism should be sought in the political culture of the era of Jackson. At the same time, Morrison acknowledged that the basis for opposition supporters and opponents of expansion were economic differences on the issue of slavery. The biographical genre was the focus of American researchers at the beginning of 21th. Over the past decade the United States saw the light of four biographies of James K. Polk, two biographies of Henry Clay and one of John Tyler and Sam Houston – and this is not an exhaustive list.
The study of Manifest Destiny and overall American history of the second half of 1830 – 1840s has a long tradition in the US. However, this period is often in the shadow of more recent events – referring, of course, to the Civil War, which occupies a central place in the historiographical discourse devoted to American history in 19th century. There are a large number of relevant and important papers on various aspects of the development of the United States in the last fifteen years of the first half of the 19th century. However, existing research is far from closing the whole study of this period. Many important problems are still waiting for their researchers – it refers to specific historical research at the local level, as well as the search of the new historical synthesis in relation to this era.