Manifest Destiny


*American history has always been based on expansion, as America has always been a place that was explored, expanded, and settled in recent historical memory, an idea most famously expressed by one of the most influential American historians, Frederick Jackson Turner.  In 1893, he posited his famous Frontier Thesis in ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History.’


*According to Turner, the Frontier was what made America different and special.  He said ‘The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.’  According to Turner, in America, the frontier was where democracy was created, and where it was born anew every time the frontier advanced.  As the edge of settlement moved westward, people were obliged to start anew, but without the trappings and conveniences of the settled world, they had to work side by side and discovered equality.  These newly democratised men, in turn, came back to the old seats of power and renewed and invigorated them with democratic ideals all over again.


*Furthermore, the Frontier was also a safety valve.  When cities became too crowded or when some people did not fit into civilised society, they could always head west:  there was a place to absorb surplus population (which also helped keep wages relatively high in the East).


*There are some problems with the Frontier Thesis.  It was based on the assumption that there was free land in the West, thus ignoring that the land had belonged to the Indians, who had to be dispossessed before it could be settled.  It also ignored the fact that some other countries also had vast unsettled hinterlands, and that Russia, Canada, Australia, and Brazil did not develop in the same way that America did (although there are some similarity to America in the Canadian, Australian, and Brazilian experiences).


*Still, as Turner correctly observed, American history up to the end of the 19th century was a history of continuous westward expansion, and this expansion did play a large role in the East as well as on the Frontier, even as the Frontier moved ever-further West.


*In 1805, Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific Coast in the Oregon Country and claimed it for the United States.  American and British fur traders, who had occasionally visited the region already, expanded their operations, with the fur trading post of Astoria, Oregon founded by John Jacob Astor’s American Fur company in 1811. 


*Spain gave up her claims to the region in 1819 with the Adams-Onis Treaty, and Russia did the same in 1824.  The United States and Great Britain, both still retained claims to the land, the US through Lewis and Clark, Robert Gray (captain of the merchant ship Columbia), and John Jacob Astor, while the British laid claims through Sir Francis Drake, Captain James Cook, Captain George Vancouver, and the Hudson’s Bay Company, (which still exists as Canada’s oldest corporation).  However, America and Britain had agreed to share Oregon jointly in 1818.


*Starting in 1818, American missionaries began to settle in the Oregon Country.  Word got back to the east of the rich soil in the Pacific Northwest, especially in the fertile Willamette Valley, and pioneers began to move into the area, especially in the 1840s.  By 1846, over 5,000 Americans had moved into the Willamette Valley along the dangerous Oregon Trail (which supposedly averaged about 17 deaths per mile).  The British could only claim about 700 subjects north of the Columbia River.  With such disparity of numbers, many Americans felt they ought to take control of some or all of the Oregon Country outright. 


*The British were willing to reach a settlement, so the main dispute was simply over how much land each side would receive in the end.  Britain wanted all the land north of the Columbia River but was willing to cede the land south of it; many Americans wanted the land between the Columbia River and the 49th Parallel as well—an extension of the existing border between the USA and Canada.  However, some Americans wanted it all, and would later adopt the slogan of ‘54°40’ or Fight!’ in reference to the northernmost border of the Oregon Country, which some Americans wanted to seize from Great Britain even if it provoked a war.


*This concept, that America ought to stretch from Sea to Shining Sea, was not entirely new:  Thomas Jefferson had proposed to create an Empire of Liberty across North America.  However, as Americans moved west, it became an increasingly plausible idea, and was described in 1845 by the Democratic newspaper editor John L. O’Sullivan as America’s ‘Manifest Destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.’


*Besides the possibility of conflict with Britain over Oregon, the concept of Manifest Destiny also threatened to create war with Mexico, as a few Americans (about a thousand) had moved to California by the 1840s and an even smaller number had followed the Santa Fe Trail down into New Mexico.  Furthermore, many Americans and Texans wanted to unite the two countries, despite Mexico’s repudiation of the Treaties of Velasco, which meant that the annexation of Texas could have provoked a war with Mexico.  Finally, the addition of more land to the Union would re-open the issue of the expansion of slavery, a topic deliberately ignored by the Federal government, which had even created the ‘Gag Rule’ in the House of Representatives, pledging not to discuss slavery whatsoever.


*Despite these risks, Manifest Destiny became the great issue of the 1844 presidential election.

AP United States History Practice Exam and Notes

This page last updated 4 September, 2018.
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