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Manifest destiny: many 19th-century Americans believed their young nation was destined to extend the benefits of freedom and opportunity across the continent--from sea to shining sea.

It was in 1845 that a New York editor spoke for the nation by coining the phrase Manifest Destiny. According to editor John L. O'Sullivan, it was "our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions." Expansion of the United States was looked at, variously, as reaching our natural frontiers at the Pacific and Rio Grande, conveying the benefits of republican government to those anxious to embrace them, and just plain pioneering.

"Many felt that it was the right, the duty, and the opportunity of Americans," reported historian Glyndon G. Van Deusen in The Jacksonian Era, 1828-1848, "to expand the area of freedom and to enrich it, whether by the development of domestic resources, by continental conquest, or by the extension of American influence and American ideals to more distant quarters of the globe. Expansionism in this period pushed the American nation to the Pacific and to the Rio Grande, and sent clipper ships into the seven seas. It fostered dreams of great trade development in the Orient. 'Our population,' wrote William Henry Seward in 1846, 'is destined to roll its resistless waves to the icy barriers of the north, and to encounter Oriental civilization on the shores of the Pacific.'"

Yes, young America was feeling her oats and sowing them as well. In the 40 years following our Second War for Independence in 1812, the size of the country doubled--adding Florida at the expense of Spain, Texas through its fight for independence, the Oregon Country from Britain, and the Mexican Cession and Gadsden Purchase as a result of the Mexican War. "It took American people one hundred and seventy-five years to build up and achieve independence for thirteen colonies with about three million inhabitants," observe Charles and Mary Beard in The Beards' New Basic History of the United States. "In less than one-third that span of years seven new states were established in the region immediately westward and occupied by a population larger than that of the whole United States when the census of 1790 was taken. In less than half that number of years five additional states were formed in the Louisiana Territory, still further west, Texas was brought into the Union, a vast area to the southwest wrested from Mexico, and California admitted to statehood."

Armed with Liberty

There was something special about the character of the early American, armed with liberty and a will to succeed, that even a foreigner could sense. Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat, visited us and wrote of our countrymen during the Jacksonian era in Democracy in America:
 In the United States, the greatest undertakings
 and speculations are executed
 without difficulty, because the
 poorest as well as the most opulent
 members of the commonwealth are
 ready to combine their efforts for
 these purposes. The consequence is,
 that a stranger is constantly amazed
 by the immense public works executed
 by a nation which contains, so to
 speak, no rich men. The Americans
 arrived but as yesterday on the territory
 which they inhabit, and they have
 already changed the whole order of
 nature for their own advantage. They
 have joined the Hudson to the Mississippi,
 and made the Atlantic Ocean
 communicate with the Gulf of Mexico,
 across a continent of more than
 five hundred leagues in extent which
 separates the two seas.

Even earlier than de Tocqueville's visit to this country, President James Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams spelled out the now-famous doctrine that proclaimed there would be no future European colonies in the Americas; nor transfer to other European powers of possessions already held; and, that the United States would in turn stay out of European wars just as the U.S. expected Europeans to stay out of conflicts in this Hemisphere. President Monroe and Secretary Adams proposed this policy, but it would have to be left to others--especially James Polk--to enforce it.

In Monroe's second Inaugural, says Pulitzer Prize historian George Dangerfield in The Era of Good Feelings, the president "recalled the passing of the War of 1812, the building of coast fortifications from the St. Croix to the Sabine in a spirit of 'peace and goodwill,' the ratification of the Florida Treaty, the 'peculiar felicity' of the United States in being altogether unconnected with the causes of war which seemed to menace Europe. He noted that he had been able to repeal the internal taxes, and he expressed his belief that 'the present depression in prices' would be temporary; while, as a proof of the 'extraordinary prosperity' of the nation, he offered the payment of nearly $67,000,000 of the public debt. He declared that no serious conflict had arisen between national and state governments, and announced that 'there is every reason to believe that our system will soon attain the highest degree of perfection of which human institutions are capable.'"

So, at times, it seemed. The Erie Canal, for example, was built without federal help. But the success of this project only motivated those who would have a central government finance similar internal improvements. "The American republic had come into existence," noted George Dangerfield, "by overthrowing a tyrant who ruled from afar: was it now to put itself into the hands of another tyrant, ruling only a little less remotely on the borders of Virginia and Maryland? Was it not always true that political power in remote hands was almost certain to be abused? Before the dismayed eyes of those who remembered and cherished the warnings of Thomas Jefferson, and before the eyes of Jefferson himself at Monticello, there spread a vision of a mass of internal-improvement legislation, entangled in local schemes, confused by jealousies, and saturated with greed and corruption." There is nothing new under the sun.

Secretary of State John Quincy Adams was in fact an expansionist not only for the United States but also for American government. It is of course well known that during the Monroe administration he pressed the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819. Through that treaty, Spain, as recounted by Frederick Merk in Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History, "ceded East Florida to the United States, gave recognition to an American seizure of West Florida, and transferred Spanish claims to the Pacific Northwest north of the line of 42[degrees] to the United States." Less well known is the fact that later, as president, John Quincy Adams asked Congress in his first annual message for what were then considered vast national powers--including scientific expeditions, an astronomical observatory, a national university, various internal improvements, and creation of a Department of the Interior. These measures, complained Thomas Jefferson, "will be to them [the Federalists] a next blessing to the monarchy of their first aim, and perhaps the surest stepping stone to it." Adams had affronted representative government by demanding that the Establishment of the day not be "palsied by the will of our constituents...."

Such sentiments, aired in public, led many to believe that the Adams family was a nest of monarchists. And all of this prepared the climate for the 1828 election of war hero Andrew Jackson. Old Hickory's policy was simply summarized by him: "The Federal Constitution must be obeyed, state rights preserved, our national debt must be paid, direct taxes and loans avoided, and the Federal Union preserved. These are the objects I have in view, and regardless of all consequences, will carry into effect." Growth and change in the nation before Jackson became president were profound, and they continued dramatically during his term in office.

"While General Jackson was President," reports Bray Hammond in Banks and Politics in America, "the federal union came to include twice as many states as it had begun with and held territory that recently had belonged to Spain and France. It was shortly to add regions in the South and West taken from Mexico and regions in the Northwest that Great Britain claimed. Its expansion seemed irresistible."

Indeed, migration, growth, and expansion were watchwords of the era. John Quincy Adams had spoken of "our natural dominion in North America." But all did not swoon over the frontier. We learn from Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager's The Growth of the American Republic: "Major [Stephen] Long's expedition of 1819 reported the Great Plains 'almost wholly unfit for cultivation,' and laid down on the map of that region, which now supports a thriving population of several millions, the legend 'Great American Desert.'" Daniel Webster opposed even a postal route from Missouri to the Oregon territory, saying: "What do we want with this vast, worthless area? This region of savages and wild beasts, of deserts, or those endless mountain ranges, impenetrable, and covered to the very base with eternal snow? What can we ever hope to do with the western coast, a coast of three thousand miles, rock-bound, cheerless, uninviting, and not a harbor on it?"

But the people thought otherwise. Europeans were moving to America even as Americans were focusing their attention on the West. The invaluable de Tocqueville reported of his visit here:
 It is the Americans themselves who
 daily quit the spots which gave
 them birth, to acquire extensive domains
 in a remote region. Thus the
 European leaves his cottage for the
 transatlantic shores, and the American,
 who is born on that very coast,
 plunges in his turn into the wilds of
 central America. This double emigration
 is incessant; it begins in the
 middle of Europe, it crosses the Atlantic
 Ocean, and it advances over the
 solitudes of the New World. Millions
 of men are marching at once towards
 the same horizon; their language,
 their religion, their manners differ;
 their object is the same. Fortune has
 been promised them somewhere in
 the West, and to the West they go to
 find it.

 No event can be compared with
 this continuous removal of the human
 race, except perhaps those eruptions
 which caused the fall of the Roman
 Empire. Then, as well as now, crowds
 of men were impelled in the same direction,
 to meet and struggle on the
 same spot; but the designs of Providence
 were not the same. Then every
 newcomer brought with him destruction
 and death; now everyone brings
 the elements of prosperity and life.

There was life indeed. In 1790 the population of the United States was estimated at four million; by 1848, we Americans numbered an impressive twenty-two million. Virtually in the middle of that expansion Andrew Jackson commented:
 "[F]rom the earliest ages of history to
 the present day there never have been
 thirteen millions of people associated
 in one political body who enjoyed so
 much freedom and happiness as the
 people of these United States. You
 have no longer any cause to fear danger
 from abroad.... It is from within,
 among yourselves--from cupidity,
 from corruption, from disappointed
 ambition and inordinate thirst for
 power--that factions will be formed
 and liberty endangered...."

Bank Battle

The conduct of the nation's financial affairs concerned President Jackson as much as America's frontiers. In fact, though Andy Jackson would himself die in debt, in 1835 he saw to it that our National Debt was paid. And his famous fight with the Bank of the United States was an epoch battle against conspiracy and monopoly. As George Roche has observed of the Age of Jackson in his book The Bewildered Society: "The assault on economic privilege carried over from the banking struggle and came to include tariffs and subsidies. The Jacksonians were squarely in the American tradition of insisting upon free competition and a minimum of interference, whether public or private, with the independence and opportunity of the individual. Jackson himself was a westerner whose primary appeal to a rising middle class was equality before the law and resistance to unwarranted centralization, whether in economics or politics."

Contemporary critics of Jackson portrayed him as a monarch, but his sympathies and policies were motivated by the welfare of the Middle American. Indeed, even among the influential business community, reported Claude G. Bowers in The Party Battles of the Jackson Period, "the feeling was germinating that Jackson was not far wrong in the conclusion that a moneyed institution possessing the power to precipitate panics to influence government action, was dangerous to the peace, prosperity, and the liberty of the people."

Rechartering the Bank of the United States became a campaign issue in 1832, and when Congress voted to maintain the status quo with the central financial institution, President Jackson vetoed the legislation and removed government funds from the bank. Nicholas Biddle, president of the bank, fought to maintain his power, contracting credit to punish the government for its action--to the point where discount rates rose as high as 36 percent. By flexing the bank's muscles, however, Biddle proved Jackson's point about its potential as a nefarious force. By 1841 it was forced to liquidate.

Here is part of the famous veto message that President Andrew Jackson sent Congress, calling the central bank unconstitutional: "It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.... In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society--the farmers, mechanics, and laborers--who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government.... In the act before me there seems to be a wide and unnecessary departure from ... just principles."

President Jackson was easily re-elected. There were more Middle Americans, it seems, than big bankers. "The Jacksonian revolution," reports Banks and Politics in America, "was a consequence of the Industrial Revolution and of a farm-born people's realization that now anyone in America could get rich and through his own efforts, if he had a fair chance.... The humbly born and rugged individualists who were gaining fortunes by their own toil and sweat, or wits, were still simple Americans, Jeffersonian, anti-monopolistic, anti-governmental, but fraught with the sense of what soon would be called manifest destiny.... [Such Americans] made the age of Jackson a festival of laisser faire preclusive to the age of Grant and the robber barons."

Westward Ho!

After the bitter winters of the late 1830s, Americans again turned to the West in ever greater numbers, aided by the rapid development of canals, roads, and railroads. "As soon as it became evident that little help could be expected from the Federal Government for internal improvements," note Samuel Morison and Henry Commager in The Growth of the American Republic, "other states followed New York [with its Erie Canal] in constructing canals, or lending their credit to canal corporations. Ohio linked the Great Lakes with the Mississippi valley by canal in 1833-34. Cleveland rose from a petty frontier village to a great lake port by 1850; Cincinnati, at the other end of the state canal system, sent pickled pork down the Ohio and Mississippi by flatboat and steamboat, shipped flour by canal boat to New York, and in 1850 had a population of 115,000--more than that of New York in 1815."

Jackson's secretary of state, Martin Van Buren, failed in his attempt to purchase Texas from Mexico. But, later as president, Van Buren stayed aloof from the Texas question, and in so doing lost much of his popularity for refusing to annex Texas as the Lone Star Republic wanted. Van Buren's temporizing on the Texas issue, as well as economic panic in the country during his administration, cost him the 1840 election to William Henry "Tippecanoe" Harrison. President Harrison's running-mate was John Tyler, who succeeded him in very short order and annexed Texas just before he left the White House to make room for James Polk. President Polk was elected on an expansionist platform over Henry Clay, the straddling Whig.

The Polk election came in the midst of more westward expansion. According to The Growth of the American Republic: "The Oregon Trail and the Lone Star Republic appealed to a people recovering confidence after the hard times of 1837 to 1840. The 'manifest destiny' of the United States to expand westward and southward ... became the theme of countless newspaper articles, Fourth of July orations, and political speeches. Much talk there was, too, of Anglo-Saxon genius in colonization and self-government.... The slogans of 1844, 'Reoccupation of Oregon and reannexation of Texas,' 'Fifty-four forty or fight,' rallied the same sort of people who shouted 'Tippecanoe and Tyler too' in 1840...."

The Oregon Country was made up of not only the present state bearing that name, but also Washington, Idaho, a part of Montana, and British Columbia up to the aforementioned 54[degrees] 40'. All of this, said Polk, was American territory "clear and unquestionable."

As it turned out, of course, Polk compromised with the British, with whom we had been jointly occupying Oregon, and agreed to a settlement--opposed for a time by Secretary of State James Buchanan--at the 49th parallel. Polk followed his own advice to a congressman whom he considered timid towards London--namely, that "the only way to treat John Bull was to look him straight in the eye, that he considered a bold and firm course on our part the pacific one."

As a matter of fact the U.S. had long been willing to accept the 49th parallel, but had been rebuffed by the British. Furthermore, Polk did not want war simultaneously with Mexico (which seemed imminent) and Britain. The compromise gave both Canada and the United States a Pacific outlet. And, observed Samuel Morison in The Oxford History of the American People, except "for a minor controversy over the islands of Puget Sound, this western end of the lengthy frontier between Canada and the United States gave no further trouble."

The signing of the Oregon treaty meant the American Republic now reached from Atlantic to Pacific. President Polk surely felt, wrote historian Glyndon Van Deusen, "that ports on the Pacific were more important than territory; that the area north of the 49th parallel was not worth a war, so long as the United States had access through the Vancouver Straits to the ocean; and that compromise with the British in Oregon was necessary, if they were to be kept from getting a slice of a greater prize, California."

Young Hickory, as James Knox Polk was called, was carrying on as Old Hickory wished. (Polk was the youngest president elected to date.) Andy Jackson, says Frederick Merk in Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History, still "lent glamour to Manifest Destiny." The former president "sent repeated letters in the years preceding his death [in 1845] to friends urging the annexation of Texas and the occupation of Oregon, and these were usually promptly transmitted to the press. Jackson urged annexation to insure the national safety and interest and to checkmate the machinations of the British."

Above all was that matter of Texas, over which Henry Clay had lost the presidency in 1844, alienating both North and South, abolitionist and slaveowner. Clay viewed the annexation as a judgment about states' rights and slavery. On the one hand, according to Clement Eaton in Henry Clay and the Art of American Politics, Mr. Clay "declared that he personally had no objection to the annexation of Texas, but that he was unwilling to see it made an issue which 'jeoparded' [sic] the Union. He protested against the positions of the extremists of South Carolina who wished to make the recent rejection of the Texas treaty an occasion to dissolve the Union."

But, as we have said, the Polk people wanted annexation--or "reannexation" since it was considered to be part of the Louisiana Purchase given up by J.Q. Adams. And that was not all that Young Hickory had in mind. Indeed, President Polk told his Navy secretary: "There are four great measures which are to be the measures of my administration: one, a reduction of the tariff; another, the independent treasury; a third, the settlement of the Oregon boundary territory; and lastly, the acquisition of California." The first three were faits accomplis by 1846, but the latter required war with Mexico.

Polk saw in California a ground for possible European intrigue proscribed by the Monroe Doctrine. The same was true of the Oregon Country and Mexico, "where the United States had interests of its own," notes Frederick Merk in The Monroe Doctrine and American Expansionism. "There, especially, he wished Europe held at bay. Again, in Monroe's case, the emphasis had been upon military adventures by Europe, upon interferences, by force or other means, to oppress or control New World governments. Polk was concerned about other kinds of interferences and seemed to include aid to, and even advice to, independent American governments among the forbidden activities. The Polk version of the Monroe message attained major importance in American history. It swayed decisions until well into the twentieth century."

Mexican War

As it happened, in an era when the United States was seriously thinking of abolishing the Military Academy at West Point, the war with Mexico broke Out ... and the anti-militarists were put to flight. We were soon defeating Mexico with but 7,200 troops in our regular Army compared to some 27,000 well-trained Mexican forces whose leaders contended their "Eagle and Serpent" would be flying over the White House. American troops were soon in the Halls of Montezuma.

"Acquisition of territory by conquest was a question the Cabinet had considered the day the war was formally declared," noted Frederick Merk in Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History. "It had been broached by Buchanan. He proposed issuing a declaration to foreign governments that the war was not for conquest or for any dismemberment of Mexico, that its purpose was simply self-defense. This proposal was a characteristic exhibit of his weakness. It was squashed immediately and completely by the President. Such a declaration, Polk said, would be improper and unnecessary. The war would not be fought for conquest, 'yet it was clear that in making peace we would if practicable obtain California and such other portion of the Mexican territory as would be sufficient to indemnify our claimants on Mexico and to defray the expenses of the war.'"

Eventually four American presidents would be elected as a result of fame resulting from their roles in the war with Mexico--they were General Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. When the war with Mexico was over, having cost us 13,000 dead, we "emerged from it with 529,000 square miles of additional territory, a magnificent outlet to the trade of the Pacific, and hundreds of millions in California gold, a bonanza the news of which was just beginning to spread as the treaty reached the final stages of ratification," recounted Glyndon Van Deusen.

The Mexican War sent a message that we meant to determine our own destiny and that Texas was indeed a part of the Union. Foreigners were made to understand, concluded Burt Hirschfield in After the Alamo, that the Mexican War "underscored certain truths--it meant the continent was rounded under American rule, putting an end to any European hopes of re-establishing a foothold in North America, foreshadowing at the same time the growing might of the United States."

In fact, from the period before Texas was brought into the Union to 1848, the United States added 1.2 million square miles to its dominion, and in 1853 filled out part of Arizona with a $10 million deal known as the Gadsden Purchase. The Mexican War had concluded with President Polk paying for title to the conquered land--a sum that was no more than he had offered before the conflict began.

Despite the controversies, such as the slavery issue in the new territory, "the United States had gained an immense new domain, and the dream of some of her greatest leaders--a two-ocean nation--had been fulfilled," notes Paul Wellman in The House Divides. "With the later Gadsden Purchase, all the present states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Utah, and Nevada, together with portions of Kansas, Colorado, and southern Wyoming were acquired. It was a territory for the most part completely wild and in many parts even unexplored, but it was destined to exert enormous influence on the later course of American history." In short, James K. Polk oversaw the greatest territorial expansion in the history of the Republic.

The wilderness had been opened and American government spread coast to coast. Manifest Destiny had in fact caused the American Eagle to spread her wings over the entire land. As editor John O' Sullivan had said: "Yes, more, more, more! ... till our national destiny is fulfilled and ... the whole boundless continent is ours." From sea to shining sea.

This article originally appeared in the June 1981 issue of American Opinion, a predecessor of THE NEW AMERICAN.
COPYRIGHT 2003 American Opinion Publishing, Inc.
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Title Annotation:History--Struggle For Freedom
Author:Hoar, William P.
Publication:The New American
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 28, 2003
Previous Article:Commencement victory.
Next Article:Disabled, not disarmed.

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