One hundred seventy-six years ago today, John Louis O’Sullivan, a journalist, coined the term “manifest destiny” to justify annexation of the Texas and Oregon territories by the United States. O’Sullivan was a native New Yorker, educated at Columbia University and the recipient of a law degree.
In 1837, he founded an influential magazine The United States Magazine and Democratic Review in Washington, DC. He was an advocate of Jacksonian politics and had served as Minister to Portugal under President Franklin Pierce. The publication drew submissions from a number of well-known authors. An early editorial characterized his political views for an emerging United States in his support for national development through the Young America Movement:
All history is to be re-written; political science and the whole scope of all moral truth have to be considered and illustrated in the light of the democratic principle. All old subjects of thought and all new questions arising, connected more or less directly with human existence, have to be taken up again and re-examined.
The Young America Movement was pro-immigrant, mostly urban and middle class, urging political reforms such as abolition of the death penalty and acceptance of cultural differences of immigrants, among others. O’Sullivan grounded his manifest destiny in a theology of inevitable expansionism justifying the purpose of the United States to assume a continental and hemispheric role. He defended
the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.
That destiny, according to historians, propelled the nation to build the Panama Canal, engage in war with Spain, and displace Native American and Mexican populations from the Western territories. By the 1860s, although he initially opposed the possibility of the Civil War, O’Sullivan later became an avid supporter of the Confederate States. It was rumored that he was on the CSA payroll while he lobbied for it in Europe. This turnabout disappointed many of his earlier supporters, particularly writers.
Manifest destiny did not die or end with the acquisition and conquest of the continental United States. Initially, the policy belonged to Democrats but, subsequently, starting under Theodore Roosevelt, the nation sought to exercise a hemispheric hegemony in South America, the Caribbean, and in the Pacific, and the policy became associated with Republicans. Some observers attribute post-WW II efforts to export democracy abroad as a continuation of manifest destiny.
Determinations in this modern era of the national interests of the United States become much more complicated and fraught with unanticipated or unintended repercussions such as those in Afghanistan and Ukraine. Such determinations may be neither manifest nor destined. They sure seemed simpler when they were mere continental imperialism.