All About History
The creed of expansion
In 1845, as President Polk steered the United States towards a stand-off with Great Britain in the Oregon Country and a war against the Republic of Mexico, the journalist John O’sullivan wrote that it was “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allowed by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions”.
Since then, the words ‘manifest destiny’ have served as shorthand for the ideas that drove the expansion of the United States. This process ensured the rise of the nation as a global power in the last decades of the 19th century, but it also accelerated the slide towards the Civil War and the decimation of the Native Americans.
Polk’s party, the Democrats, was the party of expansion and slavery. The opposition, the Whigs, were looking for abolition as they feared that expansion would tip the political balance of the United States away from the cities of the northeast, and instead towards a society of slave-holding farmers in the west.
For the Whigs, talk of manifest destiny was a corruption of the noble principles on which the American republic had been founded, and a reflection of the dangerous populism of Andrew Jackson and his protégé, James Polk. Yet the United States had been founded by Puritans who, like Polk’s mother, believed in the religious predestination of their society. The idea of manifest destiny, like the later belief in American exceptionalism, was a reflection, ugly or not, of the country’s origins.