Defining Terms: Manifest Destiny

Manifest Destiny is a phrase which was coined by John L. O’Sullivan in an article entitled “Statue to Jackson” in the July/August, 1845 issue of the Democratic Review (which can be found here). There are three basic themes to Manifest Destiny:

  1. the special virtues of American people & their institutions
  2. America’s mission to redeem & remake the world in its own image
  3. a divine direction to accomplish such a task.

The concept of Manifest Destiny made it easy for many Americans to accept that their virtue, mission, and divine ordinance mandated the expansion of America’s borders (into places like Oregon and Mexico). It also had a racial component which made some white Americans feel as though they were responsible for civilizing Native peoples (much the same way the Spanish had). This sentiment was a driving force behind westward expansion and one of the causes of the Mexican-American War.

The roots of Manifest Destiny are Jefferson’s Doctrine of Discovery (1792) and the Discovery Doctrine (1823). The Discovery Doctrine stated that the ownership of land is determined by virtue of the discovery of that land. Its legal precedent was established in the supreme court’s ruling on Johnson v. McIntosh. Chief Justice John Marshall—writing the opinions of the court—said the discovery rights to land were inherited by the United States from the British. This meant that Native peoples had lost “their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations,” and only retained a right of “occupancy” in their lands. The case is considered the first of three in the “Marshall Trilogy. The second and third were, respectively, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and Worcester v. Georgia (1832).


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