Victor Nuovo: America's obsession with manifest destiny

Editor’s note: This is the 38th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.

The Louisiana Purchase (1803), concluded by Thomas Jefferson, marks the beginning of the age of American territorial expansion. By 1850 it was nearly complete; the United States of America had become a continental power extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, “from sea to shining sea.” This is a fact that most Americans tend to take for granted. It is enshrined in the well-known anthem “American the Beautiful.”

But the means by which this great expansion was accomplished are less well known, which is understandable, for the memory of them is not uplifting or worthy of celebration, even when overlaid with myth. From 1830 to 1850, American westward expansion was accomplished by the forced relocation of native peoples and by a war of aggression against a neighboring country.

Apologists for these actions claimed historical inevitability; they argued that it was this nation’s “manifest destiny” to continue westward until it could go no further. An editorial in a New York magazine affiliated with the Democratic Party — the party of Jefferson and Jackson — typified this sentiment by declaring that the time had come for the fulfillment “of our [nation’s] manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” It described these millions as an “irresistible army of Anglo-Saxon folk … armed with the plough and the rifle, and marking its trail with schools and colleges, courts and representative halls, mills and meeting-houses.” All of this was happening “in the natural flow of events, the spontaneous working of principles.” What was foreseen was the formation of a White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant nation that would soon dominate the continent, and perhaps even the world. It was the seed of American imperialism.

This declaration represents a subtle shift in American political ideology. In the age of revolution and independence from Great Britain, great emphasis was placed on the establishment of a representative democracy subject to the rule of law that would become a model to the world, it was supposed that this development had reached its definitive conclusion in the Constitution by the establishment of a near perfect union in which the people were sovereign.

In the succeeding age it came to be believed that the greatness of a nation resided not only in the nobility of its founding principles, but in the extent of its territory. Land acquisition became paramount, for, it was supposed, noble principles require great space to show themselves! A dubious supposition. Expansion came to be regarded as a right, because it was a “manifest destiny,” a divine right, one that is providential, by divine appointment; therefore since God provided for it, it became an imperative, a duty of white Anglo-Saxon settlers to overspread the land and possess it. In dispossessing its original inhabitants from the land, the settlers believed that they could do no wrong, for they supposed the land was free for the taking notwithstanding its native occupants, and in any case, they had God on their side. The native inhabitants of the land had no right to it, because they were not civilized, they were the mere residue of uncultivated nature, part of the uncultivated landscape, mere pagans.

One wonders, what were the sources of this belief? Did it first arise in the mind of an imbalanced individual who was a nationalist and a racist? Not at all. It is not necessary to go very far back in history to discover its origin. It originated in the early Enlightenment; it is fully articulated by John Locke in his “Second Treatise of Government,” and epitomized in one sentence: “In the beginning, all the world was America.”

By “the beginning,” Locke means, “a state of nature,” a time before unorganized groups of humans had organized themselves into civil societies. According to Locke, civil societies are created only when a body of free and equal persons have agreed by common consent to subject themselves to a common political authority.

Locke assumed that this had not happened in America before the European settlement. America was a political wilderness, in spite of its native inhabitants. In sum, Locke believed that while America was an inhabited land, its original inhabitants were uncivilized, because they had never formed themselves into civil societies, not to mention created learned societies and universities. They existed in a state of nature. Hence, America remained a savage land, and therefore, free for the taking by others, European settlers, who were properly enlightened, or in this narrow dubious sense of the term, “civilized.”

Now the social contract theory of the origin of civil society, especially Locke’s version of it, is supposed to be one of the gems of the Enlightenment, a standard of political liberalism. But in the minds of America settlers, or their apologists, it was used to justify their right to trump the rights of any others who might dwell in the land.

Would Locke himself have subscribed to these beliefs? Perhaps. It is well known that in 1669 he helped draft the “Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina.” At the time, he was employed by the Earl of Shaftesbury, a leading British politician, as his personal physician and secretary. Shaftesbury was the principal founder of the Carolina colony, which had been granted a royal charter in 1663. The “Constitutions” frame its government and laws. Its system of government is overall feudal and hierarchical; it sanctions slavery and grants to every free citizen the right to possess slaves and to exercise “absolute power and authority” over them. It also mentions “natives of that place,” and allows that they “will be concerned in our plantation.” It speaks ill of them as pagans, idolaters, ignorant and mistaken, but warns that this is no reason “to expel or use them ill.” In sum, Locke seems willing to grant native Americans protection, but he does not recognize their communities as possessing rights of sovereignty, nor their members worthy to be counted as fellow citizens or freemen.

Postscript: The theme of manifest destiny and western expansion is examined and extolled at length in the celebrated book by the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner, entitled “The Frontier in American History.” The idea of historical necessity is nicely presented and criticized by the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin in “Historical Inevitability.”

Login for Subscriber Access

Addison County Independent

58 Maple Street
Middlebury, VT 05753

Phone: 802.388.4944
Fax: 802.388.3100