Frederick Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History, is
essential to an understanding of the period because he explains the origins and
course of Manifest Destiny and the American sense of mission. Merk does not like
Manifest Destiny because he realizes that it was imperialism (though of a
different kind than that which led to the Spanish American War and subsequent US
interventions in Latin American countries); he doesn’t like imperialism.
I incline to view that the two (Manifest Destiny and Mission) are so
intertwined that it is impossible to speak of one and not the other. Both
have that sense that American actions were preordained or divinely 'ordained.
Advocates of Manifest Destiny believed that the US was supposed to conquer
and/or occupy the North American continent in whole or part because the US was a
special and beneficent case in human affairs. How does this differ from Mission,
except that Mission did not necessarily includes territorial aggrandizement?
Perhaps one of the most striking characteristics of the US view itself is its
belief that the country has special mission in human affairs. In a way, it is
the Chosen People concept but unlike that of Judaism because the Jews knew that
being Chosen meant having to suffer ( that they had to carry the burdens of
humankind on their shoulders). In the US, the idea chosen was that the US had
the best society, best economy, best form of government the world had ever seen
or ever would see. Americans believed that they a purity that no other group
had. In part, this was because it saw itself as an Anglo-Saxon civilization
(which it wasn't) purified by New World circumstances.
Although Americans granted that they owed much to classical
and British heritage, they, believed that New World and American genius had
made the US distinctly better. One sees this idea in a different way when one
examines the Monroe Doctrine and the Western Hemisphere idea. One can see the idea
expressed in newspapers and speeches of the period and in the observations of
foreigners, who resented American arrogance.
How does one explain the fact that Americans in the first half of
the nineteenth century and beyond believed, generally, that they had
a special mission in the world which save the World from itself and that
whatever they did to further the spread of the American ideal was justified?
Was it related to Revolutionary fervor and the need to justify the new form
of government—a federal republic? Was it related to the crusading zeal of
Protestantism and, in the 1840s, the Second Great Awakening?
Richard W. Van Alstyne, The Rising American Empire, tells us that the
Americans were expansionistic, imperialistic, even in the colonial period. Merk
also sees the sense of mission existing from the very beginning of colonization.
Why? How does one account for this since most people who came across in colonial
period did not have any idea of building a new nation or a new empire. Even
Benjamin Franklin considered himself British until just before the Declaration
Manifest Destiny was the idea that it was the obvious destiny of the United States to expand on
this continent. A careful reading of Merk tells us that the idea was not
universally held by Americans, that it reached its prominence in the last days
of the Tyler administration (1845), that Polk had to choose between slow,
deliberate Manifest Destiny or the war hawk Manifest Destiny. He chose the
latter. Americans did not
agree, however, as to what they should conquer.
Merk stresses, as do most, authors, that Americans were taking over
unpopulated or sparsely populated areas and bringing civilization, liberty, and
order to these areas, and, thus, differed from what European powers at the same
time were doing, There is obviously some truth in this. The American-Mexicans in
Texas numbered some 50,000 persons in 1836, certainly a majority of the
population. The Great Plains from Oklahoma north to the Dakotas were had few
people in them save for the Plains Indians. The area of New Mexico was sparsely
populated, except for towns, but it was populated and much as it is now. Mark
sees this population characteristic as justifying the actions of the Americans.
Other scholars assert that the US was justified in taking land from Mexico in
the Mexican War
because they were not using it fully but the US would. Further,
Americans believed that they would bring truth, beauty, and light to the areas
The Texans who revolted against Mexico had been violating their agreements
with Mexico and had no serious grievances against their home government. No
matter what was said in Mexico City, the powers of the Mexican government was
not extensive enough to work any great hardship on the Texans. After all, the
distance between the Texas region and Mexico City was lengthy (today, the
distance between San Antonio, Texas and Mexico City is 900 miles). Merk does a
good job in pointing out that the Americans wore determined to secure Texas for
the US and to obtain California, that California is what the US was after when
it declared war on Mexico in 1846. When the US won that war, its imperialistic
impulse was checked by its racism.
The imperialistic urge was so strong that the US was willing to fight Great
Britain to get the Oregon territory. The US backed down from the campaign
promise of "540 400 Fight!" and compromised.
What the US did in these instances was take land that Americans had been
settling. That is what Mark means about Texas being a pattern for American
expansion through the year 1848. A basic rule in international politics is
"to populate us to govern," to quote a famous Argentine.
A side note, Under American concepts property and due process, it seems to me
that we have to agree the United States and Texans stole the land just as the Europeans always had done. The Indians
owned and occupied the land. If they were not physically present on the land
during the years when the Americans took it, does this invalidate their claims
and their ownership? If a person is not occupying his/her house or car or land,
does he/she therefore lost title to it?
What we have to conclude, it seems, is that power is the determining factor
here, not divine guidance, divine sanction, or spiritual purity. The US took the
because it wanted it. The US did not take Cuba or all of Mexico because
Americans couldn't agree that they wanted it. The US wanted Canada and expected
to get it but the Canadians and British had too much power and resisted
conquest. Had they not had the power, Canada would have become part of the US by
1815. By 1848, Manifest Destiny virtually stops because the US had taken all it
could by then, that is, stops as far as acquisitions not attempts were
concerned. The US did acquire the Gadsden Purchase in 1853 by purchase.
Early statesmen, including Thomas Jefferson, were interesting in acquiring
Cuba. After 1848, Havana was a natural port of call for ships bound, for
California and Oregon. The desire to expand slavery was a factor in this
interest. President James K. Polk, in 1848, confidentially told Romulus M. Saunders, US ambassador to Spain, to negotiate the
purchase of Cuba; he was allowed to offer as much as 100 million dollars.
Spain was not interested. General Narciso López,
a Venezuelan, made an attempt in 1849 to wrest Cuba from Spain but was stopped
in New York. In his second attempt in 1850, he landed in Cuba, failed, and
returned to the US. In 1851, when he tried again, he was caught and executed as
well as all fifty-one of his co-conspirators. There was an outcry in the US by
those wanting Cuba. In April, 1852, Britain and France suggested that the US
join them in a pact to guarantee Cuba to Spain but the US refused. The next
year, three US Ambassadors—James Buchanan (to Britain), John Y. Mason(to
France), and Pierre Soulé
(to Spain)—met on Ostend, Belgium and issued a Manifesto arguing for the
taking of Cuba from Spain by force. Anti-slavery outcries in the US prevented
this from occurring. Buchanan remained interested in acquiring Cuba for slavery.
The Monroe Doctrine of December, 1823 7 seems to me to be
part of both the American sense of mission and of Manifest Destiny. The Monroe
Doctrine was a nationalistic outburst by the United States that had little
international significance. Dexter Perkins, A History of the Monroe Doctrine,
is the standard authority on the Monroe Doctrine. In the Doctrine, the US
claimed that its system was different from that of Europe and that Europe should
not expand in the hemisphere. The US promised not to touch existing European
colonies and promised not to intervene in Europe. The idea behind it was that
the US was different and better from everyone else. The US knew that it could
not enforce it; in fact, it seems that even President James Monroe and Secretary
of State John Quincy Adams were not particularly interested in enforcing it.
That it was some hallowed statement of principle which the US and others were
bound to follow is a post-Monroe idea. The US stated that it was opposed to
monarchical government and it claimed the New World. It had the idea that it
would eventually own or control the Western Hemisphere either by occupying it or
by creating independent republics allied to the US. This did not happen. Such
control as the US has is more by economic power, which came later. In December
1845, President Polk revived the Monroe Doctrine but changed it. His version said no transfer and warned Europe not to
interfere with US expansionism. The US, of course, is most concerned about what
happens near its borders. The US violated the Monroe Doctrine with it war on
Spain in 1898 and entry into European wars. In spite of the facts, the Monroe
Doctrine itself has become mythological and the subject of partisan debate.
It was a phantom in as much as it had any relationship to Latin American
independence because the US couldn't/wouldn't help and the British had already
removed the threat from Europe. Did it mean the US wouldn’t allow interference
or colonization on the continent or in the Hemisphere? No, because it couldn’t
stop that either. The systems of government weren’t as different as we
thought. What, then, did it mean? I contend that it excited some Americans but
that it meant nothing international affairs except that the Americans were
boasting and proclaiming what they thought their interests were. "Monroeism"
was another statement of the American sense of mission, Manifest Destiny, and
As the US became more powerful, it exercised that power to defend its
interests and, increasingly, did so unilaterally. The US tends to act
unilaterally in its foreign policy not because it is "God’s creation or
favored nation " but because it can.