Manifest Destiny in American Policy

Manifest Destiny has plagued Native peoples of the United States for over 160 years. Historians have written extensively about the philosophy which seemed to become policy of the United States and its citizens in the 19th century. Under the notions of Manifest destiny ten of thousand of Indians were killed, Native Nations were pushed out of the way for Americans to settle their lands. The notions of Manifest Destiny made what was happening to the Tribe a justified action because it was the divine will of providence that Americans should own the whole of the continent. In this manner millions of acres of land were illegally settled and taken from tribes, of the west. It would take generations for the tribes to gain payments for the lands illegally stolen. Many treaties were made with tribes, yet the United States, over time has reneged on each one in some fashion. Either payments were not appropriately made, lands taken away, services to tribes not correctly applied, or tribes lost reservations when Congress declared them assimilated Indians. The lives and cultures lost have yet to be dealt with in any fashion.

Generally the philosophy is understood as being the destiny of the American nation to extend its borders to the Pacific ocean. That it is the destiny, manifest, or clearly apparent that Americans are meant to own the whole continent and create a great nation. Indian tribes cringe at this as the philosophy ignores the extensive previous occupation, and at the time, the present ownership and presence of Native peoples on their homelands.  When the philosophy was in practice, the notion inspired thousands of Americans to take a journey westward to seek their manifest lands, thereby creating the Oregon and Californian trails,  because their nation would at some point take all the land anyway.

Richard White, the great historian, in 1991, wrote about the foundations of Manifest Destiny as first created by John O’Sullivan,

Away, away with all these cobwebs tissues of rights of discovery, exploration, settlement, contiguity, etc… The American claim is by 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 federative self-government entrusted to us. It is a right such as that of the tree to the space of air and earth suitable for the full expansion of its principle and destiny of growth… it is in our future far more than in our past or in the past history of Spanish exploration or French colonial rights, that our True Title is to be found.

O’Sullivan’s notion, like White notes, is that all of the laws and policies and facts like the ownership of the land by Native nations, are just “cobwebs,” to be pushed aside because Americans have a divine right, through Providence, to take all the land. These cobwebs are the various international and national laws and conventions and agreements which form the laws of the United States. Policies like the Northwest Ordinance, which states that Native Nations are not to be disturbed and their lands are to be respected by Americans. International agreements like the agreement that Great Britain and the United States will jointly occupy the Oregon Territory.

At the time Manifest Destiny was written it did not catch much attention, but in time the notions behind it became part of the American way of interaction on the frontier, with Native nations, and with other countries.

Though never officially a policy, the notions behind Manifest Destiny can become a regime’s policy, and they are dangerous to ethnic minorities and small nations that get in the way of colonizing powers.

Tribal Nations witnessed the practice of Manifest Destiny. Oregon may have been the first, where all of the best lands were saved for the settlers. Tribes were moved to the fringes of American society, to frontier lands that in 1855 Americans did not yet want. But in time, when all the good land was gone and claimed, Congress acted to open up the reservations for more lands for Americans. In 1865, 1875, 1887, and 1901, the Coast, Siletz and Grand Ronde Reservations lost lands to the notion that Americans deserved them more than the Native nations. In 1954, the western Oregon tribes  and Klamath Tribe lost all their lands under the notion that they did not need them anymore, they were fully assimilated, and the lands could be better used by logging outfits or for energy generation. In time Manifest Destiny worked to fully alienate Native Nations within their own lands.

Outside of Indian affairs, actions and policies by the United States look as if they are inspired by the notions of Manifest Destiny. Nation building around the world, the taking of Hawaii, the imposition of leaders, dictators in other countries, all appear to be inspired by the notion of Manifest Destiny. As if the normal rules of conduct by nations of the world do not matter, Americans can do what they want to, because “Providence” gives us the license to do so. American exceptionalism as an international concept seems to to be on the same branch as Manifest Destiny. The philosophy appears to have expanded exponentially to the manner in which the United States became the policeman of the world, and assumes the moral authority to do whatever they want to, because its the United States.

Is the United States practicing Manifest Destiny in its International policy today?



White, Richard, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own” a new history of the American West, 1991.

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