Manifest Destiny is a nineteenth-century term designating an expansionist ideology grounded in the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and republican ideals that shaped the westward development of the United States through legal, religious, military, educational, and other cultural, structural, and systemic means; its effects are present in the twenty-first century.
American lawyer and author John L. O’Sullivan promoted the ideology of “Manifest Destiny” twice in 1845 to justify U.S. expansion; on 27 December 1845, he wrote:
Away, away with all these cobweb tissues of right of discovery, exploration, settlement, continuity, &c…. were the respective cases and arguments > of the two parties as to all these points of history and law, reversed—had England all ours, and we nothing but hers—our claim to Oregon would still be best and strongest. And that 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 federated self-government entrusted to us. (as quoted in Miller 2011, 338)
In this editorial from New York Morning News, O’Sullivan urges readers to transcend the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (DoCD) principles of first discovery, settlement, etc., and he asks readers to embrace the uniquely Euro-American God-given right to possess the continent, to civilize it, and to spread liberty. As Natsu Taylor Saito (2010) writes, this project “required the constant reinforcement of the racialized differentiation of Others being encountered and the presumption, embodied in the Constitution and the earliest U.S. laws, that to be American was to be ‘white’” (107).
Some students, when asked, have claimed that they were taught that Manifest Destiny is a positive dimension of U.S. history because it allowed the country to “progress” and to become what it is today; furthermore, many students have never learned about the DoCD that existed in the background as the supporting assumption and legal foundation. While they are separate concepts, however, Manifest Destiny and the DoCD are intimately connected. The underlying values and principles shaping the DoCD set the foundation for Manifest Destiny; as encountered above, Manifest Destiny was a specifically U.S. phenomenon emerging and set within a determined geographical area with clear socio-political goals, while the DoCD was (and still is) international law with broader implications to mitigate conflicts between Christian European nations regarding land acquisition (Miller 2011; Newcomb 1992-1993). Just like the DoCD, Manifest Destiny lends itself to injustices that continue to harm Indigenous nations and peoples today, and this is important to recognize, discuss, and respond to in an effort to promote diversity, justice, and sovereignty in relation to the United States, whether internally or externally.
Before O’Sullivan coined the term “Manifest Destiny,” international law had been guiding European explorers and settlers as they entered the Caribbean, South America, and North America (as we call the land masses today). This international law had its basis in religious proclamations from various popes; in other words, this international law was Christian International Law for European Christian nations, and it was grounded in the idea of Christian and European cultural supremacy (Miller 2011; Newcomb 1992-1993). For example, an important part of this history was a pronouncement from Pope Innocent III (1199), which made those who rejected Christ’s message less than human and open to possible violent treatment and means of conversion. Also, Pope Boniface VIII (1302) made the pronouncement that salvation comes only through the Church, and the Church became the supreme authority for all salvation and well-being. Then, Pope Nicholas V (1455) and Pope Alexander VI (1493) authorized the seizing of non-Christian lands, and through this combination of proclamations the right to spread the faith and to subdue any enemies of the faith emerged. Through these papal documents, colonization and slavery gained an ideological foothold through the ideas of religious and cultural superiority, which would gain further justification from beliefs in racial superiority. (For those who are interested in exploring the Christian literature of justification for domination, see the following website for an introduction: The Literature on Justification)
From these and other papal pronouncements came a set of international legal principles that helped to diminish conflicts between exploring Christian European nations, such as (1) the right of first discovery to claim non-Christian lands, (2) the actual occupancy, possession, and use of non-Christian lands, (3) the diminishment of Indigenous title to land and sovereignty, (4) the right to contiguous land surrounding the discovered land, (4) Christian supremacy, (4) European superiority, and (5) preemption, or the right of the discovering nation to trade with Indigenous nations and the right to exclude other nations from doing so (Miller 2011, 329-336). What is clear from this history is that the development of this international law was done without consultation with Indigenous peoples and other non-Europeans. Interestingly from 1500-1600, an estimated 75 million people lived in Europe, but the global population was approximately 500 million (UN World Population), which means approximately 15% of the world’s European population was making unilateral decisions based on religious and cultural supremacy for the rest of the world and codifying it as Christian International Law (Newcomb 1992).
The use of Christian International Law led to the colonizing foothold in North America, which provided enough security for settler independence and the consequent founding of the United States. Before the term “Manifest Destiny” was in use, many of the colonial leaders and the new political leaders in the United States already were speaking in terms harmonious with its expansionist values and principles shaped by the DoCD (Miller 2019). For example, in The Federalist (1788) number 14, James Madison argues for an extended republic to cover a larger geographic territory: “It is, that in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy consequently will be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a larger region” (60). This builds on his earlier argument in number 10: “The two great points of difference between a Democracy and a Republic are, first, the delegation of the Government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended” (44). In both passages, the desire for expansion through the establishment of an institutionalized government is present, and regarding the frontier of this new republic, Alexander Hamilton writes in number 24 that “the savage tribes on our western frontier ought to be regarded as our natural enemies…” (113). Where else would the expansion of the republic be but into the lands of the enemy?
An attitude of enmity supported the push for removal or displacement alongside the belief in the inevitable extermination or demise of Indigenous peoples, all of which is present in President Andrew Jackson’s second annual message to Congress on 6 December 1830:
Humanity has often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country, and philanthropy has been long busily employed in devising means to avert it, but its progress has never for a moment been arrested, and one by one have many powerful tribes disappeared from the earth. To follow to the tomb the last of his race and to tread on the graves of extinct nations excite melancholy reflections. But true philanthropy reconciles the mind to these vicissitudes as it does to the extinction of one generation to make room for another. In the monuments and fortresses of an unknown people, spread over the extensive regions of the West, we behold the memorials of a once powerful race, which was exterminated or has disappeared to make room for the existing savage tribes. Nor is there anything in this which, upon a comprehensive view of the general interests of the human race, is to be regretted. Philanthropy could not wish to see this continent restored to the conditions in which it was found by our forefathers. What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion?
Jackson sees the demise of Indigenous peoples as inevitable progress, and it would be folly to wish to return the land to how it was found by the first European settlers, for now the land has been improved through the civilizing “blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion.” Not only does Jackson have the strong desire to expand across the continent, but he clearly believes that the United States is superior because of its civilization and political liberties. For those in ascendency should be grateful for their lofty place in the forward march of history, while others are left behind and rightfully become a memory. This is Manifest Destiny in the making.
This is, indeed, how Thomas Jefferson saw the racial, cultural progress playing out in North America as he explained it in a letter to William Ludlow on 6 September 1824:
The idea which you present in your letter of July 30 of the progress of society from its rudest state to that it has now attained seems conformable to what may be probably conjectured. Indeed we have under our eyes tolerable proofs of it. Let a philosophic observer commence a journey from the savages of the Rocky Mountains, eastwardly towards our seacoast. These he would observe in the earliest stage of association living under no law but that of nature, subsisting and covering themselves with the flesh and skins of wild beasts. He would next find those on our frontiers in the pastoral state, raising domestic animals to supply the defects of hunting. Then succeed our own semi-barbarous citizens, the pioneers of the advance of civilization, and so in his progress he would meet the gradual shades of improving man until he would reach his, as yet, most improved state in our seaport towns. This, in fact, is equivalent to a survey, in time, of the progress of man from the infancy of creation to the present day.
With little hesitation, many Euro-Americans assumed that their religion, culture, race, and political institutions were superior to the Indigenous peoples in North America. Falsely imagined or described, Indigenous peoples existed in a state of nature with no true political structures, and they were valued as inferior when compared to the elevated status of their Christian, European counterparts. The superior must displace the inferior; this idea is present across presidential speeches and letters to writings by Supreme Court justices (for example, see Book I, “History of the Colonies,” by Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States from 1833 or the Johnson v. McIntosh decision from 1823 for clear language of cultural, racial, and religious superiority: (Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States); for an interesting commentary covering these sources, see Steven T. Newcomb’s article)
While Manifest Destiny emerged in the 1800s and focused on “the belief the United States has some unique moral virtues other countries do not possess,” “the idea the United States has a mission to redeem the world by spreading republican government and the American way of life around the globe,” and that “the United States has a divinely ordained destiny to accomplish these tasks” (Miller 2011, 332), its effects have not been contained to the nineteenth century (Saito 2010). For example, Manifest Destiny’s values clearly influenced the boarding schools that have left Indigenous families with lasting intergenerational trauma; a perfect example of this is found in Merril E. Gates’s address at the Proceedings of the Board of Indian Commissioners on 7 October 1891:
Therefore, it seems to me that there are two points which we want to keep constantly before us during this Conference. First, the time for fighting the Indian tribes is passed. There may be Indian riots to be quelled: let us have no more Indian “wars.” We do believe in a standing army; but it should be an army of Christian school-teachers! That is the army that is going to win the victory. We are going to conquer barbarism; but we are going to do it by getting at the barbarians one by one. We are going to do it by that conquest of the individual man, woman, and child which leads to the truest civilization. We are going to conquer the Indians by a standing army of school-teachers armed with ideas, winning victories by industrial training, and by the gospel of love and the gospel of work. (For this speech, see Barrows.)
Not only had spending on “educating” Indigenous children increased from $20,000 in 1877 to $2,936,080 in 1900, but the number of children affected increased from 3,598 in 1877 to 21,568 in 1900. By 1926, approximately 86% of Indigenous children within the borders of the United States had been affected by the boarding-school system (Adams 1995, 21-27). This has had lasting effects on family life and relationships that continue to this day, so the emergence of Manifest Destiny in the 1800s and the institutionalization of its values and principles continue to affect Indigenous nations and peoples today through intergenerational trauma and lasting disruptions to families, ceremonies, and languages.
From a slightly different perspective, the lasting effects of Manifest Destiny are evident today. Charles Mills (1999) is a philosopher who focused on the racial contract, which is a subset of the domination contract. Political philosophers have used the hypothetical social contract to discuss how societies have emerged to create governments by consent with freedom, rights, property, and equality as the foundation of political life; however, Mills rightly argues that these governments by consent have been created through the domination of others who did not consent, who lost their freedom, who lost rights, who lost property, and who were devalued and dehumanized. In fact, Mills argues that behind the social contract that celebrates equality, rights, and freedom is the domination contract of white supremacy that is reinforced through legal agreements, legislation, cultural reinforcement, geographical boundaries, and other tools of domination. Manifest destiny, in the language of Mills, was an extension of the domination contract that was the DoCD that legitimized contracts of racial, religious, and cultural supremacy. Once this domination contract is made explicit, current injustices make more sense and can help us to talk about social justice in a more informed, nuanced way.
For example, red-lining is a systemic form of injustice that helped to segregate white families from other racial families, especially African-American families. Whites believed the presence of African-American families in white neighborhoods reduced the value of property, and this would make mortgages riskier to secure and back. Areas with high populations of African-Americans were colored red and were seen as risky for lenders. This is clearly part of a domination contract through economic, legal, and social agreements based on white supremacy. The values of Manifest Destiny are present here: unilateral agreement between whites as to the geographical placement and restrictions of those deemed inferior; the idea of white privilege to the best land and space, first by displacing Indigenous nations and peoples, then by restricting access to African Americans and other minorities to the land and resources; and after displacement, relocation, and restriction to resources, a lack of investment or support in those communities. Repeatedly throughout U.S. history, the assumed right of one white group to dominate resources and to expand at the expense of another racial group is often associated with cultural, racial, and religious superiority (Hill Fletcher 2017).
When thinking about the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, Manifest Destiny, and red-lining, from this new angle, they have family resemblances, namely, the exclusion of groups of people from resources while disempowering them through the consensual group rationalization of racial, religious, or cultural inferiority. Behind the supposed consensual social contract is the domination contract; with the DoCD, the focus on a legal and political contract based on religious and cultural supremacy emerges. With Manifest Destiny, a legal and political contract based on religious, cultural, and racial supremacy emerges. Red-lining can exist only after the dispossession of Indigenous lands has taken place, but the same values, principles, and ideologies are in place; the white supremacist contract guides red-lining, but in this case, African Americans are excluded from lands and are segregated. To think about and to think through Manifest Destiny is to address not only its emergence from the DoCD and the lasting influence of this Christian International Law, but to see how Manifest Destiny’s values, principles, and ideology continue to shape political discourses, legislation, military interventions, immigration, economic policies, environmental decisions, and federal law today (Saito 2010). When we see protests or read about injustices, it is a good practice to ask a couple questions: Is this issue, in some way, connected to the Doctrine of Christian Discovery? Is this issue, in some way, shaped by the values, principles, and ideology of Manifest Destiny? If you look close enough, you probably will find some connection between the history of the injustice and these important topics in U.S. history.
Adams, David Wallace. Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928. UP of Kansas, 1995.
Barrows, Isabel C., editor. Proceeding of the Ninth Annual Meeting of the Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian, 1891. The Lake Mohonk Conference, 1891.
Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. World Population to 2300. United Nations, 2004. https://aila.li/worldpop
Gross, Terry. “A ‘Forgotten History’ of How the U.S. Government Segregated America.” NPR, https://www.npr.org/2017/05/03/526655831/a-forgotten-history-of-how-the-u-s-government-segregated-america. Accessed 9 March 2023.
Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. The Federalist: With Letters of Brutus, edited by Terence Ball. Cambridge UP, 2003.
Hill Fletcher, Jeannine. The Sin of White Supremacy: Christianity, Racism, and Religious Diversity in America. Orbis Books, 2017.
“Historical Estimates of World Population.” United States Census Bureau, https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/international-programs/historical-est-worldpop.html. Accessed 9 March 2023.
Jackson, Andrew. “Second Annual Message.” Maintained online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/200833. Accessed 9 March 2023.
Jefferson, Thomas. “From Thomas Jefferson to William Ludlow, 6 September 1824.” https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/98-01-02-4523. Accessed 13 March 2023.
Johnson & Graham’s Lessee v. McIntosh, 21 U.S. 543 (1823)
Miller, Robert J. “American Indians, the Doctrine of Discovery, and Manifest Destiny.” Wyoming Law Review, vol. 11, no. 2, 2011, pp. 329-49.
—. “The Doctrine of Discovery: The International Law of Colonialism.” The Indigenous Peoples’ Journal of Law, Culture, and Resistance, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 35-42.
Mills, Charles. The Racial Contract. Cornell UP, 1999.
Newcomb, Steven T. “The Evidence of Christian Nationalism In Federal Indian Law: The Doctrine of Discovery, Johnson v. McIntosh, and Plenary Power.” New York University Review of Law & Social Change, vol. 20, no. 2, 1992-1993, pp. 303-342.
—. “The U.S. Government’s Claim of a Right of Domination.” https://doctrineofdiscovery.org/blog/us-government-claim-domination/. Accessed 13 March 2023.
Saito, Natsu Taylor. Meeting the Enemy: American Exceptionalism and International Law. New York UP, 2010.
Story, Joseph. Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States: With a Preliminary Review of the Constitutional History of the Colonies and States Before the Adoption of the Constitution. Little, Brown, and Company, 1891, 2 vols.
Robert Michael Ruehl, "Manifest Destiny," Doctrine of Discovery Project (23 March 2023), https://doctrineofdiscovery.org/blog/manifest-destiny/.