During the 1840s, a new term emerged within America. It was called ‘manifest destiny’ and had been coined by New York journalist John L. O’Sullivan in the period just before, during, and after the Mexican-American War. As explained by O’Sullivan, manifest destiny described America’s “providential mission to extend its systems of democracy, federalism, and personal freedom, as well as to accommodate its rapidly growing population by ultimately taking possession of the entire North America continent.”1 In other words, it was predestined that the American way of life developed in during its colonial period be spread throughout the country. However, to understand how America came to believe in manifest destiny, it is necessary to examine the developments that helped bring about the concept of manifest destiny during the 1840s. Those developments stem all the way back to late 18th century and are comprised of various factors.
The first factor to be considered is the issue of slavery. When the colonies were being established, particularly the southern ones, it was necessary for a great deal of land to be cleared to build homes and have extra land for farming. However, many of those who immigrated to the New World were not inclined to do the work themselves. They attempted to enslave the Native Americans they found living there, but were not completely successful in doing so. The next alternative was to utilize indentured servants, many of which were either poor Europeans or criminals sent to the colonies to reform. This solution only worked until the political, economic, and religious situation in Europe stabilized. Once that occurred, the great flow of indentured servants dried up. Therefore, to replace their labor source, beginning in the mid-1600s, colonists began using imported Africans as servants. Initially, many had the same status as indentured servants: they worked for a certain number of years and then gained their freedom. However, this eventually changed and the Africans became permanent servants.
Slaves were concentrated more in the southern colonies than in the northern ones, as it was in the south that weather and land conditions were conducive to large-scale farming. During the late 18th century, the crop of choice that was planted was tobacco. This was a labor-intensive crop, requiring a great deal of dedicated work. As a result, it was necessary for an increasing number of slaves to be imported to do the work that whites were not willing to do themselves. A more important aspect of tobacco, however, was that it could quickly exhaust the land. Therefore, it would eventually become necessary for planters to move to new land. As the need for new land to farm rose with the need for new slaves, white planters began to move further west and south, settling into areas of Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia.
As stated, tobacco was a labor-intensive crop, and could quickly exhaust the land. This along with the drop in prices during the 18th century led white planters to turn to a new crop: cotton. It would be this crop, as well as the “national and international forces resulting in the mechanization of weaving” that would encourage the “large-scales migration of whites and forced migration of slaves.”2 As white planters began investing time into this new crop, they saw the prices for raw cotton gradually and this encouraged them to continue planting cotton. Because it was just as labor-intensive as tobacco, there was an increase in the amount of slaves white planters bought. Yet, this increase in the buying of slaves would not be harmed by the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney. Instead, it would make expansion further inland in the South possible, while encouraging the “development and planting of different varieties of short-staple cotton.”3 Thus, in one way, the expansion of whites into the south and west was made possible through their insistence on utilizing the institution of slavery as part of their everyday lives.
The second factor to be considered is the purchase of a vast amount of territory that occurred during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. The Louisiana Purchase is considered to be one of the highlights of the Jefferson presidency. Yet, in spite of what is often portrayed, this landmark purchase was not an easy feat. Rather, it came about through a combination of events that ended up working out to the advantage of America.
In the late 1790s, Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in France after ending the violent phase of the French Revolution. Eventually, his power would be so great that he would become emperor of the country, in essence restoring the very monarchical power that had been overthrown at the start of the French Revolution. By the early years of the 19th century, the great power that Napoleon had was beginning to fall apart. As a result, he attempted to bolster it by attempting to bring to fruition his vision of an empire that would encompass both the Old World and the New World.
To accomplish this, one of the things he had to do was reclaim the vast Louisiana Territory from Spain. In 1800, he had signed the Treaty of Ildefonso with Spain, which stated that in return for providing Spain with a kingdom for the son-in-law of the Spanish king, Spain would return the Louisiana Territory back to France. Unfortunately, this plan collapsed due to a successful 12-year revolt of slaves and free blacks in the French colony of Saint Domingue. As a result of the victory of the blacks, French troops were forced to return home to France, thus preventing them from using Saint Domingue as a jumping-off point to go to the Louisiana Territory and reclaim it.
Meanwhile, in America, there was interest in the Louisiana Territory. Their interest stemmed from a desire to acquire land near New Orleans so American ships could sail down the Mississippi River and unload goods at the port city of New Orleans. They also wanted to acquire the entire Louisiana Territory “because so many American settlers and merchants were already living in the region and because of its vital geographic position at the mouth of the Mississippi River.” 4 Therefore, when the American government discovered that the Louisiana Territory had been transferred from Spanish to French control, President Jefferson sent Robert Livingston to France in 1801 to try and buy New Orleans.
When first approached, Napoleon refused. As a result of Livingston’s failure, President Jefferson sent James Monroe to France to make a second attempt. However, just days before Monroe arrived in France in April 1803, Napoleon abruptly changed his mind. Not only would he offer New Orleans, but the entire Louisiana Territory as well. This abrupt turnaround was due to the defeat his troops suffered at Saint Domingue, as previously explained. In the end, the final deal hammered out allowed America to buy the Louisiana Territory for “$11,250,000”; furthermore, America would assume the “claims of its own citizens against France,” which was up to “$3,750,000,” making the total purchase price come to $15 million.5 With the purchase of this vast tract of land, the size of America doubled, and presented to the white settlers what seemed like an endless supply of land to move into and cultivate.
What was not taken into account with regard to expansion was the final factor to be considered: the Native American tribes. As previously stated, during the early 19th century, there was a great deal of expansion into the lower South. However, the white settlers moving into the area had to contend with the Native Americans already living there. The lower South had been the homeland of the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole nations. To the white settlers, these Native American nations were a “hindrance to progress.”6 Because progress was of great importance to the white settlers, many of whom had European ancestry and thus believed that land and people were to be conquered, measures were taken to move the Native Americans out of their way.
One person that would stand out as a strong advocate for Indian removal was President Andrew Jackson. His desire to relocate Native Americans west began prior to his tenure as president. Between 1814 and 1824, he would lead American military forces against the Creeks and the Seminoles, causing both nations to lose a great deal of land in southern Georgia, central Alabama, and Florida. He also played an instrument role “in negotiating nine out of twelve treaties that divested southern tribes of their eastern lands in exchange for lands in the west.”7
Sadly, the Native Americans agreed to these treaties because “they wanted to appease the American government in the hopes of retaining some of their lands”8 and because they were trying to protect themselves from white harassment. The end result of these treaties was that the American government gained control over three-quarters of Alabama and Florida, as well as parts of Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky, and North Carolina. One unique aspect of this period is that it was only the time when there was “voluntary Indian migration.”9
From the mid-1820s and on into the presidency of Andrew Jackson, Indian migration would be accomplished only through great difficulty. There were some Native American nations that simply refused to leave their lands. This was the case for the Creeks and Seminoles, as both groups waged war to protect their lands. For the latter, it would take three separate wars and payment from the American government before they would move to their appointed lands in the west.
Some Native American groups attempted to use the American legal system to retain their lands. This was the case with the Cherokee nation. In 1827, they adopted their own constitution, declaring themselves to be a sovereign nation. This was based on previous treaties that the American government had made with Native Americans, in which they were described as being sovereign in order to make it easier for the Native Americans to cede their lands to America. Unfortunately, they were not recognized by the state of Georgia – where the Cherokee lived – as sovereign, “instead viewing them as tenants living on state land.”10 Taking the case to the Supreme Court resulted in defeat for the Cherokee, but when they went back again in 1831, they were more successful. They had discovered a statute from 1830 that prohibited white settlers from living on their land after March 31, 1831. Based on this statue, the Supreme Court ruled that the state of Georgia had no constitutional authority over the Cherokee. However, the ruling was ignored by the state of Georgia and by President Jackson.
Finally, some Native American groups were tricked into giving up their lands, while others simply gave in and moved of their own free will. Ultimately, attempts at removing Native Americans from the lower South would prove to be successful. By 1837, the Jackson administration could proudly state that it had “removed 46,000 Native American people from their lands east of the Mississippi River” either by force or through treaties.11 As a result of this massive removal, over 25 million acres of land was opened up to white settlers, allowing for slavery to be spread into new territories.
In conclusion, it was a combination of political and social factors that led to the massive westward expansion that occurred during the late 1700s and early 1800s. This massive expansion would also serve as the precedent for the theory of manifest destiny, which has been used since the days of the Mexican-American War to justify all attempts by America to spread its political, social, and economic might within itself and abroad. Without the three factors discussed, westward expansion within America would have taken much longer to occur.