Manifest Destiny

"Our manifest destiny is to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for
 the free development of our yearly multiplying millions."



   I. "Manifest Destiny"
       A. American continental expansionism
            1. Sweeping movement westward
                  • Louisiana Purchase → "planted the seed"
                  • War of 1812 → "opened the door"
            2. Concept & nat'l mindset
                  • aggressive spirit
                  • justification for action
       B. Term coined by John O'Sullivan (re: Texas, 1845)
            1. God earmarked most of N. Amer. for U.S. control
            2. No physical barrier or foreign force could inhibit
                  • topographical challenges
                  • technological shortcomings
                  • hostile western Indians
                  • foreign territorial claims
       C. Great westward routes
            1. Santa Fe Trail
                  • 800 miles; Independence to Santa Fe
                  • onward to Los Angeles via Old Spanish Trail
            2. Oregon Trail
                  • 2,000 miles; Independence to Portland
                  • split into California Trail to Sacramento
  II. President James K. Polk
       A. Efficient, strong-willed, calculating, humorless
            1. Pres. most identified w/ Manifest Destiny
            2. Devout Jacksonian (hence "Little Hickory")
            3. Youngest Pres. so far (49)
            4. Pledged to serve 1 term only
                  • died 3 mos. after leaving office
                  • uniquely successful
                      ✓ fulfilled all key campaign promises
                      ✓ perhaps most underrated Pres.
       B. Election of 1844
            1. Whig Party = Clay (third time's a charm?)
                  • ditched incumbent Tyler
                  • Clay rec'd enthusiastic nomination
            2. Democratic Party = Polk (who?)
                  • Van Buren lost Jackson's support (re: Texas)
                  • Calhoun couldn't win (repulsive to northerners)
            3. Democratic platform targeted Manifest Destiny
                  • Texas "reannexation" & Oregon "reoccupation"
                  • Clay's hedge on Texas annexation costly
                  • Polk's win = mandate for vigorous expansion
 III. The Oregon Country
       A. Esp. British Columbia, Oregon, Washington, Idaho
       B. Claimed by France, Spain, Russia, Britain, U.S.
            1. French occupation & withdrawal murky
                  • effectively ousted by French & Indian War defeat
                  • definitely cashed out w/ sale of Louisiana (1803)
            2. Spain 42nd parallel via Adams-Onís Treaty (1819)
            3. Russia pulls back to north of 54° 40' in 1825
            4. Britain & U.S. agree to joint occupancy (1818)
                  • settlement in far-off region not yet feasible
                  • unwilling to aggressively pursue sole control
       C. Early U.S. encroachment/settlement activity
            1. Basis for U.S. claim
                  • Capt. Robt. Gray's voyage from Boston (1792)
                      ✓ Columbia River named after Gray's ship
                      ✓ area Indians called all whites "Bostons"
                      ✓ name contest: "Portland" vs. "Boston"
                  • Lewis & Clark Expedition (1804-06)
            2. Columbia River basin & Willamette Valley
            3. Mostly fur traders & missionaries
                  • John Jacob Astor's trading post (1811)
                  • Spalding-Whitman party (1836)
            4. "Oregon Fever" = huge migration of early 1840s
                  • Burnett-Applegate wagon train (1843)
                  • settlers est. informal Oregon Terr. (1843)
                  • 1845: 6,000+ U.S. vs. 750 Br. settlers
       D. First order of business for newly-elected Polk
            1. Britain envisioned Columbia River as boundary
            2. U.S. reduced 54° 40' claim to 49th parallel
                  • British balked, hence "fifty-four forty or fight"
                  • U.S. issued 1-yr notice to abrogate 1818 treaty
                  • Britain offered compromise: 49th parallel (?!)
                      ✓ entire Vancouver Island to Britain
                      ✓ free navigation thru Strait of Juan de Fuca
            3. Terr. 1848; state 1859 (Wash & Idaho very later)
 IV. California
       A. Spain 'til 1821; part of Mexican Cession (1848)
       B. Sparsely settled into 1830s
            1. Catholic missions network north from San Diego
            2. Mexican cattlemen/ranchers
       C. Early U.S. encroachment/settlement activity
            1. Joseph Walker's party thru Sierra Nevadas (1833)
            2. John Sutter granted land rights (1839)
                  • near present-day Sacramento
                  • est'd colony of New Helvetia
                  • agents at Ft. Hall turned Oregon-bound to Cal
            3. Donner party incident (1846-47 winter)
       D. Bear Flag Republic (1846)
            1. Revolt of Californians in Sonoma
                  • raised flag w/ bear
                  • jailed Mexican commander of nearby presidio
                  • Wm. B. Ide = 25-day term as prez
             2. Gen. John C. Frémont arrived w/ 60 soldiers
                   • held off Mexican forces at Battle of Olompilia
                   • Frémont informed that Mexican War had begun
                   • Bear Flag lowered & U.S. flag hoisted
                   • Ide demoted to private in California Battalion
        E. Accelerated statehood (1850)
             1. Gold discovery near Sacramento brought 49ers
             2. Part of extensive Compromise of 1850
             3. Statehood formula (re: NW Ordinance) by-passed
   V. Webster-Ashburton Treaty (1842)
        A. 16,000 acres between Maine (U.S.) & New Brunswick (G.B.)
        B. Arbitration w/ King of Netherlands failed
        C. Ben Franklin's lost map suddenly located
  VI. The Great Basin
        A. Desert region 'tween Rocky Mtns & Sierra Nevadas
        B. Spain 'til 1821; part of Mexican Cession (1848)
        C. Exploration: Jim Bridger & Jed Smith (mid-1820s)
        D. Settlement: Mormons under Brigham Young (1847)
        E. Statehood process unusually long
             1. Terr. of Deseret denied
             2. Utah Terr. created instead
             3. Statehood in 1896
 VII. Texas
        A. Spain 'til 1821; Mexico 'til 1836; U.S. state in 1845
        B. Empresario system encouraged by Spain/Mexico
             1. Stephen Austin #1 / 25 others later
                   • colonization (100-300 families)
                   • practically free land + exemption from taxes
             2. Requirements
                   • Roman Catholic
                   • no slavery
                   • adhere to Mexican law (citizenship)
             3. Benefits
                   • economic enrichment
                   • buffer zone vs. hostile Indians
                   • upstanding people (system itself assured)
             4. Problems
                   • settlers considered themselves Americans
                   • 90% southern (Protestant; pro-cotton/slave)
                   • 1830: 20,000 Americans + 2,000 slaves
                   • U.S. thrice attempted to purchase Texas
                   • Pres. Jackson = expansionist & military man
        C. Mexico attempted to extinguish American influx
             1. No more immigration + stiff taxes on imports
             2. U.S. flow unaffected; hostile toward Mexico
             3. Austin's petition of greater autonomy (1833)
                   • Santa Anna denied; Austin jailed (18 mos.)
                   • resistance mounted; skirmishes occurred
                   • Santa Anna marches north
                   • Texas forces under Sam Houston (Tenn)
        D. Siege of the Alamo (Feb/Mar 1836)
             1. Wm. Travis; Jim Bowie; Davy Crockett
             2. 6,000 Mexicans vs. 180+ Alamo insurgents
             3. Goliad = 3 wks. later (300 brutal casualties)
        E. Battle of San Jacinto (Apr)
             1. "Remember the Alamo!"
             2. Santa Anna surprised by Houston
             3. Lone Star Republic est'd w/ Houston as prez
VIII. Mexican War
        A. Texas annexation destined, but delayed
             1. Might mean full-scale war w/ Mexico
             2. Would disrupt free & slave state balance
             3. Texas impatience = close ties w/ Britain
                   • alternate cotton source & new low-tariff market
                   • might affect slavery (Britain had abolished prior)
             4. Presidential action
                   • none by Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison
                   • initiated by Tyler
                       ✓ sectional issue (Calhoun new Sec. of State)
                       ✓ denied by north & west senators (2/3 vote)
                   • hurried by Polk's election & nat'l sentiment
                       ✓ "reannexation" = implied part of Louisiana
                       ✓ O'Sullivan: "manifest destiny" editorial
                   • joint resolution of Congress (simple majority)
        B. Mexico furious w/ U.S. regarding Texas annexation
        C. Border dispute! Rio Grande or Nueces River?
             1. Gen. Zachary Taylor to area in Jul 1845
             2. Dear Mexico: "Here's an offer you can't refuse"
                   • Taylor attacked w/ 11 casualties in Apr 1846
                   • Pres. Polk to Congress: "War exists"
                       ✓ address pre-written by Polk
                       ✓ matter treated as fait accompli
                   • Calhoun, Clay, Webster, Lincoln opposed war
             3. How clear was the result? Nicholson: "Crystal"
                   • Gen. Santa Anna vs. Gen. Winfield Scott
                   • U.S. controlled northern Mexico by Feb 1847
                   • Mexico City fell in Sep 1847
        D. Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo (delayed 'til Feb 1848)
             1. Rio Grande boundary between U.S. & Mexico
             2. New Mexico & upper California ceded to U.S.
             3. U.S. paid Mexico $15 million ("conscience fee")
             4. U.S. assumed $3+ million Mexican debt
        E. Gadsden Purchase (1853)
             1. Southern strip of Ariz & N Mex for $10 million
             2. Completed continental U.S. outline




  • John L. O'Sullivan
  • Caroline incident
  • Aroostook War
  • Webster-Ashburton Treaty
  • Stephen Austin
  • empresario system
  • "Old Three Hundred"
  • Antonio López de Santa Anna
  • Sam Houston
  • "Remember the Alamo!"
  • Battle of San Jacinto
  • "Yellow Rose of Texas"
  • Lone Star Republic
  • Robert Gray
  • Willamette Valley
  • Columbia River
  • Oregon Fever
  • First Organic Laws
  • "fifty-four forty or fight"
  • 49th parallel
  • Vancouver Island
  • Strait of Juan de Fuca
  • Oregon Trail
  • Santa Fe Trail
  • Joseph Smith, Jr.
  • Great Basin
  • Brigham Young
  • Deseret
  • "Buchanan's blunder"
  • Mountain Meadows massacre
  • John Sutter
  • 49ers
  • Bear Flag Republic
  • John Frémont
  • Rio Grande & Nueces River
  • Polk's "war exists" vs. Lincoln's "spot resolutions"
  • Zachary Taylor & Winfield Scott
  • Nicholas Trist
  • Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
  • Mexican Cession
  • Gadsden Purchase
  • Free Soil Party
  • "dark horse" candidate

Three Roads to the Alamo: David Crockett, James Bowie, and William B. Travis by William C. Davis
Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire by Peter Stark


  • William B. Travis: Letter from the Alamo urging reinforcements (1836)
  • Jesse Applegate: Pioneer's description of traveling the Oregon Trail in "A Day with the Cow Column in 1843" in Oregon Historical Quarterly (event 1843; written 1900)
  • John L. O'Sullivan: "To Overspread the Continent" in United States Magazine and Democratic Review (1845)
  • James K. Polk: War Message against Mexico (1846)


1.  Describe what is meant by "manifest destiny." In what ways did the concept of
     manifest destiny affect the foreign and domestic policies of the United States during
     the years from 1830 through 1850?

2.  "Although Americans perceived manifest destiny as a benevolent movement, it was
     in fact an aggressive imperialism pursued at the expense of others." Assess the
     validity of this statement.

3.  Discuss the emergence of expansionist sentiment in the 1830s and explain the
     debates over the Texas and Oregon territories.

4.  "The Mexican War was a premeditated affair resulting from a deliberately calculated
     scheme of robbery on the part of a superior power against a weak and defenseless
     neighbor." Assess the validity of this statement.

5.  Evaluate James K. Polk as President relative to his expansionist efforts in the era of
     manifest destiny.

6.  Compare the expansionist foreign policies of Thomas Jefferson and James K. Polk.
     To what extent did the policies of these two Presidents strengthen the United States?


  1. The concept of "manifest destiny" was actualized in all of the following forms except
    1. movement.
    2. spirit.
    3. justification.
    4. diplomacy.

  2. The primary area of settlement for pioneers in the Oregon Country was
    1. the Willamette Valley.
    2. Vancouver Island.
    3. the Yakima Valley.
    4. the Pacific seaboard.

  3. John L. O'Sullivan coined the term "manifest destiny" in specific reference to
    1. the Pacific Northwest.
    2. any western lands rich in gold or silver.
    3. the entire unsettled region west of the Mississippi River.
    4. the Republic of Texas.

  4. The final portion of right-of-way for an eventual transcontinental railway stretching from New Orleans to Los Angeles was secured by the
    1. Gadsden Purchase.
    2. Compromise of 1850.
    3. Mexican Cession.
    4. Webster-Ashburton Treaty.

  5. The correct chronological order in which these areas were annexed to the United States is
    1. Texas, Oregon Country, Great Basin, Gadsden Purchase.
    2. Gadsden Purchase, Great Basin, Texas, Oregon Country.
    3. Oregon Country, Texas, Gadsden Purchase, Great Basin.
    4. Great Basin, Gadsden Purchase, Oregon Country, Texas.

Some South Dakota state officials envisioned another sort of rock sculpture than what appears today on Mount Rushmore. The most popular offering called for several huge heads to be carved on the Needles, a series of distinctive stone spires found elsewhere in the Black Hills. The finished work would honor American Indian and white heroes of the Old West, such as Sacajawea, Red Cloud, Jim Bridger, and John Frémont. Gutzon Borglum's plan, however, was quite different. Click on the Needles to obtain LECTURE GUIDE for this unit.


 Tessa Adams & Ali Jones '10



"James K. Polk"   by They Might Be Giants