Episodes, Season 2

Season 2: What is Manifest Destiny?

Manifest Destiny is a term you hear a lot when you’re learning about the history of the United States in the nineteenth century. But what is it, really? Several experts weigh in. You’ll hear from Steve Inskeep, Matthew Raffety, Amy Greenberg, Gene Allen Smith, and Brian Rouleau–and then you’ll hear a lot more from us on this season of Consolation Prize, where our first several shows will be dedicated to the consuls who went forth during the era of Manifest Destiny.

STEVE INSKEEP: Manifest Destiny was a phrase that was coined in the 1840s by an American journalist to describe the idea that America was destined to spread all the way across the continent to the Pacific coast.

MATTHEW RAFFETY: I would say Manifest Destiny is one of the trickiest, but also one of the most important things I confront in teaching about the early US. Somewhat ironically, students really seem to want to see Manifest Destiny as deus ex machina, that somehow Manifest Destiny ideology is what shaped or directed US development and expansion in the Jacksonian age. Rather, of course, it’s a post facto set of justifications. The US had been expanding physically and economically well before 1845, when the term was coined. Manifest Destiny did offer an enticing set of explanations as to how and why that expansion was taking place and legitimated the actions of so many of those who prospered from that move west. It also facilitated the erasure of indigenous claims. Who can stand in the way of a holy mission, or of civilization, or of progress? To oppose expansion was to reject an inevitable good.

AMY GREENBERG: The term is invented in 1845 to justify the annexation of Texas, which becomes an independent republican in ’36. People who live in the United States, who are white, can look at a series of territorial conquests that their nation has done and find evidence for this belief that they are really a singular nation, the United States is singular. And it’s gonna keep expanding, because that’s God’s will. And because the stuff that the United States has is just better than what other countries have.

GENE ALLEN SMITH: Jefferson, Madison and Monroe basically encouraged expansion along the Gulf Coast, at all expense other than war. The idea of Manifest Destiny had more or less been around, literally, you’d say, since 1607, or since, you know, 1620 or 1630, when, when John Winthrop gives his “Model of Christian Charity” sermon–when he said, “we’re a city upon a hill,” I mean, that’s really kind of promoting this idea, we’re an example to all others to follow. So Americans are always looking, as I often describe in class, they’re always looking toward the setting sun, that’s to the west, and the Pacific, you know. You’ve had this big hunk of land, and with the Louisiana Purchase, we had acquired a big portion of it. And we were still looking into the Southwest. But then you’ve got another ocean there.

BRIAN ROULEAU: And I think the best way to think about this is to see Manifest Destiny and maritime Manifest Destiny as two sides of the same coin. Territorial expansion and commercial expansion overseas were thought to complement one another as the United States brought more and more of the North American continent under its control. And as farms and ranches and mines spread out across the west, those entrepreneurs were looking then for international markets within which to ship all of the products being produced by this growing American empire in North America. And so it was therefore seen as entirely necessary and entirely complementary then to send thousands and thousands of American ships and sailors out into the world to track down to hunt down outlets, commercial outlets, for the for the fruits of America’s territorial empire.

RAFFETY: Manifest Destiny formed over a long period of time, and the antecedents go back to the earliest white settlements in what becomes the United States. The Puritan sense of a holy purpose, but also a sense of, of holy entitlement. The revolutionary era’s ideology of individual liberty and the notion that the US had a special mission in the history of civilization, to give an added secular philosophical component at the beginning of a national period. Finally, the growing capitalist and individualistic impulses of the Jacksonian era took the moral and religious mission gave it a commercial imperative. Really, those three aspects come together to form what becomes Manifest Destiny.

ABBY MULLEN: Consuls were at the forefront of American expansion in the 19th century. This season on Consolation Prize, we’re taking a look at some of those consuls. The experts you just heard will guide us as we consider how consuls acted within the framework of US expansionism. You might be surprised at what you hear; they don’t always act as you’d expect. Follow Consolation Prize wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss it when season two launches in just a few weeks. Consolation Prize is a podcast of R2 Studios at George Mason University. To find out what we’re up to in the studio, go to our website, r2studios.org, and sign up for our newsletter. And we’ll see you soon for season two of Consolation Prize.