Manifest Destiny

Manifest Destiny was the idea that the new United States was destined to spread its progressive government and civilizing influence to all corners of North America. Westward expansion proceeded at breakneck speed throughout the century, beginning with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which doubled the size of the country overnight. Texas, California, and everything in between were acquired between 1845 and 1853, mostly as a result of the Mexican-American War. Lewis and Clark’s goal of finding a contiguous water route to the Pacific failed, but they mapped, described, and claimed most of the continent for the United States, and their journey inspired generations eager for land to settle the West. Many settlers who made the overland trek with their families discovered an inhospitable wilderness, and their narratives provide poignant proof of their struggle to establish themselves on the western frontier.

Central to the idea of Manifest Destiny was the belief that the American people and their traditions and government were uniquely advanced, that it was their right and responsibility to spread this enlightenment across the continent, and that this was part of God’s revealed plan for the nation. Manifest Destiny relied on people who were already occupying new lands understanding that their claims were weaker and their cultures inferior to those of the newcomers. Reports from California and Texas were filled with the racial ideology that buttressed this idea, allowing settlers to believe that they were performing a civilizing service to the people they encountered. Mexicans, Native Americans, and Asians were all part of these lesser cultures, and could not be allowed to participate as citizens. In the case of People v. Hall, the California Supreme court decided that Asians could not even to testify against white settlers, thus stripping them of any legal recourse. Often land that was held by families for generations was taken because they could not officially prove their ownership. Voices of protest were heard from those who suffered as part of this aggressive land acquisition. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 only hastened the rush of settlers, both short and long term, who believed that the land was theirs for the taking.

When Texas founder Stephen Austin advocated for Texan independence, he made a uniquely American argument: that the oppression the settlers felt under the Mexican government was the same as those felt by the colonists under British rule, and that rights afforded to white Americans were universal, even on land belonging to another sovereign nation. He also argued that the settlement of Texas would provide a bulwark against incursions by Indian tribes and Mexico. The colonization of Texas was, in his opinion, the best way to ensure the success of the United States. As settlers gained control of Texas, they enforced a system of racial and ethnic bias that forced many native Texans to feel like foreigners in the land of their birth.