In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Manifest Destiny

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Databases and Reference Works
  • O’Sullivan, the Democratic Review, and “Young America”
  • Biographies
  • Documentaries

American Literature Manifest Destiny
Carolyn Kuchera
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0024


Simply defined, manifest destiny refers to the 19th-century doctrine that the expansion of the United States across the continent was inevitable, justified, and benevolent. The phrase “manifest destiny” first appeared in the July 1845 Democratic Review article “Annexation” by editor John O’Sullivan. Regarding Texas, he wrote of the nation’s “manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” The phrase, with its intertwined notions of national progress and divine mission, echoes an older one. The concept of a divine mandate appears in a 1630 sermon by John Winthrop, Puritan governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, in which he declared the new settlement “a city upon a hill,” a shining example to the world based on a covenant with God. Like Winthrop’s sermon, manifest destiny is a statement of American exceptionalism. A teleological national narrative, an ideology, a mythology, and an expansionist slogan conveying the spirit of the age, manifest destiny serves many purposes. The 1840s were an era of tremendous expansion, as the national domain increased by more than 60 percent. The two major political parties, Whig and Democrat, were split on the issue of expansion, with the former group opposed and the latter in favor. President James K. Polk, a Democrat elected in 1844, promptly annexed Texas, struck a compromise with Great Britain for Oregon Territory, and declared war on Mexico in 1846. That war, arguably fought to expand a Southern slave empire, together with a brutal history of Indian removal, environmental degradation, and the hardships suffered by pioneers and industrial laborers—a typically poor, ethnically diverse, and marginalized group—casts a shadow over manifest destiny. However, the phrase also conveys pioneer hardiness, a vast and exciting wilderness, and a promising and lovely continent stretching from sea to sea for the extension of freedom and democracy. Although Frederick Jackson Turner famously declared the frontier “closed” in 1890, that decade saw a period of overseas territorial expansion, fueled in part by the Spanish-American War. The frontier remains a compelling trope, appearing in reference to space, technology, and globalization. Varying assessments of manifest destiny continue to shape scholarly discussion, as the works listed in this article make clear. For some, the phrase evokes empire and greed, while for others, it prompts feelings of national pride. This tension has enlivened American literature from its Puritan roots, to the haunted gothic world of the early 19th century, the mid-century romance, the dime western, the failed American dream in modernism, and finally to the post-apocalyptic western landscape of the last few decades.

General Overviews

The interdisciplinary works included here provide the student researcher with a solid background, and represent both the classic texts and new approaches to the topic of manifest destiny. Horsman 1981 and Merk 1963 continue to appear with frequency in studies of manifest destiny and its racial and religious dimensions, respectively. Slotkin 1973 and Smith 1950 are indispensible sources for myth studies. Stephanson 1995 and Greenberg 2011 are authoritative and commonly cited in studies of empire and expansion. Written by a historian, Hietala 2003 furnishes an accessible and illuminating look at foreign and domestic policy during the expansion era. Maybury-Lewis, et al. 2009, with essays by top scholars, offers an interdisciplinary and hemispheric take on expansion and the forces behind it.

  • Greenberg, Amy S. Manifest Destiny and Territorial Expansion: A Brief History with Documents. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2011.

    In this accessible and instructive work, Greenberg examines the political, social, and cultural contexts of manifest destiny, from its colonial origins to a rationale for westward expansion and territorial acquisition. Accompanying documents highlight varied perspectives and include letters, essays, newspaper articles, journals, political speeches, and contemporary illustrations. Undergraduate researchers find the chronology and bibliography useful.

  • Hietala, Thomas R. Manifest Design: American Exceptionalism and Empire. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003.

    Well-regarded work explores the relationship between domestic and foreign policy in the late-Jacksonian era, destroying the mythology of manifest destiny. Maintains that a desire for national stability, more than demands by individual pioneers or foreign threats, drove territorial and commercial acquisitions.

  • Horsman, Reginald. Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

    Pioneering study illuminating the existence of white superiority within mid-19th-century national ideology. Traces the origins and development of race-based ideology. Notes influence of scientific interest in race-based classification and desire to connect Anglo-Saxon background to Teutonic roots.

  • Maybury-Lewis, David, Theodore Macdonald, and Biorn Maybury-Lewis, eds. Manifest Destinies and Indigenous Peoples. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

    Volume of interdisciplinary essays from noted scholars, including: Joao Pachecho de Oliviera, Anders Stephanson, and Richard White. Examines nationalism in the Americas, specifically the ideologies and narratives that prompted and rationalized expansion. Comparative perspective includes Canada, Brazil, the United States, and Spanish America. Part of the David Rockefeller Center’s Latin American Studies series.

  • Merk, Frederick. Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History: A Reinterpretation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963.

    Landmark historical work still cited in many critical discussions. Unlike many scholars, Merk argues the theme of mission by example was sometimes rhetorically employed to limit intervention. Examines 19th-century expansionist discourse as expressed through editorials, congressional speeches, and public orations. A student of Turner’s at the University of Wisconsin.

  • Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier 1600–1860. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.

    Leveraging 17th-, 18th-, and early-19th-century popular literature, including captivity narratives, Daniel Boone stories, and works of Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Melville, Slotkin charts the formation of American frontier mythology. Demonstrates how American culture developed from settlers’ anxieties regarding the acquisition of land and removal of Native Americans.

  • Smith, Henry Nash. “The Myth of the Garden and Turner’s Frontier Hypothesis.” In Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. By Henry Nash Smith, 250–260. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1950.

    Critiques Turner’s Frontier theory through an examination of the mythic and symbolic significance of the West in American historiography. Notes that the supplanting of the frontier by urbanization and industrialization presents challenges for Turner’s attempt to connect democracy to free land. Concluding chapter of a landmark study of ideas concerning the West and the “American character.”

  • Stephanson, Anders. Manifest Destiny: American Expansionism and the Empire of Right. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.

    An examination of the effects of manifest destiny over three centuries. Focuses on the religious aspect of manifest destiny ideology. Explores the paradox between the particular and universal qualities of nationalism. The author is a Columbia professor and contributor to New Left Review and The Nation.

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