What is Manifest Destiny? The Controversial History of Westward Expansion

The White House Twitter page quoted President Trump's Fourth of July speech at Mount Rushmore in a tweet that said: "Americans are the people who pursued our Manifest Destiny across the ocean, into the uncharted wilderness, over the tallest mountains, and then into the skies and even into the stars."

Manifest Destiny is a philosophy that originated in the 19th century. It is the idea that the U.S. is destined to expand its territories and ideals across the North American continent, and that the country has the God-given right to do so.

"Americans are the people who pursued our Manifest Destiny across the ocean, into the uncharted wilderness, over the tallest mountains, and then into the skies and even into the stars." pic.twitter.com/AYCgAC5oN0

— The White House (@WhiteHouse) July 7, 2020

The term "Manifest Destiny" was coined in 1845 by magazine editor John L. O'Sullivan, who wrote about the annexing of Texas and the supposed inevitability of American expansion.

Manifest Destiny was used to validate the Westward Expansion and the acquisition of Oregon, Texas, New Mexico, and California before the Civil War and was used to justify the removal of Native American people from their land.

However, the concept of Manifest Destiny existed before it had a name, which can be seen in the history of Westward Expansion. The Westward Expansion began with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which nearly doubled the size of the U.S., and was continued with the Florida Purchase Treaty in 1819.

President James Monroe used the concept of Manifest Destiny to warn European countries against interfering in the Westward Expansion of the U.S., declaring that any attempt by Europe to colonize America would be seen as an act of war.

In 1846, James K. Polk's administration negotiated the Oregon Treaty with Great Britain, which divided the territory between the U.S. and Canada.

In 1848, the Mexican-American war ended and the U.S. acquired 525,000 square miles of territory, including all or parts of what is now California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. The Wilmot Proviso was designed to eliminate slavery within this new territory.

The acquisition of more land exacerbated tensions between slaveowners and abolitionists, as the North and South states had to decide whether the newly-acquired territories would be slave states or free states—this conflict eventually resulted in the American Civil War.

Manifest Destiny
Painting entitled 'American Progress', by John Gast, depicting 'Manifest Destiny' (the religious belief that the United States should expand from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean in the name of God). In 1872 artist John Gast painted a popular scene of people moving west that captured the view of Americans at the time. Called 'Spirit of the Frontier' and widely distributed as an engraving portrayed settlers moving west, guided and protected by a goddess-like figure and aided by technology (railways, telegraphs), driving Native Americans and bison into obscurity. It is also important to note that angel is bringing the 'light' as witnessed on the eastern side of the painting as she travels towards the 'darkened' west.' USA, circa 1872. Getty/Fotosearch/Stringer

The idea of Manifest Destiny was revived with the purchase of Alaska in 1867 and gained popularity again in U.S. foreign policy in the 1890s. The Spanish-American War occurred in 1898, with the U.S. acquiring Puerto Rico as a territory, as well as the Philippines, which was a Spanish colony at the time.

The Westward Expansion worsened the conflict between the white settlers and Native Americans, Hispanic people, and other non-European occupants of the territories.

A little after Trump mentioned Manifest Destiny in his speech, he said: "We are the culture that put up the Hoover Dam, laid down the highways, and sculpted the skyline of Manhattan.

"We are the people who dreamed a spectacular dream—it was called: Las Vegas, in the Nevada desert; who built up Miami from the Florida marsh; and who carved our heroes into the face of Mount Rushmore."

Trump's speech taking place at Mount Rushmore was controversial, with leaders of two tribes of the Sioux Nation speaking out against it, but using the term Manifest Destiny at Mount Rushmore made it even more so considering how the concept was used to justify the removal of Native Americans.

The faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln were carved into the Black Hills —an area considered sacred by the Sioux people—by Gutzon Borglum, a Ku Klux Klan-linked artist, in 1941.

The president of the Oglala Sioux tribal council, Julian Bear Runner, said that Trump's Fourth of July celebration will cause an "uproar." Bear Runner cited an increase in coronavirus cases and a lack of resources as reasons why Trump's Fourth of July event should not take place at Mount Rushmore.

But Bear Runner also said: "The lands on which that mountain is carved and the lands he's about to visit belong to the Great Sioux Nation under a treaty signed in 1851 and the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and I have to tell him he doesn't have permission from its original sovereign owners to enter the territory at this time."

The land was given to Native Americans after the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 was signed, but following the discovery of gold, the federal government reclaimed the land in 1874.

The chair of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, Harold Frazier, called for the removal of the Mount Rushmore monument and even offered to remove it himself, saying in a statement: "Nothing stands as a greater reminder to the Great Sioux Nation of a country that cannot keep a promise or treaty than the faces carved into our sacred land on what the United States calls Mount Rushmore.

"This brand on our flesh needs to be removed and I am willing to do it free of charge to the United States by myself if I must."

But the Manifest Destiny philosophy still seems to be favored by Trump, as later in his speech, the president said: "Americans harnessed electricity, split the atom, and gave the world the telephone and the Internet.

"We settled the Wild West, won two World Wars, landed American astronauts on the Moon—and one day very soon, we will plant our flag on Mars."