As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 110 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer

The Geographical Consequences of Manifest Destiny

Today we begin our third unit of study - Movement Westward John Gash painting "American Progress"and Manifest Destiny. This newest chapter in our story

We have come to call this period of U.S. history the era of Manifest Destiny. To get a better understanding of this era, we will begin with this famous painting - American Progress - painted by John Gast in 1872.

Three absolute beliefs were, and continue to be, attached to this idea of Manifest Destiny:

  1. Americans would geographically, politically, and economically expand to the continental limits.
  2. Americans would Americanize all people living within the continental limits.
  3. Americans would conquer both the people who resisted Americanization and the natural geographical forces that stood in their way.

These three beliefs will shape our discussion for the next four weeks.


Discussion Goals: The Geographical Consequences of Manifest Destiny

  1. To get a picture of what life was like in the United States in 1800.
  2. To gain an understanding of the expansion process that took place in North America between 1800 and 1853.
  3. To understand the reasons Americans moved westward to expand the boundaries of the United States.

Discussion Goal #1: To get a picture of what life was like in the United States in 1800

To set the stage for our discussion, let's get a mental picture of what it was like to be an Americans in 1800 when the era of Manifest Destiny was beginning.


Discussion Goal 2: To gain an understanding of the expansion process that took place in North America between 1800 and 1853

Map of US in 1800

At the turn of the 19th century, Americans began to think about how to expand their continental boundaries. As they did so, they faced several enormous obstacles:

But despite these formidable obstacles, in just 53 years, the Americans moved confidently across the continent, conquering the natural barriers, Indian Nations, and the foreign nations. And they accomplished that task without any reliable transportation - no roads or trains - and without any type of communication - no telegraphs lines or phones.

So, just how did these newly-independent people come into geographical and political control of an entire continent in just 53 years? How did they go from controlling just under 1/3 of the continent in 1800 to gaining another 1/3 from the French, almost another 1/3 from the Mexicans, the remainder of the continental U.S. from Spain and Britain, and Alaska from the Map of U.S. in 1853Russians?

The answer is that they moved aggressively and confidentally across the continent because they were armed with their strong belief in their God-given right to conquer and tame the land and to make it a safe haven for democracy. In so doing, Americans moved the geographical process of Manifest Destiny via four avenues: Purchase, Diplomacy, Appropriation, and War.

And as our geographical boundaries shifted, so did our population. As you can see below, as more land became available, more Americans moved into and populated the west in just 40 short years between 1820 and 1860.

Map U.S. population density 1820Map of U.S. population density in 1860

To summarize our understanding of expansion


Discussion Goal #3: To understand the reasons Americans moved westward to expand the boundaries of the United States

Romantic painting of American west

Five underlying reasons were largely responsible for westward expansion:

Belief in Manifest Destiny At the very heart of the American concept of geographic expansion was their belief in Manifest Destiny. This belief can best be understood from the words of one of it's strongest supporters - Senator Thomas Hart Benton - deliverd to his colleagues on May 28, 1846:

"...Since the dispersion of man upon earth, I know of no human event, past or present, which promises a greater,and more beneficent change upon earth than the arrival of the van of the Caucasian race (the Celtic-Anglo-Saxon division) upon the border of the sea which washes the shore of eastern Asia...It would seem that the white race alone received the divine command, to subdue and replenish the earth! for it is the only race that has obeyed it - the only one that hunts out new and distant lands, and even a New world, to subdue and replenish...Three and a half centuries ago, this race, in obedience to the great command, arrived in the New world, and found new lands to subdue and replenish...The van of the Caucasian race now top the Rocky Mountains, and spread down to the shores of the Pacific.  In a few years a great population will grow up there, luminous with the accumulated lights of European and American civilization...The Red race has disappeared from the Atlantic coast: the tribes that resisted civilization met extinction.  This is a cause of lamentation with many.  For my part, I cannot murmur at what seems to be the effect of divine law.  I cannot repine that this Capitol has replaced the wigwam - this Christian people replaced the savages - white matrons [replaced] the red squaws - and such men as Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson, have taken the place of Powhattan, Opechonecanough, and other red men, howsoever respectable they may have been as savages.  Civilization, or extinction, has been the fate of all people who have found themselves in the track of the advancing Whites, and civilization, always the preference of the Whites, has been pressed as an object, while extinction has followed as a consequence of its resistance."  (Source:  Congressional Globe, May 28, 1846.)

Desire to explore and map continental North America. In 1800, almost no one knew what lay beyond the Mississippi River. Fur traders told of vast prairies and high mountain ranges, but the geography between St. Louis, Missouri and the Pacific Ocean remained a vast mystery. Consequently, the federal government sponsored at least four major expeditions designed to explore and chart the vast territory of North America, to learn about environmental factors and impediments to expansion, and to make acquaintance with the native peoples in the area. And as reports eventually circulated of winding rivers, towering peaks, vast prairies, and potential riches, the desire to move westward spread - and Manifest Destiny would become a national obsession. In short, by1800, the West was merely an idea - at least in the non-Indian mind.

Search for Religious Freedom - Joseph Smith and the Mormons. In 1827, a New York farmer, Joseph Smith, claimed that an angel had led him to buried golden plates inscribed with an ancient hieroglyphic language. The Book of Mormon, translated in 1830 by Smith, tells the story of an ancient Hebrew prophet whose descendants migrated to America and created a prosperous civilization. After a series of conflicts, only two descendants were left - Mormon and his son Moroni. In the year 384, they buried the golden plates on which was written their past history. Moroni, in the form of an angel, waited for a true spiritual descendant to appear to whom he could reveal the real story of America. Morman Trail MapSmith was that descendant.

Desire to expand Democratic principles - President Jefferson had envisioned a great nation that would stretch from "sea to shining sea." But the glue that was to bind the nation together was a political ideal of one nation united in its devotion to democratic principles. This belief was in keeping with most Americans who saw it as our destiny to spread our form of government and influences across the continent.

Hope for Economic Opportunity. The vast majority of individual Americans as well as groups of Americans who either moved westward or made it possible for others to move westward were motivated by the hope of economic gain - primarily through purchasing cheap and vast amounts of land, or obtaining access to natural resources.


Conclusions - Geographic Consequences of Manifest Destiny

  1. Manifest Destiny - the belief that Americans had the God-given right to expand westward, to spread democracy, and to conquer anything and anyone as they marched across the North American continent - governed the westward movement across the North American continent between 1800-1860.
  2. Three major beliefs upheld the vision of manifest destiny:
    • Americans would geographically, politically, and economically expand to the continental limits.
    • Americans would Americanize all people living within the continental limits.
    • Americans would forcebly extinguish any attempt by peoples already living in North America to resist Americanization.
  3. The completion of America's continental borders was facilitated by four avenues for taking land: purchase, diplomacy, appropriation, and war.
  4. Five underlying reasons were largely responsible for westward expansion:
    • The belief in manifest destiny
    • The desire to explore and map out the North American Continent
    • The search for religious freedom
    • The desire to expand our democratic principles
    • The hope for economic opportunity
  5. While most Americans favored the concept and practice of manifest destiny, throughout the entire period of westward expansion, significant opposition existed.  Foremost in the opposition were anti-war activists, abolitionists, and human rights advocates.

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