4/2/10 - manifest destiny

In today's excerpt - President James K. Polk was determined to wrest the territories of New Mexico and California from Mexico because of (partially justified) fears that the British had designs on California's ports and the tremendous economic opportunities they afforded. So, in 1846 Polk provoked a war with Mexico as a pretext most historians believe to California's ports

"Perhaps to dignify the nakedness of Polk's land lust, the American citizenry had got itself whipped into an idealistic frenzy, believing with an almost religious assurance that its republican form of government and its constitutional freedoms should extend to the benighted reaches of the continent then held by Mexico, which, with its feudal customs and Popish superstitions, stood squarely in the way of Progress. To conquer Mexico, in other words, would be to do it a favor. ...

"Whether U.S. expansionism was morally right or wrong, most Americans seemed to believe that it was inevitable—and that there was little point in resisting the tide of history. America and its ideals and institutions were spreading outward, westward, onward. The country could scarcely contain itself. The spirit of expansionism was everywhere in the air, like some beneficent germ. As the [army] volunteers of Missouri marched [to Sante Fe], they were embarked on a mission of high romance—west to the Pacific, south to the Halls of Montezuma!

"A few years earlier a young New York editor named John O'Sullivan had coined the self-justifying phrase that captured the righteous new tilt of the country. Writing in the New York Morning News, O'Sullivan argued that it was the fate of the United States, necessary and quite inexorable, to sweep westward and settle North America from sea to sea, 'to overspread and possess the whole continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.' In order to advance 'the great experiment of liberty,' the American republic must absorb new lands. It was, O'Sullivan suggested, her 'manifest destiny.'

"At universities across the country, the youth had become smitten with the notion of American exceptionalism, and students began to show their patriotic fervor in a fashionable campus craze called the Young America Movement, which, among other things, unequivocally advocated westward expansion. Even the country's literary elite seemed to buy into Manifest Destiny. Herman Melville declared that 'America can hardly be said to have any western bound but the ocean that washes Asia.' Walt Whitman thought that Mexico must be taught a 'vigorous lesson.' ... Now it was time for 'Democracy, with its manly heart and its lion strength to spurn the ligatures wherewith drivellers would bind it.' Like Polk, Whitman had his eyes on New Mexico and California, asking, 'How long a time will elapse before they shine as two new stars in our mighty firmament?' ...

"Most officials back in Washington seriously doubted whether the poor [New Mexican] desert province was, in and of itself, worth taking. Expansionists like President Polk, however, believed that the main value of this tract was its contiguity to other, more valuable places: For how could America meaningfully own California without all the country that lay between it and the existing United States? What was the point of having Pacific ports, and the hoped-for trade with China and the rest of the Orient, without also having the intervening lands? Manifest Destiny did not countenance geographical gaps and untidy voids—it was an all-or-nothing concept tied to the free flow of an envisioned commerce.

"The tantalizing dream already dancing in the heads of tycoons and politicians back east was a transcontinental railway that would connect New York and Washington to Southern California. ... In his extensive notes, Lieutenant Emory, a perspicacious West Pointer, ... saw a day when 'immense quantities of merchandise will pass into what may become the rich and populous States of Sonora, Durango, and Southern California.' "


Hampton Sides


Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West


Anchor Books a division of Random House


Copyright 2006 by Hampton Sides


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