10 Events in the Path of Manifest Destiny

10 Events in the Path of Manifest Destiny

Larry Holzwarth - May 30, 2018

Manifest Destiny – the term used to describe the inevitability of American domination of the North American continent – has always been ill-defined and somewhat vague. It was and is based in the belief that the American people possessed a divine blessing and that it was a moral and spiritual duty to spread democracy and Christianity across the continent and the world. It was not as popular a concept as most believe today, Abraham Lincoln opposed it, as did Henry Clay, Ulysses S. Grant, Martin Van Buren, Grover Cleveland, Mark Twain, and many other prominent leaders. Even the origination of the term is somewhat vague.

The concept was originally called divine destiny by John L. O’Sullivan, a journalist who wrote of the duty of the United States “to establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man.” Six years later he called his concept of America’s duty to spread its divine blessings manifest destiny. Cited through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by expansionists, manifest destiny led to wars with Mexico and Spain, border disputes with England and Mexico, and the acquisition of overseas territories. It was far more than simply settling the continental United States.

10 Events in the Path of Manifest Destiny
A painting by John Gast depicting the concept of Manifest Destiny. Library of Congress

Here are ten consequences of the concept of manifest destiny and the belief that it was America’s divinely appointed mission.

10 Events in the Path of Manifest Destiny
The great westward expansion into the lands of the Louisiana Purchase began in earnest after the war of 1812. Smithsonian

The Louisiana Purchase and the beginning of expansion

The concept of manifest destiny was not uttered by that name until 1845, but it really began with the Louisiana Purchase. The area of the United States doubled in size, and the idea that American democracy should and would be expanded into the new territory took hold. Political leaders in Washington of both parties seized upon the idea that such expansion was a moral imperative. The Louisiana Purchase also led to the increase in sectionalism that eventually led to the American Civil War. Not all politicians supported expansion into the West because of the slavery issue.

Northern Whigs opposed the idea of the creation of additional slave states while Southern Democratic-Republicans were eager to move into the territories of the West. The issue was largely dormant until the War of 1812, during which the United States sought to invade and conquer parts of Canada to secure its northern borders from future British transgression. The War of 1812 ended on the basis of Status Quo Antebellum, meaning there were no changes to borders or cession of territory by either belligerent. The United States also rejected a British proposal to establish an Indian state below the Great Lakes.

One reason the British proposed the Indian State was to stop American expansion across the continent, where they had significant fur trading interests in the Oregon Country. American victories in the war effectively ended the Indian threat east of the Mississippi River in the North and South and the settlements of the Midwestern and Southern states grew rapidly. By the 1820s American settlers were pouring into Texas, then a province of Mexico, at the invitation of the Mexican government. Many of these settlers were slaveowners from the Southern states of Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi.

In 1829 the President of the United States of Mexico, as it was then styled by its constitution, abolished slavery by presidential order, freeing all slaves in the Republic, including those in the Mexican state of Coahuila and Texas. It became one of the leading issues of the Texas Revolution, when leaders in Texas claimed that the Mexican constitution did not address the issue of slavery nor give the President the authority to abolish the practice. The Mexicans were preoccupied by Spanish attempts to reconquer Mexico and did not have the manpower to intervene in Texas, as more and more Americans immigrated to the Mexican state.

In 1836 the Texas Revolution, with its battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto, established its independence from Mexico. The Republic of Texas drafted its own constitution, following the requirements which would make it eligible for statehood, and allowing slavery within its boundaries. It then requested annexation by the United States. The annexation of Texas would be one of the early tests of the concept of manifest destiny, and led to some of the strongest arguments for and against its existence as a divinely assigned duty of the United States. Texas and the debates over its annexation generated began the political decline of the United States into Civil War.

10 Events in the Path of Manifest Destiny
James Knox Polk – seen here with his wife Sarah – supported seizing all of Oregon as a candidate, but compromised once he became President. Wikimedia


The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 warned European nations against the expansion of territories in the New World, essentially closing it to European colonization. The Europeans didn’t go away. There were the Spanish in Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean, where the British and Dutch also had interests, the Russians in California, and the British in Canada. The Canadian boundary with the United States had been set as far as the Rocky Mountains, to the west, in the Oregon Territory, it was not. The old fur trail known as the Oregon Trail allowed Americans to migrate to the country, rich in lumber and furs. It was disputes between American and British fur traders which led to the Oregon dispute.

As President, John Tyler proposed a division of the Oregon Territory along the 49th parallel, with the British keeping the portion north of the parallel. The British, who did not want to lose access to the Columbia River, rejected Tyler’s offer and instead proposed that the Columbia serve as the border between the American Oregon Territory and British Canada. This was viewed by expansionists as arrogant and an attempt to acquire American territory through threats (the British proposal meant that what became the State of Washington would be Canadian territory). The expansionists demanded the entire Oregon Territory up to its then border with Alaska.

The debate was carried over into the Presidential election of 1844, and as in most presidential elections the issue was exaggerated between the opponents. There were demands for taking the entire territory from Great Britain by force if necessary and the slogan 54 40 or Fight was heard (referring to the latitude of the border with Alaska), though it was not a campaign slogan as is commonly believed. Although the Americans and British had a joint occupancy agreement in place, there were far more American settlers than British, who used the territory as a fur, lumber, and trading region.

James K. Polk adopted the side of the expansionists during the Presidential campaign, though not advocating the use of force, and won election by a narrow margin on a platform which included the United States annexing the entirety of Oregon. After entering office Polk announced he was terminating the joint occupation agreement, and offered the same proposal which his predecessor had, with the territory divided more or less equally. The British decided to accept the offer, and the 1846 Oregon Treaty formalized the agreement. The Senate easily ratified the treaty, in part because the looming war with Mexico made another war with Great Britain unwise.

It was during the Oregon dispute that the term manifest destiny was coined by John L. Sullivan. It was meant to signify the duty imposed by Divine Providence on the United States to spread its virtues and blessings across the continent, actions which clearly would not be taken by the British Empire, since they lacked American virtues. Manifest Destiny was presented as an argument for war, as it ensured that a war would be in the cause of good, rather than conquest as it would be by Great Britain. Wrote O’Sullivan of America’s right to claim all of Oregon, “And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us…”

10 Events in the Path of Manifest Destiny
After Texas won its independence following the Battle of San Jacinto it took almost ten years for it to become the 28th state. Wikimedia

The annexation of Texas

The Whigs in Congress opposed the concept of manifest destiny, deriding its reference to Divine Providence as a means of justifying actions which were motivated by more secular goals. While the argument over the Oregon dispute went on the new phrase was seized by the Democrats as justification for the annexation of Texas, which had been requested by the Republic of Texas, although the area was still claimed by the Mexican government as its territory. Annexation of Texas was a major issue of the 1844 Presidential election, along the same lines as the Oregon dispute. That year President Tyler negotiated a treaty of annexation with Sam Houston and presented it to the Senate.

The Senate overwhelmingly defeated the annexation treaty in June, 1844. After Polk won election that fall Tyler presented the treaty to both houses, which passed them after entering a compromise which provided the incoming Polk the option of annexation or renegotiation of the treaty. Tyler presented the bill to the Texas government on his last day of office and the incoming Polk urged Texas to ratify, which it did, and Texas formally entered the United States as the 28th state, officially yielding sovereignty in February 1846. Because of yet unresolved issues with Mexico, relations deteriorated rapidly, and the Mexican-American War began later that year.

The land between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers was disputed throughout the existence of the Republic of Texas, and remained unresolved after annexation. After Polk offered to compensate the Mexican government if it accepted the Rio Grande as the southern border, which they rejected, he placed American troops in the disputed area. After a clash of forces in the disputed area Polk announced that American territory had been invaded and Congress declared war. There was little debate. During the lead up to the war the cries of manifest destiny, in reference first to the annexation of Texas and then the seizure of the disputed territory were loud among the southern Democrats.

The Americans held several advantages in the Mexican War, the first in which graduates of the United States Military Academy took part, and several early victories increased the cries of manifest destiny to include the US seizure of all of Mexico. Senator John C. Calhoun was a supporter of manifest destiny and the annexation of Texas (a slave state) but opposed the annexation of Mexico. “We have never dreamed of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race…” he argued in the Senate. Calhoun thus distanced himself from the duty aspects of manifest destiny for racial causes. The annexation of Mexico would have meant the granting of American citizenship to Mexicans, non-whites for the most part.

The debate continued as the war went on, with many in the east arguing for the annexation of all Mexico, which at the time included all of California and what later became the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and parts of others. The manifest destiny argument was promoted by much of the North, and abandoned by much of the South. The Northern contingent believed it would promote national security and forever secure an anti-slavery majority, the South opposed it for racial and religious reasons, fearful of an introduction of a large number of Catholics. The issue was still being debated when peace commissioners met following Mexico’s military defeat.

10 Events in the Path of Manifest Destiny
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the War with Mexico and created the third largest land acquisition in US history. Wikimedia

The Mexican Cessions

The cries of manifest destiny and the All Mexico Movement they inspired (as in the earlier All Oregon movement) did not succeed in bringing about the annexation of all Mexico. Nor had they succeeded in acquiring all of Oregon. The compromise with the British over Oregon was to avert the threat of war, the compromise with the Mexican government was with a defeated enemy. US Peace Commissioners did not insist on annexation of the territories held by US Armies in Mexico. Instead they concentrated on the lands which now make up the American Southwest. The Mexican Cessions were the third largest land acquisition in American history, following the Louisiana Purchase and the Alaska Purchase.

The vehicle through which the cessions occurred was the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The territories which were ceded to the United States in the treaty were sparsely populated for the most part, which made the treaty acceptable to the southerners who had argued against allowing non-whites American citizenship by annexation. Its vast lands, including all of California, meant that the United States controlled all of the territory which would eventually become the contiguous forty eight states, after some border adjustments negotiated through other treaties. For fervent proponents of manifest destiny, America’s victory and the cession of the Mexican lands was proof of the concept.

The language of the treaty did not openly cede the lands to the United States, instead it redefined Mexico’s border with the United States. This allowed the cession to appear as voluntary, rather than the United States seizing the land by right of conquest. Mexico was compensated for the land by $15 million when the Senate ratified the Treaty. The compensation did not transfer any money to Mexico, instead it was credited to Mexico’s debt to the United States, part of which was from allowing itself to be defeated by the Americans during the war. Since 1821, when Mexico became independent from Spain, 54% of its territory had been lost to the United States.

The seizure of the formerly Mexican lands exacerbated the growing issue of abolitionism in the United States, and for the next decade America drew ever closer to Civil War. The issue of whether states and territories formed from the newly acquired lands should be slave or free led to increasingly hostile debate in Congress, raised further by the strident voices of the abolitionists in the North, and state’s rights advocates of the South. Only a year following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, gold was discovered in California, to be followed by the fabulous silver strikes in Nevada. California became a state in 1850. Settlers streamed to the west.

America’s manifest destiny proponents were not silent in the debate over slavery, with those of the North believing that manifest destiny applied to the slave states as it did to the unsettled lands of the west. Settlement of the formerly Mexican lands began immediately, where it was opposed by the residents already there, the American Indians. In some areas of the United States, but very few, Indians had been assimilated into the population. The western tribes were something Americans, other than trappers and explorers, had not encountered before, more nomadic, and less reliant on grown crops as those of the east had been. Manifest destiny would soon affect them too.

10 Events in the Path of Manifest Destiny
William Walker and other filibusters believed it their duty to spread American virtues to foreign lands. They weren’t warmly welcomed. Library of Congress

The Filibusters

Proponents of manifest destiny did not stop with the end of the Mexican War and the Mexican Cessions. The fierce debates and the radicals on both sides of the slavery issue were loudly calling for action and the voices of compromise were few and far between. The spread of American virtues as part of an ongoing mission could no longer be the role of government as it struggled to hold the Union together during the 1850s. Many of the more ardent believers in the concept of manifest destiny took matters into their own hands. They used the technique of military filibustering.

Before filibuster meant the hijacking of the US Congress by holding the floor indefinitely, it was a term applied to militants who acted without approval or support of legally constituted authority (although at times that authority was a covert partner). One example was William Walker, who eyed the Mexican peninsula of Baja California and decided under manifest destiny it was his duty to spread American virtue and the blessings of liberty to the populace there. He found the populace less than enthused about the idea, and his attempt failed. After returning to California, where he was tried for inciting a war and acquitted in eight minutes, he decided his duty lay in Nicaragua.

Nicaragua was a major trade route between California and the east, as it offered a passage by water across the southern portion of the country. In 1854 Nicaragua was involved in a civil war between Conservatives and Democrats, and Walker obtained a contract to serve as a mercenary for the Democrats. He landed in Nicaragua with sixty men he had recruited. Supported by Democratic troops, Walker defeated the Conservatives and established himself as de facto ruler of Nicaragua, obtaining recognition from US President Franklin Pierce in 1856. He then nationalized the steamboat lines owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt, creating a powerful enemy.

Vanderbilt dispatched agents to regain control of his property, which provided a supply line for Walker’s troops. Meanwhile Walker established American virtue and liberty by holding a rigged election in which he became President of Nicaragua. He then began to court immigration and support from the Southern United States, reinstituted slavery, declared English to be the official language, and introduced a new monetary system. The Nicaraguan experiment was opposed by its neighbors and Walker was eventually defeated in the war he had started, and surrendered to the US Navy.

Repatriated to New York, he was soon off on another attempt to spread manifest destiny to Central America, this in Honduras. After misadventures there he was executed by the government of Honduras. There were many other filibusters before the American Civil War, including attempts to carry American manifest destiny to Cuba, Canada, and in the countries of Central America, causing President Millard Fillmore to address the issue in his annual message to Congress, now referred to as the State of the Union Address. Fillmore spent more time discussing filibustering than he did the rising threats of secession in the South.

10 Events in the Path of Manifest Destiny
The nomadic plains Indians were shouldered aside by the proponents of manifest destiny. Cincinnati Art Museum

The American Indians and manifest destiny

In the Washington Administration his first Secretary of War, Henry Knox, formulated the manner in which lands could be purchased from the American Indian tribes. It was established that only the Federal Government could purchase the lands, by negotiating with the leaders of the tribes which claimed them, with the process formalized via a treaty. The treaties were not for the purpose of displacing the Indians, unless they so wished, instead official government policy was to encourage them to be assimilated into American society. Following the War of 1812 this policy changed to one of Indian removal.

The Indian Removal was justified in the eyes of the proponents of manifest destiny because they, just as did other “civilized” nations, stood as an obstacle in the path of a duty of imposed by Divine Providence. In 1862, with the United States at war with itself, Abraham Lincoln pushed Congress to pass the Homestead Act, long stalled in Congress prior to the Civil War. After the Southern states seceded their Representatives and Senators, who had opposed the act as it would add to the majority of non-slave states, were absent. Congress passed the act which opened much of the land obtained from the Mexican Cessions to settlement.

The Homestead Act of 1862 offered nearly free land to adults who had not joined the rebellion against the Union. Immigrants who had applied for citizenship were included in those who could apply, and were often encouraged to do so. Andrew Johnson was a major proponent of the act. Qualified applicants received a tract of 160 acres, with the proviso that they must occupy the land, erect improvements, and operate a farm. The land was to be properly titled by the territorial government in which it was located. After the minimum five year period fulfilled the contract with the government the owner was free to do what he wished with the land, or any portion of the holdings.

Both during and in the aftermath of the Civil War (when the act was extended to include former slaves) settlers streamed into the West. This obviously pushed back on the Indians who saw the open ranges for bison being broken into farms, and settlements appearing along the under construction transcontinental railroad. To the proponents of manifest destiny the remaining Indians on the plains needed to be removed. Leading advocates of manifest destiny for the most part welcomed some of the immigrants who came to America to avail themselves of the Homestead Act, depending upon which country they came from. Others did not.

Recognizing that the Indians would fight led to a campaign to eliminate much of the Plains Indians food supply, through the destruction of the buffalo herds on which they depended for food and shelter. The fate of the Indians as the Western lands were increasingly settled could no longer be relocation to sites further west but to reservations upon which their way of living could no longer be achieved. Manifest destiny meant the duty to subdue and improve all of the land so that all could enjoy the gifts of American liberty and the perfection of American democracy. It was the duty of white men, all across the lands held by the United States, according to its supporters.

10 Events in the Path of Manifest Destiny

George Alfred Thompson, Mark Twain, and Buffalo Courier editor David Gray (right) all staunch opponents of the concept of America’s manifest destiny. Library of Congress

The Components of manifest destiny

At its core, the concept of manifest destiny was entwined in the belief that the success of the United States was foreordained by God. Throughout its history references to the Almighty having bestowed the United States with opportunities to be had nowhere else on Earth have been uttered by its leaders. Abraham Lincoln referred to the United States as the “last, best hope of Earth”. The Declaration of Independence placed a “firm reliance” on the belief that its signers and the nation it created were protected by “Divine Providence”. This core belief led to another element of the concept, that of the virtues of the American political system.

Since the Founding Fathers were divinely guided in their work it was only logical that the system they created was blessed with virtues which exceeded all other forms of government. The proponents of the concept of manifest destiny extolled these virtues both as they pushed westward expansion and they called for war with societies which stood in the way, since those societies were obviously (to them) inferior. John L. O’Sullivan, who coined the term in 1845, claimed that it reflected the need for the United States to “…establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man.” O’Sullivan, however did not support war as a means of completing America’s manifest destiny.

It was O’Sullivan’s belief that other nations would observe the superiority of the American system and the success of its citizens, and desirous of the same for themselves would either adopt the American system or petition to join as another state, with each state in effect a republic. This was a far cry from the practices and events which were the result of the manifest destiny advocates which came after him. Once the southern democrats, who wanted America to remain a largely agrarian society, came to support manifest destiny – at least as it pertained to free whites – it became a subject of ridicule among those supporting industrialization.

Manifest destiny is often considered to have been complete shortly after the Civil War, with the reduction of the American Indians on the Great Plains and in the Southwest, and the settlement of the West. This is incorrect. From its inception the belief extended to the United States’ duty to bring the virtues of its systems to the rest of the world. Although the term fell out of use gradually during the last half of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, it remained very much a part of American expansion as it acquired overseas territories and engaged in other wars.

Following the Civil War and the completion of Reconstruction the United States became more involved in international affairs. The purchase of Alaska extended America’s borders far into the Pacific via the long chain of the Aleutian Islands. The United States had long coveted the island of Cuba, as well as key Pacific possessions for the support of its Navy and for the riches they offered. Manifest destiny did not stop with the conquest of the continental United States. It expanded as the believers in the concept continued to pursue their goal, expressed by O’Sullivan as the “…moral dignity and salvation of man.

10 Events in the Path of Manifest Destiny
The sunken USS Maine in Havana Harbor, colors still flying from its mast, was used to justify America’s declaration of war on Spain in 1898. Library of Congress

Manifest destiny and the Spanish American War

In the mid-1880s politicians, scholars, editors, and ministers continued to support the concept that it was America’s manifest destiny to be the guiding light of the world. America was claimed to have perfected liberty for its inhabitants, which probably came as a surprise to the former slaves and their descendants in the segregated South, as well as the immigrants living in the tenements of the Northern cities. American women were still seeking the vote, with little support and less success. For the proponents of manifest destiny was time to move the concept of American virtues overseas, and the revolution against Spanish rule in Cuba was an opportunity to bring them to the benighted island.

During the Spanish American War the United States Navy destroyed Spanish Naval squadrons in the Philippines and Cuba, and swept aside Spanish troops on the island of Cuba. Cuba had long been a target for American expansion, but the United States did not retain the island following the brief war with Spain. The United States did however expand into the Pacific by forcing Spain to cede the Philippines and Guam. In the Caribbean the US claimed the island of Puerto Rico. That same year President William McKinley annexed the Hawaiian Islands, formerly the Republic of Hawaii, claiming that the United States needed the islands, “…as much and a good deal more than we needed California. It is manifest destiny.”

The annexation of Hawaii included Midway Island (which is actually an island group), Palmyra Island, and Johnston Island, among others. Manifest destiny extended into the Pacific. Part of the reason was the need to maintain overseas coaling stations for the coal burning ships of the day, and part of the reason was to deny their use by potential enemies. The Pacific islands were acquired as colonial possessions, rather than as territories intended to become additional states, for over a century all have remained US possessions (other than the Philippines and the state of Hawaii). Cuba was considered a protectorate of the United States.

The Spanish American War was the end of Spain as an imperial power and as an international power, a gap into which the American government promptly stepped. What some called manifest destiny others, including Grover Cleveland, called imperialism, since none of the territories acquired by the United States were likely to become states. Hawaii finally did, after years of heavy American military presence altered the demographic makeup of the islands. Within a few years of seizing the former Spanish territories, the United States acquired the Canal Zone, a step in the completion of the Panama Canal begun by France, which they had failed to complete.

The great empires of Europe, the Russian, German, French, and of course the global British Empire, viewed this expression of manifest destiny, if that is what it was, with increasing alarm. The Germans, British, and Dutch competed for the wealth of the Southwest Pacific, with its reserves of oil, rubber, and coal. So did the emerging Japanese empire. From the end of the Spanish American War through the end of the Cold War the United States considered the Pacific to be a vital part of its national interests, and still maintains military bases and satellite tracking and communications stations throughout its vast expanse.

10 Events in the Path of Manifest Destiny
In this cartoon based on a Rudyard Kipling poem, John Bull and Uncle Sam carry other ethnic peoples towards civilization. The Ohio State University

Manifest Destiny and Racism

After the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish American War, the Philippines became an American territory, ceded by Spain but not surrendered by the Filipinos. America inherited a war, which quickly became both bloody and controversial. In the Senate, during the debate over ratification of the Treaty of Paris which ended the war, several Senators opposed the US takeover of the islands. Senator Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina, an unapologetic white supremacist, argued on the Senate floor against ratification of the treaty. “Why are we bent on forcing upon them a civilization not suited to them…” Tillman demanded.

Tillman also read aloud on the floor of the Senate several stanzas from a poem by the English writer Rudyard Kipling, which was published in the New York Sun three days later. The poem was entitled The White Man’s Burden, and was written to address the American occupation of the Philippines. Its publication was intended to garner support for the Treaty of Paris. It directly linked with the American concept of manifest destiny. The poem exhorted Americans to meet the need to supervise and civilize the “captive peoples” that were “half devil and half child”. Its publication both supported imperialist ambition and defined the subjugated as being made better by the imperialists.

The poem reintroduced the idea of divine duty, as it was a portion of the idea of manifest destiny, but expanded it beyond the American ideal to all of the white race. It met immediate resistance in the United States, notably from Mark Twain. Twain’s response was the essay To the Person Sitting in Darkness, a stinging paper condemning the idea of Empire as improving the lives of the subjugated people. Twain compared the imperialist ambitions of the United States to those of the Kaiser’s Germany and Russia under the Czar, directly listing President McKinley as being their peer and compatriot.

Kipling sent the poem to Theodore Roosevelt, Governor of New York at the time, urging him to use the poem to help support ratification of the Treaty of Paris, accompanied by a letter in which Kipling wrote, “American has gone and stuck a pick-axe into the foundations of a rotten house, and she is morally bound to build the house over, again, from the foundations, or have it all fall about her ears.” Roosevelt agreed, and avidly supported the Treaty of Paris and the American occupation of the Philippines. Roosevelt had been an enthusiastic backer of war with Spain and the opportunity to spread American democracy to the Pacific and in the Caribbean.

Kipling’s poem and the believers in the concept of manifest destiny found common ground in the need to improve the lives of people whom Kipling referred to as “half devil and half child.” The Philippine American War and subsequent rebellions such as the Moro Rebellion would plague American troops in the islands for over a decade, as the Filipino people rejected American manifest destiny, determined to find their own. Over a hundred thousand civilians and rebel troops died in the Philippine American War. Eventually the Philippines obtained independence in 1946, but the US military presence remained for decades.

10 Events in the Path of Manifest Destiny
A cartoon in Puck lampoons Uncle Sam and Columbia caring for the less enlightened of the world, a facet of manifest destiny. Wikimedia

Overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii

The Kingdom of Hawaii was an independent nation, so recognized by the United States, which relied on trade with several nations for its economic survival. Sugar was a major product for export, and American sugar plantations owners developed increased influence in the Hawaiian government over time. Sugar tariffs between the United States and Hawaii were a longstanding source of friction between the sugar plantation owners, the government of the islands, and the US government. Between the 1860s and the 1890s Hawaii suffered numerous open rebellions and changes to its constitution and form of government, all of them with the active participation of American residents of the islands.

In January 1893 a group of conspirators overthrew the ruling dynasty of the Hawaiian Islands and created a provisional government with Sanford B. Dole as its president. The coup was supported by a detachment of US Marines under the orders of US Minister to Hawaii John Stevens. The presence of the Marines was explained as being necessary to protect property owned by Americans in the islands, and to ensure the safety of the Americans and Europeans present. A detachment of sailors from USS Boston also participated in the coup. The goal of the conspirators was the annexation of the islands by the United States.

Sanford Dole was a believer in manifest destiny who sought the westernization of Hawaii under the model of American democracy. He believed that the adoption of American culture would better the Hawaiians, at the same time improving relations with other nations. After the overthrow of the monarchy Dole attempted to have Hawaii annexed by the United States, but found his efforts blocked by President Grover Cleveland, an adherent to the belief that manifest destiny was little more than imperialist ambition. Dole’s efforts were supported by the sugar and coffee planters, mostly American, in the islands.

Lobbyists working for Dole’s provisional government labored in Washington for annexation, finding support from the advocates for America’s manifest destiny, which increased as tensions with Spain over the Philippines and Cuba were exaggerated by the yellow journalists of the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt argued for the annexation of the islands for use as a naval coaling station for the Pacific fleet. When William McKinley assumed the Presidency he moved to annex Hawaii as the Territory of Hawaii and appointed Dole as the territorial governor.

McKinley cited manifest destiny in his announcement of the annexation and in other circumstances later defending the act. As a US territory the tariffs on sugar and other products from the islands were no longer in effect, and those involved in trade with Hawaiian plantations prospered. Dole, who was a distant cousin of the founder of the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (Dole Food Company today) became a federal judge after Theodore Roosevelt became President. Hawaii remained a territory until 1959, when it became the United States’ first and to date only overseas state.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Manifest Design: American Exceptionalism and Empire”, by Thomas R. Hietala, 2003

“United States expansionism and British North America, 1775-1871”, by Reginald C. Stuart, 1988

“Narrative History of Texas Annexation”, by Jean Carefoot, Texas State Library and Archives, online

“James K. Polk, Continentalist”, by Charles Sellers, 1966

“Agents of Manifest Destiny: The Lives and Times of the Filibusters”, by Charles H. Brown, 1980

“The great father: the United States government and the American Indians”, by Francis Paul Prucha, 1995

“The War with Spain in 1898”, by David F. Trask, 1996

“John O’Sullivan Declares America’s Manifest Destiny, 1845”, by John L. O’Sullivan, The American Yawp Reader.

“Blood, Class, and Empire: The Enduring Anglo-American Relationship”, by Christopher Hitchens, 2004

“Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure”, by Julia Flynn Siler, 2012