CRESAB - Agrégation 2001

The "Manifest Destiny" of the US in the 19th century – political and ideological aspects. 

Text and commentary

Magali Puyjarinet  Université de Metz

The same in black and white is available here (in case you print the page)

Comment on this extract from a 21-page article entitled "Our Relations with Mexico" (published in the July 1846 issue of the American Review: a Whig Journal) taking account of political and ideological aspects.


Text. The colored phrases are those which will be referred to in the commentary.

[. . .] The other alternative remains, namely: that [the President] intended to consider, and so far as depended upon him, to make the rejection of Mr.  Slidell, taken in connection with the unsatisfactory state of our relations with Mexico, cause of war, or rather the occasion of war with that power; and that he directed the movement of our army to the Rio Grande, by his order of the 13th of January, as a hostile operation, or at least as calculated to leave no alternative but war to either Government. We believe this to have been the exact state of the case. Indeed the proof that it was so is at hand, and is incontrovertible.
On the 20th of January Mr. Buchanan addresses a dispatch to Mr. Slidell, written after information had been received of the "probable" rejection of the Minister. In this dispatch the purpose of the President is fully disclosed. […] "The desire of the President is, that you should conduct yourself with such wisdom and firmness in the crisis, that the voice of the American people shall be unanimous in favor of redressing the wrongs of our much-injured and long-suffering claimants." In other words, this affair was to be so conducted that the hearts of the American people might be "prepared for war." Finally Mr. Buchanan says: "In the mean time, the President, in anticipation of the final refusal of the Mexican Government to receive you, has ordered the Army of Texas to advance and take position on the left bank of the Rio Grande…" What becomes now of the pretence set up by the President that his order of the 13th of January for the movement of the army from the Nueces to the Rio Grande was prompted by some new and urgent necessity to "provide for the defence of that portion of our country?" [. . .]
It is manifest to us that the object which the President has all along proposed to himself to secure, out of our difficulties with Mexico, has been the acquisition of territory. Fifteen hundred miles of territory, from the mouth to the highest sources of the Rio Grande, on the left bank of that river, including several towns and cities, and sixty thousand Mexicans, with several of the richest mines in all Mexico — so much, at least, was to be secured. And if Upper California, with Monterey, and the fine harbor of San Francisco, could be clutched at the same time, no doubt the President has thought that his administration would be signalized as among the most glorious in the annals of the aggrandized republic. He has calculated largely on the supreme affection which he thinks animates the American people for their neighbor’s possessions —or what he supposes to be the covetous desires, the rapacity, and the ambition of the "Model Republic." Witness the absurd and false claim set up to the whole of Oregon — as high as fifty four forty — and his readiness to involve us in war with England, to back his pretension.
The President must allow us to say that he has been more consistent with himself from the beginning of this Mexican business, than he has been willing should publicly appear. As soon as he was fairly settled in his seat, his policy was fixed. Texas proper was secured already, and without his aid. He must have more than ever belonged to Texas. There was the fine country of the Rio Grande — that he would have at all hazards; and his appetite was sharp for California also. Mexico owed our citizens some millions, and she was unwise enough to sulk about [the] Annexation [of Texas] and yet leave these debts unpaid. Here was a capital chance for a blow, and a speculation. He could get her lands in consideration of the debts, and make war upon her, if need be, to secure them, and still throw the assault of the war on her. He could make her bear all and everything — the loss of Texas, the loss of as much more territory as we could grasp — and the blame and the cost of the war. The new territory would pay for all, and the country would sing paeans to the President, and compel him to serve them for another term. Mexico was poor, distracted, in anarchy, and almost in ruins — what could she do to stay the hand of our power, to impede the march of our greatness? We were Anglo-Saxon Americans; it was our "destiny" to possess and rule this continent — we were bound to do it! We were a chosen people, and this was our allotted inheritance, and we must drive out all other nations before us!
[. . .] We had intended, in conclusion, to note some of the more glaring instances where the Constitution has been, and is, wantonly trampled upon in this business. But we must stop. Hardly has the President deemed it necessary to pay even a decent and cold respect to the remains of that once venerated instrument. In every step of his progress — in sending an army into Texas, and in authorizing a call for militia from that country, while it was still a foreign and independent republic — in directing the invasion of the proper soil of Mexico, in beginning war with Mexico on his sole authority […] and finally, now, in undertaking the conquest of Mexico, even, if need be, to the gates of the Imperial City […] — in all these things and in others which might be named, he manifests a reckless disregard of Constitutional restraints, and of his own solemn oath, in which he leaves far behind him, in the career of daring experiment and political gambling, the worst and boldest of his predecessors. God help the country, while he remains at the head of it!
[. . .] We confess we have little to hope from this Administration. Possibly Mexico, having done what she could, may soon succumb to our power. But beyond this, our hopes of peace rest mainly on the interested interposition of other Powers — of England or France, or both — with their friendly offices to mediate between us and Mexico. Without such mediation, if prayers of ours could be heard in such high quarters, we could pray the Administration, for the honor of the country, for humanity’s sake, to make peace with Mexico. We pray God to put thoughts of peace into our hearts — peace with justice and honor — peace without conquest, or the wanton desire of spoiling the enemy of his goods, his possession and his heritage. 

D. D. Barnard. 

Commentary. You will find easily the quotations in the text (same colors). Click on  whenever you want to come back to the text. 

In 1846, shortly after annexing the Republic of Texas into the Union, the US for the first time in its 70-year life as an independent nation, declared war on a country of the New World, also a former colony which had recently obtained its independence, Mexico. It was with an overwhelming majority that Congress adopted the war declaration, complying with a request from the President, James Polk, a Democrat. Barely a month and a half later, a 21-page article appeared in the American Review, a monthly periodical which made no bones about being a Whig Journal, one identifying with the Whig Party, at the other end of the political spectrum from the party of the President. The author, D. D. Barnard, a Whig member of the US House of Representatives, ostensibly voices not only his own but his party’s opposition to James Polk’s war policy, which he firmly contests on political and ideological grounds. The biting tone of his denunciation stands in sharp contrast with the jingoistic, hawkish rhetoric of the many press articles which cheered the war at the time. The article gives an insight into the depth of political and ideological divisions in the country about the chief point at issue in connection with the war — territorial expansion or expansionism. We may wonder, however, whether the Whigs were as opposed to expansionism as a first reading of the article tends to suggest: while the author forcefully challenges the "manifest destiny" ideology, does he really reject whatever it embodies?
This paper will first focus on the author’s political objections to President Polk’s approach; it will then comment upon the author’s ironical denunciation of "manifest destiny" rhetoric; finally, it will try to unravel what this article reveals about the Whig position concerning expansionism.

No reader of this article can possibly miss D.D. Barnard’s polemical goals: he keeps referring to James Polk. "The President" or "he" are the grammatical subjects of a large number of clauses; in many cases, the verbs express determination or speculation: "the President intended...", "he directed,", "he has calculated...", "hardly has the President deemed it necessary..". The same meaning is suggested through determiners and nouns: "his order", "his appetite" , "in every step of his progress". These examples bear witness to the political point the author intends to make, i.e. that the Chief Executive is bears total responsibility for the ongoing Mexican War. 
Oddly enough, never is the President’s surname mentioned. On the contrary, when D.D. Barnard quotes a member of the Polk Administration, the office-holder’s name (Mr. Buchanan) is specified, rather than his position (he was Secretary of State). This may suggest that Mr Buchanan merely acted as a go-between, as if, albeit his essential office in the area of foreign relations and diplomacy, he was content to be James Polk’s bellboy or messenger, imparting "the desire of the President" to his emissary John Slidell, who was supposed to offer Mexico a compromise, the settlement of Mexican debts to American citizens and the purchase of California. In this way, the author intimates that the chief executive’s function is carried out in an autocratic manner, in violation of the constitutional framework of checks and balances designed by the Founding Fathers. In the present situation, according to the Whig representative, the system cannot operate inasmuch as all decisions are made by the head of the executive branch, while the people’s representatives in Congress are ignored. Thus the whole article invites the reader to expect the final charge: "[the President] manifests a reckless disregard of Constitutional restraints and of his own solemn oath", i.e. the oath an incoming President takes on the day of his inauguration to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States" with the help of God. According to the author, the US has been involved in war by an autocrat who "wantonly trample(s) on" the supreme law of the land: democracy is in jeopardy in the US. 
The author’s objective is to exonerate Congress, and in so doing his own party, from the decision to declare war on Mexico. Indeed the US Constitution makes Congress responsible for declaring war, and Whig members (perhaps even Barnard himself?) were among those who voted for war. To him, Congress was deluded by the President into bowing to his wishes. He supplies what he regards as a "proof" of Polk’s deceitful trick ("the pretence set up by the President,"). In his war message to Congress, delivered on May 11, 1846, James Polk had urged the lawmakers to declare war on Mexico for three reasons essentially: Mexico had failed to pay American claims; it had blatantly snubbed the US by refusing to receive the American special envoy, John Slidell; finally, and most important, Mexican troops had assailed US soldiers on the northern bank of the Rio Grande, which James Polk claimed was Texan (and therefore American) territory. Thus the President blamed Mexico not only for the outbreak of hostilities, but also for openly challenging the US: under such conditions, Congress could do nothing but take up the gauntlet, if only to save the honor of the nation. But D.D. Barnard and other Whigs now believe themselves to be in a position to prove the President wrong: "We believe this to have been the exact state of the case".
The evidence offered by the Whigs revolves around a set of dates which the author clearly seems to vouch for: on January 13th, 1846, the President, as chief of the US Army, "directed the movement of (the) army [from the Nueces river in Texas, where Zachary Taylor’s troops had been stationed] to the Rio Grande."The presidential order was accounted for with reference to "some new and urgent necessity to ‘provide for the defence of that portion of our country’". A week later, however, James Slidell was being told by Secretary of State Buchanan that the President had ordered the troops’ move "in anticipation of the final refusal of the Mexican Government to receive [him]". This is presented by D.D. Barnard as proof that James Polk lied to Congress in his war message; he may also have deceived General Zachary Taylor, who was to run for President in 1848 under the Whig banner and be elected. The whole maneuver had been plotted "all along" by James Polk, with specific objectives which had nothing to do with the plea he made to Congress on May 11. Thus Congress, and especially the Whig Party, were the victims of the President’s devious ways and, having been left "no alternative but war," should be fully exonerated. They did not have time to investigate: since American blood was already being shed due to Mexican aggression, the people’s representatives could only give the President the go-ahead and allow him to conduct the war for the people’s security and the honor of the country. 
What the author and his fellow Whigs also regard as a lie is the President’s argument that the portion of land between the Nueces and the Rio Grande was a "portion of [the American] country." To them, the President’s order to Zachary Taylor entailed "directing the invasion of the proper soil of Mexico"  and therefore "beginning war with Mexico on his sole authority". Indeed when Texas was still Mexican, the Nueces was held to be its boundary. The President was therefore supporting an irresponsible claim by the ex-Republic of Texas: the area which American troops had penetrated was "more than ever belonged to Texas". Therefore there was no legitimate reason for the troops’ move. The reason could only be to "leave no alternative but war to [the Mexican] Government." The argument puts Mexico on a level with the representatives of the American people: both were the victims’ of James Polk’s machiavellian plot, hatched for purely expansionist purposes: "It is manifest to us that the object which the President has all along proposed to himself to secure, out of our difficulties with Mexico, has been the acquisition of territory."

D.D. Barnard’s article makes such a striking counterpoint to John O’Sullivan’s famed 1845 "Manifest Destiny" editorial that we may safely infer it was written in reaction to it, to counter the current Democratic majority’s ideology. In his Democratic Review, O’Sullivan had aimed at convincing those still doubtful about, or opposed to, the annexation of Texas that the Texas Republic had been "disintegrated from Mexico in the natural course of events" and that its "incorporation into the Union was not only inevitable, but the most natural, right, and proper thing in the world." Barnard does not dwell on the Texas question: it is the current war that he focuses on. In this respect, all his arguments are meant to prove that there was nothing "natural" or "inevitable" about the outbreak of the Mexican War: it was wholly contrived by the President. What is "manifest" to Whigs, rather than America’s "destiny," is that the President’s aggressive expansionist policy disproves O’Sullivan’s claim that "California [would], probably, next fall from" Mexico "without the agency of [the US] government." Barnard means to warn his readers that, should California become American, it would certainly not result from "the spontaneous working of principles" that the famous Democratic editor had depicted a few months before.
Barnard’s polemic style is particularly aggressive when he refers to what he thinks Polk’s political ambition is: ensuring a second term in office. He draws the fierce caricature of an ogre with a "sharp" "appetite" for the "fine country of the Rio Grande" and Upper California. To portray the man from within as an American Machiavelli, he makes use of indirect free speech: "he must have more than ever belonged to Texas", "he could get [Mexico’s] lands in consideration of the debts", "he could make her bear all and everything". Barnard hints that the President had such devious intentions right from the time he was sworn in: he had hoped that he would preside over the annexation of Texas, but lame-duck President John Tyler, a Whig, had played a trick on him by pushing for annexation and securing it through a joint resolution of Congress at the very end of his term. Thus, to D.D. Barnard, Polk wanted the Mexican War to offset this initial setback by incorporating still more territory into the US: if it did, history — and American voters in 1848 — would liken James Polk to famous predecessors who contributed to an "aggrandized republic," namely Presidents Jefferson, who had purchased Louisiana in 1803, and Monroe, during whose first term Spain had ceded the Floridas to the US under the Adams-Onis Treaty. Barnard and the Whigs, however, preferred to condemn Polk’s move as a "daring experiment and political gambling" and outdoing "the worst and boldest of his predecessors", a clear allusion to the Whigs’ chief foe, "King Andrew I" — Andrew Jackson.
Although most of the article is a harsh criticism of the President himself and his sly designs, a central part focuses on the expansionist or continentalist rationale. The author purposely uses standard "manifest destiny" rhetoric such as "the march of our greatness", or "it was our ‘destiny’ to possess and rule this continent", to echo O’Sullivan’s well-known phrase, "our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence." The reader of the mid-1840s certainly recognized the missionary theory whereby Americans were to "possess and rule" the "continent," so as to bestow on it the benefits of Christian (to wit, Protestant) civilization and of democratic institution (the "Model Republic,". The mission had been entrusted specifically to Anglo-Saxon Americans, i.e. to the people of British origin who had founded America and then made it into a republic. Americans of the 1840s had inherited the mission from the May Flower Pilgrims, who had concluded a covenant with God: the mission to "possess and rule the continent" was therefore their "allotted inheritance". Providence’s design had been passed on to them and they were therefore as "bound" by the covenant to fulfill the mission as the Pilgrims had been in the early seventeenth century. Barnard’s stress on "bound" is probably an allusion to the other meaning of the word, i.e. to the alleged inevitability of the whole process.
In the present article, the references to Americans’ "destiny" are mingled with indirect free speech (cf. the preterit in "We were Anglo-Saxon Americans," whereby the author suggests that James Polk identifies with and circulates "manifest destiny" ideology. Since D.D. Barnard has been lashing out at Polk, the reader will infer that such ideology should at least be taken with a pinch of salt: it is unlikely, for example, that the author subscribes to the last clause of the paragraph, i.e. the claim that God has ordered Americans to "drive out all other nations before [them]". "Manifest destiny" rationale emphasized the notion of a chosen people, and expansionists of the 1840s, most of whom were Democrats, were wont to make ample use of the personal pronoun "we" to distinguish Anglo-Saxon Americans from other peoples and invite all white Americans to join in the chorus. In the article, however, Barnard clearly does not adhere to the expansionist creed. Though he may be an Anglo-Saxon American, he does not identify with an aggressive policy of conquest, even backed by a self-satisfying, alluring rhetoric.

Barnard probably has a point when he contests manifest-destiny advocates’ inclusive tendencies: even among "Anglo-Saxon" Americans, not all were continentalists, and not all were war hawks either: J.C. Calhoun, the famous South Carolinian Democrat, was staunchly opposed to the Mexican War. Even O’Sullivan criticized presidential war policies initially. However, a large section of the nation had caught the expansionist fever, as attested by the Democratic presidential front-runner, Martin Van Buren, losing his party’s 1844 nomination to Polk because he did not back the annexation of Texas. The Whig candidate, Henry Clay, lost the subsequent election to Polk, due to the latter’s call for annexation of Oregon and of Texas; campaign propaganda actually urged "reannexation" of Texas, on the (debatable) grounds that it had been part of the Louisiana Territory in 1803, and should never have been renounced by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in the Adams-Onis Treaty. Given the scope of expansionist fervor in the mid-1840s, reflected in the enthusiastic popular response to the Mexican War in the whole country, blaming the sole President for the current diplomatic ventures was hardly legitimate. The author clearly avoids mentioning the Democratic Party: in so doing he fails to draw a faithful portrait of the US. Thus it was not Polk who set up what Barnard calls "the absurd and false claim to the whole of Oregon" — i.e. including what was soon to become British Columbia, as far as the border with Russian Alaska, on line 54° 40’. The claim was made by Western Democrats, including Senators Lewis Cass and Allen, who understandably showed more interest in western aggrandizement, which they hoped would reinforce the West’s weight in the Union, than in pushing US borders further south. 
Though neither party is named, this article is blatantly partisan and not entirely devoid of demagogy, as befits a mid-term election year editorial: in 1846, the Whig Party was hoping to recapture a majority in Congress, lost to the Democrats in 1844. For partisan-political reasons, D.D. Barnard makes a point of distinguishing the American people from the chief executive when he ironically mentions to the "supreme affection which [Polk] thinks animates the American people for their neighbor’s possessions — or what he supposes to be [their] covetous desires, [their] rapacity, and [their] ambition." He reproaches the President with attributing to the people moral flaws which are actually his own. 
Where does Representative Barnard, as a Whig, stand in the expansionist debate? It is easy to guess that he does not support the "All Mexico or none" movement, backed only by the most extremists of expansionists. He is even opposed to fighting for the "fine country of the Rio Grande," though it includes "several of the richest mines in all Mexico". The economic wealth it would bring to the US would not offset the problems that would arise from the fact that the area includes "several towns and cities, and sixty thousand Mexicans." Under the rules set by Jefferson in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, this would make the area eligible for statehood immediately. But were mixed-race Catholic Mexicans fit to rule themselves? Many in the US doubted it at the time. Barnard does not pose the problem explicitly, but such questions were so often debated in the mid-1840s that mere hints were sufficient.
A few tell-tale signs reveal that Barnard is not entirely opposed to expansionism, however. First, he fails to call into question the annexation of Texas, which was Mexico’s legitimate motive for severing diplomatic relationships with the US in 1845. Naturally he could hardly challenge it since a Whig President could be credited with its completion. But when he writes about Mexico being "unwise enough to sulk about the Annexation of Texas", it is not clear whether his words are to be interpreted as an ironical denunciation of Polk’s contemptuous attitude to the southern neighbor of the US or if he himself would not be inclined to be paternalistic toward the weaker nation. Either way, it is clear that he considers Texas to be part and parcel of the US now, however Mexico may feel about it.
When the article was published, the negotiations with Britain about the Oregon Country had almost led to a treaty. Since 1818, Oregon had been submitted to a status of joint occupation: but several thousand American pioneers and settlers had been taking the Oregon Trail to the fertile Willamette Valley in the last few years. Neither the Whigs nor the Democrats were insensitive to their political future. The reader can guess from the article that incorporating the south of the Oregon Country is not deemed unreasonable by Barnard: Whig politicians favored economic and commercial expansion, and Puget Sound could afford an attractive gateway to the Pacific and to Asian commerce. American interest in China had begun to manifest itself two years before, when the US-Sino (Wanghiya) Treaty had been hammered out, under Whig President Tyler. And although Barnard feigns ironical contempt when he pictures Polk aiming to"clutch" "the fine harbor of San Francisco", Whig politicians were not insensitive to the great commercial promise of the Golden Gate. 
What he clearly rejects about Polk’s handling of the Oregon question is its extremism: he thinks the US has no legitimate cause for claiming 54° 40’ as its northern border, insofar as few if any Americans have settled north of Puget Sound. Senator Allen’s "Fifty-four Forty or Fight" slogan is therefore dismissed as genuinely imperialistic since it cannot be justified as meeting the needs of American citizens. 
Thus it would be wrong to infer from a superficial reading of the article that Barnard or his Party were opposed to any form of territorial expansion: what they refused was conquest, hence the call for "peace without conquest" in the conclusion. Land obtained through conquest was a form of theft, "the wanton desire of spoiling the enemy of his goods, his possession and his heritage." Mexico had recently won its independence, as the US had in 1776: Americans should therefore respect Mexicans’ desire for self-determination, in accordance with their own cherished principles, and should seek to restore peaceful relations with the "sister republic" to the south, as Jefferson himself had recommended. The Democratic administration’s deceitful and hostile attitude endangered the "honor" of the nation. Vanquishing a "poor, distracted (country), in anarchy, and almost in ruins" was anything but glorious — it was dishonorable. As Barnard anticipates, even the "Imperial City" (Mexico City) was captured: Polk insisted that it be so, and when General Taylor appeared too tepid, he had General Winfield Scott carry out the mission in 1847, although the negotiations for the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had already begun. 
The reference to the nation’s "honor" in the article may also mean that Barnard identifies with at least part of the "manifest destiny" ideology: to him, as long as land can be obtained through peaceful negotiations to serve the needs of the American people, as long as it is achieved through strictly constitutional processes (i.e. approved by the people’s representatives rather than spurred by the executive), expansion is just and honorable. Inasmuch as the American democratic system is faithfully abided by, peaceful expansion might even serve the interests of mankind. But as the Mexican War flouts these principles, Barnard and Whigs can only "pray the Administration, for the honor of the country, for humanity’s sake, to make peace with Mexico." 

A century and a half later, D.D. Barnard’s editorial can be approached as a testimony that gives precious insight into the issues being debated in the US at the beginning of the Mexican War. It reveals that Whig politicians, many of whom had approved the declaration of war, had grown rather uneasy: they were aware that the war was popular, yet they had not lost hope to win the next congressional elections. A way out was, as D.D. Barnard does in this editorial, to denounce the President’s autocratic administration and his manipulation of the American people, but without endangering the future of US soldiers risking their lives fighting "Mr. Polk’s War": indeed Whig members of Congress consistently voted to appropriate funds for the war. 
Barnard himself runs a risk when he calls for "the interested interposition of ... England, or France, or both" in the last paragraph, in open defiance of Mr Polk’s reassertion of the Monroe Doctrine in December 1845. The prevailing mood was nationalistic in the mid-1840s, and even if several treaties had been hammered out between Britain and the US since the War of 1812 (chiefly to settle border questions), the two countries still had conflicting relationships: thus it was chiefly because Britain had taken an interest in Texas that American expansionists had succeeded in mustering a majority in Congress to annex it. In calling for British mediation, Whigs could be attacked for selling out America’s chief enemy, a charge which had led to the Federalists’ demise after the War of 1812.
On the other hand, the article fails to address a pivotal issue, the connection between the Mexican War and slavery. As proved by the proviso introduced by a Pennsylvania Democratic representative, David Wilmot, a month after Barnard’s editorial was published, many in America were concerned about the question. Had the Mexican War been contrived by anti-abolitionists, hoping to protect "the peculiar institution" by extending it south of the Texas border, as many northern Whigs (like John Quincy Adams) surmised? Tackling this burning issue was dangerous in an election year and Barnard obviously preferred to turn a blind eye. Such a cowardly attitude may have contributed to the Whig Party’s victory in the 1846 congressional elections. But in the long run, despite Henry Clay’s attempts to postpone the showdown through compromise, it was eventually to be fatal to the party before the Civil War.

Magali Puyjarinet Université de Metz

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