Manifest Destiny

Manifest destiny refers to a belief and a sustained racial and imperialist project that the Christian God ordained United States settlers and land speculators to occupy the entire North American continent and claim territorial, political, and economic sovereignty over its people and resources. Articulations of this belief and project were prevalent yet widely contested in the nineteenth century; they persist into the twenty first century.

Many white settlers with Northwestern European heritage believed that it was their dutiful mission to remake the ”New World” in their image and spread confidently US styled liberty and democracy. This remarkably masculinist mission as the ”Great Redeemer” provided for the western expansion across the lands of North American indigenous people (such as the Seminoles, Cherokees, Siouxs, Comanches, Pawnees, Apaches, Poncas, Arapahos, and Cheyennes) into Mexico and toward the Pacific frontier, bringing industrial and national prosperity. Accordingly, this manifest destiny belief conveys the idea that expansion and possession were ordained by God, fulfilled by Christian settlers, and not established by rifles, soldiers, and atrocities.

While influential newspaper editor John O’Sullivan coined this term in 1839, Horsman’s Race and Manifest Destiny (1981) reminds us that the white supremacist narrative of manifest destiny had already justified earlier acts related to expansionism and explorations of US colonial settlements. Significant to US history and con temporary life, it is a nationalist ideology that combines distinct forms of racial and religious thoughts to produce particular state, economic, and cultural forms of genocide, assimilation, and other racial projects.

Manifest destiny is not discussed only in relation to continental expansion. It is also associated with US colonialism, military interventions, and economic imperialism in Mexico and Latin American countries. Moreover, it served as a major reason why the US sought to enter the Chinese market, coerced Japan to open its doors to US commerce and ”friendship,” purchased Alaska from Russia, and forcibly acquired northern Mexico, Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and other territories in the Caribbean and the Pacific. After World War II, the US continued to view as its ordained mission the promotion of US styled democracy and ways of life as it fought wars and occasion ally provided peacekeepers in Korea, Vietnam, and other countries in Central America, Northern Africa, and the Middle East.

Sociological inquiries examine closely two major impacts of the manifest destiny belief and related narratives of ”white men’s burden” and their ”civilizing mission.” First, they predominantly explore conflicts over land tenure.

Neo-Marxist sociology focuses on the class struggles and property conflicts entrenched in the earlier US economy. These economic, political, and racialized struggles transformed an early nineteenth century semi slavery and semi feudal society into a global capitalist super power after 1945. World historians and historical sociologists examine the social processes by which white settlers (such as in South Africa and the US), explorers, and soldiers annexed land, acquired property rights, and dispossessed indigenous and other non white communities. They delve into the cultural and economic relationships among frontier violence, shifts in rural land ownership, and subsequent growth of industrial capitalism. Theoretically, they provide new ways to understand power, imperial ism, gendered nationalism, states and legal sovereignty, and colonial and postcolonial wars.

The second series of sociological inquiries follows from the first. Racial and ethnic studies and the sociology of racism explore the racialized making of economic, cultural, gender, and sexual subordination and the related demo graphic changes in racial composition as another direct impact of the manifest destiny belief and the conflicts over land and resources. This belief and set of conflicts shifted political and economic power among racial groups and altered racialized residential patterns (such as through extermination, forced removals, and relocation), territorial sovereignty, and everyday ways of life. These studies also delve into the new expressions of racial and cultural superiority proliferated as white settlers moved westward. These studies highlight earlier stereotypical accounts such as the ”disappearing Indians,” ”dirty Mexicans,” and ”little brown brothers” (to refer to Filipinos). This is in contrast to a variety of racialized narratives of white settlers and immigrants that highlight their rugged individualism and persistence in overcoming the seemingly natural brutality and savagery of the frontier.

Newer inquiries focus on recent continuation and transformation of the manifest destiny narrative as associated with new racial projects, imperialist conquest, and institutional articulations of empire, exceptionalism, and ethnic nationalism. These newer studies place greater analytical importance on culture, religion, and human agency than before. Analytically, they explore new patronizing relations (for instance, between the US and Iraq during the 2000s) as well as the associated moral sense of political, economic, cultural, and religious superiority (for instance, during the US-Vietnam War). Cultural analyses of these new projects and articulations highlight the nuanced relationships among particular Christian ideological repertories, nationalist identities (of individuals, groups, and countries), state policies, and the practices of “occasional” interventions. Particularly noteworthy are the debates regarding cultural and gendered expressions of ethnoreligious identities and nationalist atrocities involving land and forced displacement of racial/ethnic groups. Researchers are scrutinizing elite forms of art and popular cultural forms in everyday life to understand how they reflect, mediate, generate, and resist new nationalist articulations in identities and practices of manifest destiny.


  1. Coles, R. L. (2002) Manifest Destiny Adapted for 1990s War Discourse: Mission and Destiny. Sociology and Religion 63: 403 26.
  2. Filler, L. & Guttmann, A. (Eds.) (1962) The Removal of the Cherokee Nation: Manifest Destiny or National Dishonor? Heath, Boston.
  3. Horsman, R. (1981) Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo Saxonism, rpt edn. Harvard University Press,
  4. Cambridge, MA. Kelly, J. D. (2003) US Power, After 9/11 and Before It: If Not an Empire, Then What? Public Culture 15: 347 69.
  5. Lockard, C. A. (1994) Meeting Yesterday Head-On: The Vietnam War in Vietnamese, American, and World History. Journal of World History 5: 227 70.
  6. San Buenaventura, S. (1998) The Colors of Manifest Destiny: Filipinos and the American Other(s). Amerasia Journal 24: 1 26.
  7. Venegas, Y. (2004) The Erotics of Racialization: Gender and Sexuality in the Making of California. Frontiers 25: 63 89.
  8. Wade, P. (2001) Racial Identity and Nationalism: A Theoretical View from Latin America. Ethnic and Racial Studies 24: 845 65.

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