A struggle against fate: the opponents of manifest destiny and the collapse of the continental dream, 1846-1871

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Over the last century, historians have fleshed out the reasons why individuals supported the ideology of manifest destiny in the nineteenth-century. In contrast to these studies, this dissertation examines the opponents of manifest destiny. Drawing upon a wide range of primary sources, from comedic novels to newspapers to popular periodicals, this dissertation focuses upon the arguments put forth by those who believed that the United States did not need to expand territorially. It shows that the opponents of manifest destiny developed a trenchant critique of the ideology. Before the outbreak of the Civil War, they argued that manifest destiny was a violation of Washington’s advice given in his Farewell Address, that it was the moral equivalent of robbery, that it encouraged men to filibuster, that it was designed to benefit the rising slave power, and that it was violation of the tenth commandment not to covet the land of one’s neighbors. These arguments shifted in the aftermath of the Civil War, but the opponents of manifest destiny continued to argue that expansion was not necessary because the United States already occupied the most fruitful land on the continent. Analyzing the arguments of the opponents of manifest destiny helps to explain why a destiny that seemed so manifest in 1845 failed to come to pass over the ensuing decades. Proponents of manifest destiny believed that the United States was destined to take over the continent of North America, but this dream slowly unraveled over the course of the nineteenth-century, as Mexico, Canada, Central America, Cuba, and Santo Domingo remained outside of the grasp of the United States. Although the demise of manifest destiny is usually credited to the rise of sectionalism in the middle of the 1850s, the following study demonstrates that many Americans in the nineteenth-century simply did not see the need to expand the national borders. Their opposition to expansion played a pivotal role in bringing down the continental dream of manifest destiny.

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