Image: American Progress, copy of image by John Gast. George Crofutt. (1873). Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-09855.
The Westward Course of destiny
On what grounds does O’Sullivan justify American annexation of Texas? If the government and voters of Texas had disapproved annexation, how might O’Sullivan have reacted? Should the United States have made annexation contingent on a Texas constitution free of slavery? What might have happened had the Republic of Texas remained independent? O’Sullivan speaks of the continuing growth of the United States as resulting not from the “agency of our government” or the “responsibility of our people,” but from “the natural flow of events, the spontaneous working of principles, and the adaptation of the tendencies and wants of the human race to the elemental circumstances in the midst of which they find themselves placed.” Does the historical record support O’Sullivan’s claim?
 How do O’Sullivan’s arguments in favor of annexation differ from those of Calhoun? How might have Clay responded?

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The annexation of Texas by the United States in 1845 stirred up deep political controversy because that republic, independent from Mexico since 1836, allowed slavery. Secretary of State John C. Calhoun (1782–1850) had engendered much opposition in the North with his defense of annexation on the grounds that it was necessary to protect slavery against British abolitionism . But a group of Democratic Party officials and supporters made a different, broader argument designed to unite the country under the flag of expansionism. The editor of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, John O’Sullivan (1813–1895), famously proclaimed that it was “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

Under Manifest Destiny, expansion would occur as it had in Texas, through a natural and peaceful process of “Americanization.” American emigrants would fill up adjoining territories, assume positions of leadership alongside local allies, regenerate the common population (to the extent possible given cultural and/or racial limitations), develop republican self-government, and naturally gravitate into the Union. The process of regime change and self-determination within the borderlands might have a violent local revolutionary phase if it became necessary for the enlightened to overthrow despotic rule, but the final outcome would be the peaceful and voluntary accession of the territories as equal partners in the Union. The local rights and customs of the new states would be respected under the federal principle. Although O’Sullivan leaves open the possibility that some of these lands might be independent, he clearly believed that the process of Manifest Destiny would eventually encompass North America and the Caribbean and possibly the entire Western Hemisphere. He warned against French and British efforts to truncate this process by establishing a balance of power in the New World. As to the slavery question, O’Sullivan argued that it would eventually resolve itself as the attractions of climate and race, and the economics of slavery, gradually drew those of African descent southward and out of the present Union. The expansion of freedom in the Americas would take place in parallel with its spread in Europe, through revolutionary movements that many Democrats wanted to support actively.

This argument about American expansion was not dissimilar from that made by John Quincy Adams two decades previously. By the time of O’Sullivan’s article, however, Adams was convinced that the annexation of Texas was a plot to expand slavery, not freedom. He remained an expansionist when it came to free territory and argued that the United States should retain its expansive claims on the Oregon Territory —but that it should not become involved in European revolutions.

—David Tucker

Source: United States Magazine and Democratic Review 17, no. 85 (July/August 1845): 5–10, available at

It is now time for the opposition to the Annexation of Texas to cease, all further agitation of the waters of bitterness and strife, at least in connection with this question—even though it may perhaps be required of us as a necessary condition of the freedom of our institutions, that we must live on forever in a state of unpausing struggle and excitement upon some subject of party division or other. But, in regard to Texas, enough has now been given to party. It is time for the common duty of patriotism to the country to succeed;—or if this claim will not be recognized, it is at least time for common sense to acquiesce with decent grace in the inevitable and the irrevocable.[1]

Texas is now ours. Already, before these words are written, her Convention has undoubtedly ratified the acceptance, by her Congress, of our proffered invitation into the Union; and made the requisite changes in her already republican form of constitution to adapt it to its future federal relations.[2] Her star and her stripe may already be said to have taken their place in the glorious blazon of our common nationality;[3] and the sweep of our eagle’s wing already includes within its circuit the wide extent of her fair and fertile land. She is no longer to us a mere geographical space—a certain combination of coast, plain, mountain, valley, forest, and stream. She is no longer to us a mere country on the map. She comes within the dear and sacred designation of Our Country; no longer a pays, she is a part of la patrie;[4] and that which is at once a sentiment and a virtue, patriotism, already begins to thrill for her too within the national heart. It is time then that all should cease to treat her as alien, and even adverse—cease to denounce and vilify all and everything connected with her accession—cease to thwart and oppose the remaining steps for its consummation; or where such efforts are felt to be unavailing, at least to embitter the hour of reception by all the most ungracious frowns of aversion and words of unwelcome. There has been enough of all this. It has had its fitting day during the period when, in common with every other possible question of practical policy that can arise, it unfortunately became one of the leading topics of party division, of presidential electioneering. But that period has passed, and with it let its prejudices and its passions, its discords and its denunciations, pass away too. The next session of Congress will see the representatives of the new young state in their places in both our halls of national legislation, side by side with those of the old thirteen.[5] Let their reception into “the family” be frank, kindly, and cheerful, as befits such an occasion, as comports not less with our own self-respect than patriotic duty toward them. Ill betide those foul birds that delight to file their own nest and disgust the ear with perpetual discord of ill-omened croak.

Why, were other reasoning wanting, in favor of now elevating this question of the reception of Texas into the Union, out of the lower region of our past party dissensions, up to its proper level of a high and broad nationality, it surely is to be found, found abundantly, in the manner in which other nations have undertaken to intrude themselves into it, between us and the proper parties to the case, in a spirit of hostile interference against us, for the avowed object of thwarting our policy and hampering our power, limiting our greatness and checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.[6] This we have seen done by England, our old rival and enemy; and by France, strangely coupled with her against us, under the influence of the Anglicism strongly tingeing the policy of her present prime minister, Guizot.[7] The zealous activity with which this effort to defeat us was pushed by the representatives of those governments, together with the character of intrigue accompanying it, fully constituted that case of foreign interference, which Mr. Clay himself declared should, and would, unite us all in maintaining the common cause of our country against foreigner and the foe.[8] We are only astonished that this effect has not been more fully and strongly produced, and that the burst of indignation against this unauthorized, insolent, and hostile interference against us, has not been more general even among the party before opposed to Annexation, and has not rallied the national spirit and national pride unanimously upon that policy. We are very sure that if Mr. Clay himself were now to add another letter to his former Texas correspondence, he would express this sentiment, and carry out the idea already strongly stated in one of them, in a manner which would tax all the powers of blushing belonging to some of his party adherents.

It is wholly untrue, and unjust to ourselves, the pretense that the annexation has been a measure of spoliation, unrightful and unrighteous—of military conquest under forms of peace and law—of territorial aggrandizement at the expense of justice, and justice due by a double sanctity to the weak. This view of the question is wholly unfounded, and has been before so amply refuted in these pages, as well as in a thousand other modes, that we shall not again dwell upon it. The independence of Texas was complete and absolute. It was an independence, not only in fact, but of right. No obligation of duty toward Mexico tended in the least degree to restrain our right to effect the desired recovery of the fair province once our own—whatever motives of policy might have prompted a more deferential consideration of her feelings and her pride, as involved in the question. If Texas became peopled with an American population, it was by no contrivance of our government, but on the express invitation of that of Mexico herself; accompanied with such guaranties of state independence, and the maintenance of a federal system analogous to our own, as constituted a compact fully justifying the strongest measures of redress on the part of those afterward deceived in this guaranty, and sought to be enslaved under the yoke imposed by its violation.[9] She was released, rightfully and absolutely released, from all Mexican allegiance, or duty of cohesion to the Mexican political body, by the acts and fault of Mexico herself, and Mexico alone. There never was a clearer case. It was not revolution; it was resistance to revolution: and resistance under such circumstances as left independence the necessary resulting state, caused by the abandonment of those with whom her former federal association had existed. What then can be more preposterous than all this clamor by Mexico and the Mexican interest against annexation as a violation of any rights of hers, any duties of ours?

We would not be understood as approving in all its features the expediency or propriety of the mode in which the measure, rightful and wise as it is in itself, has been carried into effect. Its history has been a sad tissue of diplomatic blundering. How much better it might have been managed—how much more smoothly, satisfactorily, and successfully! Instead of our present relations with Mexico—instead of the serious risks which have been run, and those plausibilities of opprobrium which we have had to combat, not without great difficulty, nor with entire success—instead of the difficulties which now throng the path to a satisfactory settlement of all our unsettled questions with Mexico—Texas might, by a more judicious and conciliatory diplomacy, have been as securely in the Union as she is now—her boundaries defined—California probably ours—and Mexico and ourselves united by closer ties than ever; of mutual friendship and mutual support in resistance to the intrusion of European interference in the affairs of the American republics. . . .

Nor is there any just foundation for the charge that annexation is a great proslavery measure—calculated to increase and perpetuate that institution. Slavery had nothing to do with it. Opinions were and are greatly divided, both at the North and South, as to the influence to be exerted by it [annexation] on the slave and the slave states. That it will tend to facilitate and hasten the disappearance of slavery from all the northern tier of the present slave states cannot surely admit of serious question. The greater value in Texas of the slave labor now employed in those states must soon produce the effect of draining off that labor southwardly, by the same unvarying law that bids water descend the slope that invites it. Every new slave state in Texas[10] will make at least one free state from among those in which that institution now exists—to say nothing of those portions of Texas on which slavery cannot spring and grow—to say nothing of the far more rapid growth of new states in the free West and Northwest, as these fine regions are overspread by the emigration fast flowing over them from Europe, as well as from the northern and eastern states of the Union as it exists. On the other hand, it is undeniably much gained for the cause of the eventual voluntary abolition of slavery, that it should have been thus drained off toward the only outlet which appeared to furnish much probability of the ultimate disappearance of the Negro race from our borders. The Spanish-Indian-American populations of Mexico, Central America, and South America afford the only receptacle capable of absorbing that race whenever we shall be prepared to slough it off—to emancipate it from slavery, and (simultaneously necessary) to remove it from the midst of our own. Themselves already of mixed and confused blood, and free from the “prejudices” which among us so insuperably forbid the social amalgamation which can alone elevate the Negro race out of a virtually servile degradation even though legally free, the regions occupied by those populations must strongly attract the black race in that direction; and as soon as the destined hour of emancipation shall arrive, will relieve the question of one of its worst difficulties, if not absolutely the greatest. . . .

California will, probably, next fall away from the loose adhesion which, in such a country as Mexico, holds a remote province in a slight equivocal kind of dependence on the metropolis. Imbecile and distracted, Mexico never can exert any real governmental authority over such a country. The impotence of the one and the distance of the other must make the relation one of virtual independence; unless, by stunting the province of all natural growth, and forbidding that immigration which can alone develop its capabilities and fulfill the purposes of its creation, tyranny may retain a military dominion, which is no government in the legitimate sense of the term. In the case of California this is now impossible. The Anglo-Saxon foot is already on its borders. Already the advance guard of the irresistible army of Anglo-Saxon emigration has begun to pour down upon it, armed with the plow and the rifle, and marking its trail with schools and colleges, courts and representative halls, mills and meeting-houses. A population will soon be in actual occupation of California, over which it will be idle for Mexico to dream of dominion. They will necessarily become independent. All this without agency of our government, without responsibility of our people—in the natural flow of events, the spontaneous working of principles, and the adaptation of the tendencies and wants of the human race to the elemental circumstances in the midst of which they find themselves placed. And they will have a right to independence—to self-government—to the possession of the homes conquered from the wilderness by their own labors and dangers, sufferings and sacrifices—a better and a truer right than the artificial tide of sovereignty in Mexico, a thousand miles distant, inheriting from Spain a title good only against those who have none better. Their right to independence will be the natural right of self-government belonging to any community strong enough to maintain it—distinct in position, origin, and character, and free from any mutual obligations of membership of a common political body, binding it to others by the duty of loyalty and compact of public faith. This will be their title to independence; and by this title, there can be no doubt that the population now fast streaming down upon California will both assert and maintain that independence. Whether they will then attach themselves to our Union or not, is not to be predicted with any certainty. Unless the projected railroad across the continent to the Pacific be carried into effect, perhaps they may not; though even in that case, the day is not distant when the empires of the Atlantic and Pacific would again flow together into one, as soon as their inland border should approach each other.[11] But that great work, colossal as appears the plan on its first suggestion, cannot remain long unbuilt. Its necessity for this very purpose of binding and holding together in its iron clasp our fast-settling Pacific region with that of the Mississippi valley—the natural facility of the route—the ease with which any amount of labor for the construction can be drawn in from the overcrowded populations of Europe, to be paid in the lands made valuable by the progress of the work itself—and its immense utility to the commerce of the world with the whole eastern Asia, alone almost sufficient for the support of such a road—these considerations give assurance that the day cannot be distant which shall witness the conveyance of the representatives from Oregon and California to Washington within less time than a few years ago was devoted to a similar journey by those from Ohio; while the magnetic telegraph will enable the editors of the San Francisco Union, the Astoria Evening Post, or the Nootka Morning News,[12] to set up in type the first half of the president’s inaugural before the echoes of the latter half shall have died away beneath the lofty porch of the Capitol, as spoken from his lips.

Away, then, with all idle French talk of balances of power on the American continent. There is no growth in Spanish America! Whatever progress of population there may be in the British Canadas is only for their own early severance of their present colonial relation to the little island three thousand miles across the Atlantic; soon to be followed by annexation, and destined to swell the still accumulating momentum of our progress. And whosoever may hold the balance, though they should cast into the opposite scale all the bayonets and cannon, not only of France and England, but of Europe entire, how would it kick the beam against the simple, solid weight of the two hundred and fifty, or three hundred millions—and American millions—destined to gather beneath the flutter of the stripes and stars, in the fast hastening year of the Lord 1945![13]

  1. 1. It is widely presumed that O’Sullivan authored this unsigned editorial, as he did much of the writing for the magazine, but some scholars contend that it is the product of another writer.
  2. 2. A special convention authorized by the Texas Congress agreed to annexation on July 4, 1845, and in August adopted a new constitution, both of which were approved by a citizen vote. The constitution provided for slavery. Texas formally entered the Union on December 29, 1845.
  3. 3. This refers to the Lone Star Flag, first adopted by the Republic of Texas.
  4. 4. O’Sullivan uses French terms to distinguish between a mere geographical designation (le pays, or country) and a homeland (la patrie) or place of personal emotional attachment.
  5. 5. The original thirteen states that constituted the Union.
  6. 6. O’Sullivan first used the term “manifest destiny” in an 1839 editorial, but it did not attract notice at that time.
  7. 7. François Guizot (1787–1874) was the French foreign minister. Britain and France had taken diplomatic steps to persuade Texas to remain independent as a barrier to further expansion by the United States.
  8. 8. In his Raleigh Letter, Henry Clay (1777–1852) had indicated that foreign interference of the sort alleged by Secretary of State John C. Calhoun (1782–1850) would be the grounds for annexation and war (Letter to the Editors of the National Intelligencer Opposing the Annexation of Texas and Letter to Richard Pakenham, British Minister to the United States).
  9. 9. The newly independent central government of Mexico, in order to populate the thinly settled province of Texas and to build a bulwark against Indian attacks, had promised American immigrants large grants of land. A number of settlers also immigrated illegally. The American settlers always had uneasy relations with the central Mexican government. For example, slavery was abolished in Mexico in 1829, but the settlers kept slaves to grow cotton. Such disputes were part of a larger struggle among Mexicans in Texas and throughout the country over the character of Mexico’s government (whether it should be federal or national and centralized). Such disputes led to armed conflict in Texas between the settlers and the Mexican government and eventually to the independence of Texas as a separate republic (1836–1846).
  10. 10. There were proposals to divide Texas into several states.
  11. 11. The idea of a transcontinental railroad first emerged in the 1830s. It was delayed because of differences between the northern and southern sections about the proper route. It was completed after the Civil War, in 1869.
  12. 12. San Francisco, California, and Astoria, Oregon. Nootka Sound separates Vancouver Island and Nootka Island, part of the current Canadian province of British Columbia
  13. 13. The estimated population of the United States in 1945, not including all of North America, as O’Sullivan wished, was 139.9 million. At the beginning of 2020 it was 330 million.
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