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John L. O’Sullivan (1813–1895) was a writer and editor, and a supporter of the Democratic Party. He founded and edited the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, in which his essay “The Great Nation of Futurity” first appeared. If O’Sullivan is known at all today, it is for coining the term “manifest destiny” to justify westward expansion. The term most famously appeared in O’Sullivan’s essay urging annexation of Texas in 1845 (available in the Core Documents volume Westward Expansion). The essential ideas of manifest destiny are present, however, in “The Great Nation of Futurity”: the special status of the American people and the United States; the mission of the United States to spread the blessings of liberty and redeem the world from tyranny; the inevitable unfolding of progress; and the victory of the future over the past. The great engine driving America’s manifest destiny was the power of equality and Americans’ commitment to this idea. O’Sullivan’s views were a synthesis of Jeffersonian republicanism (See Virginia Declaration of Rights and Constitution, First Inaugural Address), Jacksonian populism (See Veto of the Bank Bill), and the providential view of American history (See An Address. . .Celebrating the Declaration of Independence, The Nature, Importance, and Means of Eminent Holiness throughout the Church). Central to the synthesis was the idea that the American people, although drawn from many nations, were equals as citizens of the United States and therefore should enjoy equal opportunity. Privilege and corporations and a too powerful federal government were enemies of the people and of their equal opportunity. Such views characterized the Democratic Party through the twentieth century (See Campaign Address on Progressive Government at the Commonwealth Club, Remarks on the Economy Osawatomie, Kansas), although the party came to accept and use the power of the federal government (See Campaign Address on Progressive Government at the Commonwealth Club, For the Equal Rights Amendment).
It is noteworthy that in his praise of equality and equal opportunity O’Sullivan said nothing about slavery. Paradoxically, this inveterate enemy of privilege and inequality, this scourge of America’s tendency to favor tradition and the retrograde, became a supporter of the South during the sectional conflict over slavery, brought on or worsened by the westward expansion he encouraged.
Source: John L. O Sullivan, “The Great Nation of Futurity,” United States Magazine and Democratic Review, vol. 6, issue 23, 426–430, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015035929606&view=1up&seq=428.
The American people having derived their origin from many other nations, and the Declaration of National Independence being entirely based on the great principle of human equality, these facts demonstrate at once our disconnected position as regards any other nation; that we have, in reality, but little connection with the past history of any of them, and still less with all antiquity, its glories, or its crimes. On the contrary, our national birth was the beginning of a new history, the formation and progress of an untried political system, which separates us from the past and connects us with the future only; and so far as regards the entire development of the natural rights of man, in moral, political, and national life, we may confidently assume that our country is destined to be the great nation of futurity.
It is so destined, because the principle upon which a nation is organized fixes its destiny, and that of equality is perfect, is universal. It presides in all the operations of the physical world, and it is also the conscious law of the soul—the self-evident dictate of morality which accurately defines the duty of man to man, and consequently man’s rights as man. Besides, the truthful annals of any nation furnish abundant evidence that its happiness, its greatness, its duration, were always proportionate to the democratic equality in its system of government.
How many nations have had their decline and fall because the equal rights of the minority were trampled on by the despotism of the majority; or the interests of the many sacrificed to the aristocracy of the few; or the rights and interests of all given up to the monarchy of one? These three kinds of government have figured so frequently and so largely in the ages that have passed away that their history, through all time to come, can only furnish a resemblance. Like causes produce like effects, and the true philosopher of history will easily discern the principle of equality, or of privilege, working out its inevitable result. The first is regenerative, because it is natural and right; the latter is destructive to society, because it is unnatural and wrong.
What friend of human liberty, civilization, and refinement can cast his view over the past history of the monarchies and aristocracies of antiquity, and not deplore that they ever existed? . . .
The far reaching, the boundless future will be the era of American greatness. In its magnificent domain of space and time, the nation of many nations is destined to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles; to establish on earth the noblest temple ever dedicated to the worship of the Most High—the Sacred and the True. Its floor shall be a hemisphere—its roof the firmament of the star-studded heavens, and its congregation a Union of many Republics, comprising hundreds of happy millions, calling, owning no man master, but governed by God’s natural and moral law of equality, the law of brotherhood—of “peace and good will amongst men.”. . .
European governments have plunged themselves in debt, designating burdens on the people “national blessings.”1 Our state legislatures, humbly imitating their pernicious example, have pawned, bonded the property, labor, and credit of their constituents to the subjects of monarchy. It is by our own labor, and with our own materials, that our internal improvements are constructed, but our British-law-trained legislators have enacted that we shall be in debt for them, paying interest, but never to become owners. With various climates, soils, natural resources, and products, beyond any other country, and producing more real capital annually than any other sixteen millions of people on earth, we are, nevertheless, borrowers, paying tribute to the money powers of Europe. . . .
But with all the retrograde tendencies of our laws, our judicature, our colleges, our literature, still they are compelled to follow the mighty impulse of the age; they are carried onward by the increasing tide of progress; and though they cast many a longing look behind, they cannot stay the glorious movement of the masses, nor induce them to venerate the rubbish, the prejudices, the superstitions of other times and other lands, the theocracy of priests, the divine right of kings, the aristocracy of blood, the metaphysics of colleges, the irrational stuff of law libraries. Already the brightest hopes of philanthropy, the most enlarged speculations of true philosophy, are inspired by the indications perceptible amongst the mechanical and agricultural population. There, with predominating influence, beats the vigorous national heart of America, propelling the onward march of the multitude, propagating and extending, through the present and the future, the powerful purpose of soul, which, in the seventeenth century, sought a refuge among savages, and reared in the wilderness the sacred altars of intellectual freedom. This was the seed that produced individual equality, and political liberty, as its natural fruit; and this is our true nationality. American patriotism is not of soil; we are not aborigines, nor of ancestry, for we are of all nations; but it is essentially personal enfranchisement, for “where liberty dwells,” said Franklin,2 the sage of the Revolution, “there is my country.”
Such is our distinguishing characteristic, our popular instinct, and never yet has any public functionary stood forth for the rights of conscience against any, or all, sects desirous of predominating over such right, that he was not sustained by the people. And when a venerated patriot of the Revolution appealed to his fellow citizens against the overshadowing power of a monarch institution, they came in their strength, and the moneyed despot was brought low.3 Corporate powers and privileges shrink to nothing when brought in conflict against the rights of individuals. Hence it is that our professional, literary, or commercial aristocracy have no faith in the virtue, intelligence, or capability of the people. The latter have never responded to their exotic sentiments, nor promoted their views of a strong government irresponsible to the popular majority, to the will of the masses.
Yes, we are the nation of progress, of individual freedom, of universal enfranchisement. Equality of rights is the cynosure of our union of states, the grand exemplar of the correlative equality of individuals; and while truth sheds its effulgence,4 we cannot retrograde, without dissolving the one and subverting the other. We must onward to the fulfilment of our mission—to the entire development of the principle of our organization—freedom of conscience, freedom of person, freedom of trade and business pursuits, universality of freedom and equality. This is our high destiny, and in nature’s eternal, inevitable decree of cause and effect we must accomplish it. All this will be our future history, to establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man—the immutable truth and beneficence of God. For this blessed mission to the nations of the world, which are shut out from the life-giving light of truth, has America been chosen; and her high example shall smite unto death the tyranny of kings, hierarchs, and oligarchs, and carry the glad tidings of peace and good will where myriads now endure an existence scarcely more enviable than that of beasts of the field. Who, then, can doubt that our country is destined to be the great nation of futurity?
- 1. A reference to Alexander Hamilton’s remark that a national debt, if not excessive, is a blessing. For Hamilton’s explanation of what he meant, see Hamilton, “Fact No. 1,” National Gazette, September 11, 1792, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/ Hamilton/01-12-02-0274.
- 2. Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790). This quotation is traditionally attributed to Franklin.
- 3. Possibly a reference to Thomas Jefferson’s battle against Alexander Hamilton, which culminated in Jefferson’s victory in the presidential election of 1800 (Document 10). It could also be a reference to Andrew Jackson’s battle against the National Bank (Document 14). Jackson served in the Revolutionary War.
- 4. Brilliance or brilliant light.