Manifest Destiny

The term Manifest Destiny was first used in 1845 by New York City journalist John Louis O’Sullivan. He used the term in the context of America’s annexation of the Republic of Texas. Manifest Destiny represented the idea that it was America’s right — its destiny, in fact — to expand across all of North America. Politicians and citizens in the United States called for the US to expand by claiming control of British territory. This included the Province of Canada (formerly Upper Canada and Lower Canada), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Spirit of the Frontier
Gast's 1872 painting captures the essence of Manifest Destiny by depicting Americans moving westward.

Historical Context

After the American Revolutionary War (1775–83), many Americans were distrustful of the continued British presence in North America. After the War of 1812 (1812–14), the fate of the remaining British North American colonies seemed uncertain. Since they were not collectively unified as a nation, they were vulnerable to American aggression and interference. Advocates of Manifest Destiny believed that the colonies could be easily absorbed into an American system.

Many in British North America wanted to expand into the territories to the west and north. (See also Rupert’s Land.) This would reduce the chances that these regions would be annexed by the United States. The British adopted an official policy of neutrality during the American Civil War (1861–65). However, they worked behind the scenes to aid the Southern States in their fight against the North. Newspapers in the northern Union states suggested that territory lost in the American South could be balanced by expanding into Canada.


Manifest Destiny and Canada

North Americans reacted in diverse ways to the concept of Manifest Destiny. Some welcomed the American “emancipation” of British North America. But those faithful to the British maintained a tradition of Loyalist support of the Crown, similar to that during the American Revolution.

Canadian fears of American expansionism increased after the US purchased Alaska from Russia in March 1867. But the threat of American invasion decreased after Confederation. It also lessened under the leadership of the federal Conservative Party and Sir John A. Macdonald. He implemented the National Policy in 1879. This protected Canadian manufacturers from the threat of American competition. The National Policy also contributed to Canadian efforts to push west and north. The growth of the Canadian Pacific Railway also helped in this regard, as did the Dominion Lands Act of 1872. It increased immigration and settlement in the West.

Manifest Destiny led to a growing sense of national identity in British North America. This culminated in the Charlottetown Conference of 1864 and the move toward Confederation. As Britain began to adopt free trade policies, the expense of defending and administering the North American colonies became prohibitive. Other factors fed the British desire to reduce its role in the Canadian provinces. These included the emergence of responsible government in the Canadas, the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, and the defeat of the Confederate Army in the United States in 1865.


Significance

The concept of Manifest Destiny occupied an important place in the colonialism of 19th century North America. It factored into Canada’s efforts to push west and north, settling the Prairie Provinces and the Arctic. The solution to the threat of American expansionism proved to be Canadian expansionism.

Manifest Destiny speaks to the shared pasts of Canada and the United States as countries that formed after the British colonization of North America. It has become a common theme in efforts to trace the similarities and differences between Canadians and Americans. In both countries, the push westward took the most drastic toll on Indigenous peoples. They experienced forced dislocation and a loss of sovereignty to foreign models of governance.

(See also: Geopolitics; American Civil War and Canada; The Fraser River Gold Rush and the Founding of British Columbia.)


Further Reading

  • Julius W. Pratt, “The Origin of ‘Manifest Destiny,’” The American Historical Review vol. 32, no. 4 (1927): 795–98.
  • Reginald Horsman, “On to Canada: Manifest Destiny and United States Strategy in the War of 1812,” The Michigan Historical Review (1987): 1–24.
  • Steven E. Woodworth, Manifest Destinies: America’s Westward Expansion and the Road to the Civil War (2011).
  • Shane Mountjoy and Liz Sonneborn, Manifest Destiny: Westward Expansion (2009).
  • J.C.A. Stagg, “Between Black Rock and a Hard Place: Peter B. Porter’s Plan for an American Invasion of Canada in 1812,” Journal of the Early Republic vol. 19, no. 3 (1999): 385–422.
  • Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny (1981).
  • Anders Stephanson, Manifest Destiny: American Expansionism and the Empire of Right (1995).

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