Manifest Destiny: the Dark Side of American Imperialism

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Updated: Nov 30, 2023
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Manifest Destiny: the Dark Side of American Imperialism

This essay will examine the concept of Manifest Destiny and its role as a justification for American imperialism. It will explore its impact on indigenous populations and its legacy. On PapersOwl, there’s also a selection of free essay templates associated with American Imperialism.

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“During the 19th century, American settlers felt an enthusiastic fervor to explore the western lands of America and to expand the reach of their ideals beyond their borders. However, the utopian idea of westward expansion wasn’t so romantic to those who stood in the path of the American dream. During the “Age of Imperialism”, ideas such as Manifest Destiny often came at the expense of others, leading to war and suffering in and around the nation. Due to the negative consequences and questionable morals of such ideology, many people debated, and continue to debate, whether the imperialistic actions and behaviors of Americans were justifiable.

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Manifest Destiny was a doctrine whose principles originated from American Imperialism. It was the idea that the American people were destined by divine right to expand the boundaries of the United States and, in doing so, spread their ideas of government, economics, and culture. The heart of Manifest Destiny was rooted in the belief that English-speaking people were racially, culturally, and intellectually superior. Social Darwinism led Americans to believe that it was their responsibility to teach Anglo-Saxon concepts to populations that were presumed to be less evolved. For example, many Americans, including President George Washington, believed that the Native Americans needed to become civilized by assimilating into the Anglo-Saxon lifestyle. In order to reform native people, Americans would encourage them to convert to Christianity and teach them how to read and speak the English language, as well as how to adopt European economic ideals such as individual ownership of land, property and, in some instances, slaves. These practices were repeated many times as the United States expanded its control over countries such as the Philippines, Cuba, Germany, Austria, Korea, and Japan (Placeholder1). In doing so, Americans would often strip native people of their traditional values, cultures, identities, and even their religion as they became integrated into American society. The deeply-rooted superiority complex led entitled Americans to unnecessarily intervene in the affairs of foreign countries, creating tension and hatred towards the United States, within the United States, and within the nations they visited.

In addition to the destruction of native cultures, Americans used Manifest Destiny to justify the maltreatment of native peoples. While many Americans aimed to reform the “savages” in the land, other Americans cared more about the land they were inhabiting. These settlers committed heinous crimes such as theft, arson, squatting, and even genocide. Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling that objected to the limitations placed on Native American sovereignty, state governments continued to pass laws that would allow settlers to continue to drive Native Americans out of the South by any means necessary. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, despite protests from people, like Abraham Lincoln and David Crockett, who believed the land belonged only to the Native Americans. The highly contested act granted the federal government the power to force Native Americans to a reservation in what is now Oklahoma. Scores of Natives Americans were forced to walk the trail to this reservation on foot without food or assistance from the government, which led to the deaths of thousands of Native Americans.

Manifest Destiny also contributed greatly to the conflict of slavery, which led up to the Mexican-American War and eventually the Civil War. As populations began to grow, southerners looked to expand their cotton cultivation in western lands, which meant the spread of slavery in these regions. Mexico welcomed American settlers, many of whom brought their slaves with them, in their territory of Texas. To mitigate the American influence on Texas, the Mexican government abolished slavery. Americans worked their way around the law by coercing their newly-freed slaves to agree to lifelong indenture contracts. Tension and rebellion led to the Battle of the Alamo and the Battle of Goliad, both of which the Mexican army won. American troops retaliated, however, by ambushing Mexican forces at the San Jacinto River, granting Texas its independence. Texas applied for statehood, but annexation was delayed due in part to northern opposition to the addition of another slave state. Eventually, Texas was annexed which infuriated the Mexican government. When President James Polk sent John Slidell to purchase New Mexico and California, Mexico refused to see his offer. Polk retaliated by sending troops to pressure Mexican authorities into making a decision, thus beginning the Mexican-American War. The acquisition of Texas had already raised questions about slavery, but upon the victory of the Mexican-American War, tension between the abolitionists and the slaveholders continued to intensify until the eventually the Civil War began. Tension within the United States did not end with the abolishment of slavery, but rather ensued in political feuds regarding expansionism and imperialism, and wars waged overseas, creating even more internal conflict.

The Hawaiian Revolution started a rapid movement of American Imperialism. Hawaii was annexed after Queen Liliuokalani was deposed in a coup d’état held by American planters and citizens, mainly businessmen, who opposed her idea of creating a new Constitution that would change the law granting only wealthy landowners the right to vote in Hawaii. The marines, without explicit government permission, invaded Hawaii and imprisoned Queen Liliuokalani, making Sanford Dole the president. The U.S. ambassador, who aided in the revolt, recognized the new provisional government and requested that Hawaii be annexed. America’s involvement in the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy sparked a momentous debate about whether to imperialize overseas, or to continue its tradition of isolationism. Labor unions and the sugar beet industry opposed the annexation of Hawaii with fears about competing with cheaper Hawaiian sugar and lowering wages due to a flood of Chinese and Japanese workers into the mainland. Other anti-imperialists argued that annexing Hawaii was unconstitutional, hypocritical, and defied Republican values. But on February 15, 1898, the USS Maine exploded off the Havana Harbor. Yellow journalists were quick to accuse Spain of the explosion, fanning the flames of anger and fear.

A declaration of war soon followed. Annexationists united to claim Hawaii and its opportune location for a naval base, with President McKinley supporting the acquisition by stating it was Manifest Destiny. Anti-imperialists and anti-annexationists continued to argue against annexing Hawaii, but the pressures of war and the desire to expand markets overseas eventually drowned out their protests. Soon after, Americans sought to liberate Cuba from Spain, primarily to display the power of their newly built military forces by defeating an overseas power. America claimed to have no imperialist motive for aiding Cuba in its fight for independence, even signing an amendment as proof. However, America soon broke its promise, coercing Cuba into an agreement that would make them a U.S. territory. The conquest of Panama was achieved in much the same way: America promised independence to Panama before taking over to further their imperialist agenda. Whereas the liberation of Cuba was more about becoming a world power and eventually seizing the Philippines, gaining Panama was about expanding overseas trade. The building of the Panama Canal angered many Latin Americans, so the U.S. gave them millions of dollars in compensation. Tension, conflict, and war continued as America sustained their involvement in Latin America and foreign affairs.

American Imperialism continued to influence many wars and rebellions throughout the world, and it didn’t die with the start of the 21st century. America continues to hold imperialistic values and ideals which still stimulates debates over the validity and justification of current and previous actions. American Imperialism did provide many benefits in and around the nation. Imperialism brought modern medicine and hygiene to under-developed countries which led to a decrease in diseases such as cholera, typhoid fever, and malaria. American imperialists also taught countries the universal language of trade, establishing better economies and overall standard of living. Naturally, the greatest benefits of American Imperialism were to Americans, who extended their territories, developed new trade routes and a better market, and created the empire it is today.

But is American Imperialism really justified? The answer is no. While imperialism helped many nations, it also came at a significant price. Hundreds of thousands of cultures, traditions, and lives were destroyed. Resources have been, and continue to be, completely drained in territories America has claimed. America grew wealthy on the backs of slaves and native people they conquered, people who struggled to make a living for themselves and their people. With the notion of Manifest Destiny, corruption was rampant in American civilization, and in American government as well. Citizens had little regard for the lives they ruined in their quest for an empire, and governments had little regard for what their people wanted. Social Darwinism manifested complacency which led Americans to believe they were superior and entitled to everything. Great divides were constructed between opposing groups of Americans that grew stronger with each conflict and each war; the North and South, annexationists and anti-annexations, imperialists and anti-imperialists, the Democrats and the Republicans, etc. Many of these consequences continue to have a negative impact on the American people.

America ultimately used American Imperialism and Manifest Destiny as a means to get what they wanted. A prime example would be the Spanish-American War and the resulting Treaty of Paris, which granted them the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. Today, imperialistic actions, sometimes called neo-colonialism, and foreign policies have a profound effect on the American workforce. Some of the effects are beneficial, but many effects are detrimental, particularly to the workforce. The 21st century imperialism of wealthy capitalist countries, like the United States, and their colonies and semi-colonies has an immensely harmful effect on its workers. For one, dominating powers make poor workers poorer in countries like Haiti and Bangladesh (an idea reflective of social Darwinism), meaning capitalist organizations will move production from their own countries to those less fortunate countries. Sending production overseas eliminates available jobs in America, increases the burden on low-wage workers in neo-colonies, and creates downward pressure on wages for the middle-class. This creates problems pertaining to industrial jobs as careers involving factory work and production are the ones most likely to be affected by modern imperialism. The dependency on keeping jobs in America increases the wealth of corporations who keep business within the country, creating monopolies and an abundance of wealth in the upper-class. This has a negative effect on nearly every aspect of society, namely in politics whose candidates seem to be determined solely by monetary value rather than moral values. While American Imperialism and Manifest Destiny do not appear to have any direct affect on the graphic arts industry in particular, it certainly has an effect on the workforce and specifically on industrial careers.

American Imperialism and Manifest Destiny had a profound affect on the shaping of America and its global reach. Though these ideologies had some positive influences on our society and those societies we encountered in our expansion, the negative consequences of the past, present, and potentially the future do not justify the expansionistic and imperialistic actions of our predecessors. Some of these actions have negative effects on our workforce and resources. Many of these actions led to great war and bloodshed and continue to lead our country into battle with foreign nations, often in monetary pursuits. Throughout history, empire after empire has fallen, and it is only a matter of time before American imperialism leads to the fall of ours.”

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Manifest Destiny: The Dark Side of American Imperialism. (2021, Jun 26). Retrieved from