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American Progress by John Gast (1872)
Dec. 27
John O'Sullivan, New York Morning News
Away, away with all these cobweb tissues of rights of discovery, exploration, settlement, contiguity, etc.… The American claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of liberty and federative self-government entrusted to us.
It is a right such as that of the tree to the space of air and earth, suitable for the full expansion of its principle and destiny of growth…. It is in our future far more than in our past or in the past history of Spanish exploration or French colonial rights, that our True Title is to be found.

And with that, journalist John L. O’Sullivan coined the phrase “Manifest Destiny.” He was writing about the ongoing dispute with Britain over boundaries and the right of the United States to claim Oregon, but his words had much more far-reaching implications.

O’Sullivan was an outspoken member of the group of intellectuals and politicians who developed a new, voracious ideology of American expansionism in the 1840s. By the following year, 1846, theirs had become the dominant national position with the Manifest Destiny-fueled policies of President James K. Polk and the Mexican American War, when the United States invaded Mexico and took half its territory. That seized territory became much of what we think of today as the American West: including California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas, plus parts of what we now know as Nevada, Utah, and Colorado.

Growing out of O’Sullivan’s turn of phrase, the ideology of Manifest Destiny powerfully and effectively justified the United States’ western expansion across the continent and the genocidal displacement of Indigenous people, the ecocide of the natural environment, the extension of slavery, and subsequent claims to Pacific islands as well as other imperial domestic and foreign policy stances that came in its wake.

Driven by assumptions about the morality, divinity, freedom, and presumed superiority of a white America, through the lens of Manifest Destiny, western expansion was viewed not only as a triumph for the spread of liberty, but it was also seen as foreordained and inevitable. In the face of the claims of divine providence, the legal claims of other nations, let alone the unmentioned claims of American Indians who lived on western lands, were mere “cobweb tissues” to be brushed away.

Manifest Destiny is thus foundational to the origin story of the American West, California, and San Francisco. A rich body of humanities scholarship has critically analyzed the histories and legacies of western expansion that the ideology of Manifest Destiny enabled. But Manifest Differently takes the position that much of the general public, while likely familiar with the phrase Manifest Destiny, has lacked the tools to think deeply about its historical and contemporary meanings and implications. To remedy this, Manifest Differently combines the insights of cutting-edge humanities scholarship and the powerfully evocative work of visual, literary, and media arts, to wake people up to the history of Manifest Destiny, how it was expressed in California, and how it impacted, and continues to impact, California’s multi-ethnic and multi-cultural communities. Manifest Differently flips the script from the still often typical focus on railroad barons, industrialists, and hardy, white pioneers to all the people on the other side of the story, to grapple with their complex experiences and responses to Manifest Destiny’s realities and legacies, providing much-needed tools for manifesting a different future.

Right now, in the United States, many people need and are searching for tools to understand the racism, sexism, and injustice that they are being forced to confront through the efforts of social movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, as well as the open white supremacy of groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. Schools often teach ‘discovery’ and ‘manifest destiny’ but skate over the core disconnect that centers those ideas in ignoring the humanity of various othered communities. And people, in general, are not offered a way to process how something like Manifest Destiny is part of their own personal narratives, their individual, familial, ancestral, and/or community stories.

The 1619 Project is one very powerful response to this need, albeit with an East Coast focus. With similar intent, Manifest Differently seeks to both reveal and revise America’s origin story on the West Coast, to give people a wide variety of ways to connect with and explore the history of Manifest Destiny, from a range of diverse perspectives, what it meant in the past and what it means today, and to motivate people to engage with the past in ways that open their eyes and reshape how they see and relate to the present and the future.

Despite how quickly Manifest Destiny’s ideological power grew, Americans were still divided over expansion in the 1840s.

Differing opinions about expansion were evident in the refusal, between 1836 and 1844, of the United States to annex Texas. The Mexican American War, with its explicitly expansionist aims, was the source of bitter divisions and conflicts over the extension of slavery into new territories that culminated in the Civil War. And since most of the people living on the western lands were people of color, in a country that was loudly and proudly racist, the absorption of large numbers of nonwhites was not a popular proposal. Fear of incorporating non-whites into the American body politic – either through the expansion of slavery or the annexation of areas of Mexico (and later Hawaii and other Pacific Islands) – was ultimately resolved by Manifest Destiny’s entrenchment of white supremacy and accompanying beliefs in the inferiority of the conquered and colonized.

With the United States’ conquest of California in 1848, San Francisco and Manifest Destiny essentially grew up together.

The assumptions embedded in Manifest Destiny not only justified the territorial acquisition, but they also drove California’s economy, the race and labor relations that would prevail in the new state under American rule, and the population boom that gave birth to San Francisco as a city. From a small Mexican pueblo of roughly 900 people in 1848, San Francisco by 1875 had become the most important city in the West with a population near 150,000.

The ideology of Manifest Destiny provides a powerful way to think about the logic through which California, as part of the United States, organized itself and developed.

The state’s earliest legislation quickly began delineating who belonged in this new society and who did not. In 1849, California’s State Constitution decreed that Mexicans could be granted citizenship because they fell under the rubric of the category “white,” whereas California Indians were considered nonwhite and thus could not be citizens.

A few years later, in 1854, the California Supreme Court in People v. Hall denied citizenship to Chinese immigrants by decreeing that they “were generically ‘Indians’ and therefore, nonwhite.” The Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, passed by the state legislature in 1850, denied California Indians the right to testify in court and allowed them to be held as indentured servants—which was nothing but a euphemism for varying types of slavery. In 1856 California’s government issued a bounty of $0.25 per Indian scalp that was raised to $5.00 in 1860. Foreign Miners’ Taxes, aimed at Chinese and Latin American immigrants, were passed as early as 1850. And Mexican land grants were no match in American courts for the miners, squatters, and homesteaders who overran Californio land.

Certainly, tens of thousands of California Indian people died in the Spanish missions, and by the time the United States took control, they had already been subjected to close to 80 years of enslavement and dislocation. But it is crucial to understand that under U.S. governance, California Indians died at an even more alarming rate.

The people who poured into California mined, logged, and otherwise appropriated Indigenous Californians’ remaining places of safety in their homelands. American civilians—supported by the state and, at times, the nation’s military—inflicted organized vigilante violence and outright massacres. Pollution of ancestral lands from mining and other industries was also a form of violence.

Between 1846 and 1870, the population of Indigenous Californians plunged from around 150,000 to only 30,000. By 1880, census takers recorded that just under 17,000 Indigenous people remained. But, in the face of this genocide, indigenous Californians survived and, with strength and resilience, kept alive their cultures and traditions. They did not disappear. They defied the Manifest Destiny-infused evolutionary logic of the day.

This litany of legislation and the trauma it inflicted starts to flip the script, to shift the focus to the people who were the subjects of these laws that codified the removal, enslavement, displacement, and disenfranchisement that Manifest Destiny’s vision of progress through landed empire necessitated. Manifest Destiny left indigenous people, people of color, and many wage workers outside of the body politic, without rights or rights that needed to be respected.
It is from this position, of recognizing the histories and experiences of those who have not benefited from the legacy of Manifest Destiny, that Manifest Differently begins.