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John Louis O'Sullivan (November 15, 1813 – March 24, 1895) was an American columnist and editor who used the term "manifest destiny" in 1845 to promote the annexation of Texas and the Oregon Country to the United States. O'Sullivan was an influential political writer and advocate for the Democratic Party at that time and served as US Minister to Portugal during the administration of President Franklin Pierce (1853–1857), but he largely faded from prominence soon thereafter. He was rescued from obscurity in the twentieth century after the famous phrase "manifest destiny" was traced back to him.
In the July–August 1845 issue of the Democratic Review, O'Sullivan published an essay entitled "Annexation", which called on the U.S. to admit the Republic of Texas into the Union. Because of concerns in the Senate over the expansion of the number of slave states and the possibility of war with Mexico, the annexation of Texas had long been a controversial issue. Congress had voted for annexation early in 1845, but Texas had yet to accept, and opponents were still hoping to block the annexation. O'Sullivan's essay urged that "It is now time for the opposition to the Annexation of Texas to cease." O'Sullivan argued that the United States had a divine mandate to expand throughout North America, writing of "our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions." Texas was annexed shortly thereafter, but O'Sullivan's first usage of the phrase "manifest destiny" attracted little attention.
O'Sullivan's second use of the phrase became extremely influential. In a column, which appeared in the New York Morning News on December 27, 1845, O'Sullivan addressed the ongoing boundary dispute with Great Britain in the Oregon Country.
And that 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 the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.
That is, O'Sullivan believed that God ("Providence") had given the United States a mission to spread republican democracy ("the great experiment of liberty") throughout North America. Because Great Britain would not use Oregon for the purposes of spreading democracy, thought O'Sullivan, British claims to the territory could be disregarded. O'Sullivan believed that manifest destiny was a moral ideal (a "higher law") that superseded other considerations, including international laws and agreements. He made clear he did not include eastern Canada as part of the destiny, and worked to defuse tensions between the two countries in the 1840s.
O'Sullivan's original conception of manifest destiny was not a call for territorial expansion by force. He believed that the expansion of U.S.-style democracy was inevitable, and would happen without military involvement as whites (or "Anglo-Saxons") emigrated to new regions. O'Sullivan disapproved of U.S. involvement the Mexican-American War in 1846, although he came to believe that the outcome would be beneficial to both countries.
O'Sullivan's phrase provided a label for sentiments which had become particularly popular during the 1840s, but the ideas themselves were not new. O'Sullivan himself had earlier expressed some of these ideas, notably in an 1839 essay entitled "The Great Nation of Futurity". O'Sullivan was not the originator of the concept of manifest destiny, but he was one of its foremost advocates.
At first, O'Sullivan was not aware that he had created a new catch phrase. The term became popular after Whig opponents of the Polk administration criticized it. On January 3, 1846, Representative Robert Winthrop ridiculed the concept in Congress, saying "I suppose the right of a manifest destiny to spread will not be admitted to exist in any nation except the universal Yankee nation". Despite this criticism, Democrats embraced the phrase. It caught on so quickly that it was forgotten that O'Sullivan had coined it. It was not until 1927 that historian Julius Pratt determined that the phrase had originated with O'Sullivan.
O'Sullivan was at the peak of his fame and influence at the time of the "manifest destiny" articles. For example, at a Tammany Hall victory celebration on January 8, 1845, he proposed erecting a statue to the Democratic Party's founder and hero, Andrew Jackson. The monument that eventually emerged from his proposal was the famous equestrian statue of Jackson in Lafayette Square, across from the White House, which was dedicated in 1853.
Financial troubles abruptly brought an end to his editorial career. The New York Morning News was losing money, and in May 1846, the paper's investors fired O'Sullivan. The new management was unable to turn things around, and the paper ceased publication in September. Around the same time, O'Sullivan sold the Democratic Review, although he would still occasionally write for the magazine. Now thirty-two years old, he began looking for new opportunities.
O'Sullivan married Susan Kearny Rodgers on October 21, 1846. The couple went to Cuba for their honeymoon, where one of O'Sullivan's sisters lived. O'Sullivan thereafter became involved in a movement to win Cuban independence from Spanish rule. Composed of Cuban dissidents and American "filibusters", the movement hoped to have Cuba annexed to the United States. On May 10, 1848, O'Sullivan had the first of several meetings with President Polk to try to convince the president to buy Cuba from Spain. Polk offered Spain one hundred million dollars for Cuba—the amount suggested by O'Sullivan—but the offer was declined.
O'Sullivan continued to work for Cuban independence, raising money for the failed filibustering expedition of Narciso López. As a result, O'Sullivan was charged in federal court in New York with violation of the Neutrality Act. His trial in March 1852 ended in a hung jury. Although O'Sullivan's reputation was tarnished, he was appointed by the Pierce administration as the U.S. Minister to Portugal, serving from 1854 to 1858. This proved to be his last steady employment; he and his wife would spend the rest of their lives on the edge of poverty.
O'Sullivan opposed the coming of the American Civil War, hoping that a peaceful solution—or a peaceful separation of North and South—could be worked out. In Europe when the war began, O'Sullivan became an active supporter of the Confederate States of America; he may have been on the Confederate payroll at some point. O'Sullivan wrote a number of pamphlets promoting the Confederate cause, arguing that the presidency had become too powerful and that states' rights needed to be protected against encroachment by the central government. Although he had earlier supported the "free soil" movement, he now defended the institution of slavery, writing that blacks and whites could not live together in harmony without it. His activities greatly disappointed some of his old friends, including Hawthorne. After the war, he spent several more years in self-imposed exile in Europe.
O'Sullivan returned to New York in the late 1870s, where he unsuccessfully tried to use his Democratic contacts to get appointed to some office. His political life, however, was over. After the death of his mother, he became a believer in Spiritualism, then a popular religious movement, and claimed to have used the services of one of the Fox sisters to communicate with the spirits of people such as William Shakespeare.
O'Sullivan suffered a stroke in 1889. He died in obscurity from influenza in a residential hotel in New York City in 1895, just as the phrase "manifest destiny" was being revived. He is buried in the Moravian Cemetery on Staten Island.
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John L. O'Sullivan
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