John L. O'Sullivan
John Louis O'Sullivan was an American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 columnist and editor who used the term "Manifest Destiny
Manifest Destiny
Manifest Destiny was the 19th century American belief that the United States was destined to expand across the continent. It was used by Democrat-Republicans in the 1840s to justify the war with Mexico; the concept was denounced by Whigs, and fell into disuse after the mid-19th century.Advocates of...

" in 1845 to promote the annexation of Texas
Texas Annexation
In 1845, United States of America annexed the Republic of Texas and admitted it to the Union as the 28th state. The U.S. thus inherited Texas's border dispute with Mexico; this quickly led to the Mexican-American War, during which the U.S. captured additional territory , extending the nation's...

 and the Oregon Country
Oregon Country
The Oregon Country was a predominantly American term referring to a disputed ownership region of the Pacific Northwest of North America. The region was occupied by British and French Canadian fur traders from before 1810, and American settlers from the mid-1830s, with its coastal areas north from...

 to the United States. O'Sullivan was an influential political writer and advocate for the Democratic Party at that time, but he 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.

Early years

John L. O'Sullivan
was born on the North Atlantic Ocean during the War of 1812
War of 1812
The War of 1812 was a military conflict fought between the forces of the United States of America and those of the British Empire. The Americans declared war in 1812 for several reasons, including trade restrictions because of Britain's ongoing war with France, impressment of American merchant...

, his mother having taken refuge on a British
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 ship to avoid plague in Gibraltar
Gibraltar is a British overseas territory located on the southern end of the Iberian Peninsula at the entrance of the Mediterranean. A peninsula with an area of , it has a northern border with Andalusia, Spain. The Rock of Gibraltar is the major landmark of the region...

, where his father was engaged in business. His father, also named John, was a naturalized American citizen of Irish ancestry; his mother Mary Rowly was English. O'Sullivan attended Columbia College
Columbia College of Columbia University
Columbia College is the oldest undergraduate college at Columbia University, situated on the university's main campus in Morningside Heights in the borough of Manhattan in New York City. It was founded in 1754 by the Church of England as King's College, receiving a Royal Charter from King George II...

 in New York City
New York City
New York is the most populous city in the United States and the center of the New York Metropolitan Area, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. New York exerts a significant impact upon global commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and...

. O'Sullivan's father had been a devout Catholic, and O'Sullivan himself was politically associated with the Catholics in New York City, but there is no evidence that he was a practicing Catholic before the 1860s, and then the evidence is unclear. Adelaide, his youngest sister was a Catholic nun, and was nominated for sainthood.

In 1837, O'Sullivan co-founded and served as editor for The United States Magazine and Democratic Review
The United States Magazine and Democratic Review
The United States Magazine and Democratic Review was a periodical published from 1837–1859 by John L. O'Sullivan. Its motto, "The best government is that which governs least," was famously paraphrased by Henry David Thoreau in On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.-History:In 1837, O'Sullivan...

(generally called the Democratic Review), a highly regarded journal meant to champion Jacksonian Democracy
Jacksonian democracy
Jacksonian democracy is the political movement toward greater democracy for the common man typified by American politician Andrew Jackson and his supporters. Jackson's policies followed the era of Jeffersonian democracy which dominated the previous political era. The Democratic-Republican Party of...

, a movement that had usually been disparaged in the more conservative North American Review
North American Review
The North American Review was the first literary magazine in the United States. Founded in Boston in 1815 by journalist Nathan Hale and others, it was published continuously until 1940, when publication was suspended due to J. H. Smyth, who had purchased the magazine, being unmasked as a Japanese...

. The magazine featured political essays—many of them penned by O'Sullivan—extolling the virtues of Jacksonian Democracy and criticizing what Democrats regarded as the aristocratic pretensions of their opponents. The journal supported Martin Van Buren
Martin Van Buren
Martin Van Buren was the eighth President of the United States . Before his presidency, he was the eighth Vice President and the tenth Secretary of State, under Andrew Jackson ....

 in the 1840 presidential election (he lost) and James K. Polk
James K. Polk
James Knox Polk was the 11th President of the United States . Polk was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. He later lived in and represented Tennessee. A Democrat, Polk served as the 17th Speaker of the House of Representatives and the 12th Governor of Tennessee...

 in the 1844 election (he won).
The Democratic Review was also (perhaps even primarily) a literary magazine, promoting the development of American literature by publishing works of authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American essayist, lecturer, and poet, who led the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century...

, Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau was an American author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, historian, and leading transcendentalist...

, Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman
Walter "Walt" Whitman was an American poet, essayist and journalist. A humanist, he was a part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism, incorporating both views in his works. Whitman is among the most influential poets in the American canon, often called the father of free verse...

, and Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne was an American novelist and short story writer.Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in 1804 in the city of Salem, Massachusetts to Nathaniel Hathorne and the former Elizabeth Clarke Manning. His ancestors include John Hathorne, a judge during the Salem Witch Trials...

. Hawthorne and O'Sullivan became close friends, and Hawthorne had more pieces published in O'Sullivan's magazine than in any other periodical. The Democratic Review was always in financial difficulties, since it accepted no advertising and relied on subscriptions and donations to survive. O'Sullivan relinquished his editorial duties for a short time to practice law, though he continued to write for the magazine.
In 1841, at twenty-seven years of age, O'Sullivan was elected to the New York State Assembly
New York State Assembly
The New York State Assembly is the lower house of the New York State Legislature. The Assembly is composed of 150 members representing an equal number of districts, with each district having an average population of 128,652...

. In office, he gained a reputation as an advocate for abolition of the death penalty, a cause he would continue to promote after leaving the Assembly. He also championed other reforms, such as rights for women and working people. He worked to make New York City public schools, which were oriented towards Protestantism, more acceptable to Catholics, Jews, and Quakers. He proposed creating a "Congress of Nations," a body which would mediate international disputes in order to prevent the outbreak of war. His agenda met much resistance in the Assembly, and he did not seek reelection after the end of the 1842 term. According to biographer Robert D. Sampson, O'Sullivan was "far in advance of his colleagues on such issues as religious toleration, humane approaches to punishment and incarceration, sexual equality in the legal arena, and economic justice."

O'Sullivan attended the dramatic 1844 Democratic National Convention
Democratic National Convention
The Democratic National Convention is a series of presidential nominating conventions held every four years since 1832 by the United States Democratic Party. They have been administered by the Democratic National Committee since the 1852 national convention...

, where he advocated the nomination of ex-President Martin Van Buren
Martin Van Buren
Martin Van Buren was the eighth President of the United States . Before his presidency, he was the eighth Vice President and the tenth Secretary of State, under Andrew Jackson ....

. Although Van Buren was passed over in favor of James K. Polk
James K. Polk
James Knox Polk was the 11th President of the United States . Polk was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. He later lived in and represented Tennessee. A Democrat, Polk served as the 17th Speaker of the House of Representatives and the 12th Governor of Tennessee...

, O'Sullivan worked tirelessly to promote Polk in the 1844 campaign, although O'Sullivan would always have reservations about him. Not the least efficient of his services in Polk's campaign was the establishment of the Daily News in connection with Samuel J Tilden, July 13, 1844. The New York Morning News, an inexpensive daily newspaper O'Sullivan co-owned with Samuel J. Tilden
Samuel J. Tilden
Samuel Jones Tilden was the Democratic candidate for the U.S. presidency in the disputed election of 1876, one of the most controversial American elections of the 19th century. He was the 25th Governor of New York...

, was created soon before the election of 1844 to promote the Democratic Party, particularly among working class people in New York City. Furthermore, in an effort to unite the divided Democrats, O'Sullivan convinced Van Buren to endorse Polk on the eve of the election. O'Sullivan's efforts helped Polk carry New York State. Henry Clay
Henry Clay
Henry Clay, Sr. , was a lawyer, politician and skilled orator who represented Kentucky separately in both the Senate and in the House of Representatives...

 would have won the election had Polk lost New York, and so in his study of the Young America movement
Young America movement
The Young America Movement was an American political and cultural attitude in the mid-nineteenth century. Inspired by European reform movements of the 1830s , the American group was formed as a political organization in 1845 by Edwin de Leon and George H. Evans...

, Edward L. Widmer argues that O'Sullivan "may have single-handedly won the election for Polk".

"Manifest Destiny"

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
Republic of Texas
The Republic of Texas was an independent nation in North America, bordering the United States and Mexico, that existed from 1836 to 1846.Formed as a break-away republic from Mexico by the Texas Revolution, the state claimed borders that encompassed an area that included all of the present U.S...

 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 United Mexican States , commonly known as Mexico , is a federal constitutional republic in North America. It is bordered on the north by the United States; on the south and west by the Pacific Ocean; on the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea; and on the east by the Gulf of...

, 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
Oregon boundary dispute
The Oregon boundary dispute, or the Oregon Question, arose as a result of competing British and American claims to the Pacific Northwest of North America in the first half of the 19th century. Both the United Kingdom and the United States had territorial and commercial aspirations in the region...

 with Great Britain
Great Britain
Great Britain or Britain is an island situated to the northwest of Continental Europe. It is the ninth largest island in the world, and the largest European island, as well as the largest of the British Isles...

 in the Oregon Country
Oregon Country
The Oregon Country was a predominantly American term referring to a disputed ownership region of the Pacific Northwest of North America. The region was occupied by British and French Canadian fur traders from before 1810, and American settlers from the mid-1830s, with its coastal areas north from...


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
Divine Providence
In Christian theology, divine providence, or simply providence, is God's activity in the world. " Providence" is also used as a title of God exercising His providence, and then the word are usually capitalized...

") had given the United States a mission to spread republican democracy
Republican democracy
A republican democracy is a republic which has democratic forms of government. One of the key principles is free and open debate prior to casting a vote. A republic in the modern understanding is a nation or state where the people are sovereign. It is not a monarchy, where the king or queen is the...

 ("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
Canada is a North American country consisting of ten provinces and three territories. Located in the northern part of the continent, it extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and northward into the Arctic Ocean...

 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
Whig Party (United States)
The Whig Party was a political party of the United States during the era of Jacksonian democracy. Considered integral to the Second Party System and operating from the early 1830s to the mid-1850s, the party was formed in opposition to the policies of President Andrew Jackson and his Democratic...

  opponents of the Polk administration criticized it. On January 3, 1846, Representative Robert Winthrop
Robert Charles Winthrop
Robert Charles Winthrop was an American lawyer and philanthropist and one time Speaker of the United States House of Representatives....

 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
The term Yankee has several interrelated and often pejorative meanings, usually referring to people originating in the northeastern United States, or still more narrowly New England, where application of the term is largely restricted to descendants of the English settlers of the region.The...

 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.

In Mistress of Manifest Destiny: A Biography of Jane McManus Storm Cazneau, 1807–1878 (2001), Linda S. Hudson argued that a freelance writer, the controversial Jane McManus Storm Cazneau
Jane McManus Storm Cazneau
Jane Maria Eliza Cazneau was an American journalist, lobbyist, and publicist who advocated the annexation of all of Mexico during the Mexican-American War.- Education and early career:She was the daughter of Congressman William McManus and Catharine McManus...

, actually wrote the "Annexation" editorial, and thus coined the phrase "Manifest Destiny". Since many editorials in O'Sullivan's publications were unsigned, Hudson used computer-aided "textual analysis" to support her argument. O'Sullivan biographer Robert D. Sampson disputes Hudson's claim for a variety of reasons, including arguing that the "control" sample of O'Sullivan's writing that Hudson compared with "Annexation" was not in fact written by O'Sullivan.

Later years

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
Tammany Hall
Tammany Hall, also known as the Society of St. Tammany, the Sons of St. Tammany, or the Columbian Order, was a New York political organization founded in 1786 and incorporated on May 12, 1789 as the Tammany Society...

 victory celebration on January 8, 1845, he proposed erecting a statue to the Democratic Party's founder and hero, Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson was the seventh President of the United States . Based in frontier Tennessee, Jackson was a politician and army general who defeated the Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend , and the British at the Battle of New Orleans...

. The monument that eventually emerged from his proposal was the famous equestrian statue of Jackson in Lafayette Square, across from the White House
White House
The White House is the official residence and principal workplace of the president of the United States. Located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington, D.C., the house was designed by Irish-born James Hoban, and built between 1792 and 1800 of white-painted Aquia sandstone in the Neoclassical...

, 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
The Republic of Cuba is an island nation in the Caribbean. The nation of Cuba consists of the main island of Cuba, the Isla de la Juventud, and several archipelagos. Havana is the largest city in Cuba and the country's capital. Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city...

 for their honeymoon
-History:One early reference to a honeymoon is in Deuteronomy 24:5 “When a man is newly wed, he need not go out on a military expedition, nor shall any public duty be imposed on him...

, 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
Filibuster (military)
A filibuster, or freebooter, is someone who engages in an unauthorized military expedition into a foreign country to foment or support a revolution...

", 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
Narciso López
Narciso López was a Venezuelan adventurer and soldier, best known for an expedition aimed at liberating Cuba from Spain in the 1850s..- Life in Venezuela, Cuba, and Spain:...

. 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
Franklin Pierce
Franklin Pierce was the 14th President of the United States and is the only President from New Hampshire. Pierce was a Democrat and a "doughface" who served in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. Pierce took part in the Mexican-American War and became a brigadier general in the Army...

 as the U.S. Minister to Portugal
United States Ambassador to Portugal
This is a list of Ambassadors of the United States to Portugal.Bilateral diplomatic relations between the United States and Portugal date from the earliest years of the United States. Following the Revolutionary War, Portugal was the first neutral country to recognize the United States. On February...

, 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
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

, 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
Confederate States of America
The Confederate States of America was a government set up from 1861 to 1865 by 11 Southern slave states of the United States of America that had declared their secession from the U.S...

; 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
States' rights
States' rights in U.S. politics refers to political powers reserved for the U.S. state governments rather than the federal government. It is often considered a loaded term because of its use in opposition to federally mandated racial desegregation...

 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
Fox sisters
The Fox sisters were three sisters from New York who played an important role in the creation of Spiritualism. The three sisters were Leah Fox , Margaret Fox and Kate Fox . The two younger sisters used "rappings" to convince their much older sister and others that they were communicating with...

 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
Staten Island
Staten Island is a borough of New York City, New York, United States, located in the southwest part of the city. Staten Island is separated from New Jersey by the Arthur Kill and the Kill Van Kull, and from the rest of New York by New York Bay...


External links

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