Obvious Inexorableness?

Amy Greenberg, Manifest Destiny and American Territorial Expansion: A Brief History with Documents. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012.

Pr. Greenberg’s entry into the Bedford Series reminds us that the shape of the United States should not be understood as a foregone conclusion. The expansion of the nation was due to work, luck, warfare, and ideology – the latter being a notion Americans refer to as Manifest Destiny. Greenberg believes her volume to be “an accessible and engaging approach to the history of American territorial expansion” (v). For the most part, I concur.

The book has two parts, the first of which explains the history of US territorial expansion up to about 1898. This stopping point is, I argue, one potential issue with the text – why not continue the discussion through the twentieth-century, or at least release a second volume that explores this question.

Part two of the book consists of 47 documents that are positioned in relation to the introductory essay. There is both a chronological and stylistic range of offerings including comments from William Bradford, Tecumseh, Daniel Webster, James Polk and more. There are diary entries, official diplomatic pieces, song lyrics, and inaugural addresses.

Greenberg’s introductory essay is solid and offers much to think about for professionals and students alike. She looks at how concepts of expansion changed over time, including influences from politics, social movements, and economic stimuli. Greenberg recognizes and highlights the importance of sectionalism and its relationship with expansion. Finally, she explains how the expansionist mindset changed after the Civil War – again, this section feels as though perhaps more could be offered when discussing the interest in foreign colonies, especially in the years after 1900.

The documents are well chosen and, as I alluded to earlier, represent a range of interests. An important feature is the inclusion of opinions from Mexican, Native American, political, and philosophical voices. Equally salient is the insertion of five maps which greatly aid the understanding of where and when American expansion was taking place. Like other Bedford Series offerings, Manifest Destiny includes a chronology chart, possible discussion questions, and a useful selected bibliography.

Greenberg’s explanations of early motivation for expansion as well as the introductory headers for documents are helpful. She also chose to reference specific documents in part one of the book, a decision that makes it easy for instructors and students to follow how her arguments compare to the ideas expressed in an original document!

Readers will come away with a solid understanding of what motivated a variety of expansionists. They may also be surprised to find out that the term “manifest destiny” may have evolved from the pen of Jane McManus Storm Cazneau (Cora Montgomery), rather than John L. O’Sullivan. While this argument is contested, it is one of several revelations that Greenberg’s introduction offers.

Again, I like Greenberg’s approach and her selection of documents, along with the commitment to explaining the political and intellectual motivations for expansion. There are some statements about American exceptionalism that might be altered and hopefully a second volume will explore American expansion in the last 115 years. This volume however, is a good start – readers learn quite a bit about the idea of expansion while also coming to understand that not everyone was a fan (20, 90-92). A final thought – if you have read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and wondered what the heck these American characters are doing, Pr. Greenberg’s book will help you, especially if you examine the introduction, pages 23-27, along with documents 39 and 42.


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Filed under Teaching and Learning History

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