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Little Known Characters in America

Little Known Characters in America: John L. O'Sullivan

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John L. O'Sullivan

John Louis O’Sullivan (November 15, 1813 – March 24, 1895) was an American newspaper editor who first used the term “manifest destiny” in 1845 to promote the annexation of Texas and the Oregon territory and make these areas part of the United States.

At the time, O’Sullivan was an influential political writer and advocate for the Democratic Party. He served as U.S. Minister to Portugal during the administration of President Franklin Pierce from 1853 to 1857, but he faded from prominence soon after this appointment. However, after using the famous phrase “manifest destiny” in one of his newspaper columns he was rescued from obscurity.

Writing for the Democratic Review in the July-August issue, O’Sullivan called for 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.

There was a group of citizens in Texas that did not want to be a part of the United States and were hoping to block the annexation even though Congress voted for annexation early in 1845.

O’Sullivan wrote, “It is now time for the opposition to the Annexation of Texas to cease.” In his column he 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 after his column appeared in print.

O’Sullivan also argued for the annexation of the Oregon territory. At the time there was an ongoing dispute with Great Britain in the Oregon territory due to the fur trapping and profits made in this endeavor by Great Britain.

O’Sullivan advocated that God (Providence) had given the United States a mission to spread republican democracy (the great experiment in liberty) throughout North America. He made clear that 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 made it clear that he did not call for territorial expansion by force. O’Sullivan’s thought was that the expansion was inevitable, and would happen without military involvement as whites (“Anglo-Saxons”) emigrated to new regions.

O’Sullivan disapproved of the war with Mexico in 1846. Yet, he believed that the outcome would be beneficial to both countries. He later admitted that it was inevitable that the Mexican race was to integrate and be lost “in the superior vigor of the Anglo-Saxon race.”

O’Sullivan opposed the coming of the American Civil War, hoping that a peaceful solution-or peaceful separation of North and South-could be worked out. When war was declared he became an active supporter of the Confederate States of America.

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 viewpoints greatly disappointed some of his old friends.

After the Civil War, O’Sullivan spent several years in self-imposed exile in Europe.



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