St. John Examines Manifest Destiny

By Miguel A. Novoa Cipriani – The concept of Manifest Destiny holds powerful historical sway. But is it accurate? On April 18, 2018, in a talk titled “The Imagined States of America: The Unmanifest History of 19th-Century North America,” Rachel St. John analyzed the political uncertainty of the American West and the controversial role played by Mormons in U.S. westward expansion.

A defining theme of United States history is the country’s westward expansion, which began in 1803 with President Jefferson’s purchase of France’s Louisiana Territory. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, thousands of Americans migrated west in search of economic opportunities. This history is romanticized in textbooks and popular memory as “Manifest Destiny,” meaning the belief that U.S. territorial expansion was both just and inevitable.

Rachel St. John, associate professor of history at UC Davis, aims to re-envision this history of the American West. "A corollary narrative is the idea that the continent is destined to be divided into three pieces: Mexico, the United States, and Canada,” she said. “This sort of final result would be quite unexpected by most people at the time.”

For her talk, St. John focused on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). “Mormons are often characterized as the most loyal patriotic Americans, but that’s something that is much more complicated in the nineteenth century.” In fact, during this time, Mormons nearly created an independent polity, threatening U.S. sovereignty in the West. Though Mormon historians attempt to minimize the intensity of this situation, St. John suggested that acknowledging it is key to rewriting the prevalent narrative of Manifest Destiny. 

Alternate nation-states

Nineteenth-century North America experienced drastic changes as the retreat of European empires gave rise to independent republics, which in turn experienced territorial changes, ongoing resistance from indigenous peoples, economic crises, and the expansion of citizenship. “All these things end up being tied to alternate national projects,” St. John said. 

The United States experienced armed conflicts that threatened the nation’s existence, most notably the American Civil War. Moreover, nineteenth-century Americans had a complicated relationship with the state. For example, individuals such as Stephen F. Austin and Aaron Burr questioned the government’s direction and their own national allegiance. 

“The histories of these uncertain Americans remind us of the tenuousness of state power and national identity in the United States during this century,” said St. John. “During the nineteenth century, North Americans continued to imagine a really wide range of possibilities for the continent." 

Mormon pioneers

National identity was most tenuous at the frontier, where various Native American nations and American settlers of the West created a context in which U.S. government expansion seemed neither realistic nor even desirable.

Texas’ independence in 1836 inspired groups such as the Mormons to seek their own freedom in the Western frontier. Since their founding in upstate New York in the 1820s, Mormons had faced a series of persecutions that forced them to consistently relocate. In 1839, Mormons purchased a small town in western Illinois, renaming it Nauvoo and fostering a population of 15,000 residents. However, continued tensions forced the town’s new leaders to look further west for safety.

St. John explained that the Mormons took advantage of increasing tensions between the United States, Mexico, and Britain to seek support for their westward migration. “The threat is often more Great Britain than it is Mexico,” explained St. John, “and the Mormons are playing that up.” As the U.S. acquired Mexico’s northernmost territories during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), the Mormons migrated into the Salt Lake Valley of present-day Utah.

State of Deseret

Mormons attempted to rapidly consolidate their control over vast areas of the West. In 1849, they set up a constitution based on that of Iowa and applied for statehood. “They hoped that with this vast territory, they could begin to form the basis for the Kingdom of God in North America,” St. John explained. “This sort of aggressive move is not totally exceptional: Oregon and Texas had also formed their own provisional governments, and Californians basically preempted the system of forming a state.” Nonetheless, as part of the slavery compromise of 1850, and because the U.S. government did not consider a large Mormon-controlled state a suitable option, the country instead formed the Utah territory, largely consisting of present-day Utah and Nevada. 

Throughout the 1850s, Brigham Young acted as both territorial Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs. “He held the balance of power,” St. John said. A series of disputes ensued. However, St. John reinforced the idea that this experience actually reflects an uncertainty that affected the American West. “Local people and federal officials came into almost constant conflict over issues like the proper treatment of native people, administrative issues, the distribution of land.”

The Utah War

 After James Buchanan became U.S. President in 1857, he made the resolution of the tense situation in Utah and other western territories a priority of his administration. Yet, St. John suggested that his actions actually undermined U.S. Federal power in the region. Not only did President Buchanan divert a substantial number of troops from the Bleeding Kansas crisis, but these troops never made it to Utah, ending up instead in Wyoming.

Furthermore, despite spending between 14 and 40 million dollars in preparation for war, the Utah War ended up resolved through relatively peaceful negotiations. What’s more, despite Brigham Young losing his position as Governor of Utah, no Mormons were charged with treason, and Young retained enormous influence as LDS Church president until his death in 1877. “Although Buchanan heads out to make a show of force, the Utah War actually underscores the limitations of Federal power in the West,” St. John said

For St. John, the Utah War and other crises in the American West demonstrate the unclear direction that this region could have taken during the nineteenth century. They also, she concluded, “shed light on a broader struggle over the balance between local and national interests, and the development of state power in America during the nineteenth century.” 

This event was sponsored by the UC Davis Hemispheric Institute on the Americas. 

 Learn more about Rachel St. John.

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