Claire M. Wolnisty is an assistant professor of history at Austin College and the author of A Different Manifest Destiny: U.S. Southern Identity and Citizenship in Nineteenth-Century South America (Nebraska, 2020).
When I began research in U.S. Civil War Era history, I did not think that I would end up in Brazil. I knew I wanted to study Manifest Destiny, and I knew I wanted to explore how nineteenth-century white southerners wove together ideas about modernity and proslavery in their daily lived experiences. I quickly found that southern expansionists entertained far more fluid spatial concepts of what their country should look like on a map during the first half of the nineteenth century than the spaces they eventually obtained during the course of the U.S. Civil War.
Many of us studied Manifest Destiny in school. We know the John Gast painting, American Progress, and we know phrases such as “sea to shining sea” and “Go West, young man.” Students in my classrooms and many scholars in my books talk about Manifest Destiny as if it was this nineteenth-century consensus. Historical figures, in many modern interpretations of Manifest Destiny, looked at people, ideas, and things and labeled them as a part of Manifest Destiny or not a part of Manifest Destiny. Furthermore, Manifest Destiny in modern parlance automatically signifies westward movement and it represents a singular completed project.
I argue in A Different Manifest Destiny, that nineteenth-century white U.S. southerners did not agree that they all needed to manifest some shared destiny in the West. Family papers, plantation records, commercial ledgers, company pamphlets, and private letters reveal that the concept of Manifest Destiny translated into different, concurrent, southern, and lived experiences. Because of this range of sources, my work considers groups of people not often studied together. Filibusters, members of private armies that operated with or without national support, commercial expansionists, individuals who extended transnational economic influence, and southern emigrants crafted definitions of southern identities in the antebellum and postbellum Western Hemisphere. Studying these three groups of southerners together allows me to explore how their expansionistic visions adapted to the shifting hemispheric environments during the long timeframe of 1808-1877.
I found over the course of my research that southerners possessed an extensive history of looking outward, specifically southward to places such as Nicaragua and Brazil, to solve internal tensions over slavery and economic competition. Southerners from states such as Virginia, the Carolinas, Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, and Georgia mentally and physically traversed southern borders as deftly as they crossed western borders. Nineteenth-century southern expansionists discussed the Free-Soil Movement in Kansas in the same breath as they did the international slave trade to Nicaragua. They advocated for federally funded steamship passages between New Orleans and Managua even as they opposed internal improvements in the United States. They built companies with branches in Galveston and Rio de Janeiro. They touted southern systems of slavery over Brazilian systems of slavery. They equated the Louisiana Purchase with the exploration of the Amazon. In all of these ventures, southern expansionists blended with various degrees of success continental expansion with overseas imperialism.
While I will certainly continue to use American Progress in my classrooms, I believe that modern discussions of Manifest Destiny should include more nuance. While some southern expansionists endorsed the militant tactics and territorial gains of antebellum filibusters under the umbrella of Manifest Destiny, other Manifest Destiny supporters preferred to spread their power and influence through more peaceful, albeit often equally exploitive, interactions with South Americans. Inclusion of additional visuals in our conversations about Manifest Destiny is a good place to start. If you look at the famous Forcing slavery down the throat of a freesoiler, you will see “Cuba” next to “Kansas” on the “Democratic Platform.” If you look at illustrations from John Codman’s 10 Months in Brazil such as Cottage at Rhodeo, you will see U.S. southern plantation owners living along the Amazon Rainforest. Both illustrations serve as a bridge between the concept of Manifest Destiny and how nineteenth-century elite white southerners defined themselves as an expansionistic, proslavery, and modern power poised to dominate the Western Hemisphere.