Manifest Destiny

[ man-uh-fest des-tuh-nee ]
/ ˈmæn əˌfɛst ˈdɛs tə ni /
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the belief or doctrine, held chiefly in the middle and latter part of the 19th century, that it was the destiny of the U.S. to expand its territory over the whole of North America and to extend and enhance its political, social, and economic influences.
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Origin of Manifest Destiny

First recorded in 1835–45
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What is Manifest Destiny?

Manifest destiny is an unofficial doctrine that characterized the U.S. attitude toward territorial expansion during the 19th and 20th centuries. It rested on the principles that American society was inherently of higher value than others, and that it was an imperative and inevitable mission to incorporate the rest of the North American continent into the United States.

How is Manifest Destiny pronounced?

[ man-uh-fest destuh-nee ]

What does Manifest Destiny mean?

In the early 19th century, American settlers were steadily colonizing the western regions of North America. Beginning with Thomas Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana territory in 1803, both the government and the citizens of the United States embarked on a mission to claim land for themselves. Though this land was already occupied by indigenous peoples, Americans felt entitled to westward expansion and land ownership, which continued despite clashes with the land’s existing inhabitants.

The term manifest destiny was popularized by columnist John O’Sullivan, who penned an article in 1845 that denounced other nations for “limiting our greatness and checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” Manifest destiny quickly became a popular phrase that described and celebrated the American “right” to expansion—America’s fate and fortune, or destiny, to expand was seen as evident and obvious, or manifest. Manifest destiny would be used to justify and champion events like the Mexican-American War. However, the 19th century saw an end of manifest destiny due to disputes over slavery in the newly acquired western territory, which stalled the focus on expansion and ultimately led to the American Civil War.

However, manifest destiny was briefly revived in the post-Civil War era. Newly rejoined and searching for political and economic capital during a time of industrial prosperity, the United States made vigorous attempts to claim southern land, including the island of Cuba and areas in Central America. President Theodore Roosevelt was a strong advocate for manifest destiny and American expansion, and it wasn’t until President Woodrow Wilson’s policy of noninterventionism during World War I that manifest destiny lost its motivating power in American foreign policy.

Examples of Manifest Destiny

“The term ‘Manifest Destiny’ was coined to capture the 19th century spirit of American expansion from coast to coast: East to West. Mankind’s 21st-century manifest destiny points in a different direction: South to North.”
—Parag Khanna, “Climate Change Is Forcing a New Manifest Destiny,” Time, April 18, 2016

“My Mom’s People availed themselves of traditional Manifest Destiny—rolling west from their English roots.”
—Luis Alberto Urrea, “Manifest Destiny,” Orion Magazine, April 27, 2012


This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

How to use Manifest Destiny in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for Manifest Destiny

Manifest Destiny

(esp in the 19th-century US) the belief that the US was a chosen land that had been allotted the entire North American continent by God
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Cultural definitions for Manifest Destiny

manifest destiny

A popular slogan of the 1840s. It was used by people who believed that the United States was destined — by God, some said — to expand across North America to the Pacific Ocean. The idea of manifest destiny was used to justify the acquisition of Oregon and large parts of the Southwest, including California. (See Mexican War.)

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.