The mid-nineteenth century territorial growth of the United States was complex and contradictory. Not only did Mexico, Britain, and Native Americans contest U.S. territorial objectives; so, too, did many within the United States and in some cases American western settlers themselves. The notion of manifest destiny reflects few of these complexities. The authors argue that manifest destiny was a partisan idea that emerged in a context of division and uncertainty intended to overawe opponents of expansion. Only in the early twentieth century, as the United States had consolidated its hold on the North American West and was extending its power into the Caribbean and Pacific, did historians begin to describe manifest destiny as something that it never was in the nineteenth century: a consensus. To a significant extent, historians continue to rely on the idea to explain U.S. expansion. The authors argue for returning a sense of context and contingency to the understanding of mid-nineteenth-century U.S. expansion.

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