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window on the past |

by Ray Cavanaugh

Two Words from One Irishman Who Trumpeted the World’s Superpower

ILLUSTRATION: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

“Manifest destiny...”

O’Sullivan as depicted in an 1874 issue of Harper’s Weekly.

These words, placed together, command one’s attention. They sound important, almost biblical. But they didn’t come from an Old Testament patriarch or New Testament prophet. Rather, they came from the pithy pen of a 19th-century Irishman named John O’Sullivan. His ancestors were from County Kerry and included men who abandoned plans for the priesthood in order to become soldiers of fortune. His father was a naturalized American citizen who was serving as U.S. consul to the Barbary States when O’Sullivan was born on a British warship in the Bay of Gibraltar (between Spain and Morocco) in November 1813. According to the National Cyclopedia of American Biography (vol. 12), his family had been living at a nearby military post, but after the outbreak of plague, a British admiral invited them onto his ship. O’Sullivan received his early education at a military school in Lorize, France, and then at the Westminster School in London, before matriculating at New York’s Columbia College. Upon graduation, he worked as a tutor for a few years. He also practiced law for some time, though it does not appear he was particularly interested or successful in the profession. The most notable period of his life began in 1837, when he launched a magazine called the Democratic Review. This publication was bankrolled by funds his mother received from the U.S. government as restitution for having been wrongly arrested on suspicion of piracy more than a decade earlier, as relayed by Julius W. Pratt in his article “John L. O’Sullivan and Manifest Destiny,” which appeared in a 1933 edition of New York History. Though O’Sullivan was foremost a political writer, he also clearly had literary interests. In his leading role at the Democratic Review, he published the short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The two

56 IRISH AMERICA MAY / JUNE 2019

became good friends and O’Sullivan even served as godfather to Hawthorne’s eldest child. O’Sullivan – who was described by a contemporary as “always full of grand and world-embracing schemes” – had a wild optimism that sometimes irritated people, including Edgar Allan Poe and Henry David Thoreau. However, his magazine became influential enough to attract contributions from some of the nation’s leading writers, whether or not they enjoyed his sanguine style. The Democratic Review was also the venue that first mentioned “manifest destiny,” which came in the middle of 1845, a year that saw the U.S. embroiled in disputes about whether or not it should annex Oregon and Texas. This first mention of “manifest destiny” attracted scant notice, likely because it was obscured within a long essay, which typically is not the type of format that attracts a massive readership. However, the second mention of the phrase appeared in a December 27, 1845 newspaper editorial, a format that often received massive readership. Sure enough, this time the phrase took flight and soon saw frequent use in arguments about the expansion of U.S. territory. Though not everyone agreed with the concept of “manifest destiny,” O’Sullivan’s words gave voice to a widespread sentiment that the U.S. was a divinely guided nation, which had not only a right, but also a mission, to spread its greatness across the continent. In O’Sullivan’s view, the U.S. had a “manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.” In 1846, he sold the Democratic Review for $5,000 (about $165,000 in today’s money). That same year, he married Susan Kearny Rodgers. The couple chose Cuba for their honeymoon, according to Robert Sampson’s book John L. O’Sullivan and His Times. Aside from being a romantic location, Cuba was a place where O’Sullivan was convinced the U.S. should manifest its destiny. In April 1851, O’Sullivan was arrested in New York and charged with violating U.S. neutrality by preparing an unsanctioned attack on Cuba. He

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