John L. O'Sullivan

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John L. O'Sullivan
John O'Sullivan.jpg
John L. O'Sullivan as he appeared on the cover of Harper's Weekly in November 1874. O'Sullivan was then attending a conference in Geneva that sought to create a process of international arbitration in order to prevent wars.
United States Minister to Portugal
In office
June 16, 1854 – July 15, 1858
PresidentFranklin Pierce
Preceded byCharles Brickett Haddock
Succeeded byGeorge W. Morgan
Personal details
BornNovember 15, 1813
At sea
DiedMarch 24, 1895 (1895-03-25) (aged 81)
New York City
Spouse(s)Susan Kearny Rodgers
MotherMary Rowly
FatherJohn Thomas O'Sullivan
EducationColumbia College
Known forCoined phrase manifest destiny

John Louis O'Sullivan (November 15, 1813 – March 24, 1895) was an Irish-American columnist and editor who used the term "manifest destiny" in 1845 to promote the annexation of Texas and the Oregon Country to the United States. O'Sullivan was an influential political writer and advocate for the Democratic Party at that time and served as US Minister to Portugal during the administration of President Franklin Pierce (1853–1857), but he largely faded from prominence soon thereafter. In the twentieth century the phrase "manifest destiny" was traced back to him.

In 1837 he founded and edited The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, based in Washington. It espoused the more radical forms of Jacksonian Democracy and published essays by the most prominent writers in America, including and the cause of a democratic, American literature. Contributors included Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Greenleaf Whittier, William Cullen Bryant, and Walt Whitman. O'Sullivan was an aggressive reformer in the New York State Legislature, where he led the unsuccessful movement to abolish capital punishment. By 1846, investors were dissatisfied with his poor management, and he lost control of his magazine.[1]

Early life[edit]

O'Sullivan was born at sea, the son of John Thomas O'Sullivan, an American diplomat and sea captain, and Mary Rowly. O'Sullivan graduated from Columbia College (1831) and became a lawyer.

"Manifest destiny"[edit]

In the July–August 1845 issue of the Democratic Review, O'Sullivan published an essay entitled "Annexation", which called on the U.S. to admit the Republic of Texas into the Union. Because of concerns in the Senate over the expansion of the number of slave states and the possibility of war with Mexico, the annexation of Texas had long been a controversial issue. Congress had voted for annexation early in 1845, but Texas had yet to accept, and opponents were still hoping to block the annexation. O'Sullivan's essay urged that "It is now time for the opposition to the Annexation of Texas to cease." O'Sullivan argued that the United States had a divine mandate to expand throughout North America, writing of "our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions." Texas was annexed shortly thereafter, but O'Sullivan's first usage of the phrase "manifest destiny" attracted little attention.

O'Sullivan's second use of the phrase became extremely influential. In a column, which appeared in the New York Morning News on December 27, 1845, O'Sullivan addressed the ongoing boundary dispute with Great Britain in the Oregon Country.

And that claim is by the right of our 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.

At first, O'Sullivan was not aware that he had created a new catch phrase. The term became popular after Whig opponents of the Polk administration criticized it. On January 3, 1846, Representative Robert Winthrop ridiculed the concept in Congress, saying "I suppose the right of a manifest destiny to spread will not be admitted to exist in any nation except the universal Yankee nation". Despite this criticism, Democrats embraced the phrase. It caught on so quickly that it was forgotten that O'Sullivan had coined it. It was not until 1927 that historian Julius Pratt determined that the phrase had originated with O'Sullivan.

Later years[edit]

O'Sullivan was at the peak of his fame and influence at the time of the "manifest destiny" articles. For example, at a Tammany Hall victory celebration on January 8, 1845, he proposed erecting a statue to the Democratic Party's founder and hero, Andrew Jackson. The monument that eventually emerged from his proposal was the famous equestrian statue of Jackson in Lafayette Square, across from the White House, which was dedicated in 1853.

Financial troubles abruptly brought an end to his editorial career. The New York Morning News was losing money, and in May 1846, the paper's investors fired O'Sullivan. The new management was unable to turn things around, and the paper ceased publication in September. Around the same time, O'Sullivan sold the Democratic Review, although he would still occasionally write for the magazine. Now thirty-two years old, he began looking for new opportunities.

O'Sullivan married Susan Kearny Rodgers on October 21, 1846. The couple went to Cuba for their honeymoon, where one of O'Sullivan's sisters lived. O'Sullivan thereafter became involved in a movement to win Cuban independence from Spanish rule. Composed of Cuban dissidents and American "filibusters", the movement hoped to have Cuba annexed to the United States. On May 10, 1848, O'Sullivan had the first of several meetings with President Polk to try to convince the president to buy Cuba from Spain. Polk offered Spain one hundred million dollars for Cuba—the amount suggested by O'Sullivan—but the offer was declined.

O'Sullivan continued to work for Cuban independence, raising money for the failed filibustering expedition of Venezuelan adventurer Narciso López. As a result, O'Sullivan was charged in federal court in New York with violation of the Neutrality Act. His trial in March 1852 ended in a hung jury. Although O'Sullivan's reputation was tarnished, he was appointed by the Pierce administration as the U.S. Minister to Portugal, serving from 1854 to 1858. This proved to be his last steady employment; he and his wife would spend the rest of their lives on the edge of poverty.

O'Sullivan opposed the coming of the American Civil War, hoping that a peaceful solution—or a peaceful separation of North and South—could be worked out. In Europe when the war began, O'Sullivan became an active supporter of the Confederate States of America; he may have been on the Confederate payroll at some point. O'Sullivan wrote a number of pamphlets promoting the Confederate cause, arguing that the presidency had become too powerful and that states' rights needed to be protected against encroachment by the central government. Although he had earlier supported the "free soil" movement, he now defended the institution of slavery, writing that blacks and whites could not live together in harmony without it. His activities greatly disappointed some of his old friends, including Hawthorne. Towards the end of the Civil War, O'Sullivan appealed to his southern "comrades in arms" to burn Richmond, stating "let every man set fire to his own house".[2]

After the Civil War, he spent several more years in self-imposed exile in Europe.

O'Sullivan returned to New York in the late 1870s, where he unsuccessfully tried to use his Democratic contacts to get appointed to some office. His political life, however, was over. After the death of his mother, he became a believer in Spiritualism, then a popular religious movement, and claimed to have used the services of one of the Fox sisters to communicate with the spirits of people such as William Shakespeare.

O'Sullivan suffered a stroke in 1889. He died in obscurity from influenza in a residential hotel in New York City in 1895, just as the phrase "manifest destiny" was being revived. He is buried in the Moravian Cemetery on Staten Island.


O'Sullivan's father, John Thomas O'Sullivan, was a naturalized US citizen, and had served as US Consul to the Barbary States.[3] His grandfather, John William O'Sullivan, was an Irish professional soldier who spent most of his career in French service.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Robert D. Sampson. "O'Sullivan, John Louis" American National Biography Online Feb. 2000
  2. ^ Baker, Jean H. (1998). The Political Culture of Northern Democrats in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. p.337. ISBN 9780823218653.
  3. ^ The Jacobite Peerage, Baronetage, Knightage, and Grants of Honour. 2003. ISBN 9780806317168.

Further reading[edit]

  • Johannsen, Robert W. "The Meaning of Manifest Destiny", in Sam W. Hayes and Christopher Morris, eds., Manifest Destiny and Empire: American Antebellum Expansionism. College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 1997. ISBN 0-89096-756-3.
  • Sampson, Robert D. "O'Sullivan, John Louis" American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Access Oct 12 2015
  • Sampson, Robert D. John L. O'Sullivan and His Times. (Kent State University Press, 2003) online
  • Scholnick, Robert J, "Extermination and Democracy: O'Sullivan, the Democratic Review, and Empire, 1837—1840." American Periodicals (2005) 15#2: 123–
  • Widmer, Edward L. Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. (excerpt)
  • Letters and Literary Memorials of Samuel J. Tilden – Volume 1 – Edited by John Bigelow

External links[edit]