Manifest Destiny: APUSH Topics to Study for Test Day

Manifest Destiny was the nineteenth century idea that Americans were destined to expand and into the West and cultivate and civilize the country from coast to coast. It was a cultural and religious philosophy America used to justify its acquisition of territory beyond the original colonies, including territory belonging to native peoples, and territories forcibly taken during the Mexican War. Manifest Destiny APUSH questions might ask about certain territorial acquisitions, or the sociopolitical ramifications of westward expansion.

What is Manifest Destiny?

Manifest Destiny was the philosophical justification for westward expansion. Americans believed they had a God-given right to move into the western lands of the continent. Some even said that westward expansion was a duty, as white settlers were thought to have the ability to civilize native peoples by teaching them Christianity, spreading democracy, and bringing modern infrastructure, such as telegraph wires and railroads.

Manifest Destiny was the driving force behind the many territorial acquisitions mid-century, such as the securing of the Oregon Territory and the annexation of Texas. Expansionism also led to the Mexican-American War, as Americans believed it was their duty to fight for the disputed territory along the border of the Texas.

Manifest Destiny APUSH - Magoosh
Map showing U.S. territorial acquisitions (Source)

Important years to note for Manifest Destiny:

  • 1803: Louisiana Territory purchased from France
  • 1819: Acquisition of Florida from Spain in the Adams-Onis Treaty
  • 1845: Annexation of Texas- Texas admitted to the union as a slave state
  • 1846: Oregon Territory acquired in the Oregon Treaty with Britain
  • 1848: Mexican Cession at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War expands U.S. territory to the Pacific coast
  • 1854: The Gadsden Purchase settles the U.S.-Mexican border in the Southwest

Why is Manifest Destiny so important?

Manifest Destiny was the driving force behind westward expansion and the various treaties, purchases, and cessions that added onto U.S. territory, expanding the nation from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Additionally, Manifest Destiny led to tensions between the North and the South. As the country added more territory, disputes erupted over whether slavery would be allowed in the territories, and also over who would make that decision: the local or federal government.

What are some historical people and events related to Manifest Destiny?

  • James Polk: president elected in 1844, and an outspoken proponent of westward expansion. He advocated for the acquisition of territories such as Texas and Oregon
  • Mexican-American War: the war over the disputed border between Texas and Mexico led to the acquisition of the American Southwest, including California, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona

What example question about Manifest Destiny might come up on the APUSH exam?

“In the earlier stages of our national existence the opinion prevailed with some that our system of confederated States could not operate successfully over an extended territory, and serious objections have at different times been made to the enlargement of our boundaries. These objections were earnestly urged when we acquired Louisiana. Experience has shown that they were not well founded. The title of numerous Indian tribes to vast tracts of country has been extinguished; new States have been admitted into the Union; new Territories have been created and our jurisdiction and laws extended over them. As our population has expanded, the Union has been cemented and strengthened. AS our boundaries have been enlarged and our agricultural population has been spread over a large surface, our federative system has acquired additional strength and security. It may well be doubted whether it would not be in greater danger of overthrow if our present population were confined to the comparatively narrow limits of the original thirteen States than it is now that they are sparsely settled over a more expanded territory. It is confidently believed that our system may be safely extended to the utmost bounds of our territorial limits, and that as it shall be extended the bonds of our Union, so far from being weakened, will become stronger.”
-James Polk, 1845 Inaugural Address (Source)

Polk won the Democratic nomination and presidency in part because of his
A) support of the abolition of slavery.
B) support of Southern secession.
C) support of the Louisiana Purchase.
D) support of Manifest Destiny.


The correct answer is (D). In 1844, Polk stole the Democratic nomination from Van Buren because he supported the annexation of Texas. Polk’s desire for westward expansion struck a chord with Americans across the nation, tapping into the ideals of the Manifest Destiny doctrine, which stated that it was America’s moral duty to expand the nation to the Pacific coast. He was able to win popular support in the general election by supporting both the admittance of Texas and Oregon Territory.

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  • Sarah Bradstreet

    Sarah is an educator and writer with a Master’s degree in education from Syracuse University who has helped students succeed on standardized tests since 2008. She loves reading, theater, and chasing around her two kids.

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