Abstract: Industrial Manifest Destiny? American Manufactures and Territorial Expansion, 1838-1850

Lindsay Schakenbach Regele


“Come and talk about guns,” Congressman Gouverneur Kemble remembered fondly, was what Secretary of War Joel Roberts Poinsett often used to say to him.[1]  It was the late 1830s and the United States had recently become an international leader in firearms production.  As military men, Kemble and Poinsett appreciated weapon advancements; during his two terms as a U.S. representative from New York, Kemble solicited Poinsett’s patronage of various weapon experiments.  But it wasn’t just guns that were important. Poinsett would count among the achievements of his time in the War Department, the fact that the army was supplied regularly with clothing of domestic manufacture.


This paper explores how one of the main tenets of nineteenth-century American civilization – manifest destiny – impacted industrial development. The phrase, coined in the summer of 1845 by magazine editor John L. O’Sullivan to advocate America’s annexation of new territory, was about more than land and settlement; it was also about the preparedness for violence. Indeed, the “destiny” of American civilization depended on manufacturers who could produce weapons and clothing. Before railroads connected continental territory and became some of the nation’s first big businesses, the American arms and textile industries clothed and armed soldiers and settlers, receiving international recognition in the process.  As the United States expanded and consolidated its land claims throughout the 1840s, warfare along its southern and western borders generated business opportunities for manufacturers in the East, who in turn made possible the competition to become the dominant civilization on the North American continent.


In 1848, when Americans celebrated victory over Mexico, with special praise for the performance of its military manufactures, the United States acquired new western territories, whose settlers would provide textiles for the Union Army a decade later. Industrialization and militarization were anathema to the nation’s founding principles, but by the middle of the nineteenth century, both were inextricably bound up with manifest destiny as key components of American civilization. 


[1] Gouveneur Kemble, September 10, 1840, Folder 7, Box 15, Joel Roberts Poinsett Papers (0512), The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.