Hill on Wolnisty, 'A Different Manifest Destiny: U.S. Southern Identity and Citizenship in Nineteenth-Century South America'

Claire M. Wolnisty
Michael A. Hill

Claire M. Wolnisty. A Different Manifest Destiny: U.S. Southern Identity and Citizenship in Nineteenth-Century South America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2020. 180 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4962-0790-6

Reviewed by Michael A. Hill (Department of History, University of Kansas) Published on H-Nationalism (October, 2021) Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56909

Manifest Destiny has served as one of the key interpretive lenses of US history for over one hundred years. In one variation or another, it posits that nineteenth-century Americans believed God had destined the United States to spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific and create one vast, continental nation-state. Manifest Destiny works well when describing nineteenth-century US expansion (especially to high-schoolers or undergraduates) because it sounds catchy and fits well within an explanatory narrative designed to explain how an underpopulated collection of bickering states on the Atlantic seaboard went on, in less than a century, to conquer a continent. As with so many teleological approaches to history, however, scholars have recently begun to examine the consensus nature of Manifest Destiny as well as its historical accuracy. Claire M. Wolnisty’s recent monograph, A Different Manifest Destiny: U.S. Southern Identity and Citizenship in Nineteenth-Century South America, fits well within this type of scholarship.

Wolnisty’s primary argument is that “nineteenth-century southern expansionists defined the South as an expansionistic, proslavery, and modern power poised to dominate the Western Hemisphere” (p. xiii). In this assertion, Wolnisty echoes proponents of the new history of capitalism—such as Sven Beckert, Edward Baptist, and Walter Johnson—who argue not only that the antebellum South was a modern, industrial, capitalist space but also that slavery and its expansion formed the foundation upon which capitalist industrialization was built.[1] The gaze of these southern capitalists, argues Wolnisty, represented a belief in Manifest Destiny focused not on the US West, where historians have tended to locate the American expansionistic impulse, but rather on Central and South America. That this southern Manifest Destiny did not materialize south of the US border as it did in the West does not take away from the fact that southerners legitimately believed that God intended for their institutions to conquer, or at least dominate, Central and South America.

Wolnisty focuses on three forms of expansion intended to bring to fruition the South’s Manifest Destiny: filibustering in Nicaragua, southern commercial expansion in Brazil before the Civil War, and southern immigration to Brazil after the Civil War. Each form of expansion is covered in an individual chapter, resulting in a slim, quickly read volume.

Chapter 1 examines the well-known filibustering campaigns of William Walker. In the minds of filibusterers, argues Wolnisty, Central America offered as great an outlet as the West for the tensions of mid-nineteenth-century US society. Thus, a great slave-holding US empire oriented south of the Rio Grande represented another form of Manifest Destiny that did not come to fruition, but seemingly offered as plausible a route to continental dominance as the West. Additionally, Wolnisty demonstrates the importance filibusterers placed on their actions in hampering or defeating the efforts of European powers to infiltrate the Central American resource market. Even if the United States never formally annexed Nicaragua, filibusterers believed their actions might still yoke Central American economies and markets to those in the United States, effectively excluding European empires from the Western Hemisphere.

The second chapter investigates the efforts of southern businessmen to enter into and manipulate the Brazilian agricultural market. Southerners were not parochial in their worldview. Instead, they viewed themselves as important players in a modern economy that linked capital, technical expertise, agriculture, resource extraction, and slavery. Brazil afforded an ideal location for southern capitalists to experiment with techniques uniting all these elements. In doing so, southern Americans practiced an imperial “economic infiltration” rather “annexationist drive” (p. 37), complicating the traditional narrative that Manifest Destiny necessarily entailed territorial expansion.

The final chapter explores the lives of American southerners and ex-Confederates who migrated to Brazil after the US Civil War. These men and their families “contested the relationship of a person’s place of residence, ideological stances, connection to a national government, social capital, and familial networks to definitions of proper southern citizenship and loyalty” (pp. 72-73). In this telling, it is not territorial aggrandizement or commercial expansion that linked South America to US Manifest Destiny but rather a transnational hemispheric worldview that stressed fluid identities entrenched in concepts of class, social status, slave ownership, and expertise.

Wolnisty’s greatest contribution is her willingness to unsettle the paradigm of Manifest Destiny, which recent scholarship is demonstrating to be a largely ahistorical teleology developed in the twentieth century.[2] While many nineteenth-century Americans most certainly believed white Americans were destined to spread across and control the continent, their gaze was not limited to the West, nor did they necessarily believe that US political control would inevitably subdue the hemisphere.[3] Instead, Wolnisty reminds us that Americans “envisioned far more fluid geographic spaces when they referenced ‘the United States’ and ‘the South’ than many people conceptualize today” (p. 33).

We are also reminded that nineteenth-century southerners were not anachronistic reactionaries stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the changing times in which they found themselves. Wolnisty demonstrates that many southerners, at least elite southerners, embraced modernity, capitalism, industrialization and innovation, and imperial expansion by means other than territorial aggrandizement. Wolnisty thus calls into question some of the basic tenets of the new history of capitalism, most especially the predominance of cotton, as well as locating ideas of US imperialism in the years before the Civil War.

At the same time, the short length of the book means that many interesting questions and concepts raised by Wolnisty are not explored in as much depth as one might want. A greater comparison between the rhetorics of western and southern Manifest Destiny enthusiasts might better demonstrate their similarities and suggest that both sprang out of a similar impulse—or not. The book suggests a similarity, but it would be unwise to make such a conclusion without more and clearer examples. Additionally, Wolnisty argues that southern capitalists invested tremendously in the building of railroads in Brazil. But how much investment constitutes significant investment? The actual dollar amounts of investment are never shown, so the reader does not know how that investment stacks up against southern investment in railroads in the US South. Did southerners actually invest more in Brazil? If so, why? If not, was the investment really that great, or merely significant relative to the total amount of money invested in Brazilian railroad networks? These questions lead to the issue of Wolnisty’s reliance on letters, journals, and newspaper reports generated by elite southerners. Did their practice really match their rhetoric? After all, no filibustering expedition ultimately succeeded, southern investors never came to dominate Brazil’s coffee industry, and most ex-Confederates eventually returned to the United States. Especially considering Wolnisty’s efficient writing style, it would seem these questions and others could have been easily and thoroughly addressed while maintaining the book’s slim appearance.

A Different Manifest Destiny demands that historians free themselves from the teleological shackles of Manifest Destiny that inevitably locates nineteenth-century US expansion in the West. As with any overarching metanarrative, Manifest Destiny fails to account for contingency and nuance, concepts that serve as the historian’s calling card. Wolnisty’s work fits into a small but growing literature dedicated to more rigorously investigating Manifest Destiny and how nineteenth-century Americans believed their country might actually come to dominate the hemisphere and perhaps even the globe.


[1]. For what are probably their most influential works, see Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Vintage Books, 2014); Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014); and Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013). For a critique of these works as well as the new history of capitalism, see Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode, “Cotton, Slavery, and the New History of Capitalism,” Explorations in Economic History 67 (January 2018): 1-17; and Trevor Burnard and Giorgio Riello, “Slavery and the New History of Capitalism,” Journal of Global History 15, no. 2 (July 2020): 225-44.

[2]. This argument is made most clearly in Andrew C. Isenberg and Thomas Richards Jr., “Alternative Wests: Rethinking Manifest Destiny,” Pacific Historical Review 86, no. 1 (2017): 4-17.

[3]. For examples of recent scholarship that demonstrates the contingent and contested nature of Manifest Destiny, see Andrew J. Torget, Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015); and Thomas Richards Jr., Breakaway Americas: The Unmanifest Future of the Jacksonian United States (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020).

Citation: Michael A. Hill. Review of Wolnisty, Claire M., A Different Manifest Destiny: U.S. Southern Identity and Citizenship in Nineteenth-Century South America. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. October, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56909

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