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American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography 15.2 (2005) 123-141

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Extermination and Democracy:

O'Sullivan, The Democratic Review, and Empire, 1837–1840

In January 1848 Henry David Thoreau began his lecture on "Resistance to Civil Government" by asserting that "I heartily accept the motto—'That government is best which governs least;' and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically."1 The motto (actually "The best government is that which governs least")—had been emblazoned on the title page of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review (hereafter Democratic Review), the influential political-literary monthly, from its founding in 1837 through 1845.2 Thoreau had published an informal essay, "The Landlord," and a book review, "Paradise (To Be Regained)," in its pages in 1843, but in now urging his listeners to resist the government because of its prosecution of the Mexican War, protection of slavery, and annexation of Texas, he implicitly takes issue with the prominent periodical, which that same month had published the first in a two-part series devoted to defending "The Mexican War: Its Origins, Its Justice, Its Consequences."3 Thoreau's reference to the motto of the Democratic Review cuts several ways: as a means of stressing individual responsibility for moral conduct in a democracy; as a criticism of a newly imperial America; and, it would seem, as an implicit rebuke to the nation's leading Democratic monthly, whose former editor, John L. O'Sullivan, he had called "at any rate one of the not-bad."4 In present-day America, Thoreau argued, the only place for a "just man" would be in prison, where he could make common cause with "the fugitive slave, the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race." Yet, policies advocated by the Democratic Review from its founding in 1837 were responsible for the continued victimization of these groups.5 [End Page 123]

Established in Washington by O'Sullivan and his brother-in-law Samuel Langtree, the Democratic Review moved to New York at the end of 1840. O'Sullivan ran the magazine until June 1846.6 It then exchanged hands several times before becoming defunct in 1859. No magazine more successfully articulated the principles and policies that actually guided and shaped American conduct during the 1830s, '40s, and into the '50s than the Democratic Review, which was closely allied with the administrations of Van Buren, Polk, and Pierce. It was in the pages of the Democratic Review, in July 1845, that O'Sullivan articulated America's "manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions."7 Here was the powerful phrase that promoted continental expansion, resulting in a doubling of American territory in four years. The Democratic Review presents a unique site to explore the interconnections and contradictions of politics, rhetoric, literature, race, empire, and print culture during the antebellum years. How did an underfinanced monthly exert such influence? Especially on issues of race, the Democratic Review was reactionary, yet it attracted a galaxy of progressive writers, including Thoreau, Whittier, Bryant, and Lowell.

Few, if any contemporary periodicals spoke more eloquently of democracy than did the Democratic Review. In the 1839 "The Course of Civilization," O'Sullivan asserted that the "peculiar duty of this country has been to exemplify and embody a civilization in which the rights, freedom, and mental and moral growth of the individual man should be made the highest end of all social restrictions and laws." In the next sentence, however, he claimed that the "discipline of Providence" had best prepared the "Anglo-American race" to realize that democratic promise.8 Also in 1839, O'Sullivan anointed America as "The Great Nation of Futurity": "The far-reaching, the boundless future will be the era of American greatness. In its magnificent domain of space and time, the nation of many nations is destined to manifest to mankind the excellence of...


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