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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,265

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This is the grave of John L. O’Sullivan.

Born in 1813 while his father, a diplomat, and his mother were traveling on a British warship (this seems weird to me as it was in the middle of the War of 1812) O’Sullivan grew up wealthy. His mother was British, which may explain the British warship issue. In any case, his father was US Consul to the Barbary States for awhile, which surely was a fascinating post. His father died at sea, but the money allowed him to be mostly raised and educated in France. O’Sullivan enrolled at Columbia University in 1827, only 14 years old. He graduated in 1831, got a master’s degree in 1834, and became a lawyer.

O’Sullivan however was a lot more interested in journalism and politics than he was the law. He became a rabid Jacksonian, a huge promoter of the white male democracy of that movement. He started a magazine called The United States Magazine and Democratic Review in 1837. This was a shot at the Whig-dominated elite magazine North American Review, which he sought to counter. Now, this was the era of patronage. Moreover, early American politicians were real careful to cultivate media. The idea of the White House or the political parties being somehow above the media, or maybe the other way around, is completely ahistorical. It’s an artifact of aging Americans who grew up in the era of Cronkite and Brinkley and Murrow who were Trusted Men. But that’s the anomaly. Fox News is much closer to the norms of American history. It would help liberals a lot to realize this. In fact, among O’Sullivan’s pithy and horrible quotes was “The best government is that which governs least.” Glad that’s been discarded by conservatives today…..

In any case, Martin Van Buren saw O’Sullivan as a tremendously useful ally. The president would use O’Sullivan to promote the administration’s stories, dropping stories to O’Sullivan that the journalist would rewrite and run. That very much included stories on Indian Removal and the white genocide moving westward. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone supporting that more than O’Sullivan. As part of this support, he coined the term “Manifest Destiny,” the core term to describe how Democrats especially saw that genocide and westward expansion were not only blessed by God but in fact doing God’s work. Specifically, he wrote of “the fulfilment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

It hardly goes without saying then that O’Sullivan was a huge fan of the Mexican War. He had promoted James K. Polk big time as the 1844 elections approached and the Democratic Review remained the key Democratic mouthpiece during these years. This was now just open expansionism, arguing for the open theft of the northern half of Mexico to expand slavery. He continued to push for expansionism after the Polk administration pillaged Mexico. He was close with the Cuban filibuster leader Narciso Lopez and provided key support for his failed attempt to overthrow the Spanish rule in Cuba and connect to the U.S. as a slave state.

Now, the Democratic Review wasn’t just an administration mouthpiece. It was the place for Democratic intellectuals to write. That included Nathaniel Hawthorne, noted writer of Franklin Pierce‘s ridiculous campaign biography in 1852. It included William Cullen Bryant. It included James Fenimore Cooper. It was also a legitimate literary journal too. Henry David Thoreau certainly didn’t agree with O’Sullivan’s politics, but it was a place that would publish him. Walt Whitman, John Greenleaf Whittier, and James Russell Lowell also published there and it’s hard to imagine two people with more radically different politics as the mid-19th century approached than Whitman and O’Sullivan. But of all these people, O’Sullivan was closest with Hawthorne, whose politics did align. The magazine never had much money though. O’Sullivan refused to accept advertising, which is a good sign of why you aren’t going to do well. In fact, he had to periodically leave the journal to do some law work and raise money. For his service though, in 1854, Franklin Pierce named O’Sullivan Minister to Portugal. He represented the U.S. in Lisbon for four years and then mostly stayed in Europe after that.

As the Civil War approached, Democratic partisans such as O’Sullivan had a choice to make. Some became the most anti-slavery Republicans possible, much more so than the old Whigs who were more concerned with promoting capitalism than fighting the Slave Power. Others embraced the cause of the South. O’Sullivan, who was a big fan of Stephen Douglas and his popular sovereignty idea, tried like Douglas to split the difference, keep the nation together, and still promote slavery. But once the Civil War happened, O’Sullivan was all in on treason in defense of slavery. At this time, O’Sullivan was in Europe and not New York, so he was trying to get the European nations to recognize the Confederacy and destroy the United States. Makes sense that such an active purveyor of genocide would support white supremacy to the point of destroying the nation. Seeing the war as lost in 1865, he urged everyone in Richmond to burn their own houses in order to keep resources from the Union. Not sure if anyone was listening to that advice.

After the Civil War, O’Sullivan was pretty well discredited. He was in Europe for some of this and corresponded with William Seward for awhile, when Seward was the one Lincoln Cabinet member all in on Andrew Johnson destroying any kind of real Reconstruction. He claimed he would only return to the U.S. as a southerner, but this was ridiculous as life got in the way. He later needed money and tried to use his connections to get Grover Cleveland to give him some kind of government job to support him after Democrats finally controlled the presidency again. But Cleveland wanted nothing to do with him.

O’Sullivan died in 1895. He was 81 years old. Later in life he had a series of strokes and it was influenza that finally killed him.

Oh yes, Merry Christmas. Remember that wherever you are, you are on lands that experienced genocide and that you have direct responsibility in destroying white supremacy, very much to the point of giving up your own power and privilege. Every single white person today benefits from O’Sullivan’s racism. The question is what we do about that. Enjoy the holiday!

John L. O’Sullivan is buried in Moravian Cemetery, Staten Island, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other antebellum journalists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. James Gordon Bennett is in Brooklyn and Richard Adams Locke is also in Staten Island, but a different cemetery. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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