Manifest Destiny

It’s hard to argue with Linda S. Hudson’s claim in Mistress of Manifest Destiny: A Biography of Jane McManus Storm Cazneau, 1807-1878 that Cazneau was “one of the more intelligent and influential women of her generation.” She was married twice, courted by many, and rumored to be 76-year-old Aaron Burr’s mistress while in her twenties. She speculated in land in Texas and the Caribbean, dabbled in trade, worked as a journalist and war correspondent for publications like United States Magazine and Democratic Review and the New York Weekly Sun, and–motivated as much by profit as by ideology–promoted revolutions in Mexico, Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic. Hudson’s portrait is of an ambitious, unconventional, and talented woman who managed to position herself, if not at the epicenters, then at least in the inner circles of many of the major events that punctuated the period of rapid expansion of the United States.

Jane Maria Eliza McManus was born 1807 in Rensselaer County, New York into a prosperous family of German and Irish descent, with roots in New York since before the French and Indian war. The eldest and the only girl of the McManus’s three children, she grew up closely acquainted with members of the local Mahican Indian tribe, beginning, Hudson argues, her life-long interest in the folkways and welfare of people of color. At seventeen, bright and well-read, she was among the first girls to attend Emma Willard’s new Seminary in Troy, New York, but left after one year to marry Allen B. Storm, who was then studying law with her father, an attorney. A year later, William McManus Storm was born, who was to be her only child. Though no divorce records have ever been found, Jane resumed the use of her maiden name in 1832 and assumed all the responsibilities of parenting and wage-earning.

Around the same time she began her involvement with the elderly Aaron Burr. Tongues wagged over the fact that Jane was known to visit him in his apartment, though to be fair, Burr was an old family friend. Whatever their personal relationship, by virtue of a business deal they worked on together the McManus family acquired large parcels of land in Mexican Texas at very little expense. Jane left New York with her brother to take possession of the land, carrying glowing letters of introduction from Burr, which proclaimed her “A Lady!” and “a woman of business.” But the venture did not turn out as expected. Her land grant was contested, the land itself was devoid of timber, and she ran out of funds.

Had Jane McManus and her brother successfully established themselves in Mexican Texas in 1832, it’s likely that history would have forgotten her. But failure strengthened her resolve, in Hudson’s words, “to go on and ‘grit her teeth at fate.'” Broke and a single parent, she embarked on a career as a journalist. Her first major assignment was for Horace Greeley, editor of the New Yorker. Installing her son William in prep school in New York, she traveled throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East, writing a column called “Letters From an American Lady.” She wrote for other newspapers and magazines as well, and made herself into a well-known, well-traveled, and respected journalist and advocate for expansionist causes.

In addition to her work as a journalist and columnist, Jane published more than twenty articles in three national journals, and at least 15 or more books and pamphlets. She edited at least five newspapers and journals. Such a prolific writer and intrepid traveler is certainly overdue for a biography, and ample primary material exists to support the claim that Cazneau was one of the more unusual and influential voices of her age. But Hudson, an assistant professor of history at East Texas Baptist University, wants her subject to be not just a person, but a symbol, too. She asserts that Cazneau’s “life story represents a synthesis of United States, Texas, Southwestern Borderlands, Mexico, Central America, and Caribbean histories,” and she argues that her “experiences help reintegrate the fields of political, diplomatic, maritime, labor, civil war, and woman’s history.” This forgivable–if distracting–desire for mythopoeia, for her subject to appear larger than life, is characteristic of the dissertation writer’s deep investment in the ground-breaking significance of her topic. (Sure enough, the library catalog at the University of North Texas shows that Hudson submitted a dissertation with the same title in 1999.)

The most intriguing argument Hudson makes for Jane’s place in history concerns the origin of the phrase “manifest destiny.” The historical consensus has been that editor John L. O’Sullivan coined the phrase “manifest destiny” in the July-August 1845 issue of the Democratic Review. Hudson claims that the author of the famous editorial “Annexation” that contained the phrase “manifest destiny” was in fact Cazneau. Hudson’s reading of both O’Sullivan’s and Cazneau’s writings from the period leading up to “Annexation” are more convincing than the empirical evidence she derives from a computer program called Grammatik (the grammar checker from WordPerfect), which matches “100 percent grammatical errors” to Cazneau’s prose and none to O’Sullivan’s. Though it seems likely that Hudson is correct, her attempts to assign a single author to the phrase raise larger questions. It’s easy to imagine the words arising, in one form or another, in the many conversations and letters that were exchanged between Cazneau and O’Sullivan on the topic. Is the person who actually wrote them down the author? What would O’Sullivan have contributed as an editor? Standards governing intellectual property were considerably more fluid in the 19th century than they are today. Jane Cazneau likely was involved in the historic first publication of the famous words, but it’s probably impossible to say who is the author of the phrase “manifest destiny.”

Having linked her subject so closely with manifest destiny (with all its patriarchal connotations), Hudson must steer a tricky course, because she also wants to imply that Cazneau is, if not a 21st century feminist, then at least a passable 19th century version of a progressive woman. At one point, Hudson contrasts Cazneau with journalist and transcendentalist Margaret Fuller: “Fuller was an elitist, racist, ethnocentric who advocated same-sex love. Storm identified with the working-class, treated everyone the same whether newsboys or presidents, urged racial tolerance, and believed other races and ethnic groups were capable of republican government.” The reductive and bizarre characterization of Fuller aside, Hudson must spend the remainder of the book trying to finesse and spin and wriggle under the burden of proving that Cazneau’s expansionist ideas are not the same “elitist, racist, ethnocentric” ideas she ascribes to Fuller.

There’s no doubt that Cazneau’s life was bound up with expansionist initiatives. She lived and often owned property in Cuba, Jamaica, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Texas, and Mexico. Though no mere imperialist, Cazneau’s complex and changeable beliefs about American influence and about slavery tended to be congruent with her investment interests, which included shipping concerns, property, and mining ventures. When it came to the issue of slavery, Cazneau was more of a pragmatist that an abolitionist, “more patriotic than humane,” as Hudson puts it. Then, according to Cazneau’s own account in In The Tropics (1863), her experience in the Dominican Republic caused her to abandon her belief that “the two races of African and European stock could not live and thrive together in the same country on the common basis of equal rights before the law.” Hudson wants to characterize this moderate, legalistic conclusion as a conversion experience about race relations, and she claims that “thereafter, she [Cazneau] dedicated her life to the improvement of the black race,” but produces very little evidence for that claim.

Hudson does best in the three chapters devoted to Cazneau’s years in Texas and Mexico, where she lived on three separate occasions. Though her first trip to Texas ended in failure, she returned two years later during the Mexican War, to promote the cause of a Rio Grande Republic (which would protect trade routes along which she owned land), serve as an emissary for peace, and write dispatches about the war for the Weekly Sun. Of course, the Republic of the Rio Grande was not to be, nor did the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo favor her interests, so she left to press her causes in Cuba.

After two years in Cuba, during which she also failed to get what she wanted, Cazneau lit out for Texas once again. Hudson’s chapter about Cazneau’s years in Eagle Pass offers a finely textured portrait both of Cazneau herself and of life on the Rio Grande in the mid-19th century. At the end of her two years there she published her most famous work, Eagle Pass; or Life on the Border (1852). In Eagle Pass, Cazneau wrote of the abuses suffered by the mestizos who lived in peon debt servitude, but she also described in loving detail the reed house by the Escondida River that she had built for her: “I pined for shade and fruit trees. It is under foliage that I can entirely possess myself and live–untrammeled by the tedious weight of society–with my thoughts, my books, and my birds.”

Outside the “Eagle Pass” chapter, Cazneau only rarely comes to life in the pages of Mistress of Manifest Destiny, because Hudson so often won’t let her. Certainly Cazneau’s ideas about race relations and the expansion of American influence in the Southwest, Central America, and the Caribbean were hardly unusual at the time, but by contemporary standards they’re a bit unsavory. As a journalist she used every opportunity to advance causes from which she and her family and associates would profit, and wielded her considerable political influence for the same purposes. Though she advocated on the behalf of poor and working women and lived her own life in defiance of gender stereotypes, she denied she was a feminist and often ridiculed those who said they were.

In 1878 Jane Cazneau and her daughter-in law boarded the steamer Emily B. Souder in New York, bound for Jamaica where Jane was to file her will and bury her husband’s remains. They never made it. The ship foundered in a storm off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina; the only survivors were two crewmen who were picked up by a passing vessel. All the major papers carried a notice of her death and recognized her remarkable life. The New York Tribune wrote, “Her character was a marked one, and commanded the admiration of all who new her.”

She commands admiration in Hudson’s biography as well, and yet she remains strangely inert. The reason, I think, is that Hudson’s impulse to make her subject historically significant in the larger sense compels her to control Cazneau, to keep her from embarrassing herself in front of all those nice, proper modern readers. But it’s precisely because of her unladylike, contrary, and dangerous qualities that we come to like Cazneau. Reading Mistress of Manifest Destiny makes you want to spend more time with her, only next time without a chaperone.

Elisabeth H. Piedmont-Marton is a writer who lives in Austin and teaches at Southwestern University.

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Published at 12:00 am CST