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Friday, July 1, 2011

Map of the Day: "Map of the United States with Contiguous British & Spanish Possessions." John Melish, 1823.

Copperplate engraving with original outline color: framed size 49” x 63”
Philadelphia: James Finlayson, 1823

The First Map to Show the Full East-West Extent of the United States, and to Give Visual Expression to the Notion of Manifest Destiny


John Melish was a highly educated Scottish merchant who settled in Philadelphia in 1811, eventually to become one of the first great cartographers on the American continent.  Melish drew on a number of official state maps to produce this mammoth map of the United States, which was used on several occasions to determine boundary lines between the U.S. and Mexico.  He first published it in 1816, updating it frequently over the following several years as new discoveries came to light.  Melish died in 1822 and his plates were then used by James Finlayson to bring out this new state in 1823, a map that is a classic in the history of American mapping.  This great wall map is coveted by collectors, for it was the first to depict the United States potentially stretching from Atlantic to Pacific, thereby embodying the nascent notion of "Manifest Destiny."  Furthermore, it demonstrated a remarkably precise understanding of American geography, for the travel accounts of Zebulon Pike, Lewis & Clark, Thomas Nuttall, and William Darby were used as soon as they appeared.  Walter Ristow, the legendary historian of the mapping of America, could not heap enough praise on this map.  He considered it "a significant milestone in the history of American commercial cartography," and wrote that "Melish played a foremost role in bringing together from many and varied sources the geographical and cartographical knowledge of the period, and presenting it systematically and graphically for the edification and enlightenment of the citizens of the young republic."


No nation ever existed without some sense of national destiny or purpose. The notion of Manifest Destiny revitalized a sense of "mission" or national destiny for many Americans. The term was first coined by a democratic leader and influential editor by the name of John L. O'Sullivan, who wrote:

".... the right of our manifest destiny to over spread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and… of self government entrusted to us.  It is right such as that of the tree to the space of air and the earth suitable for the full expansion of its principle and destiny of growth."
Although O'Sullivan spoke these words in the 1840s, he summed up a sense of destiny that had its origins several decades earlier and found its first true visual expression in Melish's great map. Already in the early 1820s, the people of the United States felt it was their mission to extend the "boundaries of freedom" to others by imparting their idealism and belief in democratic institutions to those who were capable of self-government. But there were other forces and political agendas at work as well. As the population of the original thirteen colonies grew and the U.S. economy developed, the desire and attempts to expand into new land increased. For many colonists, land represented potential income, wealth, self-sufficiency and freedom. Expansion into the western frontiers offered opportunities for self-advancement. The idea of Manifest Destiny became the torch that lit the way for American expansion.

Melish's map was produced just as the notion of Manifest Destiny was crystallizing in the general American consciousness, and it gave visual expression to the glorious fate that was anticipated for the young nation. Recognizing the seemingly endless demand for geographical information on the American West, Melish undertook to accumulate a vast amount of descriptions, statistics, and maps. Published just after Melish's death, this edition shows the alterations made in 1820 when he enlarged the size of the map to show the West Indies and all of southern Mexico. For the Texas area, Melish relied heavily on the surveys conducted by William Darby, who had personally surveyed much of the Sabine River area. Melish's map significantly improved the descriptions and depictions of the Texas interior, but even more significant is its official association with the Adams-Onis Treaty. Also called the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819, the Adams-Onis Treaty was one of the critical events that defined the U.S.-Mexico border, and Melish's map was the main one consulted by negotiators.

Perhaps its most lasting value to history, however, is its depiction of the young nation stretching from coast to coast. This exceptional map was Melish's most noted accomplishment, a compelling testament to the irresistible pull that Manifest Destiny -- then purely hypothetical -- exerted on the American consciousness.

Offered at $275,000

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