The nineteenth century idea of manifest destiny, i.e. that American settlers were destined to expand throughout the continent, was personified as a fair haired maiden, ever helpful with that telegraph wire she is hauling over the western lands of the United States. She had a message to spread, about making a better society, about not only the right, but also the responsibility to share the privilege of liberty. It's one land mass, she might have been saying. I only want to connect you all. And with her luminous spirit urging them, railroaders pounded their spikes into mile after mile of prairie and rock and desert, fast on the heels of gun toting
|American Progress, John Gast, 1872|
horsemen who subdued the first inhabitants, Indian nations that had held off the invaders handily with bows and arrows until multiple shot firearms were invented. Certainly in those battles, it's literally true that Colt won the West.
What defines a community, asks a plaque in L.A.'s Autry Museum. It's safe to say that the answer is a work in progress. But if, as the same plaque continues, members of a community know and recognize each other and are united by shared interests, manifest destiny can be seen as justification for enforcing shared interests. In other words, we're going to "civilize" you whether you like it or not.
It's ironic that Mexicans pour over the border in search of work and opportunities in a land that would have been theirs had not that sweet-faced manifest destiny lady insisted on a country that stretched from "sea to shining sea". A veritable muse for the songwriters who came later.
The belief in manifest destiny
propped up a kind of moral superiority that lingers more than a century and a half later.
One scholar summed up the religious aspect as follows: "God, at the proper stage in the march of history, called forth certain hardy souls from the old and privilege-ridden nations ... and that in bestowing his grace He also bestowed a peculiar responsibility."
Simply put, many 19th century Americans -- like journalist John L. O' Sullivan, who coined the phrase "manifest destiny" -- believed that they, and the country they inhabited, were better than others. This justified the subjugation of existing cultures, First Nations and Mexican to begin, then any that did not fit an unfairly exclusive view of what was "right", despite the mixed communities forming as migrants moved west from the eastern and southern States, joining immigrants from Europe, Asia and Canada. The only reason for the failure of a move to annex the entire nation of Mexico, just as Texas had been annexed, was because of beliefs like those of John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, "We have never dreamt of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race—the free white race. To incorporate Mexico, would be the very first instance of the kind, of incorporating an Indian race; for more than half of the Mexicans are Indians, and the other is composed chiefly of mixed tribes. I protest against such a union as that! Ours, sir, is the Government of a white race.... We are anxious to force free government on all; and I see that it has been urged ... that it is the mission of this country to spread civil and religious liberty over all the world, and especially over this continent."
|Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Santa Fe, N.M.|
Funny how the word "liberty" was used in such a restricted way. Freedom for white people of the Christian persuasion, but not for everyone else. Liberty so-defined meant exactly the opposite for the people who didn't fit into Calhoun's description.
Of course I'm generalizing, but also -- after a too-short visit -- wondering why the southwest feels so unique. If I took the view of an ecological anthropologist, I would have to consider the marriage of environment and culture, the influence of immense, often very dry spaces, long-running wars over territory, and water rights.
Credit journalists and their genius for phrase-making, and historians who like to roll the same phrases over their tongues and thus carry those phrases forward. Nevertheless, you can't always believe what you read in the papers. Despite its endurance as a phrase, manifest destiny was not universally supported and was never an official policy of the U.S., even if its result inspired Abraham Lincoln to say, about westward expansion and other events of his time,
"We cannot escape history... we will be remembered in spite of ourselves."