We all know about this: the strongly persuasive early 19th century idea that the future of the new United States plainly lay in westward expansion, in occupying the whole of North America and sowing all the land, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, with the historically revolutionary promise of American energy and virtues. Its destiny was to show that a great nation born of so extraordinary an idea as ours was not to be an ephemeral phenomenon soon exiting the stage of History, nor doomed to be but one more of its minor players. Its destiny, rather, was to rise inexorably, encompassing a great continent, taking its rightful place at the very forefront of the globe’s great powers – more even than that: to become a very maker of History itself.
Now, we today should bear in mind that this remarkable idea generally, and certainly its specific instruments, were hotly debated among Americans of the time. But, for all that, on marched the expansion of the irrepressible nation. The Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark Expedition set it all in motion, giving scope and logic to an irresistible force. The War of 1812 secured once and for all the nation’s independence from the U.K., and the Monroe Doctrine warned off all of Europe from further interference with the U.S.’s growing role and activity throughout the Americas. The Mexican-American War largely brought all of that to fruition, leaving little more than the process of consolidation, itself a cathartically transforming experience, which marks us to this day.
But, let us recall, manifest destiny was not solely about becoming a continental power. It was about establishing in the broad, rich land thus occupied, alongside the patently irrepressible American energy, the revolutionary virtues borne of this historically unique nation.
That’s what it was about. And for all the debate, there was no stopping it. There was no modifying it. There was, really, no controlling it. In the broadest sense, it was in fact our destiny, and it was inescapably manifest. And we did it.
But just as inevitably – and, it can be fairly argued, just as uniquely – we found ourselves pressed to wonder at what we reap from this whirlwind – indeed, to puzzle over what were the seeds we sowed with such faith, such energy. Such violence, perhaps.
And we began this national debate, early on – even as the object of debate was underway. It was then, as now, about who we are and what is our role in the world, in History. What, we ask, sets us apart – and in so asking, we express a key part of the answer.
So radical an experiment, so abrupt a departure from the normal course of human events, so exceptional a national discourse as ours inevitably uncovered – created – seemingly irreconcilable contradictions.
One of these was painfully aware to us early on. It distressingly marred our very founding documents. It provoked much of the harrowingly divisive evolution of our political structures and character.
And, in due course, it erupted into the American Civil War. This, too, was uniquely American, revolutionary. It was a terribly awe-inspiring, grotesquely innate piece of the whole – an inescapable stage in the experiment. An experiment, we should recall, we still conduct, the ramifications of which we still absorb and still struggle to understand, to bend to our purposes, to find useful to the accomplishment of our aims.
We will begin attempting that here, ourselves, in the New Year. See you then.
In the meanwhile, enjoy the Holidays!
Allow me to acknowledge the recent kind mention by Kurt Harden in his blog, Cultural Offering. In referring everyone to his site as well, I do not reciprocate his generous remarks. I merely yield to the obligation to pass along my own recommendation that you stop by there studiously, every day, as I do, to benefit from the observations of one who lives a wonderfully thoughtful life.