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Published: Tuesday 29th of October 2013
The notion of Manifest Destiny has been present in almost every human culture or civilization in history. It’s the idea that there is a destiny for us in which we grow beyond our initial conditions. It’s not just an idea but the expression of a fundamental human impulse to transcend our limits. It’s the driving force behind our essential need to travel and explore beyond our environment. It’s turned us into travelers, explorers, scientists, it’s taken us from one continent to the next, and nowadays it’s even taken us to the moon, literally.
While that idea of Manifest Destiny applies to all of humanity, in the American mind this idea takes a particular form that maybe has been the driving force behind the way the country has developed over the centuries and turned it into what it is today. Many historians, in fact, claim that America would have never endured without its ability to rationalize the impulse to extend and expand over new lands as a form of destiny.
It was, and it remains, the central philosophical support for the idea of American supremacy over other nations that thus gives it the right to take over other societies’ rights, sovereignty, and control. Without this idea, the original American confederation would probably have remained as the thirteen original colonies that achieved independence from the UK. Instead, those thirteen colonies did fight a revolution for independence, succeeded, and spent two hundred years looking to expand their reach and acquire new lands and power.
Manifest Destiny is a recipe that needs three ingredients. A holy commitment, a sense of purpose, and a sense of duty that will drive you to carry out the purpose that this holy commitment prompts.
This is, most probably, the most active drive behind Manifest Destiny’s success as a policy. It’s the concept that God himself has ordered to walk in the way of expansion and conquest. This is not exclusive to the American experience, you can see parallel examples in the Old Testament as the chosen people take the promised land back, or in the Crusades as the Western Christian kingdoms fight for that very same land. While those episodes involved some distinct political and economic advantages, they were possible only because of the unshakable belief that acting that way was in God’s will.
The American case is way more recent but not that different. It comes from the belief that God has chosen it as an instrument to manifest His power over the world to be governed, subjugated, and populated as Americans think it best. This notion has not always been a tool for expansion, but it’s always been there, in the background as other things happened. This was why, for instance, to conquer and Christianize the land was not a geopolitical maneuver about expansion but the burden that God Himself was placing on the white man’s shoulders. In that mindset, the genocidal behavior towards the native Americans, the countless wars against different cultures along American history were not a disgrace, but just a necessary side-effect. This was how America grew in history, because of the conviction that God’s will was behind every one of those episodes.
Knowledge and understanding of God’s will is not everything, but just the starting point. There is also the equally religious belief that spreading the American brand of politics is actually charitable towards the rest of the world. The wish to spread and expand eventually acquired enough momentum of its own to increase territory, wealth and rewards. As the year 1840 came around, the expansion of the national borders was already the most quintessential element in the American psyche and policy. Things kept developing in that direction during that time such as the Oxbow Route from Missouri to California, and the Oregon Trail which created a way to reach the Pacific Ocean. Then there was the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the creation of the territorial government in 1848. All these events became foundational ingredients in the recipe that ended up expanding the American borders dramatically and very quickly. They happened because behind each of those adventures there was a powerful sense of mission in the people that carried them out.
And then there’s the sense of duty, the third element that ensured that Manifest Destiny happened both as an idea and as fuel for action. Some historians have pointed out this sense of duty as the factor that produced the darkest and ugliest elements present in American history. Genocidal behavior, the building of reservations, mass destruction on multiple levels, – all these things came out of this sense of duty (that some would say was misunderstood) to tarnish American history every bit as much as slavery (which could have also been a result of that very same sense of duty). It happened because this is an idea that breeds an attitude, the attitude that since your goals are justified, accomplishing them is a good thing in itself however it affects other people you are interacting with while you pursue it.
Americans held to the belief that they had the right to act as they did. Not just the right but a mandate given by God Himself. It was Manifest Destiny, and as for all the destruction, oppression, unfair and unnecessary wars, – they didn’t matter in their moral quality because they agreed with God’s will. And things will go the way Americans wanted because God has the power to make things happen that way because it was destiny. American politicians had no problem at all to say that out loud. Albert T.Beveridge, for instance, declared before the US Senate at the beginning of the twentieth century that God had made the US master organizers of the world to avoid the inherent chaos among other societies that are either too young and wild or too old and decadent.
Manifest Destiny is not an idea that’s been written into the American Constitution or any other state or federal law at all. But it’s there nevertheless, not as a low but as an unavoidable assumption that most Americans believe wholeheartedly in despite its evanescence and ambiguity. Manifest Destiny has been the compass America has followed throughout its history. Right or wrong, it has provided drive and direction.