‘Manifest Destiny’

The current book on the reading table is Measuring America, Andro Linklater’s account of how surveyors, land agents, speculators, squatters and others moved west across North America from the late 1700s onward.

The tale of what Linklater calls “the greatest land sale in history” covers the long development of tools of measurement, looking at how a pound became a pound, an acre became an acre, and so on; the development of the idea of private citizens, rather than the Crown, owning land; the creation, in most of the United States, of the grid system that anchors many states, cities and individual lots of property; and the long sad tale of the dispossession of North America’s native cultures.

It was during Linklater’s discussion of the outcome of the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 that I came across the two words that reminded me of sixth grade social studies at Lincoln Elementary School just down a couple streets from here: “manifest destiny.” I learned the words during that sixth grade school year of 1964-65, and we in my class – every one of us Caucasian – learned that those words were somehow tied to the expansion of the United States from an Atlantic seaboard nation to a trans-continental empire.

I don’t know if any of us grasped what the words really meant or what they implied. I was a smart kid, and I think I had a handle on “destiny,” meaning something foreordained, but I don’t think I really knew what the word “manifest” meant, and I don’t recall that our teacher, Miss Hulteen, ever defined it for us. Google tells me this morning that the word means “clear or obvious to the eye or mind.”

In Measuring America, Linklater notes that the two-word phrase came from John L. O’Sullivan, who said that it was the United States’ “manifest destiny to overspread the continent.” As Wikipedia notes, O’Sullivan first used the words in the July-August 1845 edition of his magazine Democratic Review during the discussion over the potential annexation of Texas. The two-word phrase came to wider attention when O’Sullivan used it in a column in the December 27, 1845, edition of the New York Morning News. In that piece, O’Sullivan addressed the ongoing boundary dispute with Great Britain in what was called the Oregon Country:

And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.

Okay, so I didn’t need all of that in sixth grade, but it would have been helpful if our teacher had interpreted the words for us, helping us understand that they reflected the mid-Nineteenth Century belief that the nation was clearly meant to stretch from Atlantic to Pacific. And it would have been even better, of course, had she told us that the implementation of that idea, the expansion of the United States across the continent from the already settled eastern portions, would continue the dispossession and destruction of native cultures that began soon after Caucasians first came ashore.

We didn’t get any of that, not even a clarifying definition. And of course, relatively few people in 1964-65 were thinking about imperialism or the fate of Native American cultures, and certainly none of them were in the classrooms of Lincoln Elementary School. I have a sense that the story of the westward expansion of the United States is told at least a little differently in schools these days. And that’s good.

Here’s “The Indian Prayer” by Richie Havens. Written by Roland Vargas Moussaa and Tom Pacheco, it’s from Havens’ 1974 album Mixed Bag II. Knowing at least a little bit about Havens’ and Pacheco’s world-views, I would guess that the song’s purpose was to offer respect to the Native Americans whose similar prayers in previous centuries were not answered in any affirmative way.

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One Response to “‘Manifest Destiny’”

  1. David Young says:

    I remember studying “manifest destiny” and the Monroe Doctrine in high school history class. In Canada the attitude we were taught was “who gives the Americans the right to extend their sphere of influence to this whole hemisphere?”

    In deed we resisted joining your revolution and repelled an invasion force sent to Montreal and Quebec City (although they did capture Quebec City I believe, led by Benedict Arnold before he joined our side).

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