Questioning Manifest Destiny

Boston_CollegeToday is a day of cold and flurries, very much a mid-winter sort of day. Our snow drought continues, with each promising storm going elsewhere.

I’m still reading Lauret Edith Savoy’s Traces, while Jennie reads a book of Jewish history. In the background is the “militant occupation” in Oregon. Oddly, there is a good deal of overlap among the three.

Both books explore Manifest Destiny, the special relationship between a country or people, and the Creator, a relationship that encourages the chosen people to subjugate, displace, enslave, or destroy other peoples in repeated acts of nation building.

Pre-Rabinic Jewish history is rife with genocidal acts against neighboring states and tribes, territorial expansion carried out in the name of nation building, and largely endorsed, if not demanded, by God. Campaigns of ruthless territorial were common, as was the practice of enslaving the survivors. There was also a rich prophetic tradition, largely ignored, that challenged the ideology of expansion.

Savoy literally walks the history of the thirteen original states, then extends her explorations westward, following the colonial expansion. She stops to show us the unmarked graves of plantation slaves in South Carolina and Massachusetts, and wonders whether some of those buried on a South Carolina plantation might have been her relatives. She carefully puts flesh on history, those enslaved bodies belonging to Africans, Caribs, and Native Americans, and reminds us the early slave trade was mostly between the then colonies and the Caribbean islands. Native Americans who survived massacres might be enslaved locally or shipped to the Caribbean, along with other commodities. Local, “peaceful” tribes were encouraged to acquire prisoners from other tribes, who could then be sold to the colonists for desired market products.

Slavery, whether life-long, or indentured, drove the colonial economy, both providing a valuable trade commodity, and the cheap person power needed to produce large-scale agriculture. At the same time, slaves were expendable, often being literally worked to death, then replaced. Both slavery, and the genocide of Native peoples, was justified by the meme of Manifest Destiny. Yet, early on, ideas of grandeur were held in check by relatively rigid barriers to westward expansion that were enforced by the Crown. Many historians have argued that the subsequent Revolutionary War was driven more by the colonists’ desire to be freed from British limitations on westward expansion, than by taxes.

Savoy notes the century following the Revolutionary War featured the ruthless destruction of Native people and, in the Southwest, the Spanish. As she explores the Arizona/Mexico border region, she muses about the fate of the people who lived there during expansion, and wonders whether the theft of their lands, and their general disenfranchisement, might have been driven by the colonists’ fear of mixed-blood people. Along the way she meets Border Control agents who are openly derogatory towards people who try to cross the border. (We now know those attempting to cross are predominately Indigenous and young.)

As I read, I wonder about the marriage of fundamentalist religions and Manifest Destiny as it now plays out, both in domestic and international politics. There are great dangers in evoking God as a central force in policies that are driven by the idea of Manifest Destiny, with its concomitant fear, greed, and withholding of empathy. Yet, the idea of a God-given responsibility to nation build seems terribly difficult to successfully challenge.  Even now, European-American “Militias” intimidate Native, and other, people with impunity, and political parties actively endorse their candidate’s courting of the Ku klux Klan and other openly racist militias, while espousing the continued expansion of national influence on a planetary scope.

There is, within the rhetoric of the Militias and politicians, a continued appeal to the logic of Manifest Destiny, an appeal that finds much support in some quarters of our population. The idea of Manifest Destiny remains current, in part, because it obscures the violence and genocide that enabled it. It is worth remembering that much of that violence has been carried out by self-proclaimed citizen militias, often with the complicity of local and national governments. I wonder what would have happened had the “armed occupation” of the Federal property in Oregon been carried out by Native people or persons of color.

As I ponder all of this, I worry that without understand the genocide at the heart of much of world history, and nation building, we will not find our way to that promised, holy land of peace and freedom. I think, too, about the historical tradition of prophesy, and wonder whether time is running out.

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5 thoughts on “Questioning Manifest Destiny

  1. Similarities, too, with the experiences of the Gaelic peoples (Ireland and Scotland) in that 1600-1900 timeframe as well (genocide, displacement, ‘clearances’, ‘transportation’ and indentured and sent to Carolina or Caribbean colonies/plantations, etc.). The forces behind the colonialism, and the m.o., seems similar as we track it across the world and over history. It’s definitely worth reflection and consideration. Thanks for sharing.

    • Jamie, there were good reasons Native women in North America embraced Gaelic men, when so many of our menfolk had died. Those shared histories of torment and genocide provided solace and familiarity. Those embraces allowed love and a moment of shared forgetting.

  2. Both your books sound interesting Michael.
    In many countries, unfortunately also today, there are people thinking, that not all humans and animals have a soul, why it was/is okay to abuse them. They don’t feel anything anyway…..
    I see this, also in here at WP and think that all souls in our world need much more education, if we ever will come so far as peace in our world.
    Much are happening in Europe right now, because of the war in Syria, where many refugees now are spread all over Europe, where they don’t feel at home and many are not welcome there, because of their behavior to fx. women. It would have been better for all, if there were no war, of course, but now the war is here, their neighbor countries should have received and helped them with economic help from other countries. They would be able to continue their kind of life instead of a move to a new and for them very different culture. The news do focus at lot at all these acts, as have been happening around the new year.

    • Irene, there is such an imposing growth in refugees around the world, so many wars and so much poverty, mostly the result of ever increasing greed in the face of diminishing resources. Yes, the media do not really speak to this, as it is a disconcerting truth, probably bad for profits. I am glad we can go for walks in the woods and remember the rhythms of the world, and hopefully, the plight of so many.

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