Saturday, December 28, 2013

Manifest Destiny

One of the ways that history books lie is by exaggeration. If our aim is to show that the Dutch colonial influence on New York was one of the great causes of tolerance, democracy, openness, and freedom in the New World (as Colin Woodard’s is in American Nations), then it pays to downplay Dutch intolerance and oppression at the same time, there and especially in other colonies, and similar tolerance or openness in any of the other regions of America.

It’s what historians do.  At its best, it illustrates some aspect of a time or place that is legitimately different and deserves attention.  It distills to make memorable, and makes great leaps of insight easier.  Yet the dangers are obvious.  The distillation may oversimplify, leaving out important contrary information and dissonant voices. Worse, the exaggeration might mislead entirely – the change in ginger cultivation from 17th C Elbonia to 18th C Elbonia might be only comparative, of little importance.

Clever, memorable lines and phrases should arouse our suspicions whenever they are encountered. “They came to do good and stayed to do well” is a witty and cynical thing to say about politicians going to DC, or missionary families to Hawaii, and is not entirely unjust in both cases.  But the double negative “not entirely unjust” is a rather faint endorsement of truth. 

A belief in Manifest Destiny is one of those things that we “just know” about 19th C American opinion.  I have seen it used twice in the last week as an example of a discredited idea which used to be dominant.  In both cases the writer was trying to show that a currently common idea deserves a similar disapproval.  Americans have believed so many arrogant and foolish things about themselves. We have been more a danger than a good in the world, haven’t we? Oppressors, exploiters, hypocrites…

Except that Manifest Destiny was never even a solid minority, let alone majority opinion in America.  It had powerful denouncers and opponents from the start. It drew on a fairly common idea - that America had a special mission from God to be an example to the world. The New World had been discovered and settled at the time that the Old World was becoming corrupt and dissolute, the thinking went. Most Americans believed some version of this, but not many followed it with any intensity.  As in all other eras, people had jobs and families and did not often spare a thought for larger questions of where history was going.

Westward expansion and acquisition of territory were another matter altogether.  Those were separate strands, more common among newer immigrants and the most ambitious. Most Americans were unsure they were even desirable, let alone ordained.

It would be nearer the truth to hold in mind the idea that people like the idea of building something where there was nothing before - a farm, a town, a business, a church, a school; or simply making a living without some other tribe interfering with them - than that they were motivated by any abstract simplification like Manifest Destiny.


Sam L. said...

The Dutch: Yes, I've read they are/were tolerant. And yet, there's South Africa, where they weren't.

james said...

With a sea of raw information about some aspects of life and rare fragments about others, the historian is supposed to find the patterns that make sense of it all. It makes it easier if the patterns are preconceived.

When I look around I see contradictory patterns in everyday life. How would I explain America to an ancient Roman? Pick my favorite themes?

IIRC the Dutch founded their colony back when they were a major power. I wonder if great powers are more "tolerant", for some definitions of tolerance? (I mean in the sense that the tolerance is a side-effect, not the engine of power it is believed to by by the PC crowd.)