America’s destiny … warts included

This post is part of a history of a human rights class reading list. See more reviews under the human rights tag.

Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right by Anders Stephanson is a short gast-hi-resbook (it almost doesn’t fit the page length for Cannonball Read), but don’t be deceived. It is incredibly dense. It is one of those books that to understand it fully you almost need to read it twice. Nonetheless, if you really want to know more about the origins of manifest destiny and America exceptionalism, this is a perfect starting point.

I am presenting this book to my class on Wednesday and need to work through some thoughts beforehand. So if this review seems disjointed it is because I’m still getting my head around his arguments. Basically he is examining the origins of the ideology of manifest destiny in American thought and political culture. While we can point directly to John O’Sullivan who coined the term in 1845 when he wrote that the role of the US is “to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions,” Stephanson argues that the broader idea of manifest destiny is rooted in the Puritans’ understanding of themselves as God’s chosen people.

He then looks at how this religiously rooted ideology develops over time and negotiates expanding US borders. This religious ideology then becomes intertwined with agricultural and industrial capitalism and mutates into a more secular understanding of manifest destiny, but while the national ideology takes on a new character, “the sacred-prophetic impulse never waned” (110). The interesting difference in these two ideologies is that the older religious idea of manifest destiny focused on a predestined future of God’s chosen people, while in the newer ideology will be determined by individual agency.

The most interesting chapter to me is his closing essay where he discusses President Wilson’s time up to the 1990s. He critiques President Wilson’s understanding of the United States’ role as the leader in the world and how that is still infused with a prophetic mission. This translates into a principle of universal right that believes it is always right and sees those who disagree as “inhuman or criminal” (119).

Interestingly he ends in the mid-1990s (the book was published in 1995) and maintains that the difficulty for the US is that it has lost its defining enemy with the end of the Cold War, and therefore “simple concepts super-imposed on simple divisions and simple enemies no longer suffice as basic ideological props of American geopolitics (129).” I would love to see an update to the work in light of the past decade’s events. Have we invented a new enemy in “terrorism” based on our understanding of America’s destiny?