Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism and U.S. Foreign Policy

Manife4

Manifest Destiny

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Once again I return to the text that I am working on, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: Race, Religion, and Ideology in the Civil War Era because however much we long to escape our history, it is still very much present. Have a great night.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism

The foreign policy of the United States nearly always reflects to one degree or another a quasi-religious belief in the continued importance of the United States in spreading democracy around the world.

The United States was an anomaly among western nations in the early 1800s. During that time the percentage of people in Europe who were active churchgoers was shrinking and the number of skeptics rising as the industrial revolution, and advances in science, and the philosophies and theology of classic Liberalism permeated the elites of the continent. But in the United States, the situation was different. The Second Great Awakening helped shape and define the purpose of the nation, and by the “mid-nineteenth century, from North to South, was arguably Christendom’s most churchgoing nation, bristling with exceptionalist faith and millennial conviction.” [1] This was especially true of American Protestantism were “church attendance rose by a factor of ten over the period 1800 to 1860, comfortably outstripping population growth. Twice as many Protestants went to church at the end of this period as the beginning.” [2]

This exceptionalist faith kindled a belief in the nation’s Manifest Destiny in large part was an outgrowth of the Second Great Awakening which was particularly influential among the vast numbers of people moving into the new western territories. As people moved west, Evangelical religion came with them, often in the form of vast revival and camp meetings which would last weeks and which would be attended by tens of thousands. The first of these was at Cane Ridge Kentucky in 1801, organized by a Presbyterian others, including Baptists and Methodists joined in the preaching, and soon the revivals became a fixture of frontier life and particularly aided the growth of the Methodist and Baptists who were willing to “present the message as simply as possible, and to use preachers with little or no education,” [3] and which soon became the largest denominations in the United States. These meetings appealed to common people and emphasized emotion rather than reason. Even so the revivals “not only became the defining mark of American religion but also played a central role in the nation’s developing identity, independence, and democratic principles.” [4]

The West came to be viewed as a place where America might be reborn and “where Americans could start over again and the nation fulfill its destiny as a democratic, Protestant beacon to inspire peoples and nations. By conquering a continent with their people and ideals, Americans would conquer the world.” [5] The westward expansion satiated the need for territorial conquest and the missionary zeal to transform the country and the world in the image of Evangelical Christianity.

The man who coined the term “Manifest Destiny,” New York journalist John O’Sullivan a noted that “Manifest Destiny had ordained America to “establish on the earth the moral dignity and salvation of man,” to disseminate its principles, both religious and secular abroad,” [6] and New York Journalist Horace Greely issued the advice, “Go West, young man” which they did go, by the millions between 1800 and 1860.

But the movement also had a dark side. Americans poured westward first into the heartland of the Deep South and the Old Northwest, then across the Mississippi, fanning westward along the great rivers that formed the tributaries of the new territories. As they did so, the “population of the region west of the Appalachians grew nearly three times as fast as the original thirteen states” and “during that era a new state entered the Union on the average of three years.” [7]

The combination of nationalism fueled by Evangelical religion was combined with the idea from revolutionary times that America was a “model republic” that could redeem the people of the world from tyranny,” [8] as well an ascendant rational nationalism based on the superiority of the White Race. This, along with the belief that Catholicism was a threat to liberty was used as reason to conquer Mexico as well as to drive Native Americans from their ancestral homes. “By 1850 the white man’s diseases and wars had reduced the Indian population north of the Rio Grande to half of the estimated million who had lived there two centuries earlier. In the United States all but a few thousand Indians had been pushed west of the Mississippi.” [9] The radical racism used pseudo-scientific writings to “find biological evidence of white supremacy, “radical nationalism” cast Mexicans as an unassimilable “mixed “race “with considerable Indian and some black blood.” The War with Mexico “would not redeem them, but would hasten the day when they, like American Indians, would fade away.” [10]

Manifest Destiny and American Foreign Policy

Just as the deeply Evangelical Christian religious emphasis of Manifest Destiny helped shape American domestic policy during the movement west, it provided similar motivation and justification for America’s entry onto the world stage as a colonial power and world economic power. It undergirded United States foreign policy as the nation went from being a continental power to being an international power; claiming as Hawaii, and various former Spanish possessions in 1890s, and which would be seen again in the moralizing of Woodrow Wilson in the years leading up to America’s entry into World War One.

The belief in Manifest Destiny can still be seen in the pronouncements of American politicians, pundits, and preachers who believe that that this message is to be spread around the world. Manifest Destiny is an essential element of the idea of American Exceptionalism which often has been the justification for much recent American foreign policy, including the Freedom Agenda of former President George W. Bush. Bush referenced this during his 2003 State of the Union Address, “that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.” [11] Bush frequently used language in his speeches in which biblical allusions were prominent in justifying the morality of his policy, and by doing this “Bush made himself a bridge between politics and religion for a large portion of his electorate, cementing their fidelity.” [12]

Throughout the Bush presidency the idea that God was directing him even meant that his faith undergirded the policy of the United States and led to a mismatch of policy ends and the means to accomplish them. Former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. and historian Michael Oren wrote:

“Not inadvertently did Bush describe the struggle against Islamic terror as a “crusade to rid the world of evildoers.” Along with this religious zeal, however, the president espoused the secular fervor of the neoconservatives…who preached the Middle East’s redemption through democracy. The merging of the sacred and the civic missions in Bush’s mind placed him firmly in the Wilsonian tradition. But the same faith that deflected Wilson from entering hostilities in the Middle East spurred Bush in favor of war.” [13]

Policy makers and military leaders must realize that if they want to understand how culture and religious ideology drive others to conquer, subjugate and terrorize in the name of God, they first have to understand how our ancestors did the same thing. It is only when they do that that they can understand that this behavior and use of ideology for such ends is much more universal and easier to understand.

One can see the influence of Manifest Destiny abroad in a number of contexts. Many American Christians became missionaries to foreign lands, establishing churches, colleges, schools, and hospitals in their zeal to spread the Gospel. As missionaries spread across the globe, American policy makers ensured their protection through the presence of the United States Navy, and missionaries frequently called upon the United States Government for help and the naval strength of the United States during the period provided added fuel to their zeal. In 1842, Dabney Carr, the new American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire “declared his intention to protect the missionaries “to the full extent of [his] power,” if necessary “by calling on the whole of the American squadron in the Mediterranean to Beyrout.” [14] Such episodes would be repeated in the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific, and Central America over and over again until the 1920s.

The White Man’s Burden, Imperialism, Business, and Faith: Manifest Destiny and the Annexation of the Philippines

If one wants to see how the use of this compulsion to conquer in the name of God in American by a national leader one needs to go no farther than to examine the process whereby President McKinley, himself a veteran of the Civil War, decided to annex the Philippine in 1898 following the defeat of the Spanish. That war against the Filipinos that the United States had helped liberate from Spanish rule saw some of the most bloodthirsty tactics ever employed by the U.S. Army to fight the Filipino insurgents. The Filipino’s who had aided the United States in the war against Spain were now being subjugated by the American military for merely seeking an independence that they believed was their right. While the insurgency was suppressed in a violent manner and American rule was established, some Americans came to see the suppression of the Filipino’s as a stain on our national honor which of which Mark Twain wrote: “There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land. . .” [15]

William McKinley was a cautious man, and after the United States had defeated the Spanish naval squadron at Manila Bay and wrestled with what to do with the Philippines. McKinley was a doubtless sincere believer, and according to his words, he sought counsel from God about whether he should make the decision to annex the Philippines or not. For him this was not a mere exercise, but a manifestation of his deep rooted faith which was based on Manifest Destiny. Troubled, he sought guidance, and he told a group of ministers who were vesting the White House:

“Before you go I would like to say a word about the Philippine business…. The truth is I didn’t want the Philippines, and when they came to us as a gift from the gods, I did not know what to do with them…. I sought counsel from all sides – Democrat as well as Republican – but got little help…. I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for guidance more than one night. And late one night it came to me this way – I don’t know how it was but it came….” [16]

He then went on to discuss what he supposedly heard from God, but reflected more of a calculated decision to annex the archipelago. He discussed what he believed would be an occupation of just a few islands and Manila, ruled out returning them to Spain as that would be “dishonorable,” ruled out turning them over to France or Germany because “that would be bad for business,” or allowing Filipino self-rule, as “they were unfit for self-government.” [17] The last was a reflection of the deep-rooted opinion of many Americans that the dark skinned Filipinos were “niggers.”

Barbara Tuchman described McKinley’s comments to the ministers:

“He went down on his knees, according to his own account, and “prayed to Almighty God for light and guidance.” He was accordingly guided to conclude “that there was nothing left to do for us but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos. And uplift and civilize and Christianize them, by God’s grace to do the very best we could by them, as our fellowmen for whom Christ died.” [18]

But the result, regardless of whether McKinley heard the voice of God, or took the advice of advisers with imperialist, business, or religious views, he made the choice to annex the Philippines, believing it to be the only rational course of action, and something that he could not avoid. In a sense McKinley, of who Barbara Tuchman wrote “was a man made to be managed,” and who was considered spineless by Speaker of the House Thomas Reed who said “McKinley has no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.” [19] It appears that McKinley was more convinced by the arguments of those who desired to annex the Philippines for military reasons, a business community which saw the islands as a gateway to the markets of Asia, and by Protestant clergy, who saw “a possible enlargement of missionary opportunities.” [20] He rejected a proposal by Carl Schurz who urged McKinley to “turn over the Philippines as a mandate to a small power, such as Belgium or Holland, so the United States could remain “the great neutral power in the world.” [21]The combination of men who desired the United States to become an imperialist and naval power, business, and religion turned out to be more than McKinley could resist, as “the taste of empire was on the lips of politicians and business interests throughout the country. Racism, paternalism, and the talk of money mingled with the talk of destiny.” [22] Though there was much resistance to the annexation in congress and in the electorate, much of which was led by William Jennings Bryant, but which crumbled when Bryant with his eyes on the Presidency embraced imperialism.

The sense of righteousness and destiny was encouraged by magazine publisher S.S. McClure, who published a poem by Rudyard Kipling addressed to Americans debating the issue entitled The White Man’s Burden:

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child…

Take up the White Man’s burden–
The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease…

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Ye dare not stoop to less–
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To
cloke your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your gods and you…
[23]

McKinley’s decision and the passage of the peace treaty with Spain to acquire the Philippines sparked an insurrection led by Filipino revolutionary Emilio Aguinaldo who had been leading resistance to Spanish rule on the island of Luzon for several years prior to the American defeat of Spanish naval forces at the Battle of Manila Bay, and the subsequent occupation of Manila. The following war lasted nearly three years and was marked by numerous atrocities committed by American forces against often defenseless civilians and it would help to change the nature of the country. After American troops captured Manila, Walter Hines Page, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly believed that Americans would face greater challenges and difficulties in the coming years than they had known in previous years. He wrote:

“A change in our national policy may change our very character… and we are now playing with the great forces that may shape the future of the world – almost before we know it…. Before we knew the meaning of foreign possessions in a world ever growing more jealous, we have found ourselves the captors of islands in both great oceans; and from our home staying policy of yesterday we are brought face to face with world-wide forces in Asia as well as Europe, which seem to be working, by the opening of the Orient, for one of the greatest challenges in human history…. And to nobody has the change come more unexpectedly than ourselves. Has it come without our knowing the meaning of it?” [24]

Within the span of a few months, America had gone from a nation of shopkeepers to an imperial power, and most people did not realize the consequences of that shift. Manifest destiny and American Exceptionalism had triumphed and with it a new day dawned, where subsequent generations of leaders would invoke America’s mission to spread freedom and democracy around the world, as President George W. Bush said, “that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.”

Notes

[1] Ibid. Phillips American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century p.143

[2] McGrath, Alister Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2007 p.164

[3] Gonzalez, Justo L. The History of Christianity Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day Harper and Row Publishers San Francisco 1985 p.246

[4] Ibid. McGrath Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First p.164

[5] Goldfield, David America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation Bloomsbury Press, New York, London New Delhi and Sidney 2011 p.5

[6] Ibid. Oren Power, Faith and Fantasy: America and the Middle East 1776 to the Present p130

[7] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.42

[8] Varon, Elizabeth R. Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858 University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill NC 2008 p.183

[9] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era p,45

[10] Ibid. Varon. Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858 p.183

[11] Bush, George W. State of the Union Address Washington D.C. January 28th 2003 retrieved from Presidential Rhetoric.com http://www.presidentialrhetoric.com/speeches/01.28.03.html 10 June 2015

[12] Ibid. Phillips American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century p.252

[13] Oren, Michael Power, Faith and Fantasy: America and the Middle East 1776 to the Present W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2007 p.584

[14] Ibid. Oren Power, Faith and Fantasy: America and the Middle East 1776 to the Present p130

[15] Twain, Mark To the Person Sitting in Darkness February 1901 Retrieved from The World of 1898: The Spanish American War The Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/1898/twain.html 12 December 2014

[16] Zinn, Howard A People’s History of the United States Harper Perennial, New York 1999 pp.312-313

[17] Ibid. Zinn A People’s History of the United States p.313

[18] Ibid. Tuchman Practicing History p.289

[19] Tuchman, Barbara The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 Random House Trade Paperbacks Edition, New York 2008 originally published 1966 by McMillan Company. Amazon Kindle edition location 2807 of 10746

[20] Hofstadter, Richard The Paranoid Style in American Politics Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 1952 and 2008 p167

[21] Ibid. Tuchman The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 location 3098 of 10746

[22] Ibid. Zinn A People’s History of the United States p.313

[23] Kipling, Rudyard “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands” 1899 retrieved from https://public.wsu.edu/~brians/world_civ/worldcivreader/world_civ_reader_2/kipling.html 6 August 2016

[24] Ibid. Hofstadter The Paranoid Style in American Politics pp.183-184

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