American Exceptionalism and the Myth of the Frontiers – 2: The City upon a Hill

Author: Rajiv Malhotra.

Americans not only have a deep and positive sense of history but are particularly invested in their own special place in the world. There is no need for the national myth to be explicitly stated as such and, in fact, leaving it implicit or denying its very existence in everyday discourse gives it greater efficacy. America’s core myth is embedded in its deep culture and enshrined in its institutions of power. 

The American Myth is a collection of stories and cherished presuppositions living in the collective memory that has been filtered and edited by various mythmakers since the early 1600s. Because of its persistent usage, it has acquired the power of shaping an important part of American character. Embedded within the Myth are ideological concepts, along with values and beliefs that can be found in its literature, film and art. Collectively, they shape America’s public policy. Much of the Myth has been distilled into symbols, icons, clichés, customs, rituals, parades, flags, ceremonies, museums, codified language, and mythic symbolism that Americans assume implicitly and understand subconsciously. 

For a myth to be robust it must subsume or whitewash over hard facts that are disturbing, that would demystify many beliefs, and that would lead to sociopolitical disorder. There have been serious crises of Myth in American history when a combination of forces undermined the Myth’s legitimacy in the popular mind. But in all such cases the Myth was restored, after being refurbished for a new era into a more powerful myth than before. Myths such as the Frontier myth we are about to explore have given America a tremendous sense of purpose and have channeled its energies for a long time. 

Myths play a vital role in inter-civilizational encounters. The people the Americans encountered did not often have powerful, world-altering, grand myths of their own. Even in the early decades when the Native Americans had a relative parity of fighting capability, they had no grand narrative of their own that could give them unity and a grand purpose to fight the settlers. Their counter-myths lacked the organizing power of the American myths. Their existence thus became fitted into the American narrative rather than having legitimacy as a separate counter-force. 

Founding of America, the City upon a Hill 

Key among the myths brought by Puritans from Europe was the notion of being a “chosen people” with special backing from God. This was adapted in America and shaped the common identities of Americans. The City upon a Hill and Garden of Eden were two primary images with which Americans identified themselves early on (Dunn 1997).1 Later these evolved into more robust myths of the Frontier and Manifest Destiny. The idea of America as the unique and hence privileged City upon a Hill has become “interwoven throughout our history and our foreign policy,” writes Duke University professor Gerald Wilson. The City upon a Hill image surfaces frequently in speeches by many presidents including John Adams, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. Reagan found it an instant crowd pleaser. “I’ve spoken of the Shining City all my political life,” he said in his farewell address. 

In the early colonial period the “unsettled” parts of America (i.e., the areas not yet conquered from the natives) were seen as satanic wilderness, and this wilderness represented temptation, threat and adversity. This space outside the White territories was called the Frontier. John Mather (in 1693) suggested that going through this wilderness was a necessary stage that God expected them to pass through in order to reach the Promised Land. This meant that America was destined to become the Paradise but that it required their effort. This included the sacred mission to “capture” the wilderness and “tame” its natives. Only then would it be the Garden of Eden. The pragmatic and enterprising spirit that is the hallmark of America’s achievements is linked to this belief. 

The wilderness was both a threat and an opportunity. Henry Nash Smith’s seminal book, titled Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, is one of the most thoughtful and detailed studies of America’s deep cultural history. One of the very important ideas of America, he explains, has been the tremendous opportunity offered by a “vacant” continent— an unspoiled Eden for God’s chosen people. The American Myth has consisted of the Eden/Frontier pair. Eden is the space belonging to “us,” and the Frontier represents the satanic wilderness inhabited by “others.” The mission entrusted to Americans is to constantly expand Eden (or its secular equivalent, Civilization) by taking over the Frontier. This Myth helped to generate cohesiveness among the settlers by projecting varying degrees of “otherness” onto the Native Americans, who were seen as a part and parcel of the wilderness. The Eden myth gradually evolved in the popular American mind so that it projected all evil externally. Henry Nash Smith writes that even after the American land mass was taken over by Europeans, they continued to blame “outsiders” for evil influences. Americans had a sense of self-righteousness about their actions: 

Neither American [White] man nor the American continent contained, under this interpretation, any radical defect or principle of evil. But other men and other continents . . . were by implication unfortunate or wicked. This suggestion was strengthened by the tendency to account for any evil which threatened the garden empire by ascribing it to alien intrusion. Since evil could not conceivably originate within the walls of the garden, it must by logical necessity come from without . (Smith 1950, p. 187) 

At each stage of the evolution of this national Myth there has been the notion of “progress” through “savage wars” which are required to redeem the American spirit, and to reinforce the struggle. And every man— provided he was White—was equally fit for this struggle, and a true rep- resentative of civilization. This made Americans the exceptional people and different from Europeans. 

The landscape of the Frontier Myth is partitioned by a moral demarcation separating civilization and wilderness. The Frontier has been both a geographical place and a mythic space populated by various fantasies. Its myths were about Native American Indians as savages, Blacks as inferior, White men as heroes, White women in need of being rescued from savages (and non-White women to be similarly rescued from their savage males), the Frontier as Americans’ right and responsibility to conquer, Manifest Destiny as their destiny to defeat others. The story of America thus became mythologized as the struggle of the “civilized” dwellers of Eden against the “savages” of the wild Frontier. 

To be continued …

Rajiv Malhotra is an Indian American researcher, author, speaker, thinker and public intellectual on contemporary issues as they relate to civilization, cross-cultural encounters, spirituality, and science.  He studied Physics at St. Stephens College in Delhi and did his post-graduate education in Physics, View More

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