American Exceptionalism and the Myth of the Frontiers – 3: Mutations of the Myth

Author: Rajiv Malhotra.

Mutations of the Myth 

The Myth mutated from its Christian base to include an Enlightenment base over time. Between 1795 and 1830 the agrarian expansion was very successfully accomplished, and the Christian-eschatological substructure of the original Frontier Myth was overlaid with a more secular ideology. This and the subsequent rapid industrialization of America by 1870 fueled American mythmaking about the success of an exceptional people (Slotkin 1998, p. 17). 

In each stage the basic blocks of America’s core Myth have been the same: 

1. We are the foremost among good and righteous people.
2. There is danger and darkness on the other side.
3. A frontier exists that has to be won and captured for the sake of civilization.
4. Any cost would be acceptable and all methods are okay including “savage wars.” The myth of regenerating civilization through violence is a key organizing principle.
5. Civilization’s innocence is represented as White women in the captivity of savages. The rescue of these women is the hallmark of masculine heroism, especially if it is done violently.
6. Ultimately, Good always prevails over Evil and this happy ending reinforces the Myth. 

The Frontier Myth has served as a principle for nation-building. And its building blocks have been powerfully reinforced by popular history writing. Once a genre of historical writing (and later movies) gained currency and became entrenched, it supplied the conventions that popular writers and others have followed in order to have their works accepted easily. So powerful is this Myth that it has captured the imaginations of Americans for the past few centuries, and it continues to serve progressives and conservatives, politicians across the spectrum, popular culture scriptwriters, historians, military strategists, and designers of children’s games. Thus the cycle of mythmaking has perpetuated itself (Slotkin 1998, p. 4). 

Americans are proud and nostalgic when they are constantly reminded of their history in terms of this Frontier Myth. It idolizes the national hero who is tough, capable, a team player and confrontational. Ronald Reagan evoked the images of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood to explain his aggressive “cowboy” foreign policies to the American public. Many intellectuals may have thought him shallow, but he resonated with Americans, and they loved him. 

The Manifest Destiny of an Exceptional People 

The term Manifest Destiny was coined in 1845 both to rationalize America’s thirst for expansion in the prior several decades and to defend America’s claim to new territories that were further west of the original colonies: 

. . . the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self government entrusted to us. It is a right such as that of the tree to the space or air and the earth, suitable for the full expansion of its principle and destiny of growth.

(O’Sullivan 1845) 

This was an imaginative metaphor that validated an already existing and violent aspect of America’s history and Americans’ self-image as the world’s extraordinary people. The term Manifest Destiny was quickly adopted by U.S. congressmen in their debates to justify three territorial conquests: the forced annexation of Texas from Mexico in 1845, the negotiated annexation of Oregon from England in 1846 and the war with Mexico which resulted in the annexation of much of the southwest in 1848. Although this was initially a Democratic Party ideal, the Whigs (who later became the Republicans) also supported it. 

The idea of acting on God’s behalf naturally included the importance of fighting evil. Henry Nash Smith writes that the Manifest Destiny myth helps Americans understand “the image of themselves which many—perhaps most—Americans of the present day cherish, an image that defines what Americans think of their past, and therefore what they propose to make of themselves in the future” (Smith 1950, Preface). 

By 1849, Manifest Destiny became synonymous with seizing land from the natives, and this greed fed the frontier mentality. The settlers’ attempts to forcibly occupy Native American lands by brutal means were commonly explained by prominent leaders as acts that were necessary against “savages.” This theorizing was done by elitist intellectuals but it also had broad support from the lower classes of European settlers because more land became available for them to share. Accounts of the native tribes’ counter attacks and atrocities were highlighted, and such accounts are still used in history textbooks and national monuments to remove guilt about White expansion.2 The City upon a Hill and Manifest Destiny were powerful narratives that provided the logic for expansion by marking the natives as the barbarous and expendable. 

The expansion westward also became a popular theme of American literature, infecting both liberals and conservatives. Walt Whitman, a liberal who is seen by many Americans as their national poet, was fascinated by America’s Manifest Destiny and his poems often glamorized the westward expansion.3 In the preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855), Whitman explained that “United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” He fantasized a nation that was expanding endlessly to include Central America and the Caribbean, and wrote in a newspaper article that “ ‘manifest destiny’ certainly points to the speedy annexation of Cuba by the United States.”

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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