This land Is Your Land!
written by Adam De Gree
John Winthrop was a curious man with ambitious plans for America. Whenever the 17th-century Puritan minister spent any time back across the pond, away from his New England home, he and his wife selected an hour each Sunday and Wednesday to ‘convene together before the Lord.’ Religious conviction led them to believe that, even though the Atlantic Ocean might lie between them, God would bring them together if only they set aside some time to sit in silence. It was the best anyone could do before Skype came around.
Today, Winthrop’s personal life is forgotten, but he is remembered for his vision of America as a “city upon a hill.” At the time, he meant this not as a compliment, but as a challenge – a city on a hill is easy to see, warts and all. Winthrop thought that it was up to Americans to shape that city into something worth being proud of. If they failed, the whole world would watch, and laugh. If, on the other hand, America succeeded, it would be the result of hard work, not proof of God’s unconditional support for the colonists.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the city on a hill to get its own ad agency. Just a few short decades after the founding of the United States, newspapermen had twisted Winthrop’s vision. In their eyes, American exceptionalism was not a goal to strive for, but something given to America (to white, Protestant America, that is) by God. In the words of John L. O’Sullivan, a fervent supporter of Andrew Jackson, America had a “divine destiny…to establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man.” That dignity would come in the shape of democracy.
This may sound familiar to modern readers, but it’s important to note that just like today, the ad men weren’t the only ones with access to the printing press during the 1800s. Conservative Whigs at the time thought that the conquest of the West was “treason to our Constitution and Declaration of Rights.” It clearly was – and wouldn’t it be nice if conservatives still thought that way? At stake in this battle was nothing less than the character of the nation. It may be hard for modern Americans to imagine conservatives fighting against Westward Expansion, but that difficulty pales in comparison to the one today’s readers face in understanding the USA’s original position on democracy. Due to the legacy of Manifest Destiny, people believe that democracy is as American as apple pie, but it just ain’t so.
As the guy who just so happened to write the Constitution put it, “democracies have ever been found to be as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” More importantly, in a democracy, the majority tends to be ruled by passion or fear, and has no reasons not to “sacrifice the weaker party” as it sees fit. Sound familiar? Apple pie, laced with arsenic. Of course, this view has largely been lost to history. The voice of protest didn’t carry the day in the corridors of Capitol Hill, and a new, democratic vision of America took hold. Manifest Destiny may not have been destined by God, but it did seem destined to shape the policy approach towards Native Americans and Mexicans in America’s Western lands. It was simply easier to justify tragedies like the Trail of Tears by claiming the support of the Creator. By 1890, the West was won, and the first era of American history came to an end.
It’s easy to think that the conquest of the frontier was a victory for supporters of Manifest Destiny, yet it threatened to upend the narrative they had constructed. After all, if the whole point of America is to spread democracy from sea to sea, what’s next after California? Without the wilderness, it was thought that Americans would turn soft. Without Manifest Destiny, the nation had no purpose. The very same voices that once urged the colonization of the West suddenly started worrying about the ‘feminizing’ influences of the civilization they had transplanted onto Native lands.
Ironically enough, Americans found the answer to their worries in an embrace of an entirely European project: that of empire. The same country that once affirmed the right of self-determination in their fight against the British turned to Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, determined to bring the gospel of democracy to foreign shores. It was only poetic justice that Britain’s imperialists cheered the former colonials on as they joined the mother country and took up what he called ‘The White Man’s Burden.’ America may have won the Revolution, but Britain won the war of ideas.
The new mindset was crystallized by the progressive champion Woodrow Wilson in his famous doctrine of ‘Moral Diplomacy.’ According to Wilson, America was special – it did not have to respect the borders of other nations. Instead, the country was tasked with determining which foreign countries were ‘good,’ and which were ‘evil.’ Once the judgment had been made, Americans had an imperative to act, even to fight, in order to restore justice to the world. Thus, millions of soldiers were sent off to fight in World War I, the paradigmatic imperial conflict, to “make the world safe for democracy.”
There is a cynical beauty in the fact that Wilson’s propaganda team was led by Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, who took his uncle’s theories and used them to manipulate the masses on both sides of the Atlantic (he also introduced cigarettes to women as ‘Torches of Freedom’). Wilson was treated to a hero’s welcome when he arrived in Europe – Prague’s train station and countless continental avenues bore his name. Yet amidst the fanfare, the world forgot that while African-American soldiers, who could not vote, were fighting Germans in the trenches, it was Germany that had already granted the vote to all citizens, regardless of race. Germany was more democratic than the moral crusaders from America!
Of course, the contradictions don’t end there, and neither do the interventions. American presidents from FDR to Trump have eagerly cast conflicts in moral terms, even on the most tenuous of pretexts. The Cold War struggle against the evil empire of Communism – and Communism was terrible – provided cover for dozens of coups, assassination attempts, and propped-up dictators across Latin America and beyond. If any other country were to carry out these activities, Americans wouldn’t hesitate to call foul. It’s not a partisan issue, either. Bush toppled Saddam, while Obama did the same to Gaddafi. Neither were decent people, but it’s hard to argue that they were worse than what followed, ISIS in the first case and slave markets in the second.
The idea that God has given American leaders special abilities to judge other nations has not only shaped military history, it underlies nearly all foreign policy. The debacle of foreign aid is a prime example. When Americans presume to know what people in the developing world truly need, they forget that when America was itself developing, no Great Power stepped in to tell us how to do things. Of course, the U.S. not only gives advice, but it floods poor countries with ‘free’ rice and clothing, which bankrupt local farmers and tradespeople. Who can compete with the gifts of the Western elite?
Child labor laws are another example of moral posturing. When American families in the 19th century were faced with the choice of starving, or sending children to work in factories, they had the freedom to make that decision. On the other hand, families in the developing world don’t have that option because Americans have decided that it is their God-given mission to impose their own standards on the world. Yet UNICEF itself has concluded that barring children from factory work reduces their options to “stone-crushing, street hustling and prostitution – all of them more hazardous and exploitative than garment production.” If the alternative is starvation, work is your best shot, and school is a luxury for the privileged.
By now, it is clear that Manifest Destiny has given America the greatest privilege that anyone could ever receive – exemption from the normal rules of morality. Normal people may lack the authority to impose their vision on others, but Americans are apparently special. In asserting a God-given mission to bring democracy and American values, first to the Pacific, then beyond, the U.S. has found the perfect excuse for all sorts of unwanted advances. The country that once led the charge against European imperialism is now simply known as ‘The Empire’ by millions around the world. How will this end for the chosen people?
John Winthrop may have had an idea. As he warned, if we seek “great things for ourselves and our posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, and be revenged of such a people, and make us know the price of the breach of such a covenant.” These days, some old-fashioned fear of the Lord may do more good than ever before.