I am no fan of the “Woke” but a few years ago Ross Douthat wrote a piece entitled “A Crisis our Universities Deserve,” which showed me that at the core of this movement lay something admirable. At some point in the 20th century, college lost its emphasis on ennobling the soul, the great virtues, ideas, etc., and became a means to make more money in life. Certainly in the early 90’s, most of the encouragement from society to go to college came in this form. Students today rightly rebel from this, want more from their education than this, and more from life in general. Many “woke” students seek something moral, something transcendent. Douthat commends them for this, at least. So far, so good.
My public school education left me with the impression that the arc of American History bent towards the good, but of course we had x,y,z, and 1, 2,3, things wrong with us. The list of wrong things had grown since my dad’s day, but still stopped just short of overthrowing the basic arc. Subsequent generations have had the scales tipped. Manifest Destiny, the idea that History/God/Fate/Benign Providence wanted/needed America to span the continent, stood very near the core of our things wrong with us, and seemingly impossible to redeem in any way. After reading Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth I had the realization that the Woke and the various champions of Manifest Destiny have a great deal in common, including a highly idealistic goal and rebellion against the complacent stuffed shirts of status quo.
This comparison may surprise some, but makes at least temperamental sense to me. My first reaction to the Woke and Manifest Destiny comes from the gut: “Ick . . . it’s just too much work, too much angst and yearning, too much of everything. Enough, already.” I feel Jerry Seinfeld should have a bit on this–he would agree with me, I’m sure. But one needs more of a foundation to denigrate these two major epochs of our country’s past and present, and one has to admire the energy and drive in both movements.
Smith shows that Manifest Destiny had no direct racial motivations. When race entered into the discussion from some, it usually involved spreading “free labor” across the continent to help limit and eventually squeeze out slavery. Manifest Destiny’s sharpest critics in fact often came from pro-slavery camps, who poured cold water on all of the messianic expectations of free labor across the continent. I found it curious as well that the native Indians got little mention. It strikes me not that they were discounted, but rather not counted from the start. Maybe promoters of expansion automatically assumed that the natives would go along with it. More likely, thoughts of overland Asian trade routes, the fusion of independence, wealth, and power, the sweep of empires throughout time–left no room to see particular people such as the natives. Certainly one could critique the impact of the idea on native peoples, but harming them seems absent from the original intent.
At its core, then Manifest Destiny
- Believed firmly in America’s unique role in world history
- Allied with many of the progressive causes of the day–causes that today would certainly look progressive–grants of free government things (not $, but land), the belief that the hand of government should engineer certain social and political ends.
- Believed strongly in unity–national unity, but also a more expansive international unity, for which the United States could hold the standard. Walt Whitman wrote in his A Passage to India that
The people [are] to become brothers and sisters,
Their races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,
The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,
The lands welded together.
Whitman being Whitman, he waxes rhapsodically about how Man and Nature shall once again fuse together under the “true Son of God”–not sure whom this was supposed to be. We conclude, then, that Manifest Destiny involved not just our national greatness, but
- A grand union of all humanity, abolishing all national differences and dismantling the hierarchies of the old, worn out traditional world.
All of these are strongly progressive causes.
The progressive Woke have their virtues, but their virtues lean so far in one direction that they have to overcompensate, consciously or no, towards the other pole. So while they talk of abolishing all forms of difference in some grand human unity on the one hand, with the other they proclaim a certain kind of radical individuality. We see this in their insistence that anyone can do anything they like with their body, sexuality, etc. On the one hand, the Woke can be fiercely anti-authoritarian and anti-institutional, but on the other, as Patrick Deneen has pointed out, they need Government writ-large to protect them from local, more traditionally minded majorities. And, while the Woke encourage a general sort of mixing, they have a hard time mixing in a fruitful manner, i.e., with relationships, marriages, and families.
With the heroes of expansion west, real or fictional, we see the same motifs. Civilization requires cooperation, but Cooper’s Leatherstocking, Whitman’s rhapsodies, and the real Daniel Boone can never settle and build. The unbounded horizon calls more strongly to them than any particular place. They decide things for themselves on the fly. Their freedom from the shackles of civilization gives them a newfound moral clarity and moral authority, for they are freed from all bigotry of place. They see with universal eyes. In his novel Old Hicks the then-famous Charles W. Webber (a product of Princeton), declares of the Texas Ranger that,
With them the primitive virtues of a heroic manhood are all-sufficient, and they care nothing for reverences, forms, and duties, as civilization has them, but respect each others rights and recognize the awful presence of a benign God in the grandeur of the mountain, forest, plain, valley, and river. . . . Such men do not look to society except with disgust . . .
Interestingly, as part of the plot, Webber has the head mountain man romantically pursue the wife of the villain, and marry her despite she actually being the wife of the evil Count. The “Laws of Nature” here easily become the Laws of God, which trumps the laws of man. Similar arguments today justify ditching traditional sexual ethics. For example, those that transition, or “come out,” are granted a carte blanche in their decisions regardless of its impact on those around them, for their very distance from society with these decisions grants them supposed insight and authority.
Webber wrote fictional characters, but life imitated art in some respects with the foremost advocates for the frontier. Francis Parkman, another ivy-league grad (Harvard) traveled west in the summer of 1842 following his sophomore year. In his journal Parkman showed disdain for most of the actual people he met, especially the livestock farmer, a foreshadowing of sorts of the frayed relationship between coastal elites and flyover country. After passing beyond civilization further into the forest, Smith notes that “[Parkman’s] tone changes completely.” The independent woodsman garners immense respect: “He is a remarkably intelligent fellow . . . resolute and independent as the wind.” Smith writes,
Parkman’s antithetical attitudes towards farmers and the hunters of the wilderness illustrate the fact that . . . two distinct “West’s” existed in the minds of many [advocates of the frontier from the east]. The agricultural west was tedious. Its inhabitants belonged to a despised social class. The Wild West was by contrast an exhilarating region of adventure in the open air. Its heroes . . . were in reality not members of society at all, but noble anarchs owning no master, free denizens of a limitless wilderness.
Advocates for Manifest Destiny could, like the Woke, see civilization in sweeping terms, and they could see the heroic individual. They both have a harder time with groups in between these categories, the basic societal building blocks of villages, farms, towns, etc.
A competing mythos, that of the west as paradisal garden, also informed America’s westward push. This motif had more to say for it, as it usually involved families, but still had its rose-colored glasses. Timothy Flint wrote against attitudes like Parkman’s, and gloried in farm life, writing in 1827:
Thousands of independent and happy yeoman reside [in the west], with their numerous, healthy, and happy families about them, with the ample abundance that fills their granaries, with their young orchards, whose branches must be propped to sustain the weight of their fruit, beside their beautiful rivers and beech woods, in which the squirrels skip, the deer browse, and the sweet red-bird sings, and with the prospect of settling their children on any of the dozens of farms that surround them.
James Lanman echoed such ideas in the 1830’s . . .
If, as has been remarked by distinguished statesman, cities are the sores of the political body where the bad matter of the state concentrates what healthful attitudes of mind and body are afforded by agricultural enterprise. The exhilarating atmosphere of rural life, the invigorating exercise afforded by its various occupations, the pure water, the necessities supplied for daily existence, leading to early and virtuous marriages, all point to this pursuit as best adapted to the comfort of the individual man.
I do not like to agree with the anti Free-soil crowd (often, though not always, secessionists and pro-slavery) on much of anything, but the “Messenger” was on to something in 1856, when it opined that
Farming is hardly a pleasant occupation, and the idea that it is comes from dreamers and poets. The actual, manual operations of farming are irksome and repulsive to the great mass of mankind.
Alas, reality set in for the devotees of the garden myth shortly after the Civil War. Smith writes,
The yawning gap between agrarian theory and post-war reality . . . comes out in the farmer’s crusades of the last 25 years of the 19th century. The western farmer had been told that he was not a peasant but a peer of the realm; that his contribution to society was basic, and all others peripheral or parasitic, in comparison cities were sores on the body politic. . . . He had been told that he was compensated for any austerity in his mode of life by receiving shelter from the temptations of luxury and vice, and against the ups and downs of the market. His outstanding characteristic was his independence of character and condition.
But after the Civil War Republican policy obviously favored the city against the country, the merchant against the farmer. And the western farmer found that instead of being independent, he was at the mercy not only of the Chicago and New York and Liverpool grain pits, but also of the railways and steamships lines that he must rely on to get his crop to market
I have read most of the volumes of Toynbee’s unabridged A Study of History. I think him a great master and I owe him a great debt, but I found the central theme of Volume III, which describes the growth of civilizations after their infancies, so annoying I stopped reading about halfway through some years ago. I have yet to pick it up again. Toynbee rightly reacted against material measures of progress. A civilization surely must be able to advance in more ways that territory and GDP. Toynbee developed a different approach, which meant a good start. But he ended with what he called “etherealization.” The idea seems to run along the lines of
- A civilization develops an idea or technique that works for them, but that idea/process, has a limited growth potential because it is anchored to its locality
- The civilization then extracts the core of the idea, removing it from its trappings, thus making it more transferrable across space.
- This allows for more sharing of ideas, etc. which aids growth. The process is essentially cooperative and other oriented.
He takes, as an example, the alphabet as an etherealization of language, as opposed to ideograms. Alphabets transfer across cultures relatively easily, but China’s writing, among other things, will not allow for this, keeping them isolated.
Toynbee often nods via anecdote and analysis to “the old ways are best.” He wasn’t always consistent in his ideas, but this is not a fault. He usually explored possibilities as opposed to asserting things absolutely. But etherealization shows Toynbee’s weakness for too much generality, too much “Platonism” (but only in the worst sense of that word). Lifting something too far off the ground tends to make it dangerous and destabilizing to society, like a steroid. Supporters of Woke politics, and mid-19th century supporters of Manifest Destiny, have this same problem. What masks itself as “progress” in fact only abstracts what in embodied form might actually be good, though less dramatic, ideas.
American history mashes together so many competing concepts. Sometimes this results in great creative tension. We get into trouble when succumb to the lure of the unbounded everything America has always foolishly promised.
We should note that the Old Testament takes a dim view of cities. Cain builds the first one, from which evil and violence come, and then you have Sodom, the cities built by Hebrew slaves for Pharaoh, Babylon, Ninevah, and the like. But the end of the New Testament shows the final restoration taking place with a garden within a city–even cities get redeemed in God’s providence over history. So, the frontier, the farm, the city–every civilization that actually functions needs all three.