Manifest Destiny in Picture Form

The Fine Line Between Confidence and Arrogance

In 1872, John Gast created the painting “American Progress,” (see above) which was essentially a visual representation of “Manifest Destiny,” a term first coined in the 1840s. According to many 19th century Americans, God had made it clear that Western expansion was the destiny of the United States. And as the United States expanded, it would carry out God’s will by bringing the blessings of modern civilization to the wild and undeveloped West.

The central figure of the painting is the giant angelic figure floating across the Plains and bringing light into the darkness. Needless to say, she is one impressive angel. Any angel, after all, can spread goodness and light and inspire us mere mortals to fall at her feet. This lady, however, manages to have the wherewithal to string telegraph wire as she transmits her spiritual blessings. Now that is an angel for me, part conveyor of spiritual light and part 50-foot handywoman. Due to her engineering example, following close behind are other technological wonders of the industrial age: railroads, merchant ships, bridges, and modern cities. Wagon trains of hopeful farmers and gold prospectors also tag along on this march of civilization.

Of course, not everyone in this painting is happy about seeing the giant white lady. By this time, Native Americans already had centuries of bad experiences with normal sized white people. Seeing this amazon woman in the white dress, no matter how beautiful and magical she may be, was clearly enough to send them into a panic. The various wild animals in the picture – buffalo, wild horses, reindeer, bears and the hyena/llama hybrid thing in the bottom left corner - do not look thrilled either. But the feelings of these various primitive life forms are beside the point. In the name of God’s preordained march of progress, these are the inevitable casualties.

It is hard to imagine a painting more arrogant than this one. The concept “Manifest Destiny” is, in fact, a reflection of an arrogance that had existed since colonial times, tracing back to the Puritans who came to this new world in order to create a “city on a hill” that would serve as an example of the perfect Christian community. Arrogance, however, is not an entirely bad thing. In fact, it has been one of the keys to this nation’s success. It took a fair amount of arrogance, after all, to build transcontinental railroads, dig the Panama Canal, bring fresh water to the Southwest, and put a man on the moon, among other accomplishments. Unfortunately, this same arrogance has led to many moments of foolishness: misguided wars, intolerance for non-white races and foreign cultures, and an often remarkable level of ignorance about the outside world. There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance, faith and a rigid intolerance.

You are unlikely to hear many people using the term “Manifest Destiny” today. This term has, to say the least, too much historical baggage. No one talks either about the United States conquering the Western frontier, given that the frontier was declared conquered and closed more than a century ago. Still, there are many Americans who apparently feel that the United States is a special nation that can accomplish unique things, and the push for expansion did not stop when the Western frontier was declared to be closed. As soon as the frontier was conquered, the United States broadened the expansion program, getting increasingly involved over the past 125 years in virtually every corner of the globe. And according to many people throughout the world, the United States of today is both overly involved and as arrogant as ever.

So can the United States of the future learn to better straddle that fine line between confidence and arrogance? Can we continue to nurture that “can-do” American spirit without stepping on the toes of other nations and disregarding their points of view? Given the consistent propensity of the United States for expansion, the fate of many people throughout the planet will, to a certain degree, be determined by the answers to these questions.

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