25 January 2010

Manifest Destiny

I’ve been amusing myself by leafing through some of John L. O’Sullivan’s editorials on things like westward expansion, our Indian policy, and the future of America. This is supposed to be for a section on my (still very hypothetical) Modoc War book, and has been brought to me through the courtesy of the good folk at Cornell University.

I’ve been looking for a gateway to enter into the world view of nineteenth century America as it were, and I’m thinking of using O’Sullivan for that purpose. This guy was the editor and publisher of a literary magazine called The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, which was sort of a Democratic counterpart to the Whiggish North American Review. (The latter is also available at the Cornell University site.)

The book section hasn’t exactly jelled yet, but I’m getting a better picture of my quarry, at any rate. I transcribed “Annexation” and stuck it up at Wikisource, and I’ve transcribed “Territorial Aggrandizement” and “Our Indian Policy” as well, though so far they’re just sitting on my computer.

O'Sullivan, by the way, was born on a ship off the coast of Gibraltar during the war of 1812; his mother had taken refuge there from fear of a plague on shore. (What she was doing in Gibraltar my internet sources don't say.) He was elected to the New York legislature in his twenties, where he made himself unpopular by campaigning against the death penalty. He was a Van Buren supporter during the election of 1844—this was the free-for-all where the sitting president had been drummed out of his party and the white house really was up for grabs—and the Whigs were running Henry Clay. (One of the ironies of history is that neither Daniel Webster nor Henry Clay were ever president, though their names are remembered now much better than many of those who actually succeeded in getting the prize.) O’Sullivan ended up disappointed, of course, when James K. Polk, the first “dark horse” candidate (supposedly), somehow emerged from the melee the victor, in spite of his often-expressed lack of interest in the position. He stood behind Polk even so, but without the enthusiasm he’d shown for Van Buren.

O’Sullivan was a visionary. While his United States was bounded by the Rocky Mountains, he looked forward to a nation united by ties of wire and rail that spanned the continent from Atlantic to Pacific. “[T]he day cannot be distant,” he wrote, “which shall witness the conveyance of the representatives from Oregon and California to Washington within less time than a few years ago was devoted to a similar journey by those from Ohio; while the magnetic telegraph will enable the editors of the “San Francisco Union,” the “Astoria Evening Post,” or the “Nootka Morning News” to set up in type the first half of the President’s Inaugural, before the echoes of the latter half shall have died away beneath the lofty porch of the Capitol, as spoken from his lips.” Yes, not only Texas, but California, Oregon, New Mexico, Chihuahua, Yucatan, Cuba, and the British provinces to the north were all to dissolve their allegiances and clamor for annexation by the United States. There would be no need for a war—indeed, nothing was less likely—rather, the natural strength of the Saxon peoples would draw settlers like magnets to these uninhabited lands. What was more natural than that, once there, they would want to join with the United States? It was practically inevitable.

Slavery was an awkward problem, true, but so was the alternative. O’Sullivan was appalled by the conditions workers in the free north faced, and felt that there might be some features of the slave system that were superior to the wage system that produced such grinding poverty. Might not slavery, if purged of such objectionable features as “the separation of families, excessive severities, subjection to the licentiousness of mastership … contain some dim undeveloped germ of that very principle of reform thus aimed at [by reformers like Charles Fourier], out of which proceeds some compensation at least for its other evils, making it the duty of true reform to cultivate and develope [sic] the good, and remove the evils?”

If slavery goes, O’Sullivan looks forward to
the ultimate disappearance of the negro race from our borders. The Spanish Indian-American populations of Mexico, Central America and South America, afford the only receptacle capable of absorbing that race whenever we shall be prepared to slough it off—to emancipate it from slavery, and (simultaneously necessary) to remove it from the midst of our own. Themselves already of mixed and confused blood, and free from the “the prejudices” which among us so insuperably forbid the social amalgamation which can alone elevate the Negro race out of a virtually servile degradation even though legally free, the regions occupied by those populations must strongly attract the black race in that direction; and as soon as the destined hour of emancipation shall arrive, will relieve the question of one of its worst difficulties, if not absolutely the greatest.
The native Americans too pose a problem.
It [i]s impossible that two systems of governments, so diverse as the Indian and American, should coexist on the same territory. All history proved this. The most rational hope of success for this race, the only one which indeed appear[s] practical on a scale commensurate with the object, [i]s to remove them, with their own consent, to a position entirely without the boundaries of the state jurisdictions, where they might assert their political sovereignty, and live and develope their true national character, under their own laws.
And their ultimate fate? O’Sullivan is optimistic, given the abilities shown by the more progressive members to survive and thrive under the new circumstances. But
Our greatest apprehensions, we must confess, before closing this paper, arise from the peculiar geographical position of the Indian territory with relation to our own. … Our population is on the broad move West. Nothing, it is evident, will now repress them this side of the Pacific. The snowy heights of the Rocky Mountains are already scaled; and we but apply the results of the past to the future, in saying that the path which has been trod by a few, will be trod by many. Now, the removed tribes are precisely in the centre of this path. From the mouth of the Platte, or the Konza, the great highway to the Oregon must run west. Whether this new tide of emigration be successful or unsuccessful, will those who compose it spare to trample on the red man? Will they suddenly become kind to him, to whom they have been unkind? Will they cease to desire the lands which their children want? Will they consent to see the nation separated by an Indian state? Will they award honors, nay, justice, to that state? Twenty years will answer these questions.
In spite of O’Sullivan’s comments on race, he doesn’t seem to have believed in it. In a very interesting piece entitled “Do the Various Races of Man Constitute a Single Species?” he suggests that race is an imaginary construct, and that racial types are simply the extremes in the continuum of human variability. He considers it quite possible that some groups are superior to others in particular abilities, but argues that the variability within a group is greater than the difference between groups.

He’s an odd character, and one I’m glad to have encountered, in spite of his curious limitations. There’s a biography out on him that I want to read, if I can get a copy. Unfortunately my local library doesn’t have it; I’ll have to resort to buying it or getting it through interlibrary loan. It does seem to me a trifle unfair that he is remembered now only for two things—his invention of the phrase “manifest destiny,” and his magazine’s motto: “The best government is that which governs least.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That Cornell site looks incredibly helpful-- invaluable in doing research. And O'Sullivan is an arresting figure, ahead of his time in some of his thinking, yet near-blind in other spots. Thanks for highlighting him; I hope he ends up in your final cut for the book. rfh

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