'Manifest destiny': the inspirational mantra with a sinister history and modern-day political clout
Updated: Jul 21, 2020
If you type "how do I manifest..." into your Google search bar, your hit will come back with 138,000,000 different articles, news stories, and literature. Every celebrity from Oprah to HuffPost can tell you the exact steps to manifest your destiny (or your wealth, health, or happiness). Every wannabe Instagram influencer can tell you the 5 different ways they have manifested something in their lives and how they can teach you to do the same (for $349.99, of course).
The term "manifest destiny" has recently captured our attention after hearing it in the Scene on Radio 'The Land That Never Has Been Yet' series. We wanted to dive deeper into this concept. What's the history behind this very new age, enlightened concept? It seems so fluffy and harmless. However, we've discovered this phrase is something deeper and much more sinister. Let's explore it from a historical viewpoint.
In 1845, in an American journal- the Democratic Review- colonizers called for more American expansionism; basically, to expand west. In the article, the journal declared that the expansion was the "fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions." This term, "manifest destiny", was a Christian claim that America had a destiny, a manifest, that was self-evident from God to occupy the North American continent south of Canada.
(Read more about the religious origins of manifest destiny)
In order to manifest their destiny, the colonizers had to use violence and dishonest treaties to force the indigenous people (Native Americans) off their lands. This was solving the 'Indian Problem' that white Americans encountered. The indigenous people, with their strange looks, beliefs, and ways of living, occupied land the white settlers wanted and believed they deserved, because it was their destiny. The more humane white colonizers tried a 'civilization campaign' to encourage the indigenous people to convert to Christianity, learn to speak and read English, and adopt European style economic and political practices in hopes that Native Americans would integrate nicely and not put up much of a fuss as their lands were taken from them.
(Learn more about the relationship between white settlers and U.S. indigenous groups)
However, many of the state governments, particularly in the southern states, passed laws that limited the indigenous people's sovereignty and allowed white settlers to encroach, usually violently, upon their land. For centuries, the racial dominance of the white colonists actively purported the oppression of non-white people in America. The edict to "manifest destiny" was a continuous theme throughout American history. The phrase has been enacted over and over again by many leaders who claim that God chose America to be a special nation that would lead the way for democracy.
'MANIFEST DESTINY' = MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN?
Donald Trump, the current President of the United States, was the most recent President to use this phrase. In his February 2020 State of the Union address, he stated: "In reaffirming our heritage as a free nation, we must remember that America has always been a frontier nation. Now we must embrace the next frontier: America's manifest destiny in the stars." While there was much poking fun at this initiative, what Trump is referring to is the $738 billion defense bill he signed in 2019 that will provide financial backing to military systems to provide defense intel via satellites and other space technology. But to invoke "manifest destiny", a term that is clearly grounded in expansion via "whatever means necessary" and historically implies violence as part of that takeover, was a gross misuse of the phrase.
(Learn more about Donald Trump's Space Force)
Discussing "manifest destiny" in our current culture wouldn't be complete without examining it's implications in the Republican Party's manifesto to 'Make America Great Again.' In light of the social movements taking place across the nation throughout the summer of 2020, it's important to understand the impacts that "manifest destiny" continues to have today. In our country's history, we have seen white individuals manifesting destiny through force and violence for the sake of furthering their own power, their own positions, for ownership of land and resources, and for the sake of expansion and capitalism. Today, the systems set in place long ago through "manifest destiny" continue to give privilege to white people while at the same time disenfranchising marginalized populations. One quick example of this is the clear and evident racist practices by the USDA that led many Black U.S. farmers to go bankrupt and lose their land in the 21st century.
(Read more about the Black farmers' lawsuit against the USDA)
Because non-white groups and communities continue to fight for justice against systems of oppression, and victories come in the form of equal rights, or even reparations in some cases (note in the example above the $1.25 billion payout to Black farmers from the federal government), we are also now seeing the push-back from primarily white groups of people. The slogan 'Make America Great Again' is a dog whistle meant to invoke support to smother the efforts of oppressed groups in the U.S. It also serves as a reminder to marginalized people that white individuals are superior, and that (based off our country's history) it is God's will for white people to retain certain political, economic, social, educational, and other privileges. Once those privileges are "threatened" by other groups fighting for equal access, the mantra 'Make America Great Again', is pushed to the swells, and gains the unwavering support of at least half of the United States.
Manifest destiny, the long time justification for American imperialism, is certainly not just a thing of the past. We must understand it's sinister history so that we can better understand where we see it impact groups of people today.
Listen to our full discussion in our most recent podcast episode: Buzzwords Busted: The History Behind "Manifest Destiny":
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